Buddhism, a major world religion, founded in north-eastern India and based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who is known as the Buddha, or Enlightened One.
Originating as a monastic movement within the dominant Brahman tradition of the day, Buddhism quickly developed in a distinctive direction. The Buddha not only rejected significant aspects of Brahmanic philosophy, but also challenged the authority of the priesthood, denied the validity of the Vedic scriptures, and rejected the sacrificial cult based on them. Moreover, he opened his movement to members of all castes, denying that a person's spiritual worth is a matter of birth.
Buddhism today is divided into two major branches known to their respective followers as Theravada, the Way of the Elders, and Mahayana, the Great Vehicle. Followers of Mahayana refer to Theravada using the derogatory term Hinayana, the Lesser Vehicle.
Buddhism has been significant not only in India but also in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma, and Laos, where Theravada has been dominant; Mahayana has had its greatest impact in China, Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as in India. The number of Buddhists worldwide has been estimated at between 150 and 300 million. The reasons for such a range are twofold: throughout much of Asia religious affiliation has tended to be non-exclusive; and Buddhism has been able to adapt itself to many different local religious and cultural traditions. It is especially difficult to estimate the continuing influence of Buddhism in Communist countries such as China.
Origins and Early Teachings
Buddhism began with the teachings of the historical Buddha and was propagated through the community of disciples he established, the sangha.
No complete biography of the Buddha was compiled until centuries after his death; only fragmentary accounts of his life are found in the earliest sources. Western scholars, however, generally agree on 563 bc as the year of his birth.
Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, was born in Kapilavastu near the present Indian-Nepal border, the son of the ruler of a petty kingdom. According to legend, at his birth sages recognized in him the marks of a great man with the potential to become either a sage or the ruler of an empire. The young prince was raised in sheltered luxury, until at the age of 29 he realized how empty his life up to this point had been. Renouncing earthly attachments, he embarked on a quest for peace and enlightenment, seeking release from the cycle of rebirths. For the next few years he practised Yoga and adopted a life of radical asceticism.
Eventually he gave up this approach as fruitless and instead adopted a middle path between the life of indulgence and that of self-denial. Sitting under a bo tree, he meditated, rising through a series of higher states of consciousness until he attained the enlightenment for which he had been searching. Once he had known this ultimate religious truth, the Buddha underwent a period of intense inner struggle. He began to preach, wandering from place to place, gathering a body of disciples, and organizing them into a monastic community known as the sangha. In this way he spent the rest of his life.
The Buddha was an oral teacher; he left no written body of thought. His teachings were transmitted as an oral tradition for several centuries, and were subsequently systematized and interpreted by various individuals and schools within India and elsewhere.
The Four Noble Truths
At the core of the Buddha's enlightenment was the realization of the Four Noble Truths. (1) Life is suffering. This is more than a mere recognition of the presence of suffering in existence. It is a statement that, in its very nature, existence is essentially painful from the moment of birth to the moment of death. Even death brings no relief, for the Buddha accepted the prevailing Indian idea of life as cyclical, with death leading to further rebirth. (2) All suffering is caused by ignorance of the nature of reality and the craving, attachment, and grasping that arise from such ignorance. (3) Suffering can be ended by overcoming ignorance and attachment. (4) The path to the suppression of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path, which consists of right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right-mindedness, and right contemplation. These eight are usually divided into three categories that form the cornerstone of Buddhist faith: morality, meditation, and wisdom.
Buddhism analyses human existence as made up of five aggregates or “bundles” (skandhas): the material body, feelings, perceptions, predispositions or karmic tendencies, and consciousness. A person is only a temporary composition of these aggregates, which are subject to continual change. Noone remains the same for any two consecutive moments. Buddhists deny that the aggregates individually or in combination may be considered a permanent, independently existing self or soul (atman). Indeed, they regard it as a mistake to conceive of any lasting unity behind the aggregates that constitute an individual. The Buddha held that belief in such a self results in egoism, craving, and hence in suffering. Thus he taught the doctrine of anatman, or the denial of a permanent soul. To the Buddha, all existence was characterized by “the three universal truths”: impermanence (anitya), suffering (dukkha), and non-substantiality or no-soul (anatman). The doctrine of anatman made it necessary for the Buddha to reinterpret the Indian idea of repeated rebirth in the cycle of phenomenal existence known as samsara. To this end he taught the doctrine of pratityasamutpada, or dependent origination. This 12-linked chain of causation shows how ignorance in a previous life creates the tendency for a combination of aggregates to develop. These in turn cause the mind and senses to operate. Sensations result, which lead to craving and a clinging to existence. This condition triggers the process of becoming once again, producing a renewed cycle of birth, old age, and death. Through this causal chain a connection is made between one life and the next. What is posited is a stream of renewed existences, rather than a permanent being that moves from life to life—in effect a belief in rebirth without transmigration.
Closely related to this belief is the doctrine of karma. The Sanskrit term karma literally means “action”, and as a technical term it referes to a person's intentional acts and their ethical consequences. Human actions lead to rebirth, wherein good deeds are inevitably rewarded and evil deeds punished. Thus, neither undeserved pleasure nor unwarranted suffering exists in the world, but rather a universal justice. The karmic process operates through a kind of natural moral law rather than through a system of divine judgement. One's karma determines such matters as one's species, beauty, intelligence, longevity, wealth, and social status. According to the Buddha, karma of varying types can lead to rebirth as a human, an animal, a hungry ghost, a denizen of hell, or even among the various categories of gods.
Although never actually denying the existence of the gods, Buddhism denies them any special status or role. Their lives in heaven are long and pleasurable, but they are in the same predicament as other creatures, being subject eventually to death and further rebirth in lower states of existence. They are not creators of the universe or in control of human destiny, and Buddhism denies the value of prayer and sacrifice to them. Of the possible modes of rebirth, human existence is preferable, because the deities are so engrossed in their own pleasures that they lose sight of the need for salvation. Enlightenment is possible only for humans.
The ultimate goal of the Buddhist path is release from the round of phenomenal existence with its inherent suffering. To achieve this goal is to attain nirvana, an enlightened state in which the fires of greed, hatred, and ignorance have been quenched. Not to be confused with total annihilation, nirvana is a state of consciousness beyond definition. After attaining nirvana, the enlightened individual may continue to live, burning off any remaining karma until a state of final nirvana (parinirvana) is attained at the moment of death.
In theory, the goal of nirvana is attainable by anyone, although in early Buddhism it is a realistic goal only for members of the monastic community. In Theravada Buddhism an individual who has achieved enlightenment by following the Eightfold Path is known as an arhat, or worthy one, a type of solitary saint.
For those unable to pursue the ultimate goal, the proximate goal of better rebirth through improved karma is an option. In Theravada Buddhism this lesser goal is generally pursued by lay Buddhists in the hope that it will eventually lead to a life in which they are capable of pursuing final enlightenment as members of the sangha.
The ethic that leads to nirvana is detached and inner-oriented. It involves cultivating four virtuous attitudes, known as the Abodes of Brahma: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The ethic that leads to better rebirth, however, is centred on fulfilling one's moral duties as a member of a family or society. It involves acts of charity, especially support of the sangha, as well as observance of the five precepts that constitute the basic moral code of Buddhism. The precepts prohibit killing, stealing, telling lies, sexual misbehaviour, and the use of intoxicants. By observing these precepts, the three roots of evil—lust, hatred, and delusion—may be overcome.
Shortly before his death, the Buddha refused his disciples' request to appoint a successor, telling them to work out their own salvation with diligence. At that time Buddhist teachings existed only in oral traditions, and it soon became apparent that a new basis for maintaining the community's unity and purity was needed. Thus, the monastic order met periodically to reach agreement on matters of doctrine and practice. Four such meetings have been focused on in the traditions as major councils.
The first council was held at Rajagrha (present-day Rajgir) immediately after the Buddha's death. Presided over by a monk named Mahakasyapa, its purpose was to recite and agree on the Buddha's actual teachings and on proper monastic discipline.
About a century later, a second great council is said to have met at Vaisali. Its purpose was to deal with ten questionable monastic practices—the use of money, the drinking of palm wine, and other irregularities—of monks from the Vajjian Confederacy; the council declared these practices unlawful. Some scholars trace the origins of the first major split in Buddhism to this event, holding that the accounts of the council refer to the schism between the Mahasanghikas, or Great Assembly, and the stricter Sthaviras, or Elders. More likely, however, the split between these two groups became formalized later as a result of the continued growth of tensions within the sangha over disciplinary issues, the role of the laity, and the nature of the arhat.
In time, further subdivisions within these groups resulted in 18 schools that differed on philosophical matters, religious questions, and points of discipline. Of these 18 traditional sects, only Theravada survives.
The third council at Pataliputra (present-day Patna) was called by King Ashoka in the 3rd century bc. Convened by the monk Moggaliputta Tissa, it was held in order to purify the sangha of the large number of false monks and heretics who had apparently joined the order because of its royal patronage. This council refuted the offending viewpoints and expelled those who held them. In the process, the compilation of the Buddhist scriptures (Tripitaka) was supposedly completed, with the addition of a body of subtle philosophy (abhidharma) to the doctrine (dharma) and monastic discipline (vinaya) that had been recited at the first council. Another result of the third council was the dispatch of missionaries to various countries.
A fourth council, under the patronage of King Kanishka, was held about ad 100 at Jalandhar or in Kashmir. Both branches of Buddhism may have participated in this council, which aimed at creating peace among the various sects, but Theravada Buddhists refuse to recognize its authenticity. The council at Pataliputra is recorded only in Theravada sources. and the council of Kashmir is described only in some Indian sources and subsequent Chinese and Tibetan accounts. These appear therefore to be gatherings representing local traditions rather than the Buddhist sangha as a whole.
Formation of Buddhist Literature
For several centuries after the death of the Buddha, the scriptural traditions recited at the councils were transmitted orally. These were finally committed to writing about the 1st century bc. Some early schools used Sanskrit for their scriptural language. Although individual texts are extant, no complete canon has survived in Sanskrit. In contrast, the full canon of the Theravadins survives in Pali, which was apparently a popular dialect during the Buddha's life.
The Buddhist canon is known as the Tripitaka, or Three Baskets, because it consists of three collections of writings: the Sutra Pitaka, a collection of discourses; the Vinaya Pitaka, the code of monastic discipline; and the Abhidharma Pitaka, which contains philosophical, psychological, and doctrinal systemizations and classifications.
The Sutra Pitaka is primarily composed of dialogues between the Buddha and other people. It consists of five groups of texts: Digha Nikaya (Collection of Long Discourses), Majjhima Nikaya (Collection of Medium-Length Discourses), Samyutta Nikaya (Collection of Grouped Discourses), Anguttara Nikaya (Collection of Discourses on Numbered Topics), and Khuddaka Nikaya (Collection of Miscellaneous Texts). In the fifth group, the Jatakas, comprising stories of former lives of the Buddha, and the Dhammapada (Religious Sentences), a summary of the Buddha's teachings on mental discipline and morality, are especially popular.
The Vinaya Pitaka consists of more than 225 rules governing the conduct of Buddhist monks and nuns. Each is accompanied by a story explaining the original reason for the rule. The rules are arranged according to the seriousness of the offence resulting from their violation.
The Abhidharma Pitaka consists of seven separate works. They include detailed classifications of psychological phenomena, metaphysical analysis, and a thesaurus of technical vocabulary. Although technically authoritative, the texts in this collection have little influence on the lay Buddhist. The complete canon, much expanded, also exists in Tibetan and Chinese versions.
Two non-canonical texts that have great authority within Theravada Buddhism are the Milindapanha (Questions of King Milinda) and the Visuddhimagga (Path of Purification). The Milindapanha dates from about the 2nd century ad. It is in the form of a dialogue dealing with a series of fundamental problems in Buddhist thought. The Visuddhimagga is the masterpiece of the most famous of Buddhist commentators, Buddhaghosa (fl. early 5th century ad). It is a large compendium summarizing Buddhist thought and meditative practice.
Theravada Buddhists have traditionally considered the Tripitaka to be the recorded words of Siddhartha Gautama. Mahayana Buddhists have not limited their scriptures to the teachings of this historical figure, however, nor has Mahayana ever bound itself to a closed canon of sacred writings. Various scriptures retrospectively attributed to tbe Buddha have thus been authoritative for different branches of Mahayana at various periods of history. Among the more important Mahayana scriptures are the following: the Saddharmapundarika Sutra (Lotus of the Good Law Sutra, popularly known as the Lotus Sutra), the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra (Garland Sutra), and the Lankavatara Sutra (The Buddha's Descent to Sri Lanka Sutra), as well as a group of writings known as the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom).
Conflict and New Groupings
As Buddhism developed in its early years, conflicting interpretations of the master's teachings appeared, resulting in the traditional 18 schools of Buddhist thought. As a group, these schools eventually came to be considered too conservative and literal-minded in their attachment to the master's message. Among them, Theravada was charged with being too individualistic and insufficiently concerned with the needs of the laity. Such dissatisfaction led a liberal wing of the sangha to begin to break away from the rest of the monks.
While the more conservative monks continued to honour the Buddha as a perfectly enlightened human teacher, the liberal Mahasanghikas developed a new concept. They considered the Buddha an eternal, omnipresent, transcendental being. They speculated that the human Buddha was but an apparition of the transcendental Buddha that was created for the benefit of humankind. In this understanding of the Buddha nature, Mahasanghika thought is something of a prototype of Mahayana.
The origins and development of the 18 early schools are highly complex and problematic: the number 18 is itself somewhat symbolic, and the names of the schools are not the same in all sources. The two major branches into which the sangha divided were the Mahasanghikas and the Sthaviras (Sthavirada in Sanskrit, Thera or Theravada in Pali). Both of these became further subdivided into separate schools; the Sthavira having some ten schools while the Mahasanghika had eight. The Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and South East Asia definitely belongs to the Sthavira/Thera branch, but it is impossible to determine the tradition's place within that branch. After the spread of Buddhism to Sri Lanka, the Sthavira schools continued in India and later in China for many centuries. One of these schools, known as the Sarvastivada, produced its own Abhidharma works, which provided a systematic interpretation of early Buddhist doctrines. This Abhidharma became the main target of later Mahayana criticism of the early schools; Mahayana as a whole does not see its origins in any of the early schools.
The origins of Mahayana are particularly obscure. Even the names of its founders are unknown, and scholars disagree about whether it originated in southern or in north-western India. Its formative years were between the 2nd century bc and the 1st century ad.
Speculation about the eternal Buddha continued well after the beginning of the Christian era and culminated in the Mahayana doctrine of his threefold nature, or triple “body” (trikaya). These aspects are the body of essence, the body of communal bliss, and the body of transformation. The body of essence represents the ultimate nature of the Buddha. Beyond form, it is the unchanging absolute and is variously spoken of as pure consciousness or the absolute voidness, the essential nature of all things, and so on. This essential Buddha nature manifests itself, taking on heavenly form as the body of communal bliss. In this form the Buddha sits in godlike splendour, preaching in the heavens. Lastly, the Buddha nature appears on Earth in human form to convert humankind. Such an appearance is known as a body of transformation. The Buddha has taken on such an appearance countless times. Mahayana considers the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, only one example of the body of transformation.
The new Mahayana concept of the Buddha made possible such concepts as Buddha's interventions in the world and ongoing revelation that are lacking in Theravada. Belief in the Buddha's heavenly manifestations led to the development of a significant devotional strand in Mahayana. Some scholars have therefore described the early development of Mahayana in terms of the “Hinduization” of Buddhism.
Another important new concept in Mahayana is that of the bodhisattva or enlightenment being, as the ideal toward which the good Buddhist should aspire. A bodhisattva is an individual who has set out to achieve perfect enlightenment but delays entry into final nirvana in order to make possible the salvation of all other sentient beings. The bodhisattva transfers merit built up over many lifetimes to less fortunate creatures. The key attributes of this social saint are compassion and loving-kindness. For this reason Mahayana considers the bodhisattva superior to the arhats who represent the ideal of Theravada. Certain bodhisattvas, such as Maitreya, who represents the Buddha's loving-kindness, and Avalokitesvara or Kuan-yin, who represents his compassion, have become the focus of popular devotional worship in Mahayana.
By the 7th century ad a new form of Buddhism known as Tantrism had developed through the blend of Mahayana with popular folk belief and magic in northern India. Similar to Hindu Tantrism, which arose about the same time, Buddhist Tantrism differs from Mahayana in its strong emphasis on ritual, magic, and particular types of meditation. Also known as Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle, Tantrism is an esoteric tradition. Its initiation ceremonies involve entry into a mandala, a mystic circle or symbolic map of the spiritual universe. Also important in Tantrism is the use of mudras, or ritual gestures, and mantras, or sacred syllables, which are repeatedly chanted and used as a focus for meditation. Vajrayana became the dominant form of Buddhism in Tibet and was also transmitted through China to Japan, where it continues to be practised by the Shingon sect.
From India Outward
Buddhism spread rapidly throughout the land of its birth. Missionaries dispatched by King Ashoka introduced the religion to southern India and to the north-west part of the subcontinent. According to inscriptions from the Ashokan period, missionaries were sent to countries along the Mediterranean, although without success.
King Ashoka's son Mahinda and daughter Sanghamitta are credited with the conversion of Sri Lanka. From the beginning of its history there, Theravada was the state religion of Sri Lanka.
According to tradition, one Buddhist mission reached Burma during the reign of Ashoka, but no firm evidence of its presence there appears until much later. The indigenous inhabitants of the area of present-day Burma and Thailand, the Mons, professed Theravada Buddhism. The earliest states of the Burmese, the Pyu in central Burma and the state of Arakan, date from the 3rd century ad; under Indian influence, they followed Hindu cults, and Mahayana and Tantric forms of Buddhism. The true Burmese, related to the Pyu, established their capital Pagan in 849. They also followed Tantric Buddhism. The supremacy of Theravada Buddhism, which eventually superseded other forms in Burma, began with the reign of the Burmese king Anuruddha in the 11th century. Buddhism was adopted by the Thai people when they finally entered the region from south-western China from the 12th century. From the 13th century, the Thai kingdom of Sukhotai made Theravada Buddhism the official religion of the country.Theravada was adopted by the royal house in Laos during the 14th century.
Both Mahayana and Hinduism had begun to influence Cambodia by the end of the 2nd century ad, and both flourished there for several centuries. Extensive archaeological remains at the ancient city of Angkor attest to an impressive religious culture created by the Khmer kings under the influence of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. After the 14th century, however, under Thai influence, Theravada gradually replaced the older establishment as the primary religion in Cambodia.
About the beginning of the Christian era, Buddhism was carried to Central Asia. From there it entered China along the trade routes by the early 1st century ad. This first period of Chinese Buddhism, lasting until about the 6th century, is generally seen as formative, as Buddhist doctrines and culture were imported and adapted. At first the religion penetrated and took root in China's intellectual and cultural elite, and to a lesser extent amongst the populace. The Chinese-speaking foreigners who first propagated Buddhism were gradually supplanted by native converts. Kumarajiva, who arrived at the capital Ch'ang-an in 401, introduced the Madhyamika school and supervised the state-sponsored translation of Buddist texts into Chinese. Such endeavours rendered large numbers of Hinayana, Mahayana and esoteric Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Both Hinayana and Mahayana became established on Chinese soil, and the monastic ordinations transmitted through the Hinayana Dharmaguptaka school became the prevailing tradition in China and Korea up to the present day. However, Mahayana Buddhism eventually became the predominant doctrine. Effectively patronized by the non-Chinese dynasties who ruled the north prior to the reunification of China under the Sui dynasty (589-618), Buddhism reached its zenith under the Sui and the Tang (618-906). The many large, wealthy and sometimes worldly monasteries were sometimes the objects of persecution, often motivated by hostile Confucian and Taoist circles, but such persecutions focused on monastic institutions rather than lay believers. Although persecuted, Buddhism was never prohibited in China.
Several of the Buddhist schools that flourished in China from the 6th to the 9th centuries were direct or indirect importations of Indian schools. Four other major schools which arose in this period were basically Chinese creations, though making certain claims of Indian origin. Three were based on specific scriptures. The T'ien-t'ai school produced a fivefold gradation of Buddhist teachings, placing the doctrines of the Saddharmapundarika Sutra (or Lotus Sutra) at the apex. The Huayan school accepted the Avatamsaka Sutra (Garland Sutra) as its scriptural authority. The third school, the Pure Land school of belief, based itself on three texts related to the Buddha Amitabha, developing a devotional form of Buddhism which stressed faith and belief in him. The most original and Chinese in character was the radical Ch'an school (Zen in Japanese), which eschewed scripture and doctrine in favour of spontaneous insight, the instantaneous realization of one's own Buddha-nature. After the great persecution of 845 Buddhism declined in China, albeit enjoying a brief revival during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1276-1368). It never conquered the country, but made a substantial contribution to China's culture and religious thought, and became a permanent feature of the Chinese way of life.
At the time of the introduction of Buddhism, Korea consisted of three states: Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla. Koguryo received waves of Buddhist influence from northern and southern China, and proclaimed Buddhism its state religion in ad 392. Paekche embraced Buddhism in 384 and Silla in 528, following official missions dispatched from the Chinese court. Korean Buddhism experienced its greatest flourishing in the unified state of the Koryo Period (918-1392). Under the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), it became subordinate to the Confucianism which became the official ideology of the Korean state and ruling classes.
Vietnam, long ruled by China, followed mainly Chinese Buddhism, whilst the south of the country was more influenced by India. Buddhism remained well established after Vietnam broke free of China in the 10th century, and after a decline in the 15th century experienced an revival in the 18th century which induced the rise of indigenous Vietnamese sects of Buddhism.
Buddhism was carried into Japan from Korea. It was known to the Japanese earlier, but the official date for its introduction is given as either ad 538 or 552, depending on the source. It was proclaimed the state religion of Japan in 593 by Prince Shotoku, who is seen as the father of Japanese Buddhism, both in terms of his activities and his moral legacy. Several schools of Buddhism were introduced during the Nara (710-784) and Heian (794-1185) periods. The monk Saicho is credited with the foundation of the Tendai school, an importation of Chinese T'ien-t'ai doctrine which also served as a channel for the introduction of Pure Land, Zen and Tantric beliefs. Kukai also brought from China the variety of esoteric Buddhism which became the Shingon cult. Although Buddhism gained ground among ordinary people during the Nara and Heian periods, it existed primarily as a state-sponsored religion. The three schools which grew to prominence during the Kamakura period (1185-1333)—Pure Land, Zen, and Nichiren Buddhism—succeeded in spreading Buddhism across the whole spectrum of Japanese society. Though none of these were doctrinally innovative, all assumed a distinctly Japanese character. Interestingly, the tradition of monastic ordination introducted into Japan was gradually eliminated, so that in general the clergy of all Japanese Buddhist schools are permitted to marry.
Tibet was converted to Buddhism through two consecutive propagations. In the first, Buddhism was formally recognized as a state religion in the 7th century ad. Temples and monasteries were built, Tibetans were ordained as monks and a fair number of Buddhist texts were translated into Tibetan. Two Indian masters are particularly venerated for their impact on the spread of Buddhism in Tibet: Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava. While Shantarakshita introduced Mahayana Buddhism and ordination rites, Padmasambhava, a gifted Tantric master, appropriated local deities to serve as protectors of the new creed. This propagation ended in persecution by followers of indigenous Tibetan beliefs. The second propagation, which began in the 10th century, permanently implanted Buddhism in Tibet. Extensive traffic between India and Tibet introduced various traditions, which eventually consolidated into four major religious orders: Sakyapa, Kagyupa, Nyingmapa, and Gelugpa. Tibetan Buddhism as a whole is a complex but coherent body of Mahayana doctrines and esoteric practices. Though many lamas and masters are married, the overwhelming majority of religious are ordained monks. The tradition of reincarnated lamas is a unique feature of Tibetan Buddhism. Such people are believed to be reincarnations of famous masters, or manifestations of certain Buddhas or boddhisattvas.
Institutions and Practices
Differences occur in the religious obligations and observances both within and between the sangha and the laity.
From the first, the most devoted followers of the Buddha were organized into the monastic sangha. Its members were identified by their shaved heads and robes made of unsewn orange cloth. The early Buddhist monks, or bhikkhus, wandered from place to place, settling down in communities only during the rainy season when travel was difficult. Each of the settled communities that developed later was independent and democratically organized. Monastic life was governed by the rules of the Vinaya, one of the three canonical collections of scripture. Fortnightly, a formal assembly of monks, the uposatha, was held in each community. Central to this observance was the formal recitation of the Vinaya rules and the public confession of all violations. The sangha included an order for nuns as well as for monks, a unique feature among Indian monastic orders. Theravada monks and nuns were celibate and obtained their food in the form of alms on a daily round of the homes of lay devotees. The Zen school came to disregard the rule that members of the sangha should live on alms. Part of the discipline of this sect required its members to work in the fields to earn their own food. In Japan the popular Shin school, a branch of Pure Land, allows its priests to marry and raise families. Among the traditional functions of the Buddhist monks are the performance of funerals and memorial services in honour of the dead. Major elements of such services include the chanting of scripture and transfer of merit for the benefit of the deceased.
Lay worship in Buddhism is primarily individual rather than congregational. Since earliest times a common expression of faith for laity and members of the sangha alike has been taking the Three Refuges, that is, reciting the formula “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the dharma. I take refuge in the sangha”. Although technically the Buddha is not worshipped in Theravada, veneration is shown through the stupa cult. A stupa is a dome-like sacred structure containing a relic. Devotees walk around the dome in a clockwise direction, carrying flowers and incense as a sign of reverence. The relic of the Buddha's tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka, is the focus of an especially popular festival on the Buddha's birthday. The Buddha's birthday is celebrated in every Buddhist country. In Theravada this celebration is known as Vesakha, after the month in which the Buddha was born. Popular in Theravada lands is a ceremony known as pirit, or protection, in which readings from a collection of protective sutras from the Pali canon are conducted to exorcise evil spirits, cure illness, bless new buildings, and achieve other benefits.
In Mahayana countries ritual is more important than in Theravada. Images of the buddhas and bodhisattvas on temple altars and in the homes of devotees serve as a focus for worship. Prayer and chanting are common acts of devotion, as are offerings of fruit, flowers, and incense. One of the most popular festivals in China and Japan is the Ullambana Festival, in which offerings are made to the spirits of the dead and to hungry ghosts. It is held that during this celebration the gates to the other world are open so that departed spirits can return to Earth for a brief time.
One of the lasting strengths of Buddhism has been its ability to adapt to changing conditions and to a variety of cultures. It is philosophically opposed to materialism, especially of the Marxist-Communist variety. Buddhism does not recognize a conflict between itself and modern science. On the contrary, it holds that the Buddha applied the experimental approach to questions of ultimate truth.
In Thailand and Burma, Buddhism remains strong. Reacting to charges of being socially unconcerned, its monks have become involved in various social welfare projects. Although Buddhism in India largely died out after the 12th century, resurgence on a small scale was sparked by the conversion of 3.5 million former members of the untouchable caste, under the leadership of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, beginning in 1956. A similar renewal of Buddhism in Sri Lanka dates from the 19th century.
Under the Communist republics in Asia, Buddhism has faced a more difficult time. In China, for example, it continues to exist, although under strict government regulation and supervision. Many monasteries and temples have been converted to schools, dispensaries, and other public use. Monks and nuns have been required to undertake employment in addition to their religious functions. Falun Gong, a mystical sect associated with Buddhism, gained a large following within China and worldwide during the 1990s. The sect was banned by the Chinese government in 1999, and a number of followers have been imprisoned. In Tibet, the Chinese, after their takeover and the escape of the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist officials into India in 1959, attempted to undercut Buddhist influence.
Only in Japan since World War II have truly new Buddhist movements arisen. Notable among these is Soka Gakkai, the Value Creation Society, a lay movement associated with Nichiren Buddhism. It is noted for its effective organization, aggressive conversion techniques, and use of mass media, as well as for its nationalism. It promises material benefit and worldly happiness to its believers. Since 1956 it has been involved in Japanese politics, running candidates for office under the banner of its Komeito, or Clean Government party.
Growing interest in Asian culture and spiritual values in the West has led to the development of a number of societies devoted to the study and practice of Buddhism. Zen has grown in the West to encompass meditation centres and a number of actual monasteries. Interest in Vajrayana has also increased.
As its influence in the West slowly grows, Buddhism is once again beginning to undergo a process of acculturation to its new environment. Although its influence in the West is still small, it seems that new, distinctively Western forms of Buddhism may eventually develop.