Worldwide Locations

Worldwide Locations

The Origins of Buddhism

A Buddha statue in Sakya Monastery, Seattle, WA. (Wonderlane/flickr)

A Buddha statue in Sakya Monastery, Seattle, WA. (Wonderlane/flickr)

After the Buddha's death, his celibate wandering followers gradually settled down into monasteries that were provided by the married laityas merit-producing gifts. The laity were in turn taught by the monks some of the Buddha's teachings. They also engaged in such practices as visiting the Buddha's birthplace; and worshipping the tree under which he became enlightened (bodhi tree), Buddha images in temples, and the relics of his body housed in various stupas or funeral mounds. A famous king, named Ashoka, and his son helped to spread Buddhism throughout South India and into Sri Lanka (Ceylon) (3rd century B.C.E.).

Many monastic schools developed among the Buddha's followers. This is partly because his practical teachings were enigmatic on several points; for instance, he refused to give an unequivocal answer about whether humans have a soul (atta/atman) or not. Another reason for the development of different schools was that he refused to appoint asuccessor to follow him as leader of the Sangha (monastic order). He told the monks to be lamps unto themselves and make the Dhamma their guide.

About the first century C.E. a major split occurred within the Buddhist fold-that between the Mahayana and Hinayana branches. Of the Hinayana ("the Lesser Vehicle") branch of schools, only the The ravada school (founded 4th century B.C.E.) remains; it is currently found in Sri Lanka and all Southeast Asian countries. This school stresses the historical figure of Gautama Buddha, and the centrality of the monk'sl ife-style and practice (meditation). The ravada monks hold that the Buddha taught a doctrine of anatta (no-soul) when he spoke of the impermanence of the human body/form, perception, sensations/feelings, consciousness, and volition. They believe, however, that human beings continue to be "reformed" and reborn, and to collect karma until they reach Nirvana. The The ravada school has compiled a sacred canon of early Buddhist teachings and regulations that is called the Tripitaka.

The Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle") branch of schools began about the 1st century C.E.; Mahayanists are found today especially in Korea, China, Japan, and Tibet. The three most prominent schools are Pure Land, Chanor Zen, and Tantra. Mahayana schools in general utilize texts called sutras, stressing that lay people can also be good Buddhists, and that there are other effective paths to Nirvana in addition to meditation --for instance the chanting and good works utilized in Pure Land. They believe that the Buddha and all human beings have their origin in what is variously called Buddha Nature, Buddha Mind, or Emptiness. This is not "nothing," but is the completely indescribable Source of all Existence; it is at the same time Enlightenment potential. The form of the historical Buddha was, they say, only one manifestation of Buddha Nature. Mahayana thus speaks of many past and also future Buddhas, some of whom are "god-like" and preside over Buddha-worlds or heavenly paradises. Especially important are bodhi sattvas -- who are persons who have reached the point of Enlightenment, but turn back and take a vow to use their Enlightenment-compassion, -wisdom, and -power to help release others from their suffering. Mahayana canon says that finally there is no distinction between "self" and "other," nor between samsara (transmigration, rebirth) and Nirvana! Because of this the bodhi sattvais capable of taking on the suffering of others in samsara and of transferring his own merit to them.

Although Buddhism became virtually extinct in India (ca. 12th century C.E.) -- perhaps because of the all-embracing nature of Hinduism, Muslim invasions, or too great a stress on the monk's way of life -- as a religion it has more than proved its viability and practical spirituality in the countries of Asia to which it has been carried. The many forms and practices that have been developed within the Buddhist fold have also allowed many different types of people to satisfy their spiritual needs through this great religion.