Buddhism is a religion and philosophy founded by Siddhartha Gautama in northeast India during the period from the late 6th century to the early 4th century BC. Spreading from India to Central and Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan, Buddhism has played an influential role in the spiritual, cultural, and social life of much of the Eastern world.
The Buddha, which means the “Enlightened One,” died in northeastern India between 500 and 350 BC. According to tradition, his family name was Gautama; later sources call him Siddhartha, which means “He Who Has Reached His Goal.” He was reared in a minor royal family of the ruling Kshatriya, or warrior, caste. Shocked as a young man after wittness by pure accident sickness, old age, and death, he renounced his family life in order to wander as a shramana, or ascetic, in search of religious understanding and a way of release from the human condition. Discarding the teachings of his contemporaries, through meditation he achieved enlightenment, or ultimate understanding. Thereafter, the Buddha instructed his followers (the sangha) in the dharma (Pali dhamma, “truth”) and the “Middle Way,” a path between a worldly life and extremes of self-denial.
The essence of the Buddha’s early preaching was said to be the Four Noble Truths: (1) life is fundamentally disappointment and suffering; (2) suffering is a result of one’s desires for pleasure, power, and continued existence; (3) in order to stop disappointment and suffering one must stop desiring; and (4) the way to stop desiring and thus suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path–right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right concentration. The realization of the truth of anatman (no eternal self) and pratitya-samutpada (the law of dependent origination) was taught as essential for the indescribable state of release called nirvana (“blowing out”).
After the death of the Buddha (at which time he passed into final nirvana) efforts were made to consolidate the teachings and structures of the Buddhist community. Several important Buddhist councils were held to decide questions of faith and order, leading finally to the distinction between those who believed they held to the most ancient traditions (the Theravadins) and those who claimed their understandings represented the highest and most complete account of Buddha’s message (the Mahayanists). Scholars think that by the 3rd century BC, Theravada doctrine and practice were fairly formalized. The Theravada canon of sacred scriptures, the Tipitaka (Sanskrit Tripitaka, “The Three Baskets”), all written in the Pali language, include the Vinaya Pitaka (“Basket of Discipline”), the Sutta Pitaka (“Basket of Discourses”), and Abhidhamma Pitaka (“Basket of Scholasticism”).
Theravada doctrine emphasizes the composite nature of all things. The Theravada tradition explicated necessary regulations for the community, meditative techniques and rituals, and the stages leading to arhatship (the pinnacle of spiritual attainment). Moral instruction for both monastic and lay followers was elaborated by reference to specific rules and to paradigms available in the Jataka tales of the Buddha’s incarnations. The great Indian king Ashoka (reigned mid-3rd century BC) patronized Buddhism, supporting a missionary enterprise that carried the Theravada tradition into Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, where it remains the predominant form of Buddhism.
Between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD, there appeared new Buddhist scriptures that implied to represent the Buddha’s most advanced and complete teaching. The communities for which these new Sanskrit texts were important called themselves followers of the “Greater Vehicle” (Mahayana), in contradistinction to followers of what they regarded as the “Lesser Vehicle” (Hinayana). Their ideal was that of the bodhisattva (“enlightenment being”; one who has taken the vow to become a buddha), whose compassionate vow to save all sentient beings was contrasted with the aloof self-preoccupation of the Theravada arhat.
The Mahayana schools developed an expanded vision of the universe and a new understanding of the Buddha. The human manifestation of the True Law in the figure of Gautama Buddha was identified with the many celestial forms experienced in meditation and with the dharma-kaya, the ineffable absolute. Certain Mahayana schools (Madhyamika in India, T’ien-t’ai and Hua-yen in China, etc.) developed sophisticated philosophical arguments concerning the two levels of truth (the relative and absolute) and the identification of samsara (this world of life and death) with nirvana. The Pure Land schools of Mahayana emphasized simple faith over logic and were more concerned with salvific rebirth in Buddha’s “pure lands” than with the achievement of enlightenment in this world. The influential Dhyana (Chinese: Ch’an; Japanese: Zen) tradition stressed meditation and a sudden enlightenment experience. Mahayana became the predominant form of Buddhism throughout East Asia and has had an immeasurable impact on the civilizations of China, Korea, and Japan.
Known also as Vajrayana (the “Diamond Vehicle”), or Mantrayana (the “Vehicle of the Mantra”), Tantric Buddhism became prominent in India in the 7th century AD. An esoteric path requiring strict guidance under an accomplished master, Tantric ritual involved both the identification of the initiate with a visualized deity and action intended to demonstrate the adept’s transcendence of all dualistic categories such as good and evil, male and female, samsara and nirvana. Tantric masters developed elaborate ritual usage of mudras (sacred gestures), mantras (sacred sounds), and mandalas (maps of the spiritual cosmos). Tantrism became the predominant influence on the development of a special form of Buddhism in Mongolia and Tibet.
Wherever Buddhist doctrine and philosophy have spread in Asia, they have given rise to a remarkable flowering of material culture. Architectural and iconographic features naturally vary from country to country, but basic functions remain the same. The temple is the main sanctuary, in which services, both public and private, are performed. The monastery is a complex of buildings, located usually in a spot chosen for its beauty and seclusion. Its function is to house the activities of the monks.
Images are important features of temples, monasteries, and shrines in both Theravada and Mahayana. Throughout Southeast Asia these generally represent the historic Buddha in postures of meditating, teaching, or reclining. For the devout these call to mind his enlightenment, years of teaching, and passing to nirvana. In countries of central Asia, the treatment of images is more complex. In Mahayana sanctuaries, the representations are of different buddhas, bodhisattvas, saints, and guardian deities derived from India. In China and Tibet these constitute a pantheon, the worship of which is practically polytheistic.
In addition to temple design and decoration, Buddhism historically has stimulated creativity in other artistic areas; the traditions of poetry and painting associated with Zen Buddhism are notable examples.