Encyclopedia of Religion
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William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The founder of Buddhism is a Hindu, Sakyamuni (also: Siddhartha Gautama), meaning "the sage of the Shake tribe," a group that lived in what is today Nepal. His followers called him "the Buddha" or "enlightened one." Gautama lived from 563 to 483 B.C.E.

His life is a model for Buddhists to follow. Gautama was the son of an Indian ruler and was expected to follow in his father's footsteps. The father feared his son would become an ascetic, so he tried to shield him from all suffering. But Gautama saw four visions: the first was a man weakened with age, utterly helpless; the second was the sight of a man mere skin and bones, supremely unhappy and forlorn, smitten with some pest; the third was the sight of a band of lamenting kinsmen bearing on their shoulders the corpse of one beloved for cremation. These woeful signs deeply moved him. The fourth vision, however, made a lasting impression. He saw a recluse, calm and serene. (Piyadassi 1964:12)

These encounters with suffering deeply affected Gautama. At the age of 29, on the day his wife was to give birth to a son, he renounced wife, child, father, and crown. Gautama tried to find peace by practicing rigorous self-mortification. This failed. Finally, Gautama discovered the middle way between sensual indulgence and self-mortification and began a life of meditation, the true path. Thereafter he was a teacher and lived as a mendicant peripatetic. Because of the emphasis on self-help, Buddhism has been called "a true warrior's religion" (Piyadassi 1964:168).

Buddhism originated as part of a chromatic movement, that is, a movement centered on wandering ascetics. Some 2,500 years ago, the region that included Nepal was undergoing social change as a result of new technologies and urbanization. The old social order based on kinship groups was crumbling. The power and privileges of the Brahmans were being challenged. The chromatic movement was both a religious movement and a protest against the existing caste system (Gómez 1989).

The Jewels of Buddhism

The Buddhist laity take refuge in, that is, confess faith in, "the three jewels": the Buddha, his teachings (the dharma ), and the shanghai (the monks, or, more broadly, the living and dead enlightened ones). The basic social structural element is the master-disciple relationship. Buddhists are not required to attend the temple rituals, which are based on the lunar calendar. "The holy days occur at the new moon, the full moon, and eight days after each, making them about a week apart" (Corbett 1994:264). Buddhists may have a shrine in their homes with a statue of Buddha, or a statue representing an aspect of Buddha, or a statue of some other enlightened one. Buddhists who reside temporarily or permanently in a monastery lead a highly structured, ritualized life. (For a detailed description of life in a Korean monastery, see Bushel 1992; in an American Zen Center, see Preston 1988.) The monk's life involves solitude, poverty, and moderation.

Central to Buddhism are the Four Noble Truths: "Suffering . . . i.e., the illness; craving . . . is . . . the root cause of the illness . . . [T]hrough the removal of craving the illness is removed and that is the cure. . . . The Eightfold Path . . . i.e., the remedy" (Piyadassi 1964:39). The cravings that must be given up include longings for money, revenge, affection, household love, and success. The Path involves being virtuous, which allows concentration, which results in wisdom.

Within Buddhism it is said that reality is empty. Reality is an unbroken flow, which we divide up into some things causing other things (the doctrine of "dependent arising"). Nothing is permanent or nothing exists. One of the earliest texts, for example, contains this statement:

Purity is not [attained] by views, or learning,
    by knowledge, or by moral rules, and rites.
Nor is it [attained] by the absence of views,
    learning, knowledge, rules or rites.
Abandoning all these, not grasping at them,
    he is at peace; not relying, he would not
    hanker for becoming.
                    (quoted in Gómez 1989:47-48)

Even Buddhism is empty.

Wisdom produces nibbana (the word in Pali, which is used in the Theravada tradition) or nirvana (the word in Sanskrit, which is used in the Mahayana tradition). This condition is essentially a mystery. It is living beyond good and evil, and actions have no consequences for the actor. In nirvana a person has experiences but remains attached to nothing. Giving up craving is natural to a wise person because he or she knows that all is transient; all is becoming and therefore impossible to cling to. Ultimately, one realizes there is no self, no "I," who might possess something. Signs of having achieved nirvana in one's lifetime would be a lack of dissatisfaction, a lack of attachments, and peacefulness.

Karma is the belief that suffering is caused by former acts of evil and that people are born into the social status they earned in previous lives. It is the Buddhist attempt to explain injustice in the world. Nirvana is the transcendence of the karmic principle. However, if wisdom includes realizing there is no self, the existence of karma seems challenged.

This leads to a reinterpretation of reincarnation, because nothing goes through the rebirth process. Buddhists simply say that each lifetime is connected to the ones before it, and will be connected to those that come after it, in a chain of causation. The analogy of lighting the wick of one candle from the flame of another is often used. Nothing is transmitted from candle to candle, but the flame of the second is unarguably connected to the flame of the first. (Corbett 1994:259)

The emphasis given wisdom is balanced, perhaps, by the importance of compassion (metta ). This attitude has been described as love without a desire to possess, without lust, without profit-seeking.

Although monks aspire for wisdom and nirvana, most people settle for virtue and a good rebirth. Virtue for the common person means obeying five precepts—to abstain from killing anything that breathes, from stealing, from sexual misconduct, from lying, and from using intoxicants. Folk Buddhism, that is, the form of Buddhism among the nonliterate people, involves making merit—for example, by supporting monks or by listening to the chanting of Buddhist texts, even if one does not understand them, as long as the listening has a spiritually uplifting effect. Folk Buddhists also emphasize transferring merit to the dead, believing in a future saviorlike Buddha (Maitre ), and a belief in paradise. The images of paradise "are entirely sensuous, offering the worldly pleasures so rarely encountered in the real social life of a peasant community. Women, music, dancing, and 'wish-fulfilling trees,' which give the individual whatever he wants, characterize the sensual delights of heaven" (Obeyesekere 1968:29).

For Buddhists, then, there are a variety of focal points—Buddha himself, the attainment of wisdom by meditation, and being virtuous to have a good rebirth.

The Types of Buddhism

The three major divisions of Buddhism are Theravada, Mahayana , and Vajrayana . The first school is dominant in South and Southeast Asia. Mahayana Buddhism is most influential in the Chinese and Japanese versions of this religion. Theravada and Mahayana coexist in Malaysia and Singapore. Vajrayana is most influential in Tibet and wherever Tibetan monks have gained influence. In the Theravada world, Buddhism tended to be the religion of elites; in the Mahayana world, it coexisted with other religions (e.g., Taoism, Shinto) and, among the masses, became part of the folk religions.

Vajrayana Buddhism (also called esoteric Buddhism or Tantric Buddhism) is strongest within Tibetan Buddhism but has influenced the entire Mahayana world (e.g., the Japanese Swinging school). Vajrayana Buddhists use texts (called Tantras ) based on deliberately obscure symbolism. They incorporate magical techniques and a rich supply of symbols originating in folk traditions. Mantras (i.e., magical speech) and visualization techniques are used. More than in the other traditions, sense experience, sexual imagery, and the imagination are means to achieve spiritual progress. In some schools, the ritual performance of sexual acts is a spiritual technique.

Theravada Buddhism "has a fixed body of canonical literature, a relatively unified orthodox teaching, a clearly structured institutional distinction between the monastic order and laity, and a long history as the established 'church' of the various Southeast Asian states" (Poured 1968:165). Theravadins use a statement attributed to Buddha: "He who would be an arhat [an enlightened one] should not do good deeds." To reach a point at which a meditative life is a realistic option, one must have been good. However, after that point, Theravadins believe one must withdraw because involvement with others inevitably results in good and bad karma. "Salvation must therefore ultimately be sought in a total renunciation of society and of the world" (Obeyesekere 1968:20). Within Theravada Buddhism, hermit monks epitomize this ideal.

Mahayana Buddhism is less centralized and is more diverse than the Theravada tradition. Mahayana Buddhism is also less dependent on the state than its Theravada counterpart. Moreover, the Mahayana laity are perceived to be able to reach a higher spiritual level than in the Theravada tradition. Finally, the Mahayana tradition attaches great prestige to being a Bodhisattva . This is a person "who, although worthy of nirvana, sacrifices this ultimate satisfaction in order to help all sentient creatures with acts of love and compassion" (Poured 1968:171).

There are two distinct strands of Chinese Buddhism popular today: Pure Land (Japanese: Jodo) and Ch'an (Japanese: Zen). Pure Land asserts that people can be saved by having faith in Amitabha, a Buddha. The ritual developed to help people achieve this faith involves the countless repetitions of Amitabha's name. Amitabha resides in the "Western Paradise," which is a place of beautiful music, jewels, and gardens. Although Pure Land Buddhism condemns worldly attachment, more than Ch'an it is solicitous about mundane problems. Prominent in Pure Land Buddhism is the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, goddess of mercy, who is concerned about this world. So, for instance, Chinese pray to her for children.

According to Ch'an Buddhism, our nature is Buddha. The task is to strip away conceptualizations and to calm our passions. This can be done in a monastery, at work, or in the home. Meditation is important as is a form of study based on asking paradoxical questions (in Japanese: koans ) meant to make us aware of the artificiality of language and therefore culture.

"I have no peace of mind," said Hui-K'o. "Please pacify my mind."
"Bring out your mind here before me," replied Bohdidharma, "and I will pacify it."
"But when I seek my mind," said Hui-K'o, "I cannot find it."
"There!" snapped Bohdidharma, "I have pacified your mind." (quoted in Watts 1959:92)

The enlightened person is nonattached (neither indifferent nor attached), spontaneous, and compassionate. The focus is on the here and now, not a future paradise. More than Pure Land Buddhism, the Ch'an version is a "warrior's religion."

Social Organization within Buddhism

These two versions of Buddhism, along with tantric influences, exist throughout the Mahayana world. The actual social organization is complex, as Mahayana Buddhism is divided into a variety of schools. Whereas in China various schools may be followed by monks in the same monastery, in Japan each monastery is affiliated with just one school. The Nichiren school, which gives preeminence to the Lotus sutra and emphasizes the desirability of close ties with the state, is specifically Japanese. The best known such group is Nichiren Shoshu. Distinctive of Japan is that monks who belong to some branches of the Pure Land school may be married.

Based on a study of a Korean monastery, Bushel (1992) has questioned some shibboleths about Zentype Buddhism. First, monks do not spend a lot of time studying texts. Second, a majority of residents at the monastery do not meditate; the crucial aspect of the monk's life is leading a disciplined life (see also King 1980, Finney 1991). Third, the meditative practice followed by the monks does not require the monastic life; that is, the monk's Buddhism is not only for an elite.

Buddhism does not have a strong organizational base. In South Asia, the shanghai has depended on state support, which makes the shanghai vulnerable. In East Asia, there is no widely accepted authority able to define orthodoxy or to lead a process of adaptation to modernity; moreover, East Asian states have used Confucianism more than Buddhism to form civic moralities (Tamney 1993). In the communist-controlled countries, Buddhism has been weakened by public policies, such as the confiscation of Buddhist land and buildings by the state.

Modernization and Buddhism

At least since the beginning of the twentieth century, Buddhists have been transforming their religion in response to modernization (e.g., on China, see Welch 1968). Traditional cultures have declined in importance. For instance, in South Asia modernization ended the dominance of the "traditional Buddhist-Brahmanicanimistic synthesis." Reformed doctrines have the following characteristics:

an emphasis on the ethical dimensions of the tradition at the expense of the supernatural and mythical; a rejection of magical elements of popular thought and practice as incompatible with the authentic tradition; and a rationalization of Buddhist thought in terms of Western categories, along with an apologetic interest in depicting Buddhism as scientific. (Swearer 1989:134)

Other changes include more influence for laypeople and the political involvement of monks and laity. To accommodate the needs of laypeople, the meditation techniques taught by monks have been simplified (King 1980). Buddhists are more involved in community education and charitable endeavors, some of which are modeled on Christian programs. At the same time, Buddhist cults led by charismatic monks are a new form of Buddhism.

Buddhism has gained popular attention, and perhaps popularity, by becoming political, especially in South Asia. In India, a neo-Buddhist movement that presents Buddhism as a social gospel has led a protest against the caste system (Ling 1980). In Burma and Sri Lanka, Buddhism was an aspect of nationalist movements for independence (Smith 1965, Houtart 1980). During the 1980s, many monks were actively involved in politicking and even political violence in Sri Lanka (Tambiah 1993).

Buddhism is also being influenced by the women's movement. Traditionally, women played an inferior role in Buddhism, although there have always been orders of nuns (Paul 1985). Probably women have influenced Buddhism most in the United States. Where American women practitioners are influential, they shape Buddhism in distinctive ways:

(1) minimizing power differences and bringing warmth to all relationships, (2) working with emotions and the body, (3) group activity that promotes sharing experiences and open communication; "effort" and "striving" are being replaced by "healing" and "openness," and (4) an activist orientation based on a vision that the essential fact about the universe is interrelatedness. (Tamney 1992:95)

As Buddhism adapts to modernity, its appeal and influence seem to be growing. Buddhists have developed elaborate schemes for describing the inner working of human beings and various methods for training the mind that result in "liberation." The psychological insights of Buddhism have attracted self-conscious, educated people. Meditation has become widely valued for medical and spiritual reasons. Among Westerners, the Buddhism they encounter is appealing because it is not puritanical, is not dogmatic, and emphasizes religious experience, not religious beliefs. Moreover, Westerners are interested in Buddhism as part of New Age multiculturalism or because this religion seems con- sonant with the detachment accompanying postmodernism (Tamney 1992). As Asians modernize, some of them will likely discover, and be attracted to, a form of Buddhism that is taking shape in the Western world.

See also Compassion, Hinduism, Jainism, Shinto, Taoism

Joseph B. Tamney


R. E. Buswell, Jr., The Zen Monastic Experience (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992)

J. M. Corbett, Religion in America , 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1994)

H. C. Finney, "American Zen's 'Japan Connection,'" Sociological Analysis 52(1991):379-396

L. O. Gómez, "Buddhism in India," in The Religious Traditions of Asia , ed. J. Kitagawa (New York: Macmillan, 1989): 41-96

F. Houtart, Religion and Ideology in Sri Lanka (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1980)

W. L. King, Theravada Meditation (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980)

T. Ling, Buddhist Revival in India (New York: St. Martin's, 1980)

G. Obeyesekere, "Theodicy, Sin, and Salvation in a Sociology of Buddhism," in Dialectic in Practical Religion , ed. E. R. Leach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968): 7-40

P. A. Pardue, "Buddhism," in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences , ed. D. Sills (New York: Macmillan, 1968): 196-184

D. Y. Paul, Women in Buddhism , 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

T. Piyadassi, The Buddha's Ancient Path (London: Rider, 1964)

D. L. Preston, The Social Organization of Zen Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)

D. E. Smith, Religion and Politics in Burma (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965)

D. K. Swearer, "Buddhism in Southeast Asia," in The Religious Traditions of Asia , ed. J. Kitagawa (New York: Macmillan, 1989): 119-142

S. J. Tambiah, "Buddhism, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka," in Fundamentalisms and the State , ed. M. E. Marty and R. S. Appleby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993): 589-619

J. B. Tamney, American Society in the Buddhist Mirror (New York: Garland, 1992): J. B. Tamney, "Religion in Capitalist East Asia," in A Future for Religion? ed. W. H. Swatos, Jr. (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1993): 55-72

A. W. Watts, The Way of Zen (New York: New American Library, 1959)

H. Welch, The Buddhist Revival in China (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968).

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