According to tradition, the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Siddhārtha, was born about 446 BC as the first son of King Śuddhodana of the Śākya clan at the castle Kapilavastu, located in the center of the clan's domain in what is now Nepal. Some scholars, however, place the birthdate as much as a century earlier. Although raised in luxury, at age 29 he left home to seek an answer, through renunciation, to the problem of human existence. After completing six years of asceticism, he experienced enlightenment at Buddhagayā beneath the bo tree, becoming the Buddha (“one who has awakened to the truth”). Thereafter, until his death at Kuśinagara at the age of 80, he traveled throughout central India sharing his wisdom. He became known by the honorary name Śākyamuni (the sage or holy one from the Śākya [J: Shaka] clan).
In the central Ganges River Basin and eastern India at the time Gautama lived, affluence had led to a decay in the traditional caste system, less reliance on the priestly Brahmin class and the authority of the Vedas, and a decline in public morality. Philosophers became involved in endless metaphysical discussions of problems that had no solutions, but Gautama asserted that such metaphysical questions were meaningless. Buddhism attempted to point to and teach dharma, the “true eternal law” or “perennial norm” that would be valid for humanity for all ages. Buddhist doctrine is not specific, established dogma, but a practical wisdom or ethic that promises us the ideal state of humanity.
In Gautama's view, life is suffering (Skt: dukha), in the face of which man is helpless. We experience suffering because everything is the result of ever-changing, interrelated conditions and causes; human existence is always in flux and in transience (Skt: anitya; J:
Those who wish to be free from suffering must come to a clear understanding (enlightenment) concerning suffering, impermanence, nonself (Skt: anātman), and reality. To attain true knowledge (Skt: prajñā), all lust and attachment−the root of illusion−must be extinguished. In order to achieve this, one must undergo spiritual discipline, abide by the precepts, and practice meditation. Only then will one be able to free oneself from myriad restrictions and attain that freedom called nirvāa (J: nehan). The two extremes of hedonism and self-mortification are rejected; the Middle Way of no suffering and no pleasure is to be taken. Buddhism also emphasized compassion, teaching that it should be extended to all sentient beings.
Upon attaining enlightenment, the Buddha gathered around him a group of disciples; this community adopted the organizational principles of the sagha, which generally referred to a confederate form of government or a guild. The religious sagha was composed of both mendicant monks and lay believers, male and female. The mendicants were expected to be celibate and to refrain from secular occupations and economic transactions.
Later, rules for the religious life were stipulated: 250 precepts for males (bhiku; J: biku) and 500 for females (bhikuī; J: bikuni). Lay believers were instructed to maintain a good household, engage in proper work, strive to help others, and secure honor and fortune through diligent effort so that, upon death, they would be reborn in heaven. Five precepts were particularly emphasized: (1) do not kill; (2) do not steal; (3) do not act immorally; (4) do not lie; (5) do not drink liquor. Sorcery, magic, and divination were strictly forbidden, and believers were told to reject the authority of the Vedas and to eschew ceremonies involving sacrifice. While monks and nuns sought the ultimate goal of nirvāa, the laity aimed at a better rebirth.
The mendicant was enjoined to advocate the equality of all people and to reject the socially discriminatory caste system. Within the religious community (sagha), which included outcastes as well as members of the educated castes, the monk's rank was determined according to the length of time of spiritual discipline since entering the order. The sagha received financial support from wealthy merchants, who also believed in abolishing the Brahmanical caste system.
The literature of early Buddhism exists in Pāli texts and in Chinese translations, as well as fragmentarily in Sanskrit. Pāli is thought to have been originally a branch of the ancient Magadha tongue, in which Gautama spoke, and to have evolved into a language of the scripture. Pāli scripture has survived in what is now Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, among other places. It is composed of three main sections (the Tripiaka; see
In the 3rd century BC, under King Aśoka, India was united as one country. Aśoka supported the Buddhists, and Buddhism spread throughout the country. Around that time Buddhists split into two groups: the conservative elders (Theravādin), whose purpose was to maintain traditional rules; and others, who called for various changes within the religious order. By the 1st century BC there were as many as 20 factions. These groups tended to be self-righteous and aloof from the needs of the common people and in time came to be called the “lesser vehicle” (Hīnayāna; J: Shōjō) by their opponents.
Mahāyāna (“greater vehicle”; J: Daijō) Buddhism developed among the common people. Mahāyānists believed in a series of Buddhas (apart from the historical Buddha)−Buddhas from the cosmic past and also Buddhas-to-be, or bodhisattvas (J: bosatsu)−who had deferred their own salvation until the salvation of all mankind. Mahāyāna stressed that the path of the bodhisattva was open to both monks and laity.
Several Mahāyāna texts were compiled. First to appear were the Prajñāpāramitā sutras (J: Hannyakyō), which taught that all things are empty (Skt: śūnya; J: kū). These were followed by the Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa-sūtra (J: Yuimakyō) and the Śrīmālādevī-sihanāda-sūtra (J: Shōmankyō), which propagated lay Buddhism; the Avatasaka-sūtra (J: Kegonkyō), which taught the altruistic way of the bodhisattva and idealism; the Pure Land sutras, which advocated belief in the Buddha Amitābha (J: Amida); and the
Two major philosophical schools also arose in the Mahāyāna branch during this period. The Mādhyamika school (J: Chūganha), founded by Nāgārjuna (J: Ryūju; ca 150−ca 250), emphasized śūnyatā (emptiness). The second school, Yogācāra (J: Yugagyōha), brought to doctrinal completion by Vasubandhu (J: Seshin; 4th century), taught that the basis of our existence is a spiritual principle, ālayavijñāna, from which all things become manifest.
In 320 the Gupta dynasty was established. Buddhists developed the esoteric teachings of tantrism, known as Vajrayāna or Mantrayāna (J: Mikkyō), which incorporated elements of Brahmanism and folk religion. Esoteric Buddhism, however, tended to be absorbed by Hinduism. At the beginning of the 12th century, when India was conquered by Muslims, many Buddhist monasteries were destroyed, and Buddhism all but disappeared from India.
King Aśoka had sent out numerous Buddhist missionaries. A branch of Theravādin Buddhism was transferred to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then to Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and other Southeast Asian lands. The Buddhist tradition in these areas is generally called “Southern Buddhism.”
In the Kashmir and Gandhara regions in northwest India, the Theravādin lineage, especially the Sarvāstivādin teachings (J: Setsu Issai Ubu), was popular. Later, Mahāyāna Buddhism became prevalent and from here spread throughout the western region. In Nepal as well, Mahāyāna Buddhism, especially the esoteric branch, was disseminated.
From the 8th century, Mahāyāna Buddhism, predominantly esoteric Buddhism, was transmitted to Tibet and, upon fusion with indigenous folk beliefs, developed into what is popularly known as Lamaism. In Lamaism, or Tibetan Buddhism, some lamas (“superior ones”) were worshiped as incarnations (tulkus) of their predecessors. Lamaism eventually spread even throughout Mongolia and the Rehe (Jehol) region of northeastern China.
Buddhism was introduced to China in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Buddhist literature was subsequently translated into Chinese from Sanskrit (or its vernacular) originals. The Buddhism that came to flourish in China was chiefly Mahāyāna and reflected the influence of Taoism and Confucianism. Among the more important Chinese schools are the Pure Land (Ch: Jingtu or Ching-t'u; J: Jōdo), Chan (Ch'an; J: Zen), Tiantai (T'ien-t'ai; J: Tendai), and Zhenyan (Chen-yen; J: Shingon), all of which were transmitted to Japan.
Chinese Buddhism had been, at the beginning, a religion mostly of immigrants from India and Central Asia. But from the late 3rd century it spread among the native Chinese population. Buddhism was gradually modified to conform to the Chinese way of thinking: it became less speculative and more concrete; direct and intuitive expression came to be favored over abstract doctrine; and, in keeping with Confucian ethics and the tendency to focus on man and life in the everyday world, stress was placed on one's relation to others, in the family and in hierarchical society.
According to one of Japan's earliest chronicles, the
Studies of Buddhist teachings began in earnest as six prominent schools were introduced from China during the 7th and the early 8th centuries. These were the
Early in the Heian period (794−1185), the
Under the Tokugawa shogunate (1603−1867), Buddhism and its network of temples were used to eradicate Christianity (see
After World War II, many religious groups among the so-called shinkō shūkyō (
Several characteristic tendencies can be seen in the history of Japanese Buddhism: (1) an emphasis on the importance of human institutions; (2) a nonrational, symbolic orientation; (3) an acceptance of the phenomenal world; (4) an openness to accommodation with ancient shamanistic practices and Shintō; and (5) the development of lay leadership.
Statistically, Japan is a country of Buddhists. More than 85 percent of the population professes the Buddhist faith. Buddhism in Japan maintains some 75,000 temples with nearly 200,000 priests.
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