Buddhism is one of the major religions of the world. It was founded by Siddhartha Guatama (Buddha) in Northeastern India. It arose as a monastic movement during a time of Brahman tradition. Buddhism rejected important views of Hinduism. It did not recognize the validity of the Vedic Scriptures, nor the sacrificial cult which arose from it. It also questioned the authority of the priesthood. Also, the Buddhist movement was open to people of all castes, denying that a person’s worth could be judged by their blood. The religion of Buddhism has 150 to 350 million followers around the world.
The wide range is due to two reasons. The tendency for religious affiliation to be nonexclusive is one. The other is the difficulty in getting information from Communist countries such as China. It’s followers have divided into two main branches: Theravada and Mahayana. Theravada, the way of the elders, is dominant in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. Mahayana, the greater vehicle, refers to the Theravada as Hinayana, the lesser vehicle. It is dominant in India, Tibet, Japan, Nepal, Taiwan, China, Korea, Vietnam, and Mongolia. Siddhartha Guatama was born in Kapilivastu.
His father as the ruler of the small kingdom near the Indian/Nepal border. As a child, his future was foretold by sages. They believed that he would someday be a fellow sage or leader of a great empire. He led a very pampered and sheltered life until the age of twenty-nine. It was at that time that he realized that he had led an empty life. He renounced his wealth and embarked on a journey to seek truth, enlightenment, and the cycle of rebirths. In the first years of his journey, Siddhartha Guatama practiced yoga and became involved in radical asceticism.
After a short time, he gave up that life for one of a middle ath between indulgence and self-denial. He meditated under a bo tree until he reached true enlightenment by rising through a series of higher states of consciousness. After realizing this religious inner truth, he went through a time of inner struggle. Renaming himself Buddha (meaning enlightened one), he wandered from place to place, preaching, spreading his teachings by word of mouth. He also gained disciples, who were grouped into a monastic community known as a sangha. As he neared his death, Buddha refused a successor.
He told his followers to work hard to find their salvation. After his death, it was decided that a new way to keep the community’s unity and purity was needed, since the teachings of Buddha were spoken only. To maintain peace, the monastic order met to decide on matters of Buddhist doctrines and practice. Four of these meetings are considered to be the Four Major Councils. The first major council was presided over by Mahakasyapa, a Buddhist monk. The purpose of the first council was to preach and agree on Buddha’s teachings and monastic discipline.
The second major council supposedly met at Vaisali, one hundred years after the first. The purpose of this ouncil was to answer the ten questionable acts of the monks of the Vajjian Confederacy. The use of money, drinking wine, and other irregularities were among the acts. It was decided that the practices were unlawful. This decision has been found to be the cause of the division of the Buddhists. The accounts of the meeting describe a quarrel between the Mahasanghikas (Great Assembly) and the Sthaviras (Elders). Tensions had grown within the sangha over discipline, the role of laity, and the nature of arhat.
Pataliputra, now Patna, was the sight of the third council. It was called by King Asoka in the 3rd century BC, nd was convened by Moggaliptta. The purpose was the purify the sangha of the false monks and heretics who had joined the order because of its royal associations. During the council, the compilations of the Buddhist scriptures (Tipitaka) and the body of subtle philosophy (abhidharma) to the dharma and monastic discipline were completed. Missionaries were sent forth to many countries as a result of the council. King Kanishka patronized the fourth council in 100 AD.
Historians are not sure if it was held at either Kasmir or Jalanhar. Both divisions of Buddhism are said to have participated in the council. The council tried to establish peace between them. However, neither side was willing to give in. Because of this, the religion divided into many sects, including the traditional eighteen schools. The traditional eighteen schools of Buddhism were a result of different interpretations of Buddhist teachings. Together, these divisions were seen as too conservative and literal towards the teachings of Buddha.
Theravada was considered too individualistic and unconcerned with the needs of the laity. It caused a liberal wing of the sangha to break away from the rest of the monks during the second ouncil. Original group of monks continued their honoring of Buddha as a perfectly enlightened human teacher. However, the liberal Mahasanghikas developed a new interpretation. They began to think of Buddha as an eternal, all powerful being. Believing the human Buddha was an apparition sent down for human benefit, the Mahasanghikas began Mahayana.
Not even the names of Mahayana’s founders are known. Historians argue whether or not the new sect began in southern or northwestern India. However, they have narrowed the date to in between the 2nd century BC and the 1st century AD. Beliefs in a godlike Buddha continued well past the era of Christianity and came together in the Mahayana doctrine of threefold nature. Buddhism spread throughout Asia after the two divisions came about. King Asoka’s children, Mahinda and Sanghamitta, are responsible for the Buddhist conversion of Sri Lanka.
During the reign of Asoka, it is said that Theravada was introduced to Burma by Sri Lanka, around 5th century AD. Burma spread Theravada to Thailand in the 6th century. Cambodia was influenced by Mahayana and Hinduism at the end of the 2nd century. Nearly one-thousand two- hundred ears later, Theravada became the primary religion. At the beginning of the Christian era, Buddhism was introduced to Central Asia. From there, it entered China through trade routes. It influenced and adapted to Chinese culture. It was opposed by many, though, and its followers were persecuted at times.
Buddhism’s major Chinese influence ended after a great persecution in 845 AD. However, the meditative Zen sect and the Pure Land sect continued to thrive. Despite disagreement from Confucian authorities, Mahayana’s influence was seen in Vietnam by 189. China introduced Buddhism to Korea in 372 AD. From that point on, it was gradually converted through Chinese influence for many centuries. Korea introduced Buddhism to Japan in 552 AD. Prince Shotoku made it the official state religion of Japan forty-one years later.
Tibet was introduced to Buddhism by foreign wives of the king starting in the 7th century AD. By the next century, it had become an important aspect of Tibetan culture. It was spread by the Indian monk, Padmasambhava, who had arrived there in 747 AD to spread Tantric Buddhism. Several centuries later, Tibetan Buddhists began to believed that the abbots of its great monastaries were reincarnated odhisattvas, individuals who have attained perfect enlightenment but delay entry into final nirvana in order to make possible the salvation of others who had not reached enlightenment.
The chief abbots became known as the Dalai Lama, the ruler of Tibet. They ruled as a theocracy from the 17th century until the Chinese takeover in 1950. One of Buddhism’s greatest strengths is its ability to adapt to many conditions under a variety of cultures. It is opposed to materialism. It does not recognize a conflict between itself and modern science. On the contrary, it holds that the Buddha applied the experimental approach to the uestions of ultimate truth.
Growing interest in Asian culture and spiritual values in the West has led to the development of a number of studies and practice of Buddhism. Zen has grown in the United States to create more than a dozen meditation centers and a number of monastaries. Interest in Vajrayana has also increased. As its influence in the west slowly grows, Buddhism is once again changing and adapting to the new environment. Although its influence in the United States is still small, it seems that if Buddhism repeats its history, new forms and sects of Buddhism may develop.