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Buddhism

byCristianViolatti
publishedon20May2014

BuddhismisoneofthemostimportantAsianspiritualtraditions.Duringitsroughly2.5millennia
ofhistory,Buddhismhasshownaflexibleapproach,adaptingitselftodifferentconditionsand
localideaswhilemaintainingitscoreteachings.Asaresultofitswidegeographicalexpansion,
coupledwithitstolerantspirit,Buddhismtodayencompassesanumberofdifferenttraditions,
beliefs,andpractices.
Duringthelastdecades,BuddhismhasalsogainedasignificantpresenceoutsideAsia.Withthe
numberofadherentsestimatedtobealmost400millionpeople,Buddhisminourdayhas
expandedworldwide,anditisnolongerculturallyspecific.Formanycenturies,thistraditionhas
beenapowerfulforceinAsia,whichhastouchednearlyeveryaspectoftheeasternworld:arts,
morals,lore,mythology,socialinstitutions,etc.Today,Buddhisminfluencesthesesameareas
outsideofAsia,aswell.

ORIGIN&EARLYDEVELOPMENT
TheoriginofBuddhismpointstooneman,SiddharthaGautama,thehistoricalBuddha,who

wasborninLumbini(inpresent-dayNepal)duringthe5thcenturyBCE.Ratherthanthefounder
ofanewreligion,SiddharthaGautamawasthefounderandleaderofasectofwandererascetics
(Sramanas),oneofmanysectsthatexistedatthattimealloverIndia.Thissectcametobeknown
asSanghatodistinguishitfromothersimilarcommunities.
TheSramanasmovement,whichoriginatedinthecultureofworldrenunciationthatemergedin
Indiafromaboutthe7thcenturyBCE,wasthecommonoriginofmanyreligiousandphilosophical
traditionsinIndia,includingtheCharvakaschool,Buddhism,anditssisterreligion,Jainism.The
SramanaswererenunciantswhorejectedtheVedicteachings,whichwasthetraditionalreligious
orderinIndia,andrenouncedconventionalsociety.
SiddharthaGautamalivedduringatimeofprofoundsocialchangesinIndia.Theauthorityofthe
Vedicreligionwasbeingchallengedbyanumberofnewreligiousandphilosophicalviews.This
religionhadbeendevelopedbyanomadicsocietyroughlyamillenniumbeforeSiddharthastime,
anditgraduallygainedhegemonyovermostofnorthIndia,especiallyintheGangeticplain.But
thingsweredifferentinthe5thBCE,associetywasnolongernomadic:agrariansettlementshad
replacedtheoldnomadcaravansandevolvedintovillages,thenintotownsandfinallyintocities.
Underthenewurbancontext,aconsiderablesectorofIndiansocietywasnolongersatisfiedwith
theoldVedicfaith.SiddharthaGautamawasoneofthemanycriticsofthereligiousestablishment.

INSOMERELIGIONS,SINISTHEORIGINOFHUMAN
SUFFERING.INBUDDHISMTHEREISNOSIN;THEROOT
CAUSEOFHUMANSUFFERINGISAVIDYIGNORANCE.
AfterSiddharthaGautamapassedaway,thecommunityhefoundedslowlyevolvedintoareligionlikemovementandtheteachingsofSiddharthabecamethebasisofBuddhism.Thehistorical
evidencesuggeststhatBuddhismhadahumblebeginning.Apparently,itwasarelativelyminor
traditioninIndia,andsomescholarshaveproposedthattheimpactoftheBuddhainhisownday
wasrelativelylimitedduetothescarcityofwrittendocuments,inscriptions,andarchaeological
evidencefromthattime.
Bythe3rdcenturyBCE,thepicturewehaveofBuddhismisverydifferent.TheMauryanIndian
emperorAshokatheGreat(304232BCE),whoruledfrom268to232BCE,turnedBuddhism

intothestatereligionofIndia.Heprovidedafavourablesocialandpoliticalclimateforthe
acceptanceofBuddhistideas,encouragedBuddhistmissionaryactivity,andevengenerated
amongBuddhistmonkscertainexpectationsofpatronageandinfluenceonthemachineryof
politicaldecisionmaking.ArchaeologicalevidenceforBuddhismbetweenthedeathofthe
BuddhaandthetimeofAshokaisscarce;afterthetimeofAshokaitisabundant.

SCHISM:FRACTUREOFBUDDHISM&ORIGINOFTHE
DIFFERENTBUDDHISTSCHOOLS
TherearemanystoriesaboutdisagreementsamongtheBuddha'sdisciplesduringhislifetimeand
alsoaccountsaboutdisputesamonghisfollowersduringtheFirstBuddhistCouncilheldsoon
aftertheBuddhasdeath,suggestingthatdissentwaspresentintheBuddhistcommunityfroman
earlystage.AfterthedeathoftheBuddha,thosewhofollowedhisteachingshadformedsettled
communitiesindifferentlocations.Languagedifferences,doctrinaldisagreements,theinfluenceof
non-Buddhistschools,loyaltiestospecificteachers,andtheabsenceofarecognizedoverall
authorityorunifyingorganizationalstructurearejustsomeexamplesoffactorsthatcontributedto
sectarianfragmentation.
AboutacenturyafterthedeathofBuddha,duringtheSecondBuddhistCouncil,wefindthefirst
majorschismeverrecordedinBuddhism:TheMahasanghikaschool.Manydifferentschoolsof
Buddhismhaddevelopedatthattime.Buddhisttraditionspeaksabout18schoolsofearly
Buddhism,althoughweknowthatthereweremorethanthat,probablyaround25.ABuddhist
schoolnamedSthaviravada(inSanskritschooloftheelders)wasthemostpowerfuloftheearly
schoolsofBuddhism.Traditionally,itisheldthattheMahasanghikaschoolcameintoexistenceasa
resultofadisputeovermonasticpractice.Theyalsoseemtohaveemphasizedthesupramundane
natureoftheBuddha,sotheywereaccusedofpreachingthattheBuddhahadtheattributesofa
god.Asaresultoftheconflictovermonasticdiscipline,coupledwiththeircontroversialviewson
thenatureoftheBuddha,theMahasanghikaswereexpelled,thusformingtwoseparateBuddhist
lines:theSthaviravadaandtheMahasanghika.

SiddharthaGautama,theHistoricalBuddha

Duringthecourseofseveralcenturies,boththeSthaviravadaandtheMahasanghikaschools
underwentmanytransformations,originatingdifferentschools.TheTheravadaschool,whichstill
livesinourday,emergedfromtheSthaviravadaline,andisthedominantformofBuddhismin
Myanmar,Cambodia,Laos,SriLanka,andThailand.TheMahasanghikaschooleventually
disappearedasanordinationtradition.
Duringthe1stcenturyCE,whiletheoldestBuddhistgroupsweregrowinginsouthandsouth-east
Asia,anewBuddhistschoolnamedMahayana(GreatVehicle)originatedinnorthernIndia.This
schoolhadamoreadaptableapproachandwasopentodoctrinalinnovations.Mahayama
BuddhismistodaythedominantformofBuddhisminNepal,Tibet,China,Japan,Mongolia,
Korea,andVietnam.

BUDDHISTEXPANSIONACROSSSOUTHERNASIA
DuringthetimeofAshokasreign,traderouteswereopenedthroughsouthernIndia.Someofthe

merchantsusingtheseroadswereBuddhistswhotooktheirreligionwiththem.Buddhistmonks
alsousedtheseroadsformissionaryactivity.BuddhismenteredSriLankaduringthistime.A
BuddhistchronicleknownastheMahavamsaclaimsthattherulerofSriLanka,DevanampiyaTissa,
wasconvertedtoBuddhismbyMahinda,Ashokasson,whowasaBuddhistmissionary,and
BuddhismbecameassociatedwithSriLankaskingship:Thetightrelationshipbetweenthe
BuddhistcommunityandLankansrulerswassustainedformorethantwomillenniauntilthe
dethroningofthelastLankankingbytheBritishin1815CE.
AfterreachingSriLanka,BuddhismcrossedtheseaintoMyanmar(Burma):Despitethefactthat
someBurmeseaccountssaythattheBuddhahimselfconvertedtheinhabitantsofLowerand
UpperMyanmar,historicalevidencesuggestsotherwise.Buddhismco-existedinMyanmarwith
othertraditionssuchasBrahmanismandvariouslocalsanimistscults.TherecordsofaChinese
BuddhistpilgrimnamedXuanzang(Hsan-tsang,602-664CE)statethatintheancientcityofPyu
(thecapitaloftheKingdomofSriKsetra,presentdayMyanmar),anumberofearlyBuddhist
schoolswereactive.AfterMyanmar,BuddhismtravelledintoCambodia,Thailand,Vietnam,and
Laos,around200CE.ThepresenceofBuddhisminIndonesiaandtheMalaypeninsulais
supportedbyarchaeologicalrecordsfromaboutthe5thcenturyCE.

TheSpreadofBuddhism

WhileBuddhismwasflourishingallovertherestofAsia,itsimportanceinIndiagradually
diminished.Twoimportantfactorscontributedtothisprocess:anumberofMusliminvasions,and
theadvancementofHinduism,whichincorporatedtheBuddhaaspartofthepantheonof
endlessgods;hecametoberegardedasoneofthemanymanifestationsofthegodVishnu.In
theend,theBuddhawasswallowedupbytherealmofHindugods,hisimportancediminished,
andintheverylandwhereitwasborn,Buddhismdwindledtobepracticedbyveryfew.

BUDDHISTEXPANSIONACROSSCENTRAL&EASTASIA
BuddhismenteredChinaduringtheHandynasty(206BCE-220CE):ThefirstBuddhist
missionariesaccompaniedmerchantcaravansthattravelledusingtheSilkRoad,probablyduring
the1stcenturyBCE.ThemajorityofthesemissionariesbelongedtotheMahayanaschool.
TheinitialstageofBuddhismisChinawasnotverypromising.Chineseculturehadalongestablishedintellectualandreligioustraditionandastrongsenseofculturalsuperioritythatdid
nothelpthereceptionofBuddhistideas.ManyoftheBuddhistwayswereconsideredalienbythe
ChineseandevencontrarytotheConfucianidealsthatdominatedtherulingaristocracy.The
monasticorderreceivedaserioussetofcritiques:Itwasconsideredunproductiveandtherefore
wasseenasplacinganunnecessaryeconomicburdenonthepopulation,andtheindependence
fromsecularauthorityemphasizedbythemonkswasseenasanattempttounderminethe
traditionalauthorityoftheemperor.
Despiteitsdifficultbeginning,BuddhismmanagedtobuildasolidpresenceinChinatowardsthe
falloftheHandynastyon220CE,anditsgrowthacceleratedduringthetimeofdisunionand
politicalchaosthatdominatedChinaduringtheSixDynastiesperiod(220-589CE).Thecollapse
oftheimperialordermademanyChineseskepticalabouttheConfucianideologiesandmore
opentoforeignideas.Also,theuniversalspiritofBuddhistteachingsmadeitattractivetomany
non-Chineserulerinthenorthwhowerelookingtolegitimatepoliticalpower.Eventually,
BuddhisminChinagrewstrong,deeplyinfluencingvirtuallyeveryaspectofitsculture.
FromChina,BuddhismenteredKoreain372CE,duringthereignofKingSosurim,therulerofthe
KingdomofKoguryo,orsoitisstatedinofficialrecords.Thereisarchaeologicalevidencethat
suggeststhatBuddhismwasknowninKoreafromanearliertime.
TheofficialintroductionofBuddhisminTibet(accordingtoTibetanrecords)tookplaceduring
thereignofthefirstTibetanemperorSrongbtsansgampo(Songtsengampo,617-649/650CE),
althoughweknowthattheproto-TibetanpeoplehadbeenintouchwithBuddhismfroman
earliertime,throughBuddhistmerchantsandmissionaries.BuddhismgrewpowerfulinTibet,

absorbingthelocalpre-BuddhistTibetanreligions.CaughtbetweenChinaandIndia,Tibet
receivedmonksfrombothsidesandtensionbetweenChineseandIndianBuddhistpracticeand
ideologyturnedouttobeinevitable.From792to794CEanumberofdebateswereheldinthe
BsamyasmonasterybetweenChineseandIndianBuddhists.Thedebatewasdecidedinfavourof
theIndians:BuddhiststranslationsfromChinesesourceswereabandonedandtheIndianBuddhist
influencebecamepredominant.

ArockcutimageoftheBuddha

KEYBUDDHISTCONCEPTS
TheBuddhawasnotconcernedwithsatisfyinghumancuriosityrelatedtometaphysical
speculations.Topicsliketheexistenceofgod,theafterlife,orcreationstorieswereignoredby
him.Duringthecenturies,Buddhismhasevolvedintodifferentbranches,andmanyofthemhave
incorporatedanumberofdiversemetaphysicalsystems,deities,astrologyandotherelementsthat
theBuddhadidnotconsider.Inspiteofthisdiversity,Buddhismhasarelativeunityandstabilityin
itsmoralcode.
ThemostimportantteachingoftheBuddhaisknownasTheFourNobleTruths,whichisshared
withvaryingadjustmentsbyallBuddhistschools.Ingeneral,theFourNobleTruthsareexplained
asfollows:

1. TheFirstNobleTruthisgenerallytranslatedasalllifeissuffering,whichcanbeeasily
understoodwhenitcomestopainfulsituationslikedeath,illness,abuse,poverty,andso
forth.Butsufferingalsomayarisefromgoodthingsbecausenothingispermanent,
everythingischanging,andwhatevergivesushappinesswillsoonerorlatercometoanend.
Itseemsthatallpleasuresaretemporaryandthemoreweenjoythem,themorewewillmiss
themwhentheyend.Nothinglastsforever,isoneoftheinsightsoftheBuddha.
2. Thecauseofsufferingisdesire.Sufferingcomesfromdesire,alsoreferredasthirstor
greed.Ourdesireswillalwaysexceedourresourcesandleaveusunhappyandunsatisfied.
Allsufferingoriginatesindesire,butnotalldesiregeneratessuffering.Onlyselfishdesire
generatessuffering:desiredirectedtotheadvantageofthepartratherthantothegoodof
thewhole.
3. Bystoppingdesire,sufferingalsostops.Theideaisnottogettooattachedtomaterial
goods,places,ideas,orevenpeople.Non-attachmenttoanythingisthemainideabehind
thethirdnobletruth.Itmeansthatsinceallchangesifourattachmentistoostrong,wewill
inevitablysufferatsomepoint.Afterall,wewillallgetold,decay,anddie;thisisanatural
cycle,andthereisnothingwrongwithit.Theproblemcomeswhen,byattachingtoomuch,
wedonotacceptthechanges.
4. ByfollowingTheEightfoldPath,desirestops.TheEightfoldPathiscomposedof:right
views,rightintentions,rightspeech,rightaction,rightlivelihood,righteffort,right
mindfulnessandrightconcentration.
Insomereligions,sinistheoriginofhumansuffering.InBuddhismthereisnosin;therootcauseof
humansufferingisavidyignorance.IntheentranceareaofsomeBuddhistmonasteries,
sometimestheimagesoffourscary-lookingdeitiesaredisplayed,thefourprotectorswhose
purposeistoscareawaytheignoranceofthosewhoenter.

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GandharaReliefofBuddhaEatingwithMonks

Buddhismdoesnotrequirefaithorbelief.Iffaithcanbeunderstoodasbelievingsomethingwhich
isunsupportedbyevidence,andignoranceisovercomebyunderstanding,thenfaithisnot
enoughtoovercomeignoranceandthereforesuffering.Andbelief,asunderstoodbyother
religions,isnotnecessaryinBuddhism:
The question of belief arises when there is no seeing - seeing in
every sense of the word. The moment you see, the question of belief
disappears. If I tell you that I have a gem hidden in the folded palm
of my hand, the question of belief arises because you do not see it
yourself. But if I unclench my fist and show you the gem, then you
see it for yourself, and the question of belief does not arise. So the
phrase in ancient Buddhist texts reads 'Realizing, as one sees a gem
in the palm'
(Rahula W., p.9)

Initsmostbasicform,Buddhismdoesnotincludetheconceptofagod.Theexistenceofgodis
neitherconfirmed,nordenied;itisanon-theisticsystem.TheBuddhaisseenasanextraordinary
man,notadeity.SomeBuddhistschoolshaveincorporatedsupernaturalentitiesintotheir
traditions,buteveninthesecases,theroleofhumanchoiceandresponsibilityremainssupreme,
farabovethedeedsofthesupernatural.

InsomeChineseandJapaneseBuddhistmonasteries,theygoevenfurtherbyperforminga
curiousexercise:ThemonksarerequestedtothinkthattheBuddhadidnotevenexisted.Thereis
agoodreasonforthis:thecoreofBuddhismisnottheBuddha,buthisteachingsordharma.Itis
saidthatthosewhowishtounderstandBuddhismandareinterestedintheBuddhaareas
mistakenasapersonwhowishestostudymathematicsbystudyingthelifeofPythagorasor
Newton.ByimaginingtheBuddhaneverexisted,theyavoidfocusingontheidolsothattheycan
embracetheideal.

ABOUTTHEAUTHOR
CRISTIANVIOLATTI
CristianViolattiisafreelancewriter,currentlystudyingArchaeologyatthe
UniversityofLeicester,England.Heisaregularcontributorandoneofthe
editorsofAncientHistoryEncyclopedia.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY
Borges,J,Sietenoches(FondodeCulturaEconmica,2014).
Buswell,R,EncyclopediaofBuddhism(MacmillanLibraryReference,2013).
Buswell,R,ThePrincetonDictionaryofBuddhism(PrincetonUniversityPress,2013).

Durant,W,Ourorientalheritage;(Simon&Schuster,1963).
Reese,W,DictionaryofPhilosophyandReligion(HumanityBooks,1996).
Walpola,R,WhatBuddhaTaught(BuddistCulturalCentre,1996).
Wilkinson,P,EyewitnessCompanions(DorlingKindersleyPublishersLtd,2008).
CITETHISWORK

LEGALNOTICE
WrittenbyCristianViolatti,publishedon20May2014underthefollowinglicense:CreativeCommons:
Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike .Thislicenseletsothersremix,tweak,andbuilduponthis
contentnon-commercially,aslongastheycredittheauthorandlicensetheirnewcreationsundertheidentical
terms.

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