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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 was 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
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 path 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.
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monastic order met to decide on matters of Buddhist doctrines and
practice. Four of these meetings are considered to be the Four Major
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 council 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, and 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 council. 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
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 years later, Theravada became the primary
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
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 bodhisattvas,
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 questions 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.