"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
Buddhism 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).
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 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
- to be fully understood: the universality of suffering.
- to be abandoned: the desire to have and control things which cause.
- 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:
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
- Paritta - ritual chanting
- Worship - of relics of a Buddha, of items made by a Buddha, or of
- 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
- 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
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
- 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: http://22.214.171.124/tricycle/
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
- Tricycle: The Buddhist review
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.
- 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
- 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
- "Tensions in American Buddhism," Religion & Ethics newsweekly,
PBS, at: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/