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"Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoid dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural & spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity"  - Albert Einstein


BuddhismBuddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world, being exceeded in numbers only by Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. It was founded in Northern India by the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. He was born circa 563 BCE in Lumbini which is in modern-day Nepal. At the age of 29, he left his wife, children and political involvements in order to seek truth; this was an accepted practice at the time for some men to leave their family and lead the life of an ascetic. He studied Brahmanism, but ultimately rejected it. In 535 BCE, he reached enlightenment and assumed the title Buddha (one who has awakened). He is also referred to as the Sakyamuni, (sage of the Sakya clan). He promoted The Middle Way, rejecting both extremes of the mortification of the flesh and of hedonism as paths toward the state of Nirvana. He had many disciples and accumulated a large public following by the time of his death in his early 80's in 483 BCE.

Two and a half centuries later, a council of Buddhist monks collected his teachings and the oral traditions of the faith into written form, called the Tripitaka. This included a very large collection of commentaries and traditions; most are called Sutras (discourses).

Buddhist Beliefs

Buddhism, like most of the great religions of the world, is divided into a number of different traditions. We will deal in this essay with Theravada Buddhism. 

Buddhism is a religion which shares few concepts with Christianity. For example, they do not believe in a transcendent or immanent or any other type of God or Gods, the need for a personal savior, the power of prayer, eternal life in a heaven or hell after death, etc. They do believe in reincarnation: the concept that one must go through many cycles of birth, living, and death. After many such cycles, if a person releases their attachment to desire and the self, they can attain Nirvana.

The Buddha's Four Noble Truths may be described (somewhat simplistically) as:

  • to be fully understood: the universality of suffering.
  • to be abandoned: the desire to have and control things which cause. suffering
  • to be made visible: the supreme truth and final liberation of nirvana which is achieved as the cause of suffering is eliminated. The mind experiences complete freedom and liberation.
  • to be brought into being: the truth of the eightfold ariya path leading to the cessation of suffering.

His Eightfold Path consists of:

  1. right understanding

  2. right thinking

  3. right speech

  4. right conduct

  5. right livelihood

  6. right effort

  7. right mindfulness

  8. right concentration

Buddhist Sects

Buddhism is not a single monolithic religion. Many of its adherents have combined the teachings of the Buddha with local religious rituals, beliefs and customs. Little conflict occurs, because Buddhism at its core is a philosophical system to which such additions can be easily grafted.

After the Buddha's death, splits occurred. There are now three main systems of thought within Buddhism which are geographically and philosophically separate. Each tradition in turn has many sects. One source (J.R. Hinnels, A Handbook of Living Religions, Penguin, 1991) divides the religion into three main groups by their location:

  • Southern Buddhism (known as Therevada Buddhism) has 100 million followers, mainly in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and parts of Vietnam. It started in Sri Lanka when Buddhist missionaries arrived from India. They promoted the Vibhajjavada school (Separative Teaching). By the 15th century, this form of the religion reached almost its present extent.

    Concepts and practices include:

    • Dana - thoughtful, ceremonial giving
    • Sila - accepting Buddhist teaching and following it in practice; refraining from killing, stealing, wrong behavior, use of drugs. On special days, three additional precepts may be added, restricting adornment, entertainment and comfort.
    • Karma - the balance of accumulated sin and merit, which will determine one's future in the present life, and the nature of the next life to come.
    • The Cosmos - consists of billions of worlds grouped into clusters; clusters are grouped into galaxies, which are themselves grouped into super-galaxies. The universe also has many levels: four underworlds and 21 heavenly realms.
    • Paritta - ritual chanting
    • Worship - of relics of a Buddha, of items made by a Buddha, or of symbolic relics.
    • Festivals - days of the full moon, and three other days during the lunar cycle are celebrated. There is a new year's festival, and celebrations tied to the agricultural year.
    • Pilgrimages - particularly to Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka and India.
  • Eastern Buddhism is the predominant religion in China, Japan, Korea and much of Vietnam. Buddhism's Mahayana tradition entered China during the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE). It found initial acceptance there among the workers; later, it gradually penetrated the ruling class. Buddhism reached Japan in the 6th century. It underwent severe repression during the 1960's in China during the Cultural Revolution.

    Eastern Buddhism contains many distinct schools: T'ein-t'ai, Hua-yen, Pure Land teachings, and the Meditation school. They celebrate New Years, harvest festivals, and five anniversaries from the lives of Buddha and of the Bodhissattva Kuan-yin. They also engage in Dana, Sila, Chanting, Worship and Pilgrimage.

  • Northern Buddhism has perhaps 10 million adherents in parts of China, Mongolia, Russia and Tibet. It entered Tibet circa 640 CE. Conflict with the native Tibetan religion of Bon caused it to go largely underground until its revival in the 11th century. The head of the Gelu school of Buddhist teaching became the Dalai Lama, and ruled Tibet. It has been, until recently, wrongly dismissed as a degenerate form of Buddhism.

    Ceremony and ritual are emphasized. They also engage in Dana, Sila, Chanting, Worship and Pilgrimage. They developed the practice of searching out a young child at the time of death of an important teacher. The child is believed to be the successor to the deceased teacher. They celebrate New Years, harvest festivals and anniversaries of five important events in the life of the Buddha. Buddhist and Tibetan culture suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution when an attempt was made to destroy all religious belief.

Buddhism in the West

Southern Buddhism became established in Europe early in the 20th century.

Buddhism came to the U.S. in the early 19th century, with the arrival of Chinese and Japanese immigrants in Hawaii and in the west coast of the U.S. mainland. The Zen Buddhist tradition of Eastern Buddhism has developed a large following, particularly after the "Beat" generation, which began in the 1950's. Today, there are racial and cultural divides in American Buddhism, between nationalities of new immigrants, and between whites and Asians. They exist largely as two solitudes, with little interaction.

  • For Asian-American Buddhists, the temple "has more congregational importance, playing a key religious, social and cultural role in the community." Many have come to America recently, escaping wars in the Far East.
  • White Buddhists focus on meditation. Their groups tend to be "more lay orientated, with more women in positions of leadership. For some converts, Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion." 1

Tricycle: The Buddhist review maintains a listing of 834 centers in the U.S., Canada and Europe at:

Canadian Buddhists totaled 163,415 in the 1991 census. Reliable data on Buddhism in the U.S. is hard to come by; estimates range from three to four million.

Internet Resources:

  • Magazine:
    • Tricycle: The Buddhist review is a non-profit, quarterly educational magazine. See: http://www.tricycle.com/ Their magazine is available on many newsstands. However, they urge you to subscribe and save 20%. They have a listing of 834 centers in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
  • Associations:
    • The American Buddhist Congress (ABC) was founded on 1987-NOV-12 "to bring together Buddhists, individuals, and organizations of various Buddhist traditions and of diverse Buddhist denominations and ethnic backgrounds in America." Their goal is "to develop an 'American' Buddhism which, while paying respect to Buddhist traditions of other cultures and acknowledging our debt of gratitude to them, seeks to synthesize American values and traditions with the basic Buddhism of the Tripitaka without the linguistic and cultural trappings which are not understood by most Americans."
    • The Buddhist Association of the United States (BAUS) operate the extensive Chuang Yen Monastery in Carmel NY. They hold Sunday morning meditation, a book discussion group, Yoga and I Liq Chuen (Tai Chi).
  • General Buddhism Links:
  • Various Buddhism Traditions:
    • Fundamental Buddhism is based on the Pali Canon, the oldest surviving written record of what the Buddha actually said and taught. See: http://www.fundamentalbuddhism.com/
    • Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a global association of lay practitioners of Nichiren Daishonin's Buddhism, whose members seek to develop their potential for hope, courage, and altruistic action. See: http://www.sgi.org/home.html Regional web sites are at:
    • Shin Buddhism: The Shin Buddhism and Pure Land Buddhism traditions, which are active in Japan and in the west, can be visited at: http://www.aloha.net/~rtbloom/shinran/index.html
    • The Alan Watts Electronic University publishes audio and video tapes of lectures by Alan Watts compiled by his son, Mark. See: http://www.alanwatts.com
    • Buddhism for the Lay Practitioner is "a collection of resources for those who are interested in exploring Buddhism." See: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/3743/
    • Pamela Bloom, "Buddhist Acts of Compassion," Conari Press, (2000). This is a book about about the "transformative and healing power of compassion in all walks of life. Stories by and about H.H. The Dalai Lama, Sogyal Rinpoche, Thich Nhat Hanh and many others, including ordinary people in business, the arts, and homelife...it is...a healing book for all faiths. It has much to say about conflict resolution, healing deeply held anger and guilt, and developing a humanistic vision toward service and global peace. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store 

Reference used:

  1. "Tensions in American Buddhism," Religion & Ethics newsweekly, PBS, at: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/