Buddhism is at the same time a religion and a philosophy that developed from the teachings of the Buddha Gautama (or Gotama), who lived as early as the 6th century BC. Spreading from India to Central and Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan, Buddhism has played a central role in the spiritual, cultural, and social life of the Eastern world. During the 20th century Buddhism has spread to the West.
Introduction of Buddhism
The Buddha Gautama’s teaching started at the time of the Han dynasty. Traders, envoys, and monks brought information about Buddhism from India into China. By the 1st century AD a Chinese emperor became personally interested and sent a mission to India to seek more knowledge and bring back Buddhist literature. Indian missionaries not only preached a new faith, but also brought in new cultural influences. Indian mathematics and astronomical ideas enriched Chinese knowledge in these fields. Chinese medicine also benefited. Architectural and art forms reflected Buddhist and Indian influence. The Buddhist view of evil, and their espousal of celibacy and escape from earthly existence, were alien to China’s traditions. Taoist scholars were more inclined to study the new philosophy. The fall of the Han dynasty was followed by a few hundred years of division, strife, and foreign invasions. China was not united again until the end of the 6th century AD. It was during this period that Buddhism gained a foothold in China.
The Buddha is viewed not merely as a human master and model, but also as a supra-mundane being. He multiplies himself and is reflected in a pentad of Buddhas: Vairocana, Aksobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi. Some of these are revealers of doctrines and elaborate complicated liturgies. In the Buddhist literature the teaching is viewed not as merely of one kind, but as on various levels, each adapted to the intellectual capacity and karmic propensities of those who hear it. The state of the Buddha, the perfectly Enlightened One, is Nirvana, an attainment from which one does not return. It is beyond death, not caused, not born, not produced; it is beyond all becoming and devoid of all that makes up a human person. There are two kinds of nirvana. One is achieved by the Buddha while still alive, the second when the Buddha dies; he then enters the nirvana that is not burdened by any karmic residue.
The foundations of Buddhism
i- The cultural context
Buddhism came into being in northeastern India during the period from the late 6th century to the early 4th century BC, a period of great social change and intense religious activity. Most scholars believe that the historical Buddha lived from about 563 to about 483 BC. Some others, especially in Japan, believe that he lived about 100 years later (from about 448 to 368 BC. Northeastern India became the breeding ground of many heterodox sects. Despite the large number of religious communities, many shared the same vocabulary -nirvana (transcendent freedom), atman (“self,” or “soul”), yoga (“union”), karma (“causality”), Tathagata (“Thus-Gone,” or “He Who Has Thus Attained”), Buddha (“enlightened one”), samsara (“eternal recurrence,” “becoming”), and dhamma (“rule,” or “law”). According to tradition, the Buddha himself was a yogi, that is, a miracle-working ascetic. Buddhism, like many of the sects that developed in northeastern India at the time, was created by a charismatic teacher, by the teachings this leader promulgated, and by a community of adherents. In the case of Buddhism this pattern became the basis for the Triratna -the “Three Jewels” of Buddha (the teacher), dharma (the teaching), and sangha (the community)- in which Buddhists have traditionally taken refuge. In the centuries following the founder’s death, Buddhism developed in two directions. One, usually called Theravada by its present-day adherents, remained relatively faithful to what it considered to be the true tradition of the Buddha’s teachings. The other is called Mahayana (“the means of salvation available to a larger number of people”) by its followers, who call the first Hinayana, “the means of salvation restricted to a smaller number of people” (or simply the greater and lesser vehicles). Finally a movement developed in India called Vajrayana, or Esoteric Buddhism, the aim of which was to obtain liberation more speedily. This movement was influenced by Gnostic and magical currents pervasive at that time. The Buddha, the original teacher, is always recognized as the revealer of Buddhist truth. Buddhism did not negate its basic principles; instead they were reinterpreted, rethought, and reformulated.
The conservative and elitist Theravada Buddhism (Way of the Elders) regarded all existence as a succession of transitory states: what alone was permanent was Nirvana, a deathless realm, the existence of which was revealed to the Buddha himself. About Nirvana, the wise will say little more except to affirm its existence. Nirvana can be regarded as an alternative word for the Absolute. Broadly speaking, Buddhism is agnostic both about a personal creator and personal immortality. The dominant theme of Buddhism is the quest for release from the changes and chances of this world, which will lead to the serenity and peace of Nirvana. A Buddhist saint is someone who has become the Absolute. The difference between the arhat of Theravada, and the bodhisattva of the Mahayana is one between two different routes of realizing Nirvana -one through self-concentration and the other through self-sacrifice for the welfare of others. Both aim at being possessed by and dwelling in the Absolute.
ii- Dietary law and Buddhism
Buddhism is a difficult religion to discuss in terms of dietary laws and customs because it does not have any unity; its traditions have a complex history, and individual believers are characterized by varied faiths. Though Buddhism originated in India, it also diffused to Ceylon, Tibet, China, and Japan. In each case, it was reshaped to conform to local conditions, especially those of social stratification. Buddhism developed its own class distinctions, most notably between the monastic elite and the lay devotees. Buddhism claimed from its inception to be a Middle View (Madhymika), opposed equally to the extremes of sensuousness and indulgence and of self-mortification. This Middle View was exemplified in the “five precepts”: no killing, stealing, lying, adultery, or drinking of alcoholic beverages. These precepts were translated into an ethic of moderation in diet. Deriving from this is the practice of holding ritual vegetarian feasts. Another Buddhist custom is the issuing of a prohibition against killing animals to end a drought or to speed the recovery of a sick emperor. The prohibition of killing animals is more stringent in Buddhism than the injunction against eating them. Buddhism allows pure flesh to be eaten if it has not been procured for eating purposes, or if the eater has not supposed it to be.
Buddhism and theism
Buddhism was at one time regarded as an atheistic religion leading to total elimination of self in a state of Nirvana. Although Buddhism is a doctrine of compassion and its rigorous intellectual and moral discipline may lack something of the warmth of a close personal commitment, the Buddhist adoration of the Buddha and of the bodhisattvas (those on their way to Enlightenment) afforded much scope to the religious responses that find their full expression in overt theism.
Buddhism’s tolerance of popular cults means that in most Buddhist cultures several gods are worshipped. Tibet created a synthesis between the indigenous religion and Buddhism. In ancient China the cults of Heaven and ancestor worship were woven into the system of Confucianism. Numerous lesser deities were also worshipped in popular Chinese practice. Other deities included atmospheric gods, gods of locality, and functional gods (of wealth, literature, agriculture, and so on). The religions practiced in China influenced Japanese culture, which took over some main elements of Confucianism and Buddhism, which interacted with the indigenous polytheistic religion called Shinto (Way of the Gods).
Local gods and demons
Buddhists from the earliest times in India, and in other countries, have never neglected indigenous religious beliefs. Entrances to cave temples were decorated with local male and female deities, usually referred to as yaksa and yaksini. This proved the easier way of justifying the continuance of the cult of local deities. A pantheon of minor deities grew, which has continued to take in new members. The Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions have given these local deities a more ready welcome. Favoured deities include Mahakala, the great black divinity; the mother goddess Hariti; Kuvera, the god of wealth; and Hayagriva, a fierce horse-faced god who is powerful in driving off unconverted demonic forces. Throughout the Mahaana and Vajrayana world local deities have become manifestations of various Buddhas and bodhisattvas. Local gods and demons have been conquered, converted and brought into the pantheon, or relegated to the periphery.
Myth in Buddhism is used at various intellectual levels in order to give symbolic, and sometimes quasi-historical expression, to apprehended or presumed religious truths. Buddhism is a supernatural religion in the sense that, without a Buddha to reveal them, the truths remain unknown. The comparatively simple mythology of the great Buddha myth developed into the far more elaborate mythology of the Mahayana. The acceptance of the mythology depends upon faith. Without faith the whole religion crumbles to nothing, and nothing is left but a demythologised, supposedly historical figure, who has no special revelation to give.
The Buddha was a charismatic leader who discovered and proclaimed a religious message and founded a distinctive religious community. Some of the members of that community were, like the Buddha himself, wandering ascetics. Others were laypersons who venerated the Buddha, followed those aspects of his teachings that were relevant to them, and provided the wandering ascetics with the material support that they required. During the first several centuries after the Buddha’s death, the story of his life was remembered and embellished, his teachings were preserved and developed, and the community that he had established became a significant religious force. Many of the followers of the Buddha who were wandering ascetics began to settle in permanent monastic establishments. During the first century of its existence Buddhism spread from its place of origin in Magadha and Kosala throughout much of northern India. The first Mauryan emperor, Candra Gupta (c. 321-c. 297 BC), patronized Jainism and became a Jaina monk. His grandson, Asoka, who ruled over the greater part of the subcontinent from about 270 to 230 BC, became a Buddhist king. His aim was to create a religious and social milieu that would enable all “children of the king” to live happily and attain heaven in the next life. Asoka created a new ideal of kingship that would have powerful repercussions throughout the later Buddhist world. Soon after Asoka’s death, the Mauryan Empire began to crumble but Buddhism succeeded in maintaining, and even expanding, its influence. Buddhism was especially flourishing in northwestern India, and from there it spread rapidly into Central Asia and China.
During the Nara period (710-784 AD), Buddhism became the state religion of Japan. Emperor Shomu actively propagated the faith, making the imperial capital, Nara -with its “Great Buddha” statue (Daibutsu)- the national cult centre. After the capital was moved to Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto) in 794, Buddhism continued to prosper.