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.