Buddhism, One Of The Major Religions Of The World

Buddhism, One Of The Major Religions Of The World

Buddhism, one of the major religions of the world, was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who lived in northern India from 560 to 480 B. C. The time of the Buddha was one of social and religious change, marked by the further advance of Aryan civilization into the Ganges Plain, the development of trade and cities, the breakdown of old tribal structures, and the rise of a whole spectrum of new religious movements that responded to the demands of the times (Conze 10). These movements were derived 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 it is common to divide Buddhism into two main branches. The Theravada, or “Way of the Elders,” is the more conservative of the two; it is dominant in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand (Berry 23). The Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle,” is more diverse and liberal; it is found mainly in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, and among Tibetan peoples, where it is distinguished by its emphasis on the Buddhist Tantras (Berry 24).

In recent times both branches, as well as Tibetan Buddhism, have gained followers in the West. It is virtually impossible to tell what the Buddhist population of the world is today; statistics are difficult to obtain because persons might have Buddhist beliefs and engage in Buddhist rites while maintaining folk or other religions such as Shinto, Confucian, Taoist, and Hindu (Corless 41). Such persons might or might not call themselves or be counted as Buddhists. Nevertheless, the number of Buddhists worldwide is frequently estimated at more than 300 million (Berry 32).

Just what the original teaching of the Buddha was is a matter of some debate. Nonetheless, it may be said to have centered on certain basic doctrines. The first of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha held, is suffering, or duhkha. By this, he meant not only that human existence is occasionally painful but that all beings; humans, animals, ghosts, hell- beings, even the gods in the heavens; are caught up in samsara, a cycle of rebirth, a maze of suffering in which their actions, or karma, keep them wandering (Coomaraswamy 53). 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, or anatman. Individuals not only suffer in a constantly changing world, but what ppears to be the self, the soul, has no independent reality apart from its many separable elements (Davids 17). 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,” or pratityasamutpada, which explains the interrelationship of all reality in terms of an unbroken chain of causation (Conze 48).

The third Noble Truth, however, is that this chain can be broken, that suffering can cease. The Buddhists called this end of suffering nirvana and conceived of it as a essation of rebirth, an escape from samsara. Finally, the fourth Noble Truth is that a way exists through which this cessation can be brought about: the practice of the noble Eightfold Path. This combines ethical and disciplinary practices, training in concentration and meditation, and the development of enlightened wisdom, all thought to be necessary.

For the monks, the notion of offering extends also to the giving of the dharma in the form of sermons, to the chanting of scriptures in rituals (which may also be thought of as magically protective and salutary), and to the recitation of sutras for the dead (Corless 57). All of these acts of offering are intimately involved in the concept of merit-making. By performing them, individuals, through the working of karma, can seek to assure themselves rebirth in one of the heavens or a better station in life, from which they may be able to attain the goal of enlightenment.

Zen Buddhism Zen or Chan Buddhism represents a movement within the Buddhist religion that stresses the practice of meditation as the means to enlightenment. Zen and Chan are, respectively, Japanese and Chinese attempts to render the Sanskrit word for meditation, dhyana (Coomaraswamy 94). Zen’s roots may be traced to India, but it was in East Asia that the movement became distinct and flourished. Like other Chinese Buddhist sects, Chan first established itself as a lineage of masters emphasizing the teachings of a particular text, in this case the Lankavatara Sutra (Coomaraswamy 96).

Bodhidharma, the first Chan patriarch in China, who is said to have arrived there from India in 470 A. D. , was a master of this text. He also emphasized the practice of contemplative sitting, and legend has it that he himself spent nine years in meditation facing a wall (Davids 101). With the importance of lineages, Chan stressed the master-disciple relationship, and Bodhidharma was followed by a series of patriarchs each of whom received the dharma, or religious truth, directly from his predecessor and teacher.

By the 7th century, however, splits in the line of transmission began to develop, the most important of which was between Shenxiu (606-706) and Huineng (638-713), disciples of the 5th patriarch, Hung-jen. According to a later and clearly biased legend, Huineng defeated Hung-jen in a stanza-composing contest, thereby demonstrating his superior enlightenment (Davids 104). He was then secretly named 6th patriarch but had to flee south for fear of his rival’s jealousy. The split between Shenxiu and Huineng accounts for the southern and northern branches of Chan, which competed vigorously for prestige and state support.

Huineng’s branch dominated in the long run, and by 796 an imperial decree settled the matter in his favor posthumously (Berry 122). By then, however, Huineng’s branch was itself beginning to subdivide into several different schools. The subsequent history of Chan in China was mixed. The sect suffered from the great persecution of Buddhism in 845. It recovered better than many Buddhist schools, however, partly because, in contrast to other monastic communities, Chan monks engaged in physical labor, which made them less dependent on state and lay support (Davids 109).

During the Song dynasty (960-1279), Chan again prospered and was a leading influence on the development of Chinese art and neo-Confucian culture (Conze 105). It was during this period that Chan was first established in Japan. Within 30 years of each other, two Japanese monks, Eisai (1141-1215) and Dogen (1200-53), went to China, where they trained respectively in the Linji and Zaodong schools of Chan (Davids 12). These they then introduced into Japan. Rinzai emphasizes the use of the koan, a mental stumbling block or riddle that the meditator must solve to the satisfaction of his master.

Soto lays more stress on seated meditation without conscious striving for a goal, or zazen. Both schools fostered good relations with the shoguns and became closely associated with the Japanese military class (Berry 127). Rinzai in particular was highly influential during the Ashikaga period (1338-1573), when Zen played an important role in propagating neo-Confucianism and infusing its own unique spirit into Japanese art and ulture. The heart of Zen monasticism is the practice of meditation; it is this feature that has been most popular in Zen’s spread to the West.

Zen meditation highlights the experience of enlightenment, or satori, and the possibility of attaining it in this life. The strict training of Zen monks, the daily physical chores, the constant wrestling with koans, the long hours of sitting in meditation, and the special intensive periods of practice, or sesshin, are all directed toward this end. At the same time, enlightenment is generally thought of as being sudden. The editator needs to be jolted awake, and the only one who can do this is his Zen master (Davids 113).

The master-disciple relationship often involves private interviews in which the Zen trait of unconventionality sometimes comes to the fore; the master will allow no refuge in the Buddha or the sutras but demands from his disciple a direct answer to his assigned koan (Davids 114). Conversely, the master may goad the disciple by remaining silent or compassionately help him out, but with the constant aim of trying to cause a breakthrough from conventional to absolute truth (Corless 131).

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Buddhism, One Of The Major Religions Of The World

Buddhism, One Of The Major Religions Of The World

Buddhism 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; hese 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 one? 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, mmediately 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 100 years of the Buddha’s death, a second council took place at Vaisali, during which the advocates of certain relaxations in the vinaya rules were condemned. Then, c. 250 BC, the great Buddhist emperor Asoka is said to have held a third council at Pataliputra to settle certain doctrinal controversies.

It is clear from the accounts of these and other Buddhist councils that whatever the unity of early Buddhism may have been, it was rapidly split into various sectarian divisions. One of the earliest and most important of these divisions was that between the Sthavira and the Mahasamghika schools. Within the former developed such important sects as the Sarvastivada and the Theravadins, whose canon is in Pali and who today are the only surviving representatives of the whole of the Hinayana, or “Lesser Vehicle,” of Buddhism.

The Mahasamghika, also a Hinayanist sect, died out completely, but it is important because it represents one of the forerunners of the Mahayana doctrines. These doctrines were to include a different understanding of the nature of the Buddha, an emphasis on the figure of the bodhisattva, and on the practice of the perfection. In addition, within the Mahayana, a number of great thinkers were to add some new doctrinal dimensions to Buddhism. One of these was Nagarjuna, the 2d-century AD founder of the Madhyamika School.

Using subtle and thoroughgoing analyses, Nagarjuna took the theory of dependent origination to its logical limits, showing that the absolute relativity of everything means finally the emptiness of all things. Another important Mahayana school arose in the fourth century AD when the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu sought to establish the doctrine of Vijnanavada–that the mind alone exists and that objects have no reality external o it. This idealist doctrine and Nagarjuna’s emptiness were to play important roles in the further developments of Buddhist thought outside of India.

Within India itself, they paved the way for yet another stage in the elaboration of the religion: the development of Buddhist tantra. Tantric Buddhism, which is sometimes separated from the Mahayana Buddhism as a distinct “Thunderbolt-Vehicle,” became especially important in Tibet, where it was introduced starting in the seventh century. It was, however, the last phase of Buddhism in India, where the religion–partly by reabsorption into the Hindu tradition, partly by ersecution by the Muslim invaders–ceased to exist by the 13th century.

Before its demise in India, Buddhism had already spread throughout Asia. This expansion started at least as early as the time of the emperor Asoka in the 3d century BC. According to tradition, this great monarch, who was himself a convert to Buddhism, actively supported the religion and sought to spread the dharma. He is said to have sent his own son, Mahinda, as a missionary to Sri Lanka. Their Buddhism quickly took root and prospered, and the island was to become a stronghold of the Theravada sect.

The Pali Canon was first written there in the first century BC; ater the island was to be host to the great Theravadin systematizer and commentator Buddhaghosa. Asoka is also said to have sent missionaries to the East to what is now Burma and Thailand. Whatever the truth of this claim, it is clear that by the first several centuries AD, Buddhism, accompanying the spread of Indian culture, had established itself in large areas of Southeast Asia, even as far as Indonesia. Also, tradition has it that another son of Asoka established a Buddhist kingdom in Central Asia.

Whether or not this is true, it is clear that in subsequent centuries more missionaries followed the established trade routes west and north o this region, preaching the dharma as they went. Throughout Asia, wherever Buddhism was introduced, its leaders tended to seek the support of kings and other rulers of the state. The pattern of this relationship between a Buddhist king and the monastic community was given its definitive formulation by Emperor Asoka in the 3d century BC.

This was a symbiotic relationship in which, in exchange for the allegiance and religious support of the sangha, the emperor became the patron and backer of the Buddhist dharma. To some extent, this pattern was extended to the laity as well. Everywhere, Buddhist monastic communities tended o depend on the laity for food and material support. Although in some places the sangha as a whole became well to do and the controller of vast monastic estates, traditionally monks were beggars and, in Southeast Asian countries, they still go on daily alms rounds.

Traditionally also, Buddhist monks have been celibate. Thus, they depend on the faithful not only for food and financial support but also for new recruits. Often children will enter a monastery and spend a number of years as novices, studying, learning and doing chores. Then, following ordination, they become full members of the community, vowing to uphold its discipline. Henceforth their days will be taken up in ritual, devotions, meditation, study, teaching and preaching.

Twice a month, all the monks in a given monastery will gather for the recitation of the rules of the order and the confession of any violation of those rules. One of the pivotal concepts behind the rites and festivals of Buddhist laity and monks is that of offering. This includes, for the laity, not just the giving of food and of new robes to the monks, but also the offering of flowers, incense, and praise to the image of the Buddha, stupas, bodhi trees, or, especially in Mahayanist countries, to other embers of the Buddhist pantheon such as bodhisattvas.

For the monks, the notion of offering extends also to the giving of the dharma in the form of sermons, to the chanting of scriptures in rituals, and to the recitation of sutras for the dead. All of these acts of offering are intimately involved in the concept of merit making. By performing them, individuals, through the working of karma, can seek to assure themselves rebirth in one of the heavens or a better station in life, from which they may be able to attain the goal of enlightenment.

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