Buddhism can be seen as one of the three great ‘missionary’ religions in the world, alongside Islam and Christianity, in that the message is seen as the truth for all humanity, transcending locality, ethnicity, nationality and culture. That is not to say that in various times and places it has not become deeply entangled with locality, ethnicity, nationality and culture e.g. Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism.
What is Buddhism?
The geographical spread of Buddhism is vast. From an Indian beginning, it has spread to become important in the areas currently known as Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan. Before the rise of Islam, it was also important in what are now India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. In the nineteenth century, it was estimated that Buddhism was a major influence on 40% of the world’s population. After the upheavals of the 20th century, notably the spread of Marxist communism in East Asia, numbers of Buddhists are estimated as between 375-500 million. In common with many other traditions, Buddhism is now represented globally, with an appeal to ‘Western’ converts. There are about 1.5 million Buddhists in the USA and about 150,000 in the UK (2001 census).
Buddhism differs from other so-called ‘world religions’ in that it is not based on belief in God. Rather it is focused on human potential. What leads people to class it as a ‘religion’ is that it puts forward a goal for human life which transcends the material world and presents life as having a meaning and purpose which implies certain truths about reality and ways of behaving. In common with other ‘religions’, it has a wealth of texts, rituals, stories, ethical codes, organisations such as monasteries, temples, mythology etc (see Ninian Smart’s suggested ‘dimensions’ of religions). Again, as with other major faiths, it has developed a variety of forms in different places and times, and co-exists with local beliefs and customs. For convenience, people tend to talk of two main forms of Buddhism Theravada and Mahayana, but this is a vast oversimplification. Whereas Theravada refers to a particular ordination lineage, and thus organisation, as well as a particular philosophical school of thought, which looks to the Pali Canon as ‘scripture’, Mahayana is more of an ideal (Paul Williams refers to it as a ‘vision’), that of Buddhahood for all, and a label which covers many different ordination lineages, organisations, philosophies, scriptures etc.
‘Buddhism’ is usually considered to have been founded by Siddhartha Gautama (called ‘the Buddha’, or ‘Enlightened one’) roughly 2,500 years ago in North India. However, the tradition itself sees him as one in a long line of Buddhas, both past and future, teaching the same eternal truth. There are also aspects of Buddhist teaching that are found in other Indian-based traditions such as Jainism, Hinduism and Sikhism, notably the assumption of many lives formed by karma. Among the central teachings of the ‘historical’ Buddha are that life as experienced by most people is unsatisfactory and characterised by impermanence and suffering. This results from our selfishness and ignorance that causes us to be reborn time and time again. There is an alternative to rebirth in samsara which is the state of nirvana which ends the chain of rebirths and is truth and peace.
One teaching that distinguishes Buddhism from other Indian traditions is the denial of the unchanging ‘soul’ or ‘self’ (anatta). Everything changes, not just the material world, but our feelings, thoughts, perceptions, impulses and consciousness. The goal of life in Theravada Buddhism is to become free from samsara by following a path of morality, meditation and wisdom. This takes many lives, and may well only be possible with the detached lifestyle of a monastic. However, Mahayana Buddhism puts forward the goal of the bodhisattva whose concern is the salvation of others rather than (or as well as) themselves, and eventual Buddhahood. Both ‘wings’ of Buddhism however stress the need for selflessness and compassion, as well as realising the truth about life. The concept of ‘Buddha’ also changes in forms of Mahayana Buddhism, and may be seen as the ultimate reality underlying the universe, as well as there being many Buddhas and bodhisattvas portrayed as ‘divine’ beings able to help struggling humans. In many forms of Buddhism there is a stress on the mind and various forms of meditation as ways of purifying the mind and working towards the goal of enlightenment.
Key Teachings and Authority
Buddhism has no one central authority, set creed, or universally accepted set of scriptural texts that, together with influences from the many different cultures into which Buddhism has spread, has led to considerable diversity. Over the long history of Buddhism various authorities, monastic codes and lineages, texts, and teachings have risen to prominence. Among the sources of authority recognised by Buddhists are the Buddha, the Dharma (teaching or truth) and the Sangha (or monastic community), referred to collectively as the ‘three jewels’. These three will be interpreted in somewhat different ways by different Buddhist traditions. It is important to understand that different texts are viewed as the word of the Buddha by different Buddhist groups. Living spiritual teachers (lamas in Tibetan) are also very important, and there is a stress on the importance of knowing the truth through individual experience rather than just accepting the teaching of others.
In terms of authority, Theravada Buddhists look to a collection of scriptures known as the ‘Pali Canon’ from the language, Pali, in which they were written down in the first century BCE. The texts are collected into three sections: sutta, or discourses of the Buddha, vinaya or monastic discipline, and abhidhamma, or systematic treatments of Buddhist philosophy and psychology. Theravada Buddhists consider themselves to have preserved the original teaching of the historical Buddha. Theravada monks, who can be recognised by their familiar orange robes, are another important source of authority. Although nuns were also ordained by the Buddha, in many countries the line of ordination died out, and women dedicated to the spiritual life do not have the same social status as monks. However full ordination has been re-established in some groups recently.
Theravada Buddhism can be said to stress the responsibility of the individual for his/her own spiritual development, and the monastic life is seen as the most conducive to this. However, it must be remembered that the majority of Theravada Buddhists are laypeople, for whom Buddhism is a guide to living an ethical and fulfilling life. In the contemporary world, meditation is becoming increasingly popular with lay Buddhists. Although ritual and iconography are of secondary importance, there are statues of the Buddha, temples, lifecycle rituals and festivals in Theravada Buddhism. The term ‘Theravada’ or ‘way of the elders’ refers both to the ordination lineage and to a particular philosophical interpretation of Buddhist teaching. Theravada Buddhism is dominant in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma Cambodia and Laos, and as British scholars met Theravada Buddhism first, there can be a tendency to see this as original or mainstream Buddhism, especially as this view coheres with that of the Theravada Buddhists themselves.
From about the first century CE we find texts that refer to the ‘Mahayana’ or ‘great vehicle’; a vision of Buddhism that stresses the importance of the bodhisattva path of striving for the salvation of all beings, and the various Buddhas and bodhisattvas who can help the less spiritually advanced. Mahayana texts exist in Sanskrit and other languages, and there are a number of philosophical traditions that stem from interpretations of various Mahayana texts. There are many diverse groups to which the label ‘Mahayana’ is applied. Some may follow one particular text or lineage of teachers, others may accept a wide variety of texts but follow a particular interpretation. Mahayana texts exist as individual documents, but there are also two large collections, the Chinese Canon from the 10th century CE, and the Tibetan Canon from the 14th century CE. These collections contain both Mahayana texts and versions of material also found in the Pali Canon. In spite of (or maybe because of) the vast collections of texts, many Buddhists will be more likely to be taught their traditions by family, school, traditional commentaries and living spiritual teachers, and there is a strong emphasis on the importance of one to one teaching, especially in Tibetan and Zen Buddhism.
There are many different Buddhist groups under the heading of Mahayana. A simple division is sometimes made between ‘Northern’ or Tibetan/Mongolian Buddhism, and ‘Far-Eastern’ (Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese) Buddhism. Within Tibetan Buddhism, there are several different schools and lineages of teachers, as well as new movements that have developed as Tibetan Buddhism spread to the wider world. Tibetan monks and nuns (the story of women’s ordination is similar to that of Theravada) can be recognised by their distinctive burgundy and gold coloured robes. They follow a variant but mostly similar version of the vinaya rules from Theravada Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is noted for its glorious and colourful iconography, variety of ritual and meditative practices, and for the identification of ‘tulkus’ or reincarnations of holy enlightened teachers, also believed to be emanations of Buddhas or bodhisattvas, of which the most famous is the Dalai Lama. Tibetan Buddhism also has a wealth of texts and a strong tradition of scholarship, drawing upon Indian traditions of Mahayana philosophy.
Buddhism in the Far East
In ‘far-eastern’ Buddhism there are many different traditions. Among the better known are Pure Land, Zen, Tendai, Shingon and (in Japan) Nichiren’s Buddhism (all of which have many subgroups). Pure Land Buddhism concentrates on the Mahayana texts describing the paradise realm of Amitabha (Amida) Buddha, into which devotees may be reborn if they have faith in the Buddha. Zen (or Ch’an) Buddhism stresses meditation, and the direct transmission of the truth directly from the mind of the teacher to the mind of the pupil, in a way that written texts cannot achieve. Zen is also famous for art forms that express simplicity yet exact discipline, from Zen gardens and tea ceremonies to martial arts. Tendai Buddhism is one of several far-eastern forms of Buddhism which attempted to bring a variety of Buddhist texts and practices into harmony, by seeing them as suited to different stages of spiritual development. The most advanced statement of Buddhist truth is believed to be found in the Lotus Sutra, a text which teaches both that the Buddha only seemed to pass away and is still working to liberate beings, and that all beings, not just the few as taught by Theravada, can eventually reach Buddhahood. The thirteenth century teacher Nichiren, and the groups following him, teach that the Lotus Sutra is the only text to follow, and that chanting homage to this scripture is the appropriate spiritual path for our degenerate times. Shingon Buddhism is based on esoteric teachings, ritual and mantras, and in these ways resembles Tibetan forms of Buddhism. Some forms of far-eastern Buddhism, such as Zen, Tendai and Shingon have strong monastic organisations based on particular lineages and vinaya texts, others, particularly Pure Land Buddhism are lay orientated and have married clergy rather than celibate monks.
Budddhism in the UK
Many different forms of Buddhism are represented in the UK, including Theravada, various Tibetan groups, Zen and Pure Land. It is important to note that many of the groups encountered may be relatively new movements within their particular traditions. There are also Buddhist groups that originated in the West, most notably the Triratna Buddhist Community (formerly known as Friends of the Western Buddhism Order) that draws upon different Buddhist traditions to form a Buddhist path appropriate to contemporary culture.
If you are relatively new to Buddhism, a good place to start is to read a one chapter summary in one of the general books on religions, and then one of the one-volume introductions, from the list suggested below.
- Cantwell, C. & Kawanami, H. (2009) ‘Buddhism.’ In: Woodhead, L.,Kawanami, H. and Partridge, C. eds. Religions in the Modern World:Traditions and Transformations London: Routledge
- Cousins, L. ‘Buddhism’ in Hinnells, J.R. ed. (2000) A New Handbook of Living Religions Harmondsworth: Penguin
- Cush, D. ‘Buddhism’ in Richards, C. ed. (1997) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of World Religions Shaftesbury: Element
One volume introductions:
- Cush, D. (1994) Buddhism London: Hodder & Stoughton.
- Erricker, C. (1995) Teach Yourself Buddhism London: Hodder & Stoughton.
- Gethin, R. (1998) The Foundations of Buddhism Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Harris, E. (1998) What Buddhists Believe Oxford: One World
- Harvey, P. (1990) An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practice Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Keown, D. (1998) Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Prebish, C.S. & Keown, D. (2006) Introducing Buddhism New York & London: Routledge.
- Williams, P. (2000) Buddhist Thought London: Routledge