Buddhism Research Paper

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More than two millennia ago in India, Siddhartha Gautama became “the Buddha” and began to teach that one can only escape suffering and sorrow by living along a righteous path that ends with the extinction of desire and ignorance. The Buddha’s teachings lie at the core of what has become one of the world’s largest religions.

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Buddhism is the world’s fourth-largest religion after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. Buddhism is approximately twenty-five hundred years old and has influenced cultures, events, and thought for generations. It is devoted to the improvement and eventual enlightenment of people, primarily through their own efforts.

The Indian philosopher Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism. The traditional dates of his life are 566 to 486 BCE, although recent studies suggest that Gautama was born as much as a century later. Gautama became known as “the Buddha” (the Enlightened One) after achieving enlightenment. He was born a prince of the Sakya clan in a small Indian kingdom in what is now Nepal. He had every luxury of the day and on the surface an apparently satisfying life. He married, had a son, and was destined to inherit his father’s kingdom. However, at the age of twenty-nine he became dissatisfied with his life of ease after being exposed to the true lot of humankind: suffering, old age, disease, and death. His father had protected him from these things because of a prophecy that Siddhartha would become either a great king or a great spiritual leader. His father’s hopes for a powerful successor were dashed when Siddhartha walked away from this life of ease and became an ascetic, a wandering holy man.

For six years he studied and learned from various gurus and holy men while depriving himself of all but the most meager nourishment. Siddhartha discovered that the extremes of self-deprivation were no better than the extremes of luxury and self-indulgence, so he sought the “Middle Way,” another name for Buddhism. Gautama found enlightenment while meditating under a bodhi tree. The Buddha achieved nirvana—the extinction of all desire and ignorance—and proceeded to teach others how to achieve the same state for the next forty-five years. Through discussions, parables, teaching, and living, the Buddha taught the “path of truth or righteousness” (Dhammapada). The scripture (sutta), “The Foundation of the Kingdom of Righteousness,” contains a succinct exposition of the major points that the Buddha taught.

Basic Beliefs

The Buddha preached “the Four Noble Truths” that define the existence of humankind: (1) Life is sorrow or suffering, (2) this suffering is caused by our selfish craving and desires, (3) we can remove sorrow by removing our desires, and (4) the removal of our desires is achieved by following the Noble Eightfold Path. The Noble Eightfold Path defines the “correct” behavior as right conduct, right effort, right speech, right views, right purpose or aspiration, right livelihood, right mindfulness, and right contemplation or meditation. The Buddha had few prohibitions but listed “five precepts” that good Buddhists should generally adhere to: not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, not to imbibe intoxicants, and not to be unchaste or unfaithful.

The Buddha taught that skandas (experiential data) create our existence from moment to moment and that only karma (the law of cause and effect) operates through our experience and is never lost. However, everything is changeable and impermanent. The Buddha made few concrete statements about the afterlife or the nature of “god”—realizing that the Middle Way can be taught but that each person must experience dharma—the realization of nirvana. His final admonition to his followers was to “work out your salvation with diligence” (Buddhist suttas 2000, 114).

After the Buddha—Growth in India

The Buddha was a practical teacher who knew that people need instruction, and he established the sangha (community of Buddhist monks and nuns) to carry on his work and the work of their own salvation. The Buddha instructed the sangha that it could change or delete any of the lesser rules after his passing if the sangha saw fit. Ultimately, the Buddha urged his followers to be “a lamp unto themselves.” Buddhism provides a system that demonstrates where we err and how to correct our errors not by miracles but rather by hard work and contemplation.

One of the most noted people who helped to expand Buddhism was the Mauryan ruler Asoka, who ruled from 272 to 231 BCE. The Maurya Empire (c. 324–200 BCE) grew from the state of Magadha after the time of the Buddha and rapidly expanded after Alexander of Macedon invaded India in the 320s bce, creating the first really unified kingdom in India. Asoka became a convert to Buddhism and helped to expand it by providing for missionaries and monks, so that Buddhism became a world religion while Hinduism remained confined to India. He is often compared with Roman emperor Constantine in the West, whose conversion to Christianity in 312 CE helped that religion to grow. Inscriptions on pillars and rocks throughout Asoka’s realm encouraged the citizens of the empire to follow the dharma, limit the killing and cruelty to animals, and live a righteous life. Like Christianity, Buddhism may also have provided Asoka and the Mauryans with a code of conduct and a way to help manage, enlarge, and consolidate the empire. Buddhism also benefited from the patronage of a king who helped it to reach beyond the borders of India.

Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Sects

The Maha-Parinibbana Sutta (Book of the Great Decease) concerns the final days and death of the Buddha and is important because the Buddha did not consider himself to be a deity. It illustrates the relationship between the Buddha and Ananda, a cousin of the Buddha who was a disciple and his personal servant. A warm, trusting relationship between the two shines through the text. The first Council of Buddhism met to organize and retain the teachings of the Buddha several months after his death. The Buddhist Suttas, probably recorded by the first or second century BCE, is the canon of the Buddhist faith.

However, by the second and first centuries BCE Buddhism had already begun to diverge into schools of thought that evolved into the major sects of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. The Theravada claimed to adhere closely to the original teachings of the Buddha and evolved along more monastic lines to spread through Southeast Asia to Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Cambodia. Theravada is also known as “Hinayana,” which means “lesser vehicle.” Mahayana (greater vehicle) Buddhism became the more adaptive Buddhism. With an emphasis on compassion and flexibility, it meshed with the cultures it encountered to spread to China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Mahayanists also developed the idea of the bodhisattva (a being who compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others and is worshipped as a deity). Vajrayana (diamond vehicle) Buddhism is also known as “tantric Buddhism” and spread to Central Asia, primarily Tibet.

The Silk Roads and the Spread of Buddhism in Asia

A network of trade routes called the Silk Roads made travel possible from China to the Mediterranean and to India from about the second century CE to approximately the fifteenth century, connecting the world in ways it had not been before. Religions in particular found their way to new lands and different cultures via the Silk Roads. Buddhism originated in India and spread to the Kushan areas, part of what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan, by the first century CE. Buddhism developed a number of sects, built many monasteries, and became a consumer of many of the luxuries of the day, especially silk. Buddhist monasteries often provided solace for weary travelers, and Buddhist monks, nuns, and their devotees acquired massive quantities of silk for ceremonial functions. A symbiotic relationship existed whereby the growth of Buddhist monasteries increased demand for silk while also supporting its trade and movement.

The earliest schools of Buddhism to spread along the Silk Roads were the Mahasanghikas, Dharmaguptakas, and Sarvastivadins, eventually to be subsumed by the Mahayana sect. As Buddhism spread to Central Asia and China, pilgrims began to seek the origins of Buddhism, visiting its holy sites and bringing home its sacred texts. The travels of fifty-four Buddhists, starting as early as 260 CE, are documented in Chinese sources.

Xuanzang, also known as Hsuan-tsang, was a Chinese Buddhist monk; like many others he sought a more in-depth understanding of his faith by seeking out original documents and visiting places where the faith began in India. Xuanzang began his 16,000- kilometer journey in 629 CE and returned in 645. As Xuanzang began his journey, the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) emperor, Taizong, was beginning to restore China and make it a powerful force in Central Asia.

Xuanzang encountered Buddhist stupas (usually dome-shaped structures serving as Buddhist shrines) at Balkh and two large Buddhist figures at Bamian in Afghanistan. Although many areas of former Buddhist expansion were in decline, Xuanzang found in Kashmir one hundred Buddhist monasteries and five thousand monks. Welcomed in India at Nalanda by thousands, Xuanzang found a place of intellectual ferment. Cave paintings at Dunhuang record the triumphant passage of Xuanzang back to China; Xuanzang finished The Record of the Western Regions in 646 to document his journey. Gaozong, Taizong’s son and successor, built the Big Wild Goose Pagoda at Xuanzang’s urging to house relics and Buddhist scriptures.

A chaotic period of religious exchange and development began with the rise of the Mongols during the 1100s and 1200s. The Silk Roads’ pivotal role in cultural and religious exchange eventually declined with the advent of the Age of Exploration during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Additionally, Muslim control of long-distance trade routes helped to enhance the Islamization of Central Asia. Central Asian peoples apparently therefore accommodated themselves to those people who were the major participants in their trade connections. Trade led to cultural exchange; thus trade was an important factor in spreading the world’s great religions.

Buddhism in China and Japan

Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam spread in various areas, but to truly make a home in foreign lands these faiths often accommodated themselves to the local culture and modified or even changed some of their values or traditions. In China Buddhists spreading the faith emphasized the compassionate aspects of the faith rather than the disciplined aspects of Theravada Buddhism, and Nestorian Christians used Daoist (relating to a religion developed from Daoist philosophy and folk and Buddhist religion) or Buddhist terms, calling the books of the Bible “sutras” (precepts summarizing Vedic teaching).

Buddhism reached China by the first century CE, and a number of Mahayana sects developed there, including Tiantai, Huayan, Pure Land, and Chan. Pure Land developed as a way to reach the general population without its members having to grasp all the intricate philosophical teachings of Buddhism. Followers of Pure Land simply were to call or chant the name of Amitabha Buddha for salvation in paradise or the Pure Land.

The Indian monk Bodhidhanna is reputed to have brought Chan Buddhism to China during the sixth century CE. The word Chan (Zen in Japanese) derives from the Sanskrit word dhyana and means “meditation,” so Chan is meditation Buddhism. Towering figures such as Huineng (638–713) and Zhaozhou (778–897) strengthened Chan so that by the ninth century major schools of Chan called “Linji” and “Caodong” had developed and would later be exported to Japan as the Zen sects of Rinzai and Soto.

Buddhism had already arrived in Japan from China and Korea during the 500s CE. During the Kamakura period of Japanese history, from 1185 to 1333, Buddhism experienced dramatic growth and reinvigoration. Energetic and charismatic figures such as Nichiren (1222–1282) founded new sects. The medieval period has been characterized as one of the most religious times in Japanese history.

Buddhism had evolved in China to the point that, during the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), Chan or Zen dominated Buddhist teachings. Scholars usually credit Myozen Eisai (1141–1215) for introducing Rinzai Zen and Dogen Kigen (1200–1253) for introducing Soto Zen. The Rinzai sect emphasizes koan (spiritual exercise) as its prime tool for achieving understanding and enlightenment, whereas the Soto sect emphasizes zazen (sitting meditation). Both Eisai and Dogen studied in China under Chan masters, receiving recognition of their enlightenment—an official document of lineage is important in Zen and helps to provide credentials to teach upon one’s return home. During the twentieth century, appreciation of Dogen’s work grew, and today Dogen is perceived as one of Japan’s greatest geniuses and the most noted Zen figure in Japan.

With the influx of Chinese masters during the 1200s and 1300s, Japanese Zen more closely resembled its Chinese Chan counterpart. In fact, the Five Mountains system of temple organization, which arose during the late 1300s, was based on the Chinese model. The ironic aspect of Zen growth is that Zen had few real practitioners. Its primary role initially was transmitting Chinese culture to Japan. The Japanese and Chinese masters achieved influence and success because of their access to Chinese culture during the Song dynasty (960–1279).

Buddhism and the West

Much of the early Western exposure to Buddhism came through the Japanese. Eight people, including three Buddhist priests, represented Japanese Buddhism at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, held in Chicago. The writings of D. T. Suzuki helped to open Western eyes to Buddhism and began to popularize Zen Buddhism. During the last half of the twentieth century, new patterns of immigration and many U.S. and European citizens who turned to non-Western faiths helped Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Daoism have an impact on Western culture. Older and recent emigrants from Asia—Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Tibetans—have played a large role in establishing a Buddhist foothold in the West and exposing Westerners (Euro-Americans) to the traditions of Asia.

Buddhism’s rise in the United States can be attributed to people’s search for answers and the rapid changes brought about by a modern and consumer-driven society. Buddhism’s rise is also because of dedicated teachers, such as Sylvia Boorstein, Chogyam Trungpa, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, who have helped to popularize the faith. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has had an important influence on U.S. Buddhism. The Dalai Lama (the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism) also has promoted a more engaged Buddhism with his pleas for Tibetan freedom from China. The Tibetan diaspora (scattering) has opened up access to teachers and lamas (monks) who, until the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1959, were little known outside their own country. The Dalai Lama himself has come to symbolize for many the face of Buddhism shown to the world. His character and compassion in the face of difficulties for his own people exemplify for many the best attributes of the Buddhist life.

Shunryu Suzuki was a Japanese Zen priest who came to the United States in 1959 and settled at a small temple in San Francisco. He is credited with establishing the first Zen monastery in the United States at Tassajara, California, in 1967. The Three Pillars of Zen (1965) by Philip Kapleau was one of the first books in English that discussed the practice of Zen Buddhism. The book has had an impact far beyond the students of Kapleau because many people in the United States lacked access to a Buddhist teacher but were shown how to begin meditating and practice on their own by Kapleau’s book. Much of the Buddhist faith in Asia is centered on the sangha, whereas in the United States no real sangha exists.

Buddhism and Change

Buddhism flowered in the West during the last three decades of the twentieth century, and Zen became a cottage industry. What attracted Westerners, particularly well-educated and professional people, to the faith? The beliefs of Buddhism “are more compatible with a secular scientific worldview than those of the more established Western religions” (Coleman 2001, 205).

In a world that grows smaller each day, the Internet has provided a link to the Buddhist communities of the world and has begun to house the vast amount of Buddhist scriptural writing. The Internet may hold hope for many who practice alone or who are in ill health to have access to qualified teachers. Nonetheless, Buddhism is uniquely suited to isolated practice and meditation. Whether Buddhism will continue to broaden its appeal in the West is difficult to say. Even in Asia monasteries and monkhood are difficult choices in an ever-broadening world consumer culture. Buddhism, like many of the great faiths of the world, has found ways to adapt and survive for centuries. Buddhism continues as a way, the Middle Way, to work toward peace, compassion, and enlightenment. Yet, we have only to look back to the Buddha’s own words to find the future of Buddhism. The Buddha said that the only really permanent thing in this world is change.


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