Buddhism is usually considered a religion. Estimates of the number of Buddhists vary widely, but are generally in the hundreds of millions. It is variously listed as the 4th to 6th largest religion in the world, and it is usually considered one of the three major universal religions (as distinct from those largely confined to a single ethnic group). There are "significantly large communities" of Buddhists in 126 countries. Half the world's population live in areas where Buddhism is or was at some time a major force.
It was founded by Gautama, known as the Buddha (literally Awakened One). He lived and taught in areas now in northeast India and Nepal. Historians now generally date his death somewhere in the region of 400 BC. There are several major branches of Buddhism, each with notable differences in teachings. Buddhists divide themselves into Mahayana and Theravada, the former being further subdivided.
The word "Buddhism" is of course an English one, first recorded in 1801. "Native" Buddhists use names in their own languages. The name is derived from "Buddha" (Sanskrit and Pali), which is a title rather than a name. Literally it means "awakened". It is often translated as "enlightened".
The usual practice of Western scholars is to use Sanskrit terms when writing of Buddhism generally. Sanskrit was the language used by Buddhism in its heartland in the Middle Ages, but is little used by any Buddhists now. Theravada uses Pali, a dialect from an earlier phase of Buddhist history, while Chinese and Tibetan are widely used by those countries deriving their Buddhism from them.
Estimates of the number of Buddhists in the world vary widely, for a variety of reasons. One reason, which applies to all religions, is in deciding whom to include in the way of "nominal" adherents and "fringe sects". A second, which also applies generally, but to Buddhism more than most, is the lack of reliable information on the situation under repression. The world's most populous country, China, has a long and important Buddhist tradition, but in recent decades has been under a more or less anti-religious government. A third reason, not significantly applicable to many other religions, is that it is very common for people in the Far East to "belong" in some sense to more than one religion at a time. The usual practice of religious demography is to classify people under their main religion. If people are allowed multiple classification the world Buddhist population will be much higher.
The historical Buddha (though a few scholars question his historicity) had the surname Gautama, in Sanskrit, or Gotama in Pali. He himself would have spoken some other dialect, and the exact form of the name he would have used himself is not known. According to sources centuries after his death his personal name was Siddhartha/Siddhattha. He lived and taught in areas now in India and Nepal. The traditional site of his birth was marked by a commemorative pillar in the 3rd century BC, and this was discovered by archaeologists in the 1890s in Nepal. The traditional site of his death is in India.
Traditional Buddhist sources variously date his death to the 10th, 9th or 6th century BC. Late 19th century Western scholars mostly decided on a date about 486 or 483, which remained the general consensus until 1955, when a leading Japanese scholar questioned it, and continues to be repeated in many non-specialist sources. However, in 1988 a specialist scholarly conference was held to discuss just this question, and the majority of those who gave definite dates placed it around 400 BC. This remains the prevailing view among specialists, though only provisionally. He is said to have lived 80 years.
In most traditions Buddhists are led by monks, belonging to the order founded by the Buddha. In China, Vietnam and Korea, there are also nuns, subordinate to monks. Unordained women under vows in other countries are sometimes also called nuns. In Japan and Nepal the traditional monastic order has been replaced by a mostly married clergy.
In recent times there have been various developments. The Japanese conquest of Korea resulted in the importation of the practice of married clergy, which is continued in a separate denomination, though most Korean Buddhists continue to be led by monks. One branch of the monastic order in Sri Lanka has recently started holding ordinations of nuns, though these are not recognized by the government there, or by the ruling council of Burmese Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has authorized his followers to receive nuns' ordination from those traditions retaining it. And various Western or other modern groups have introduced new modes of governance.
The earliest Buddhist scriptures and texts were composed in Pali and Prakrit. Mahayana Buddhism traditionally recognizes the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism as in principle authentic, but regards it as merely a preliminary teaching for people not ready for the Mahayana's own teachings, a sort of "Old Testament". Theravada traditionally does not recognize the Mahayana scriptures at all. Similarly, the texts that Tibetan Mahayana considers the highest tend to be rejected by East Asian Buddhists.
In Mahayana there is sometimes a pragmatic notion of truth: doctrines are "true" in the sense of being spiritually beneficial. Some scholars believe this is more widespread, or even universal in Buddhism.
Modern Buddhists sometimes ignore traditional beliefs or regard them as purely symbolic.
Although the standard term is "rebirth", in fact each life is regarded as starting at conception, not birth. In the normal course of events, each individual is reborn over and over again indefinitely in five or six realms of existence:
- hell inmates
- demons are recognized as a separate realm in Mahayana, but not in Theravada, which classifies some as gods and others as ghosts
Theravada believes a new life starts immediately after the end of the previous one, but Mahayana that there is an intermediate state.
In the normal course of events one's thoughts, words and deeds act as karma (literally, action), which creates results or fruits. Good behaviour produces pleasant results, bad unpleasant. These results may take the form of particular rebirths, or experiences in this or a subsequent life.
Theravada believes no one can directly affect someone else's karma, but in Mahayana there is a widespread belief that Buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas (see below) can transfer "merit" (good karma) to others or eliminate their bad karma. An important example is the widespread belief that the Buddha Amitabha can grant his devotees rebirth in his Pure Land.
Buddhism analyses the physical and mental world into dharmas, evanescent constituents, though there is disagreement on the listing. These are connected with each other in complex networks of causal conditioning. Nirvana is also regarded as a dharma, but not evanescent.
Theravada believes the physical and mental dhammas (the Pali form of dharmas) are ultimately real, though conditioned, impermanent and unsatisfactory. The self is not a dhamma and is not ultimately real. Nibbana (nirvana) is ultimately real. It is, however, unconditioned, neither permanent nor impermanent (being outside time), and satisfactory.
In Mahayana, the most influential philosophies believe the ultimate reality can be best described as Buddha nature, infinite wisdom and compassion. It is often described as Self, though not as an individual self. The Gelug school and some other Tibetan authorities, however, hold that nothing is ultimately real, that everything is "empty", including emptiness itself.
According to Theravada, one who develops sufficient insight into reality to eliminate the ignorance and craving that cause rebirth attains nibbana, becomes an arahant (Pali, "worthy") and cannot be said to be reborn. Rather, after death they attain indescribability. There are 3 types of arahants, occasionally called buddhas:
- sammasambuddha, commonly just called "Buddha", who attains nibbana on his own (always a man) and teaches others the way
- paccekabuddha, who attains nibbana on his own but lacks the ability to teach others the way
- savakabuddha, who attains nibbana following the teaching of a Buddha
Theravada regards these as having similar awakenings, but Mahayana disagrees with this, holding that only a Buddha has attained full insight. Most Mahayana authorities say the others have not reached the end of rebirth, but must follow the bodhisattva (Sanskrit) path. Theravada also recognizes a bodhisatta (Pali) path, the path to becoming a sammasambuddha, but holds that it is only for a few. Most Mahayana authorities say all must eventually follow it. Different concepts of this path are found in Mahayana authorities. Sometimes it is simply the path to Buddhahood, as in Theravada. But sometimes it involves renouncing Buddhahood itself indefinitely in order to help others as a bodhisattva. And sometimes it goes further and further for ever, never reaching an endpoint.
Most traditional Mahayana authorites hold that a Buddha is not a human being; that the historical Buddha was an illusion created by a celestial Buddha. Theravada also recognizes the Buddha's power to create illusory appearances of himself, but holds that there was a real human Buddha as well. Some Mahayana authorities hold that a Buddha remains in the world indefinitely to help others. Others hold that his lifetime, while extremely long, is nevertheless finite.
Devotional rituals are virtually universal, with only some modern Buddhists having abandoned them. A common ritual is taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The Dharma is the teaching, or its ultimate essence. Traditionally, the sangha meant either the community of those with high spiritual attainments, or that of monks and nuns. Some modern Buddhists take it as the entire Buddhist community.
Theravada devotion is mainly directed towards those three. Mahayana devotion often includes a variety of Buddhas and bodhisattvas. In East Asian Mahayana a particularly important form is chanting homage to Amitabha. The central practice in the Nichiren school is homage to the Lotus Sutra, its principal scripture.
Pilgrimage to sites associated with the Buddha's life was common from early times, and other countries developed their own sites.
Giving is often mentioned first in this context. It is particularly directed to monks (and nuns), the merit of giving to the virtuous being greater.
The "negative" side of basic Buddhist morality is summarized in the Five Precepts: to refrain from
- killing living beings
- taking what is not given
- sexual misconduct
- false speech
The first applies to animals as well as people, though this is not necessarily taken as implying vegetarianism. As life begins at conception, it is traditionally thought that abortion breaks the precept. The second and third are largely left to society to define. For example, there is generally no traditional Buddhist wedding ceremony, it being regarded as a secular matter.
There are additional precepts that may be undertaken on special occasions on a voluntary basis, and the monastic order have many more.
Traditionally, meditation tended to be regarded as an advanced practice, left to monastics and/or future lives. There has recently been a great expansion in lay meditation in a number of Buddhist countries.
In Theravada, meditation is classified into two main types:
- samatha (calm)
- vipassana (insight)
Insight is ultimately what is needed, but calm makes that easier. Traditionally, the normative path was to develop a high degree of calm first.
These practices are found in Mahayana too, but other practices are regarded as more important. In East Asian Mahayana the most important meditation practices are those of the tradition usually known in the West as Zen (its Japanese name). These practices generally try to bypass conceptual thinking, unlike Theravada insight meditation, which uses it as a starting point.
These could be considered ritual, yogic or magical. Some such elements existed in early Buddhism, and continue across the Buddhist tradition to this day, even in Theravada. However, there is much more of these in Shingon (Japanese), and even more in the Tibetan tradition. In the Tibetan tradition, but not in Shingon, this occasionally includes sexual yoga. These practices might be considered as meditation because of the emphasis on developing the right mental attitudes.
According to the scriptures, a council was held shortly after the Buddha's death to collect his teachings. Historians are very sceptical about this, admitting at most a small gathering of leading disciples. They are more prepared to accept the "Second" Council about a century later, which was held to resolve a dispute about monastic discipline. The matter was resolved and Buddhism remained united. However, some time after this, Buddhism split into two: Theravada and Mahasanghika. It is not clear when or why this happened. Each branch subsequently underwent further divisions. Thus the present-day Theravada is only one branch of the original Theravada. Of course it claims to be the true original Theravada, as no doubt did the others.
In the 3rd century BC, Buddhism benefitted much from the patronage of the Emperor Asoka, and missionaries were sent to Ceylon, and perhaps elsewhere.
The differences among the various schools mentioned above were comparatively minor. More significant was the rise of the Mahayana. Its origins remain a matter of disagreement among scholars. While something that could reasonably be called Mahayana certainly existed by the 2nd century AD, when some of its texts were translated into Chinese, it seems not to have become a clearly identified "movement" until the 4th or 5th century, and it is not clear that it ever became a separate "denomination" in India.
Eventually, Buddhism virtually disappeared in India, apart from areas bordering Buddhist countries. As a result, except for the Newari community in Nepal, all the forms of Buddhism found in India died out. The main forms today are derived from Ceylon, China and Tibet, whither Buddhism had been brought from India.
In recent times there has been a revival in India, mainly among former untouchables.
Theravada was established in Ceylon in the 3rd century BC. In the early centuries of the 2nd millennium it spread thence to Burma, Siam, Cambodia and Laos, displacing the Indian forms of Buddhism previously found there, though not without surviving influences. See also Pali Canon.
Buddhism spread to China in the 1st century AD, including Vietnam, which was already part of the Chinese Empire. It spread thence to Korea in the 4th century and thence to Japan in the 6th.
Buddhism is said to have been introduced into Tibet in the 7th century from Nepal and China, though there is no absolute proof of its presence before the following century. It spread to the Mongol peoples from the 13th century on. A migrating Mongol tribe, the Western Kalmyks, established a permanent Buddhist population in Europe around 1613.
Buddhism in the modern world
In recent times, the three branches of Buddhism, after evolving for centuries in almost total isolation from each other, came into serious contact again, and also into contact with Western culture, resulting in many developments still in progress. "Ethnic" Buddhists migrated to Western and other countries, and converts were made.
These can be either monasteries or temples, or both. In recent times, at least in the West, there are some meditation centres that are neither.
These include the 8- or 12-spoked wheel, and the Buddha's footprint.
Calendars and holy days
These vary between different branches of Buddhism. All traditional calendars are lunisolar, but, as part of its modernization process, Japan numerically translated festivals into the Western calendar. Thus the festival previously held on the 8th day of the 2nd lunar month is now held on the 8th of February.
Is Buddhism a religion?
In an ordinary, everyday sense Buddhism counts as a religion. Thus it is so classified in dictionaries, encyclopaedias, censuses and library classification schemes.
In more academic contexts a variety of other views have been expressed. Some scholars consider it a family of religions, others as merely part of the national religions of the different Buddhist countries. Some definitions of religion exclude it, and a few scholars even reject the whole religion category as an artificial construct not corresponding to reality.
Some Buddhists claim Buddhism is not a religion, but sociologists point out that such claims are found in essentially all religions, and suggest that they are simply attempts to distinguish one's own religion from others.
Buddhists classify themselves in many ways. Perhaps the commonest is into Mahayana and Theravada. The former stresses adaptation, and thus takes a wide variety of forms. The name Theravada means either "Teaching of the Elders" or "Ancient Teaching". Both these interpretations are recognized by the tradition as valid. As the name suggests, this claims to be a conservative tradition, and most scholars agree that it is fairly close to the Buddhism of early centuries. Some scholars use this classification, but perhaps more use a threefold classification, splitting Mahayana in two:
East Asian Buddhism is much more diverse than the other two. In China, Vietnam and Korea, its different forms coexist peacefully in a united monastic order, but Japanese Buddhism is split into numerous denominations.
Apparently the most popular form of Buddhism is Pure Land (). Its general position is that, though the Buddha taught various paths to enlightenment, in these degenerate times few if any are capable of following them successfully, so another Buddha, Amitābha, provides a "shortcut" based on faith and devotion, using his power to grant his devotees rebirth in his Pure Land, where enlightenment is easy.
The other tradition with a major following across East Asia is Zen. Two others have large memberships in Japan: Nichiren, named after its Japanese founder; and Shingon, which has similarities to Tibetan Buddhism.
Theravada is usually considered a single denomination in spite of differences of opinion and monastic practice. For example, monks are divided into two main branches depending on whether they wear the robe over both shoulders or just one. These are further subdivided into about ten subbranches by other disciplinary disagreements.
Tibetan Buddhism is divided into four main schools: Gelug, Nyingma, Kagyu (itself subdivided) and Sakya. The Mongol peoples and the majority of Tibetans follow the Gelug school, while Bhutan belongs to the Drug subschool of Kagyu. The differences between these schools are comparatively minor. Gelug has only monks, while the other schools also have non-monastic lamas, sometimes married.
In addition to the disputes between different branches of Buddhism, there are also controversies within denominations, particularly, in recent times, between traditionalists and modernizers. The ordination of nuns is an example of this.
- World Christian Encyclopedia, Oxford University Press, 2nd ed, 2001, volume 1, page 3
- See, e.g., "The idea of the historical Buddha", David Drewes, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, volume 40 (2017), pages 1-25: there is no hard evidence, it simply being argued that Buddhism must have had a founder; he questions this, saying the Buddha should be put in the same group as characters like King Arthur.
- Bruno Petzold wrote a thousand-page book covering all the classifications found in surviving Buddhist literature from India, China and Japan
- Sometimes all traditional forms of Buddhism are referred to as Eastern Buddhism to distinguish them from modern Western(ized) forms
- Sometimes Mahayana as a whole is called Northern Buddhism
- There are a number of different systems for representing Tibetan in the Latin alphabet.