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Brief history of Buddhism

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


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 rebirths.

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. To maintain peace, the monastic

order met to decide on matters of Buddhist doctrines and

practice. Four of these meetings are considered to be the

Four Major Councils.

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 threefold nature.

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 religion.

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


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 years later.

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.

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