Buddhism according to scholars
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The English word "Buddhism" is first recorded in 1801. Since that time, large numbers of scholars have studied it, including field anthropologists observing Buddhist societies as well as more purely academic scholars studying Buddhist literature. In recent years these scholars have often been called Buddhologists. A 2006 survey identified 189 in North America alone. In addition to these there are many elsewhere in the Western world, but the majority in the field are Japanese.
- 1 The nature of Buddhism
- 2 Diversity
- 3 India
- 4 Theravada
- 5 East Asia
- 6 The Tibetan tradition
- 7 Buddhism in the modern world
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
The nature of Buddhism
Most people, including most Buddhists, describe Buddhism as a religion. This seems to be the view of most scholars too. Some scholars, however, consider Buddhism so diverse as to constitute more than one religion.
Some Buddhists claim Buddhism is not a religion, but sociologists point out that such claims are found in essentially all religions ().
Buddhism is the second most diverse of the "classical" religions. Scholars no longer try to identify some essence or defining characteristic of Buddhism, instead giving a more or less historical survey of its different forms, and that is followed in this article. The particular structure here is found in a number of scholarly sources.
"Buddha" is a title, meaning "Awakened". His (family) name was Gautama, in its Sanskrit form, or Gotama in Pali. His own native dialect would have been different from both. Sources dating from around 100 BC give his personal name as Siddhattha (Pali; Sanskrit Siddhartha). There is now a more or less established,  though not final, consensus among specialist historians for a death date around 400 BC. The traditional site of his birthplace was marked by a commemorative pillar in the 3rd century BC, and this was rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1890s, in a piece of territory that had been transferred to Nepal in 1860. Historians accept that he existed, taught, and founded a monastic order, but regard most details of his traditional biographies as questionable. The teachings were written down only centuries later. However, certain teachings are found with such frequency throughout the early texts that most historians conclude that he must have taught at least something of the sort.
The central teachings of early Buddhism can be summarized as rebirth, karma and the "Four Noble Truths".
After death, beings normally start a new life, beginning from conception. These lives can be of various sorts, later systematized as 5 (in Theravada) or 6 (in Mahayana) realms:
- human beings
- hell inmates
- (in Mahayana) demons
The doctrine of karma holds that one's actions, words and thoughts produce moral results. If one acts well, one experiences pleasant results; bad actions produce unpleasant results. These results may appear in the same lifetime or a subsequent one.
"Four Noble Truths" is the usual translation. There are two different views among scholars as to the original meaning. One view, which became the traditional Buddhist view quite early, is that "Truths" is a rather misleading translation: these are "things" rather than statements, "realities" rather than "truths". The four are suffering, its cause (craving), its cessation (nirvana) and the path going to that cessation, namely the eightfold path: right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. According to the other interpretation, adopted by some modern Buddhist teachers, the four are indeed "truths", statements: life is suffering; its cause is craving; its cessation, nirvana, can be brought about by the cessation of the cause; and this can be done by following the eightfold path. These were the advanced teachings for those ready for them.
According to the scriptures, a council was held shortly after the Buddha's death, at which his teachings were collected. Historians regard this as greatly exaggerated, if not fictitious. A "second" council, placed by the scriptures of different schools 100 or 110 years later, is generally regarded as historical, though the date is uncertain. It was held to resolve a dispute about monastic discipline, the main point being whether monks were allowed to accept money. It was agreed they were not, and in theory this remains the rule to this day, though it is often ignored in practice.
At some point after this the monastic order split into two, the Theravada and Mahasanghika. Both the date and the cause of the split are uncertain. Subsequent splits produced, according to tradition, 18 schools. However, about twice as many names are included in the various traditional lists of 18 schools. Although some are thought to be alternative names for the same schools, it is agreed that the number is conventional. Only 4 of these schools were particularly important in the main parts of India: Theravada, Mahasanghika, (Mula-)Sarvastivada and Sammitiya. The last 2 derive from splits within the Theravada. The relation between Sarvastivada and Mula-Sarvastivada is unclear, but no source mentions them as existing at the same place and time. In the far north-west, and in Central Asia, 3 other schools were important: Dharmaguptaka, Mahisasaka and Kasyapiya.
In the 3rd century BC, Buddhism received a great boost from the patronage of the Emperor Ashoka. A third council held during his reign has usually been regarded by historians as a purely Theravada affair held after their separation. However, it has recently been argued that the first schism occurred after this, and that this was a third general Buddhist council. It is too early to say whether this argument will be accepted by historians generally. There is disagreement among scholars over whether certain Indian inscriptions should be interpreted as saying that Buddhist missionaries were sent to various Western kingdoms in the 3rd century BC.
In this period, there was a great strengthening of the devotional strain that had probably been present from the beginning. Originally mainly, but not entirely, for lay people, it later came to involve the monastic community too, and is now a major part of most Budhists' lives. There was also a further development of analytical ideas, in the form of the abhidharma.
The origins of Mahayana are unclear, historians giving quite a variety of different pictures. Some form of it certainly existed by the 2nd century AD, when a few of its texts were translated into Chinese, but it may well not have become a fully fledged separate movement for some centuries. Nowadays, Buddhists identify themselves as belonging to either Theravada or Mahayana. The term means great way or vehicle.
The most important aspect of Mahayana is the path of the bodhisattva. Early Buddhism distinguished between the Buddha, who discovered the truth for himself and then taught it to others, and his disciples, who learnt it from him. A third category, the paccekabuddha, who discovers the truth for himself but does not teach it to others, is also mentioned occasionally in the early literature. From quite early on, there were stories of the Buddha's previous lives, and by about 100 BC these were regarded as examples of his following the path of the bodhisattva, then understood as one practising for attainment of Buddhahood. It is not clear when some people actually started practising this path, but it became part of traditional Buddhism as an option, which it remains in Theravada today.
Gradually, some of the followers of this path developed new teachings that eventually brought them into conflict with traditionalists. They sometimes became quite derogatory about them, calling them Hinayana, which means inferior way or vehicle. They came to encourage everyone to follow the bodhisattva path, rather than just leave it as an option. Most of them eventually held that in fact everyone would eventually become a bodhisattva. They argued that delaying one's own liberation for the sake of helping others was a necessary manifestation of compassion. This involves a change in the meaning of the term "Buddha". The earlier idea of a Buddha as someone who discovers the truth for himself and then teaches it to others is incompatible with the idea of everyone becoming a Buddha: one cannot have all teachers and no pupils.
They also developed new doctrines about the nature of the Buddha. Whereas most of the early schools held that he was a human being who attained awakening in his historical life, Mahayana came to believe that that life was a mere illusion, created by a celestial Buddha, awakened ages before, for the purpose of helping beings. This was taught in the Lotus Sutra, which came to be regarded as one of the most important Mahayana scriptures in East Asia. There, the Buddha says that he had attained awakening ages before, and that he would live for ages more. He then immediately goes on to say that his lifetime is infinite. This led to two different schools of interpretation, according to which of these two statements is taken literally, and which is regarded as mere rhetorical flourish. If the Buddha's lifetime is indeed infinite, as is generally held in the Tibetan tradition, then one must simply try to become a Buddha as quickly as possible, in order to be of most help to beings. However, if it is only finite, even if extremely long, the possibility is there that one might do more good by remaining in the world for as long as there are beings needing help, presumably for ever, than by spending a finite time as a Buddha. Some Indian and Chinese texts do in fact hold that one can, or even should, do precisely this. Thus the original meaning of a bodhisattva as someone on the path to Buddhahood has changed.
The classical literature summarizes the path of the bodhisattva in terms of the development of "perfections". The standard Mahayana list, probably inherited from one of the early schools, has six: generosity, morality, acceptance, exertion, concentration and wisdom. Theravada has a somewhat different list of ten, though the classical Theravada commentator Dhammapala holds the two lists to be equivalent.
The perfection of wisdom, in particular, is the subject of a large body of Mahayana scriptures, which teach that all things are "empty", a concept that has been subject to a wide variety of interpretations, both among Mahayana Buddhists and among modern scholars.
An important practical concept in Mahayana is that of "skilful means". The Mahayana used this to explain the differences between their teachings and those of early Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra explained that the Buddha taught people what would benefit them. The general attitude of Mahayana texts is that he taught early Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths and so on, to those who were not ready for Mahayana, though some Mahayana authorities speak of higher, Mahayana Four Noble Truths. Later, new forms of Mahayana made similar claims about earlier ones, while the earlier ones responded by making the same claims in reverse. So, for example, some later Mahayana scriptures claimed that in fact emptiness was not the ultimate truth; rather, the ultimate reality was mind. This was developed into a detailed philosophical tradition, known as Cittamatra (mind only) or Yogacara, in opposition to a similar tradition, known as Madhyamika (middle way), teaching emptiness. Each held the other to be merely skilful means. Some scholars believe skilful means were practised in the same way in early Buddhism, and are by Theravada today.
All major East Asian and Tibetan traditions regard Madhyamika as a higher truth than Yogacara, though only the Tibetan tradition regards it as the highest truth, and even there there are disagreements on its interpretation. In modern China, all schools are regarded as equally valid.
Some centuries after Mahayana, a movement developed called originally Mantrayana, and later Vajrayana. A Tibetan classification of Indian Buddhist teachings considers it the third yana, after "Hinayana" and Mahayana, and this classification has been adopted by historians. It emphasizes various ritual, yogic or magical practices as a more rapid path to awakening. According to some authorities, they are ultimately the only path. Some elements of this sort of thing were present even in early Buddhism, and continue in modern Theravada, but much was added and expanded over the centuries. The latest phase of development of Vajrayana involved sexual yoga.
Decline, disappearance and revival
Over the centuries, Buddhism declined in India, for a variety of reasons. The relative contributions of Hindu and Muslim persecutions and internal decadence remain a matter of debate among historians. By the time of the British conquest, Buddhism had virtually disappeared, except in some small areas adjacent to Buddhist countries.
Buddhism survived because, before it disappeared in Template:Flag, it had spread from there in three directions:
These were the origins of the three main branches of present-day Buddhism, covered in the sections below. They were established respectively in the periods of dominance of the three yanas, and are likewise respectively dominated by them, but not exclusively. Each includes elements of all three yanas.
Since 1956, there has been a substantial Buddhist revival in India, mainly among Untouchables.
Theravada, also known as Southern Buddhism, is a conservative tradition, and remains generally closest to early Buddhism.
Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
Theravada Buddhism was established in Ceylon in the 3rd century BC. Mahayana ideas and practices were later imported as well, leading to a conflict lasting about a millennium between the Theravada Mahavihara and the Mahayana Abhayagiri monastic schools. Eventually, in the 12th century, they were "voluntarily" reunited under King Parakramabahu. Mahayana texts were suppressed, though some elements were adopted.
The Pali Canon, the scriptures of Theravada, were written down from oral tradition in the last century BC. Its native name is Tipitaka, meaning three baskets, from its divisions:
- Vinaya Pitaka, on monastic discipline
- Sutta Pitaka or Suttanta Pitaka: discourses by the Buddha and others
- Abhidhamma Pitaka, higher teaching
This is only the Theravada version. Each of the early schools had its own version. Most of the Sarvastivada version survives in Chinese, and parts of a number of others in various languages. Comparison shows that most of the first two pitakas were shared, but the different versions of the Abhidhamma were different texts, not versions of the same, though they use a common methodology.
An Indian monk named Buddhaghosa working in Ceylon, probably in the 5th century, played the central role in codifying the traditional Theravada interpretation of the teachings. He edited and translated from Old Sinhalese into Pali the traditional commentaries on much of the Canon.
He also compiled the Visuddhimagga, the standard compendium of the teachings. This is in 23 chapters. Chapter 1 deals with morality. Like the book as a whole, it is almost entirely monastic. The five precepts for lay people are mentioned briefly but not even listed. Chapter 2 covers 13 optional extra strict practices, of which 2 are stated to be suitable for laity: eating one meal a day, and eating from a single vessel.
Chapter 3 explains the preliminaries to meditation, and briefly surveys the different types of samatha (calm) meditation. There are 40 of these, which are dealt with in detail in Chapters 4-11. Once one has developed this, Chapters 12 and 13 explain how one can use it to develop various psychic powers.
Chapters 14-17 are concerned with doctrine, giving detailed explanations, often in abhidhamma terms, of various doctrines such as the Four Noble Truths. This is to serve as the soil in which wisdom grows, its roots being morality and concentration (this latter closely related to samatha). Chapters 18-22 detail the stages of vipassana (insight) meditation, leading up to the attainment of liberation. Finally, Chapter 23 describes the advantages of this liberation.
In the 16th century, the Portuguese conquered the coastal regions of the country and persecuted Buddhism. It went into a decline, and the monastic ordination died out. It was eventually restored at the third attempt, from Thailand in 1753. The monastic order is currently organized in four independent groups, separated mainly on caste lines.
It is not clear when Buddhism first arrived in South-east Asia. Its culture, in time, included a mixture of Hinduism and various forms of Buddhism. In the first centuries of the 2nd millennium, Theravada was established as the religion of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Mahayana and Vajrayana influences survived. From the 15th century on, Burma took the lead in the detailed study of Abhidhamma. Between 1954 and 1956, an ecumenical council representing all five Theravada countries took place in Rangoon. It recited an "official" edition of the Canon, though in practice the other countries use their own editions. In Cambodia, until the Khmer Rouge virtually destroyed organized Buddhism, large quantities of Vajrayana-type practices survived, which are thought to have been widespread in Theravada generally until modern times.
East Asian Buddhism, also known as Eastern Buddhism, is much more diverse than the other two branches.
Buddhism was introduced into China in the 1st century AD, and the first texts were translated in the 2nd. As the Chinese invented printing centuries before its appearance in the West, a large quantity of Buddhist literature, both translations of Indian texts and original Chinese works, were printed in the 10th century, five centuries before Gutenberg's Bible.
Various Indian schools of Buddhism were introduced into China, but these were progressively replaced by native Chinese schools. The basic attitude of Chinese Buddhism remains Mahayana, and its monastic discipline is that of the Dharmaguptaka. Indian doctrinal schools are still studied.
The two main Chinese doctrinal schools are Hua-yen (Huayan) and T'ien-t'ai (Tiantai). They share the basic idea of Buddha-nature, which originated in India, but never developed a fully elaborated philosophical system like Madhyamika and Yogacara there. In China it developed two. In its origins, it referred to the teaching above that everyone will eventually become a Buddha. This became a doctrine that one's ultimate reality is that of a Buddha. In China, this was sometimes extended from sentient beings to everything in the universe. The distinctive Hua-yen emphasis is on the mutual interpenetration of all things.
After a persecution of Buddhism in the 9th century, these two doctrinal schools, along with the Indian schools, declined and died out as separate schools, though their ideas remain very influential. Chinese Buddhism came to be dominated by two practice schools: Pure Land and Ch'an (Chan; better known under its Japanese name of Zen).
The Pure Land tradition is based on three scriptures. Two of these are assumed to be Indian, as they survive in Sanskrit, though they are not mentioned in any surviving Indian literature. One of them was translated into Chinese in the 2nd century AD. The third may well have originated in China. The description of the Pure Land is modelled on the even older description of a palace in an early text found in the Pali Canon. However, archaeological evidence, or rather the lack of it, suggests there was never a significant Pure Land movement in India. It really took off in Central Asia, and became a distinct "school" in China. It must, however, be remembered that Chinese schools were never independent institutions, but rather always coexisted within a united monastic order. It proved to be the most popular form of Buddhism in East Asia.
Texts are found from early times, including some in the Pali Canon, prophesying the decline of the teaching. The Pure Land school held that this had already gone so far that few, if any, would be capable of following the Buddhist path. Fortunately, the celestial Buddha Amitabha had created a Pure Land in which he could grant rebirth to his devotees, and in which the conditions were favourable to the practice of the path.
The Chan school traces its origins to the shadowy figure of Bodhidharma, who probably arrived in China early in the 5th century. Later sources, continuing to the present day, give lists of teachers through whom the Chan/Zen teaching was transmitted, with a list of 20-odd Indians leading up to Bodhidharma, and then Chinese and others following. The earlier portions of these lists, up to some time after Bodhidharma, are partly fictitious. Chan stresses the importance of personal transmission of the teaching. It uses meditational techniques that try to bypass conceptual thinking.
Between the 9th and 16th centuries, Chan monasteries adopted Pure Land practice in addition to their own. It came to be generally accepted that, in this age of decline, the chances of attaining awakening on one's own were slim, and virtually everyone used Pure Land practice as an "insurance policy". At one time, most monks were Chan practitioners, and even today their successors still identify themselves as having a Chan teaching lineage. However, the actual practice of Chan declined over the centuries. It survived in a small number of monasteries in the early 20th century, but was killed off by Communism. Recently, some monasteries have revived it. It is quite popular in Taiwan.
North Vietnam was part of the Chinese empire from ancient times, and Chinese Buddhism was imported there. Later, a basically Chinese form of Buddhism spread through the whole country apart from a Theravada region next to the Cambodian border. In modern Vietnamese Buddhism, most monastics and educated lay people identify their Buddhism as mainly Thien (Zen), but with elements of Pure Land and Vajrayana. The religion of most ordinary people is mainly Pure Land. The Vietnamese have never been particularly interested in the Chinese doctrinal traditions.
The various schools of Chinese Buddhism were introduced into Korea from the 4th century onwards. Unlike in China, they became separate organizations. However, over the centuries, they were reunited, and from 1941 all traditional forms of Korean Buddhism have been part of a single organization, though the legal formalities were not completed until 1962. This is called Chogye, after a traditional Son (Zen) school, indicating its official Zen affiliation. Its actual practice is a combination of various traditions, but mainly Son and Hwaom (Hua-yen). This combination of Zen and doctrinal study is unusual: in China, Vietnam and Japan, Zen traditionally rejected doctrinal study, though not usually scriptural study. After the Japanese invasion in 1894, a Japanese style of Buddhism, with married clergy, was introduced. This survives as a small separate denomination called Taego.
Buddhism was introduced to Japan from Korea in the 6th century. The early schools were of Indian origin except for Kegon (Hua-yen). Some of these still survive, but are small. The most important Japanese school historically, though now fairly small, was Tendai (T'ien-t'ai). It continued its parent school's tradition of advocating a balance between different elements, which it "updated" by including elements of Pure Land and Chan, for example. An important innovation was its founder Saicho's advocacy of abandoning the traditional monastic discipline. China had already developed a practice of following monastic ordination with the taking of bodhisattva vows, with a special code of discipline. Saicho (also known as Dengyo Daishi) advocated going straight to this stage without monastic ordination. The Emperor authorized this a week after Saicho's death in 822. It was in time adopted by all except the very small Ritsu school. For the time being the rule of celibacy was retained, and enforced by law. The law was repealed in 1872, and all major denominations quickly abolished their own celibacy rules. Nowadays most Japanese clergy are married.
A larger school founded about the same time was Shingon, which was based on middle-period Vajrayana teachings transmitted from India via China. The sexual yoga of late Vajrayana was not included in it. Although this school is quite large, the three largest branches of Japanese Buddhism were all founded later, in the 12th and 13th centuries, and all by Tendai clergy. They all reacted to the concept of the decline of the teachings by simplifying them in various ways, basically by selecting one element of the Tendai mix.
One of these was Japanese Pure Land. The larger of its two main present-day branches, Jodo Shinshu, holds a more radical form of Pure Land doctrine: Amitabha grants people faith, by that faith alone they are reborn in the Pure Land, and at the instant of that rebirth they become Buddhas.
Japanese Zen is in two branches, whose founders travelled to China and practised under diferent teachers.
The largest school in present-day Japan is Nichiren, named after its founder. It emphasizes devotion to the Lotus Sutra, the principal scripture of Tendai.
The Tibetan tradition
Also known as Northern Buddhism. Buddhism was introduced into Tibet in the 7th century. Over the following centuries, large quantities of teachings were introduced from India. Tibetan Buddhism came to be dominated by the fully developed late Vajrayana. Its philosophy is primarily Madhyamika, and its monastic discipline Mula-Sarvastivada. It spread to the Mongols from the 13th century on, and a migrating Mongol tribe settled it in Europe in the 17th century.
Bu-ston edited the standard collection of what Tibetans regard as the Word of the Buddha, the Kanjur. The Nyingma school has an additional collection of texts that Bu-ston excluded on the grounds that he was not satisfied of their Indian origins. Historians now believe some of these texts are genuinely Indian. A further collection of Tibetan translations of other Indian works is the Tenjur.
Buddhism in the modern world
In modern times, Buddhism has been influenced by Western ideas, including the ideas of earlier generations of Western scholars about Buddhism itself. A new style of Buddhism has evolved, alongside traditional forms, that has been variously called Buddhist modernism, Modern Buddhism, Protestant Buddhism, reformist Buddhism etc. It often claims to be a return to the "original" teachings of the Buddha, free of "superstition" etc. It is this style of Buddhism that has made significant numbers of converts in the West.
Another effect of the modern world is that the three main branches of the Buddhist tradition, outlined above, after evolving largely in isolation from each other for centuries, came into serious contact again. This has had various results, including an ecumenical movement.
An issue that offers interesting parallels with Christianity is the ordination of women. The order of nuns died out in Theravada. It was never introduced to Tibet. It survives to the present day in China, Korea & Vietnam. In recent times the Dalai Lama has authorized Tibetan Buddhist women to receive ordination in traditions that have it. In Theravada, the head of the Dambulla chapter of the Siyam Nikaya in Ceylon has carried out hundreds of ordination ceremonies for nuns in the last few years, but the governing council of Burmese Buddhism has declared that there can be no valid ordination of nuns in modern times. A decree of the Supreme Patriarch of Siam issued in 1928 banning female ordination remains in force. In Sri Lanka, the Supreme Advisory Council of the Ministry of Buddhist Affairs does not acknowledge nuns.
On most estimates there are around 350,000,000 Buddhists in the world.
For earlier edit history of this page see Buddhism according to scholars (older version).
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