BuddhismBuddhism is one of the major religions of the world it was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who lived in northern India from c.560 to c.480 BC. The time of the Buddha was a time of social and religious change, the development of trade and cities, the breakdown of old tribal traditions, and the rise of many new religious movements that answered the demands of the times. These movements came from the Brahmanic tradition of Hinduism but were also reactions against it. Of the new sects, Buddhism was the most successful and eventually spread throughout India and most of Asia.
Today Buddhism is divided into two main branches. The Theravada, or “Way of the Elders,” the more conservative of the two, it is mainly found in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. The Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle,” is more liberal, it is found mainly in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, and among Tibetan peoples, where it is known by its emphasis on the Buddhist Tantras. In recent times, both branches, as well as Tibetan Buddhism, have gained followers in the West.
It is almost impossible to tell the size of the Buddhist population today. Statistics are difficult to obtain because some individuals may have Buddhist beliefs and engage in Buddhist rites while maintaining folk or other religions; these people may or may not call themselves Buddhists. Nevertheless, the number of Buddhists worldwide is estimated at more than 300 million.
The matter of what Buddha’s original teachings were cause of major controversy. Even so, it is said to have centered on certain basic doctrines. The first of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha held, is suffering. By this, he meant not only that human existence is occasionally painful but that all beings–humans, animals, ghosts, hell-beings, even the gods–are caught up in samsara, a cycle of rebirth, a maze of suffering in which their actions keep them wandering.
Samsara and karma are not doctrines specific to Buddhism. The Buddha, however, specified that samsara is characterized by three marks: suffering, impermanence and no self. Individuals not only suffer in a constantly changing world, but what appears to be the “self,” the “soul,” has no independent reality apart from its many separable elements.
The second Noble Truth is that suffering itself has a cause. At the simplest level, this may be said to be desire; but the theory was fully worked out in the complex doctrine of “dependent origination,” which explains the interrelationship of all reality in terms of an unbroken chain of causation.
The third Noble Truth is that this chain can be broken–that suffering can cease. The Buddhists called this end of suffering nirvana and thought of it as a rebirth, an escape from samsara.
Finally, the fourth Noble Truth is that a way exists through which this reversal can be brought about, the practice of the noble Eightfold Path. This combines ethical and disciplinary practices and training in concentration and meditation with initial faith, which is finally transformed into wisdom.
With the death of the Buddha, his followers immediately faced a crisis, what were they to do in the with their master gone? The followers who had remained householders proceeded to honor his bodily relics, which were monuments called stupas. This was the beginning of a cult of devotion to the person of the Buddha that was to focus not only on stupas but also on many holy sites, which became centers of pilgrimage, and eventually on Buddha images too.
On the other hand, those Buddhists who had become monks and nuns took on the gathering and preservation of their departed master’s teachings. According to tradition, a great council of 500 monks was held at Rajagriha, immediately after the Buddha’s death, and all the Buddha’s sermons and the rules of the discipline were remembered and recited.
In the years that followed, the monks gradually unified their communal life. Like many other wandering mendicants of their time, they were always on the move, coming together only once a year for the three months of the monsoon. Gradually, these rain-retreats grew into more structured year-round settlements. As new communities developed, it was inevitable that some differences in their understanding of both the Buddha is teaching and of the rules of the order should arise. Within