What is Buddhism?
Buddhism is a way of life, a path of practice that eventually leads to the end of suffering. The Buddha taught that the cause of much of our suffering is Dukkha (the Dissatisfied Mind), which is the basis for his core teachings: “The Four Noble Truths,” and the practices of “The Noble Eightfold Path.”
The Buddha was born in 563 BCE at Lumbini, which is in present day Nepal near the border with India, and attained Enlightenment at the age of 35. He then taught for another 45 years until his death, known as the Parinirvana (Passing into Nirvana).
The Growth of Buddhism
Following the Parinirvana, the community of monks founded by the Buddha gathered together to recite the Buddha’s teachings, and to discuss the future of their community. Some of the elders of the community included Ananda (the Buddha’s Cousin), Shariputra, Moggallana, and Mahakashyapa. This gathering was later called the First Council, and over the next 300 plus years three more major councils were held, by which time the Buddha’s teachings were written down. This collection of teachings became known as the Tripitaka (Three Baskets), made up of the Sutta Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka (Rules of Discipline), and the Abhidharma Pitaka (Commentaries on the Teachings). This is also sometimes referred to as the Pali Canon.
Around the first century BCE, different schools of Buddhist philosophy began to form, and new texts and commentaries appeared. This popular movement was later to be called the Mahayana (Great Vehicle). There were also many diverse schools, whose adherents sought to follow what they believed to be the original teachings of the Buddha, but the only one of those to survive later became known as the Theravada (School of the Elders). While the goal of the Theravada is the Arhat, someone who has single-mindedly attained enlightenment, and is no longer subject to death and rebirth, the Mahayana’s goal is to become a Bodhisattva (Enlightened Being), who has vowed to liberate all sentient beings from suffering before attaining complete enlightenment themselves.
The Mahayana teachings matured in India, and gradually spread to central and east Asia, gaining a lasting foothold in China, and later in Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Meanwhile, the Theravada spread south to Sri Lanka, and then later to south east Asia to places like Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Ironically, it wasn’t until the 8th century CE, that Buddhism found a home in the Himalayas, brought there by Padmasambhava, an Indian master of a new esoteric form of Buddhism called the Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle). These teachings eventually found a home in Tibet, and Mongolia.
The Death and Rebirth of Buddhism
As if to show that all things are impermanent, Buddhism eventually disappeared from central Asia, and India, due to a wave of invasions, and the appeal of new cultural and religious ideas. But Buddhism flourished in most other parts of Asia for hundreds of years, managing to successfully ride the uncertain tides of history.
In the West, Buddhist ideas became more widely known in the 19th century through the work of the Theosophists, and other societies that sprang up around Europe to study the Buddha’s teachings, which had been translated into local languages. These ideas then spread to North American and other Western academic centres around the world. Immigrants to North America from China, Korea, Japan and other east Asian nations also made an impact, building temples and keeping their faith and traditions alive in a new world.
While various Western authors had been writing about Buddhism for some time, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the popularity of “Beat Poets” like Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder brought Buddhist ideas to the general public. By the 1960’s, many young Westerners were joining Buddhist groups at home and overseas, looking for an alternative to western religious traditions.
Westerners now have access to a wide variety of Buddhist cultural forms, such as Ch’an, Pure Land, Tibetan, Theravada and more. Nearly all the schools of all three Vehicles of Buddhism have teaching centres in capital cities, and in many regional areas. Both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike are using forms of Buddhist mindfulness and meditation to help them in their daily lives, and Psychotherapists are borrowing Buddhist methods of training the mind, and incorporating them into their work with clients.
In India, where Buddhism died out centuries ago, famous masters such as H.H. the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hanh have drawn large crowds to hear their teachings, and with the growth in internet usage there is a growing awareness of Buddhist ideas around the world. With its emphasis on the practice of loving-kindness, compassion, enlightened wisdom, and peace, the fourth-largest religion in the world does have something worthwhile to offer humanity.
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