Buddhism is the religion and philosophy based on the teachings of Gautama Siddhartha (Sanskrit; in Pali, Gotama Siddhattha), who lived between approximately 563 and 483 BCE. This religion originated in India and gradually spread throughout Asia, to Central Asia, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, as well as the East Asian countries of China, Korea, and Japan.

Table of contents
1 The Buddha
2 Principles of Buddhism
3 The Three Vehicles
4 History of Schools
5 Scriptures
6 Regional Buddhisms
7 Relations with other faiths
8 Buddhism Then & Now
9 External links

The Buddha

Buddha is a word in the ancient Indian languages Pali and Sanskrit which means one who is awake. It is related to the word Bodhi which means to awaken.


Legend has it that the Buddha to be, Siddhartha Gautama, was born around the 6th century BCE. His birthplace is said to be Lumbini, which is in present day Nepal, although in ancient India, it was part of the Kingdom of Magadha. His father was a king, and Siddhartha lived in luxury, being spared any hardship. The legends say that a seer predicted that Siddhartha would either become a great king, or a great holy man, and this led to the king trying to make sure that Siddhartha never had any cause for dissatisfaction with his life. However, at the age of 29, while being escorted by his attendant Channa, he came across what has become known as the Four Passing Sights: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. These four sights, as they are called, led him to the realization that birth, old-age, sickness and death came to everyone, not only once but repeated for life after life in succession for uncounted aeons. He decided to abandon his worldly life, leaving behind his wife and child, his privilege, rank, caste, and to take up the life of a wandering holy man in search of the answer to the problem of birth, old age, sickness, and death. It is said that he stole out of the house in the dead of night, pausing for one last look at his family, and did not return there for a very long time. Indian holy men (sadhus), in those days just like today, practiced a variety of ascetic displines designed to 'mortify' the flesh - it was thought that by enduring pain and suffering, the atman or soul became free from the round of rebirth into pain and sorrow. (This was an early form of pre-Hinduism.)

Siddhartha proved adept at these practices, and was able to surpass his teachers. However, he found no answer to his problem and, leaving behind his teachers, he and a small group of companions set out to take their austerities even further. He became a skeleton covered with skin, surviving on a single grain of rice per day, and practiced holding his breath. After nearly starving himself to death with no success (some sources claim that he nearly drowned), Siddhartha began to reconsider his path. Then he remembered a moment in childhood in which he had been watching his father start the season's plowing, and he had fallen into a naturally concentrated and focused state in which time seemed to stand still, and which was blissful and refreshing. Perhaps this would provide an alternative to the dead end of self-mortification?

Taking a little buttermilk from a passing goatherd, he found a large tree (now called the Bodhi tree) under which he would be shaded from the heat of the mid-summer sun, and set to meditating. This new way of practicing began to bear fruit. His mind became concentrated and pure, and then, six years after he began his quest, he attained Enlightenment, and became a Buddha. This meant that he had discovered a way to be free from the troubles of the world.

Historically speaking there are some problems with this story. Firstly, there are other stories of his life which do not exactly match - another story has the Buddha leaving home in the "prime of his youth", and with his parents weeping and wailing. Secondly, we know from other sources that the country of Magadha where he was born was a oligarchic republic at that time, so there was no royal family. However the story is a powerful one and its historical accuracy has not been central to its ability to inspire Buddhists for two and half millennia.

What is a Buddha?

A Buddha is a human being who has awakened to the true nature of universal cause and effect reality, whose insight into the true nature of reality has totally tranformed them beyond birth, death, and subsequent rebirth. A Buddha is not a god in the monotheistic sense of a creator god, and Buddhism traditionally does not emphasize importance in relying on a creator god. Buddha is a title of recognition rather than a personal name. In fact, all schools of Buddhism recognise multiple Buddhas in the past and future.

A Buddha is someone who has (re)discovered the principles by which birth, old-age, sickness, death, and the resultant suffering can be finally overcome. These principles are known as the Buddhadharma, or simply the Dharma. Although the Dharma itself exists outside the confines of space and time, knowledge of the Dharma can be lost. Anyone can attain what the Buddha attained regardless of age, gender, or caste. However, since the Buddha is the one who discovered enlightenment afresh in our time for himself without an enlightened teacher, the Buddha is held in high esteem. His teachings are the main focal point of refuge for Buddhists due to his having attained realization unassisted.

Principles of Buddhism

Buddhist faith is centered around three precious jewels called the Triple Gem. They are the Buddha (the Enlightened teacher), the Dharma (the truth, hence the teaching of the Buddha) and the Sangha (which in this context means the Arya-Sangha or community of Enlightened individuals). Every Buddhist vows to take these as their refuge, and also to live by the Five Precepts. Monks have an additional five precepts.

The Five Precepts

  1. I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.
  2. I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.
  3. I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
  4. I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
  5. I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicants which lead to carelessness.

The Four Noble Truths

The Buddha's teaching at his first sermon was that of the
four noble truths.
  1. Duhkha: All worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, suffering.
  2. Samudaya: There is a cause of suffering.
  3. Nirodha: The possibility of the cessation of suffering.
  4. Marga: The path that leads to the cessation of suffering.

The Noble Eightfold Path

''Taken from the article:
Noble Eightfold Path

The Path is always listed in the same order, but it should not be thought of as sequential. No element of the Eightfold Path is a prerequisite to another. It may be grouped into three sections: wisdom (1-2), morality (3-5), and concentration (6-8).

  1. Right Understanding
  2. Right Thought
  3. Right Speech
  4. Right Action
  5. Right Livelihood
  6. Right Effort
  7. Right Mindfulness
  8. Right Concentration

The three marks of Conditioned Existence

According to the Buddhist tradition all phenomena (dharmas) are marked by three characteristics:

  • Anatta (Skt. anatman): All things are not-self; without an unchanging permanent essence. Atta (Skt Atman) is the Hindu conception of a soul which is a unchanging permanent essence. Reincarnation is literally the soul putting on a new body. However the Buddha challenged this notion, not on a theoretical basis, but on a purely pragmatic one. The soul cannot be found in the body, it is neither the whole body, nor part of it, neither is it the mind or part of the mind. If the soul where permanent and unchanging, then no change would be possible (this is similar to Zeno's paradoxes).
  • Anicca (Skt. anitya): All things and experiences are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent. Every things is made up of parts, and is dependent on the right conditions for it's existence. Everything is in flux, and so conditions are constantly changing. Things are constantly coming into being, and ceasing to be. Nothing lasts.
  • Dukkha (Skt. duhkha): because we fail to truly grasp the first two conditions, we suffer. We desire a lasting satisfaction, but look for it amongst constantly changing phenomena. We perceive a self, and act to enhance that self by pursuing pleasure, and seek to prolong pleasure when it too is fleeting.

Other principles and practices

  • Meditation of some form is a common practice in most if not all schools of Buddhism, for the clergy if not the laity.
  • Central to Buddhist doctrine and practice is the law of karma and vipaka; action and its fruition, which happens within the dynamic of dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada). A skillful or good action brings positive retribution, while unskillful or bad actions bring negative retribution. These actions are expressed by the way of mind, body or speech. Some actions bring instant retribution while the results of other actions may not appear until a future lifetime.
  • Transmigration, which is closely related to the law of karma. Action in this life may not give fruit or reaction until the next life time. This being said, action in a past life takes effect in this one, making a chain of existence. Enlightenment breaks this cyclic existence (samsara).

The Three Vehicles

Buddhism is said to have had three major waves over the years. The word used for these three waves is "yana" or vehicles. The first was set in motion by Gautama Buddha in the 5th century BCE. There are no surviving schools from this era, although the Theravadin school can rightly claim to be descended from them, and is the only school to have preserved its canon of texts (the so called Pali Canon). Often called hinayana but this a pejorative term employed by later Buddhists.

The Mahayana arose in the first few centuries CE in North West India. Apart from being a reassertion of the original principles of the Dharma, the Mahayana schools also emphasised the Bodhisattva ideal, wherein one practices the Dharma for the benefit of all beings, rather than for personal enlightenment. It is sometimes said that the Early Buddhist schools were only interested in personal liberation, but this is not borne out by either their texts or practices. In any case the Mahayana schools emphasised compassion, and universalised the Dharma.

When Buddhism began interacting with the Indian Tantric tradition an entirely new form of practice emerged. Once again the Vajrayana as it is mostly called these days, re-emphasised the basic principles of Buddhism, but it was most deeply concerned with direct experience of reality. Also called mantrayana.

History of Schools

Three months after the passing of Gautama, The First Council was held by the Sangha. At this point, no conflict about what the Buddha taught occurred so the teachings were divided into various parts and assigned to an elder and his pupils to commit to memory. These groups of people often cross checked with each other to ensure that no omissions or additions were made.

By the Second Council, one hundred years later, the teachings were not in question but the Vinaya rules of monks were. Some sought to amend or modify minor rules, an action permissible by the Buddha. The orthodox monks, later known as of the Theravada, said that nothing should be changed (in order to prevent anarchy and to maintain the pristine form) while others insisted on modifying some rules. The seemingly trivial dispute was over the Ten Points, which include the storing of salt in a horn, the use of rugs of improper size, and the use of gold and silver. Finally, a group of monks called the Vajjians, left the Council and formed the Mahasanghika -- the Great Community, and made the modifications. Between the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD, the terms Mahayana and Hinayana appeared (in the Sutra of the Lotus of the Good Law) and by the 2nd century AD, Mahayana, formally an offshoot of the Mahasanghika, became clearly defined with the works of Nagarjuna, Asanga and Vasubandhu.

In the 3rd century BC the Third Council occurred, where small sects came to question the Vinaya, and now, the teachings. President of the Council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu refuting the heretical, false views and theories held by some sects. The teaching approved and accepted by this Council was known as Theravada. The Abhidhamma Pitaka was included at this Council and the Tipitaka was thus brought to Sri Lanka by the son of Asoka, Ven. Mahinda. It would be this tradition to first put the dhamma into print.

Around this time, Buddhism spread from India through successive waves of merchants and pilgrims. It reached as far as Arabia to the west, and eastward to southeast Asia (where the first records of Buddhism date from around 400AD), as well as China, Mongolia, Japan and Korea.

Vajrayana also evolved at this stage, climbing from India in to Tibet around 600 AD, where it initially coexisted with native belief systems (see Bön) but later came to largely supplant or absorb them.

At one time, the northern fringe of East Turkestan (modern Xinjiang in western China) adhered to the Theravada school, however Buddhism there was supplanted by the rise of Islam around 1000 AD.

See also: Timeline of Buddhism


The Buddhist canon is distinguished from that of many other major religions in the fact that it is, in principle, an open canon. Since it is a basic tenet of the tradition that anyone may become enlightened, it is also possible for new authoritative sermons to be delivered and recorded. The Buddhist canon of scripture is known in Pali as Tipitaka:, and in Sanskrit as Tripitaka. Tripitika literally means "Three (tri-) Baskets (pitika)" and refers to the three main divisions of the canon, which are:

  • The Vinaya Pitaka, containing disciplinary rules for the Sangha of Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as a range of other texts which explain why and how rules were instituted, supporting material, and doctrinal material.
  • The Sutta Pitaka (Skt. sutra-pitaka), containing discourses of the Buddha.
  • The Abhidhamma Pitaka (Skt. abhidharma-pitaka), containing a philosophical systematization of the Buddha's teaching, including a detailed analysis of Buddhist psychology.

The various schools of Buddhism tend to work within a distinctive group of texts, with some measure of overlap. During the first couple of centuries after Sakyamuni the Buddhist teachings were transmitted orally, but around the 1st Century CE they began to be written down. The only surviving written canon from the earliest period is the Pali Canon, named after the language in which it was recorded. It was preserved in Sri Lanka, by the Theravada school. Full versions of the original text and English translations are now readily available on the Internet.

The appearance of the new Mahayana tradition brought with it the composition of new texts, also declared to be the actual sermons of the Buddha. These include the Perfection of Wisdom (paramita) Sutras, and Vaipulya (expanded) texts such as the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Ornament), as well as the Lotus Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra, Nirvana Sutra, etc. which were translated into Tibetan and Classical Chinese, and are also now read in the West.

The Esoteric Vajrayana tradition also has a distinctive set of texts that it studies, including the Tantras.

The Mahayana canon further expanded after Buddhism was transmitted to China, where new texts were composed for the purpose of adapting the Indian tradition to the East Asian philosophical mindset. Many of these works would be adjudged to be spurious. Others gained acceptance into the canon by being passed off as Indian translations. These texts are known as Chinese Buddhist apocrypha. Other new texts, such as the Platform Sutra (attributed, probably falsely, to a monk named Huineng) and the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment were accepted as bonafide scriptures even though their Chinese provenance was well known. In the course of the development of Korean Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism, indigenous texts from those countries also attained canonical status. For example, in Korea, some of the writings of Jinul, and in Japan, works such as Dogen's Shobogenzo.

Regional Buddhisms

Indian Buddhism
Tibetan Buddhism
Southeast Asian Buddhism
Chinese Buddhism
Korean Buddhism
Japanese Buddhism
Vietnamese Buddhism
Western Buddhism

Relations with other faiths

Some Hindus believe that Gautama is the 9th incarnation of Vishnu, and in the religion of Shintoism, he is seen as a Kami. The Baha'i Faith states he was an independent Manifestation of God. In Christianity, Gautama is thought to have been sanctified as Saint Josaphat. Some Muslims believe that Gautama Buddha is Dhul-Kifl, one of the prophets mentioned in the Qur'an.

Buddhism Then & Now

According to statistics from adherents.com, estimates of the number of Buddhists vary between 230 and 500 million, with most around 350 million.

The rise, expansion, spread and decline of Buddhism in India

In Northern Asia, Mahayana remains dominant in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Vietnam. Theravada dominates Southeast Asia, including Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Vietnam is the only Southeast Asian nation to remain Mahayana dominated (dominated?), due largely to the proximity and cultural influence of China (see also: Confucianism).

In the later half of the 1800s, Buddhism (along with so many other religions & philosophies) came to the attention of West, including American east coast intellectuals such as Henry Thoreau, who translated a French copy of a Buddhist Sutra into English. Western scholars began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts. Officially, in 1899, the first Westerner (by the name of Gordon Douglas) was ordained in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism in Myanmar. Religious enthusiasts enjoyed the to-them exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions.

The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States were Chinese. Hired as cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries, they established temples along the rail lines.

The cultural openness and exploration of the Hippie generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s included a renewed interest in Buddhism, as a natural path to awareness and enlightenment. Many people, including celebrities, traveled to the East in pursuit of gurus and foreign philosophy. In the 1990s, Buddhism became the fastest growing religion in Australia, in contrast to the steady decline of traditional western beliefs (see Christianity).

While in the West, Buddhism is regarded often as exotic and anti-establishment, in East Asia, Buddhism is regarded as familiar and part of the establishment. Buddhist organizations in East Asia often are well funded with donations from the wealthy and power. This in some cases has led to criticism that some Buddhist monks and organizations are too closely associated with the rich and powerful and are neglecting their duties to the poor.

A feature of Buddhism in the West has been the emergence of groups which, while they draw on traditional Buddhism, are in fact an attempt at creating a new style of non-sectarian Buddhist practice. The Shambala group set up by Chögyam_Trungpa is one example, and the FWBO by Sangharakshita is another.

Well-known Buddhists today include the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Major Subtopics

See also: Bodh Gaya -- Dalai Lama-- Eastern philosophy -- List of Buddhists -- Middle way -- Om -- Universal Vehiclism -- Nonviolence

External links