Buddhism has captured the hearts and imaginations of seekers of spiritual understanding across the world. Some 2,500 years ago, Siddhartha Gautama, a prince of the royal Shakya Clan of Nepal, meditated under the bodhi tree (a type of fig tree) in the Indian town of Bodh Gaya (in eastern India) and attained enlightenment. Today, thousands of pilgrims still travel to this sacred town.

Quick Overview

  • Buddhism was founded in 520 BC.
  • The Buddha was born and raised as a prince living in the lap of luxury at Kapilavastu in Nepal about 2500 years ago. His name was Prince Siddhartha Gautama.
  • At age 29 Prince Siddhartha renounced his family and a life of luxury.
  • The Buddha attained enlightenment under a bodhi (fig) tree in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, in eastern India.
  • Buddhism has three major divisions – Theravada, Vajrayana, and Mahayana.
  • The three jewels in Buddhism are – the Buddha, the sangha (monastic community), the dharma (teachings of the Buddha)
  • According to Buddhism the three delusions that plague mankind are ignorance, desire, and anger. The three virtues that can be developed to combat these vices are moral discipline, concentration, and wisdom.

A Special Destiny

All religions use the power of myths and story telling to explain and spread their teachings. Buddhism, devoid of dogma and ritual, relies greatly on its vast collection of tales and parables to inform and educate ordinary people about simple, eternal truths. Over centuries, the followers of Buddha have narrated these stories, filled with the gentle wisdom of their founder, like lamps that light up the rocky path of life, beacons that show us how to conduct our lives with compassion and truth. Over the next few weeks, we bring you some of these stories, remarkably childlike in the telling, yet carrying within them subtle lessons.

‘Buddha’ means ‘the awakened one’ and this is the title Siddhartha was known after his enlightenment. Where better to begin our discovery of Buddhist folklore than from the life of Buddha himself – the fascinating journey of a prince who became one of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders! It is believed that Buddha’s birth as Prince Siddharth was the last of several thousand reincarnations – the circumstances under which he was born were remarkable in themselves. His mother, Queen Mahamaya, wife to King Suddhodana of the Sakya clan, dreamed one night that a white, six-tusked elephant had entered her body. Ten months later, as tradition required, Mahamaya left the kingdom of Kapilavastu for her father’s home to deliver her child. En route in Lumbini, while resting in a garden, her baby was born under a sal tree, emerging as a fully formed child who could walk and talk. He was named Siddhartha – one who achieves his goal. King Suddhodana invited eight Brahmin (priestly class) scholars for the child’s naming ceremony, one of whom predicted that little Siddhartha would become a renowned spiritual leader.

The King, though, had more worldly plans for his son and wanted him to be a great ruler. To this end, he ensured that Siddhartha was kept away from religious teachings. Siddhartha was brought up in an atmosphere of unparalleled luxury and happiness with no knowledge of human misery or death that might cause him to turn to spirituality. At 16, he was married to his beautiful cousin, Yashodhara. When he was 29 years old, Siddhartha decided to explore the world outside his palace. For the first time in his life, the prince saw a wrinkled old man. On a later visit, his glance fell on a sick man and sometime after , hat he saw a corpse in a funeral procession. Despite his father’s precautions, the inevitable happened, and Siddhartha questioned the way he was leading his life. Old age, disease and death – if this was the ultimate fate of all beings, was not his cocooned existence a foolish illusion? And if that was so, what was the true meaning of life?

Tormented by these painful thoughts, Siddhartha met a sage who advised him to renounce his present life in order to find the truth he desired. Siddhartha left his home, wife and young son, Rahula in secret. Shedding all external signs of his royal lineage, he entered a hermitage to seek answers to the doubts that plagued him. Prince Siddharth had disappeared; henceforth, he would be known as Sakyamuni or sage of the Sakya clan. This is known as The Great Departure.

Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree

Reaching the town of Bodh Gaya in what is today the state of Bihar (India), Siddhartha decided to meditate until he found the answers he sought, and to this end, he sat under a bodhi tree. He had a vision of all his previous lives , battled with the demons who threatened his meditation and, finally, many days later, on a full moon night, he discovered the Truth that liberates and became the Buddha.

At first, it seemed to the Buddha that no one would understand the Truth, but Brahma, the King of the gods (in the Hindu pantheon), persuaded him to teach what he had learned, and the Buddha gave his first sermon in Sarnath near Varanasi (in north India). During the sermon he explained the basic tenets of Buddhism – the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

The Popularity of Buddhism

Buddhism spread quickly throughout Asia, Southeast Asia, Tibet, China, Korea, and by around 520 to 550 AD had reached Japan. Buddhism came to America in the 19th century and influenced prominent personalities like Emerson, Thoreau, Aldous Huxley, and Eric Fromm. In Europe, great thinkers such as Jung, Heidigger, and Toynbee were impressed by Buddhism. A large number of American intellectuals have taken to Buddhism in their search for ways to tame the “monsters of the mind” so easily created by material excesses. The ultimate goal of the Buddhist is to accept responsibility for his own circumstances and to understand how he himself creates illusion and suffering.

The Buddha is one, yet diverse are the paths leading to him!

Over the centuries, the many Buddhist sects that came into being either died out or were absorbed into three main streams – Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.

Divergent Paths

What led to the first schism among the Buddha’s followers? It was primarily the perceived role of a Buddhist. The Theravada school held that the chief aim of a practitioner was self-liberation through enlightenment; the practice of instructing others in Buddhism was secondary.

The Mahayana school differed. Their ideal was the Bodhisattva (literally, Buddha-to-be), an evolved being who deliberately chooses rebirth over attaining personal enlightenment, to help liberate others from the endless cycle of existence (samsara). Vajrayana differs from its parent school, the Mahayana, more in terms of its esoteric practices rather than philosophy.

Geographical Spread

While Theravada established itself and continues to exist in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, Mahayana developed into an umbrella organization for various sects, spreading northwards via Nepal and Tibet into China, Mongolia, Japan and Korea. Today, Theravada exists as one major school while Mahayana has eight Chinese schools – four of them emphasizing practices and another four based on philosophy. Mahayana also includes the Chinese and Japanese schools of Ch’an and Zen Buddhism.

The Scriptures

The scriptures of Theravada, known as the Pali Canon, have three divisions, each consisting of several books. The Mahayana Canon incorporated many of the teachings of the Pali Canon, expanded upon it and rejected some of its monastic rules. The language of Theravada teaching is essentially Pali, supplemented by local languages, while Mahayana Buddhism is taught entirely in the local language.

Theravada was deeply influenced by Indian culture; its scriptures contain references to the ancient Indian religious texts. In China, Buddhism and the native philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism influenced each other.

Differences in practice, architecture, and lifestyle

The extreme simplicity of practice was an original feature of Buddha’s teachings. Theravada Buddhism continues this tradition, with minimal use of ritual. Mahayana, however, absorbed the cultural traditions of its adoptive countries and has varied and elaborate rituals. Vajrayana’s use of the bell, drum and ritual dagger and paintings of deities have greatly inspired Tibetan art and crafts.
There are marked differences in temple architecture. Theravada temples have simple, clean lines, with the focus on the idol of Sakyamuni Buddha. Mahayana temples have more decorative elements and contain different sections for Sakyamuni and the three main Bodhisattvas.

Some similarities are seen between the two major schools when it comes to contemporary lay practices, such as accepting the Five Precepts and meditating on a daily basis.

On special days, Theravada followers observe a fast, study the scriptures and visit monasteries to offer their support. Mahayana practitioners study or listen to discourses about Buddha’s teachings, make ceremonial offerings and practice repentance. Both schools reinforce the need to imbibe the Buddha’s Eightfold Path on these days.

Theravada emphasizes the importance of undertaking pilgrimages; Mahayana exhorts its practitioners to take Bodhisattva vows. Vajrayana, besides incorporating many of these practices, also involves reciting of mantras and initiation into esoteric practices.
There are differences in the lifestyle of monks. Members of the Theravada eat just one meal a day. Mahayana leaves it to individual practitioners to exercise this option. While the Mahayana schools observe vegetarianism (barring Tibet, for geographical reasons), the Theravada schools do not consider it essential.

Thus, the schools of Buddhist thought that evolved after the passing of the great spiritual leader reveal more differences than similarities in philosophies, traditions, and practices. There is little that unites them other than the central figure of the Buddha himself.

The Evolution of Buddhism: From India to the Far East

While the Buddha was alive, Buddhism was an oral tradition and it was the predominant religion in India because it transcended the barriers of caste. However, although born in India, it was not destined to survive as a major religion in that country. One of the most important reasons for the decline of Buddhism in India was the influence of Hindu philosophy on the interpretation of Buddhism.

The Rise of Various Buddhist Schools
Five hundred monks held the First Buddhist Council three months after the Buddha’s death. The Council was led by the Buddha’s leading disciple, Maha Kashyappa, and the aim was to put into words the doctrine taught by the Buddha. With the passage of time many sub-sects were formed, with different interpretations of the Buddhist ideology being adopted in various parts of the world.

The Second Council was held 100 years after the first one. The goal of this Council was to revise and confirm the teachings, thus discouraging the formation of sub-sects on the basis of differences in interpretations of Buddhist philosophy. It was during the Second Council that Buddhism was divided in two branches – the Theravada school and the Mahayana branch.

But things only got worse, as the Buddha had predicted, and the teachings got increasingly diluted and misinterpreted. The Third Council was held 236 years after the passing of the Buddha. King Ashoka the Great, Buddhism’s greatest patron in India, sponsored the Third Council, which decided to get rid of errant monks, preserve the teachings, and send missionaries out to other parts of the world. However, things continued to degenerate and several splits resulted. Almost 20 schools and even more sub-schools rose from the initial two. None of the sub-schools survived the test of time.

The decline in the popularity of Buddhism in India began in the 12th century. Efforts by Emperor Ashoka led to the spread of Buddhism in other parts of the world.

The Spread of Buddhism outside India
The Third Council sponsored by King Ashoka sent out nine missions to preach the Buddhist way of life in Ceylon, Burma, Siam (Thailand), and Cambodia, and far off countries such as Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Greece. The Mahayana school spread to Nepal, China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan.

In Thailand, Theravada Buddhism is followed by 95% of the population. Thailand is probably the only country where the king is required to be Buddhist in accordance with the Thai constitution.

Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by Emperor Ashoka’s son Mahendra in the 3rd century BC. The Theravada tradition had nearly died out in Southeast Asia due to wars and colonialism, but it thrived in Sri Lanka. From here it reached out to Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos, and farther to Europe and the West.

The first Buddhist community in China is said to have been established around 150 A.D. Buddhist emissaries traveling along the Silk Road took Buddhism to China. By 229 AD, the number of nuns and monks increased to two million. The concepts of Buddhism merged with the existing religious beliefs and gave rise to the popular Pure Land and Chan schools of Buddhism.

Buddhism entered Japan in the 5th century AD via Korea and by the 7th century it had become the state religion. In the 12th century, Zen (a school of Buddhism started by the South Indian monk-prince, Bodhidharma) came to Japan from China and was welcomed, particularly by the Samurai. Since then, many other Buddhist sects have sprung up, particularly in Japan.

There are many schools of Buddhism and not all schools share the same philosophical concepts. However, some common concepts hold them together. The pivotal concept of ‘The Middle Way’ – the midpoint between living for worldly pleasures and self-denial – is intellectually believable and completely practical. This concept helps people deal with the pressures of day-to-day living and is one of the main reasons for the sustained popularity of Buddhism the world over.

Buddhism Culture: Around the World

The estimate of the number of Buddhists in the world varies between 350 million and 1.5 billion. The disparity in figures is because of factors like the lack of exact figures for congregational memberships and the practice of Buddhist beliefs in combination with traditional religions like Shinto, Confucianism, and Taoism to name a few. Let’s take a look at some of the countries where Buddhism has left its imprint.

China is home to 100 million Buddhists – the largest number in any country. Buddhism was almost destroyed in China during the 20th century. Monasteries and temples have been rebuilt in the recent past. Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism is the major Buddhist influence in China. Important Buddhist sects in China are the widespread Pure Land sect that came in from India, the Ch’an Men (Zen in Japan), created by the Indian Bodhidharma in 520 A.D, and the T’ien T’ai.

The most distinguishing feature of Tibetan Buddhism is the belief in reincarnation. According to this belief, a person consciously chooses to be reborn so that he/she may complete the work he/she has left undone in a previous birth. Tibetan Buddhism has features that have been taken from both Hinduism and from Bon, a religion of purely Tibetan origin.

After Buddhism was almost wiped out of India, the land of its origin, it began to revive in 1891 with the establishment of the Mohabodhi Society. In 1956, Buddhism got another boost when Dr.B.R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of India’s constitution, converted to Buddhism along with hundreds of his followers. Today there are about 4 million Buddhists in India. The spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama, lives in India (Dharamshala) now.

Only 1{2a606ed507db975facf77816cc05bf724611ee6c4891f22858b0ce03fac9a901} of Indonesians practice Buddhism today and most of the practitioners are ethnic Chinese. They have their own unique version of Buddhism, which pays homage to a supreme deity, Sang Hyand Adi Buddha. However, all the Buddhists in Indonesia acknowledge the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Buddhism has always flourished in Japan. About 84{2a606ed507db975facf77816cc05bf724611ee6c4891f22858b0ce03fac9a901} of the population practices a blend of Buddhism and Shinto. There are many Buddhist sects in Japan – 157 to be exact. Rituals and other practices differ from sect to sect. Zen is a major religion in this country, with about 3.32 million registered followers.

A majority (94.6{2a606ed507db975facf77816cc05bf724611ee6c4891f22858b0ce03fac9a901}) of the Thai people practice Theravada Buddhism and the country has a wealth of Buddhist temples and stupas. Even the national flag is said to symbolize Buddhism. Monks are accorded the highest respect in Thailand and people are encouraged by their families to join the monasteries.

Robert A.F.Thurman, a popular American Buddhist writer, is of the opinion that the number of Buddhists in the USA is around 5 to 6 million. People of Asian origin with an inherited family tradition of Buddhism, make up 75 to 80 percent of the US Buddhist population; the rest are non-Asians. The western form of Buddhism is a modern reinterpretation of the original, with the emphasis on meditation rather than on doctrines, rituals and monastic living.

United Kingdom
According to the 2001 census, there are around 150,000 practicing Buddhists in the UK, and the number continues to increase.

Albert Einstein said, “If there is any religion that would cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.” Proving the truth of his statement is the rise in the popularity of Buddhism in several parts of the world.

Some Interesting Buddhist Traditions

  • Flowers used in Buddhist worship signify that human life is not permanent but short lived like the life span of a flower.
  • Buddhists wedding ceremonies are not performed by monks. The ceremonies may go on for days at a stretch.
  • The creator of Zen Buddhism was a south-Indian prince, Bodhidharma, who became a monk. It is said he spent nine years staring at a wall in meditation. This wall was the wall of a cave in Mount Songshan, Hunan Province, China.
  • In Japan they have Bodhidharma “wish dolls” that have no eyes. When your wish comes true, you paint in the eyes.
  • Butter sculptures are an interesting feature in Tibetan Buddhism. Monks shape sculptures out of butter, constantly dipping their hands in cold water to keep the butter from melting. These sculptures are kept at family shrines and monastery altars as offerings.
  • Mounds of stones with the inscription ‘Om mani padme hum’ on each stone are a common sight in Tibet. On coming across such a mound, devout Buddhists walk around it clockwise, offer a prayer and then move on.

Spectacular Monuments

  • In Polonnaruwa (Sri Lanka) is a huge reclining figure of the dying Buddha, and beside him stands a 7.5 meter tall stone statue of his disciple, Ananda.
  • In Kandy (Sri Lanka), a temple is said to house a tooth of the Buddha. Legend has it that the tooth was removed while the Buddha lay on his funeral pyre. Princess Hemamali smuggled it into Sri Lanka in 313 AD, hiding the tooth in her hair.
  • The famous “Emerald Buddha” is in Bangkok’s Wat Phra Kaeo temple. This tiny icon is carved from jade, and many wars have been waged for its possession. No one except the Thai king is allowed near it. The king conducts rituals at the temple housing the emerald Buddha throughout the year. The tiny green statue remains a tangible symbol of the Thai nation, and it is feared that removal of the image from Bangkok will signify the end of the present ruling dynasty, the Chakri dynasty.
  • The Borobudur Temple complex in Indonesia is constructed from lava rock. Its many terraced levels are inspired by the lotus flower, and it represents the Buddhist concept of the universe.
  • In Lhasa, Tibet, is the famous Potala Palace where the Dalai Lama spent his childhood years. Today this magnificent, striking building is a state museum housing countless 17th-century Buddhist artifacts such as thankas, murals, mandalas, and altars.
  • The world’s tallest outdoor seated bronze Buddha is on Lan Tau Island near Hong Kong.
  • The largest Buddha statue in India is in the middle of a lake in Hyderabad, India. It is 18 meters tall and weighs 350 tons.
  • The world’s tallest Buddha statue carved out of a mountain is in Pattaya, Thailand. It is 130 meters high and 70 meters wide.
  • The second largest carved statue of the Buddha (71 meters high) is in Sichuan, China. It is carved out of the Lingyun Mountain. The statue is so big that a hundred people can sit in a row between its feet.