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A History of Buddhism

The teachings of the historic Buddha form the basis of the Buddhist world-view and practice. The Buddha (Shakyamuni or Siddhartha Gautama) was born about 2565 years ago in what is now part of Nepal.

painting of Shakyamuni Buddha

Painting of Shakyamuni Buddha.

He was born into a royal clan yet he abandoned worldly power and wealth in pursuit of truth and enlightenment. Academic historians find the basic narrative of the Buddha's biography as related in Buddhist teachings to be consistent with archaeological and other historical evidence. Teachers in the Buddhist tradition -- whether in village meeting places, in monasteries, or in modern universities -- retell this life history of the Buddha to convey basic principals of Buddhist philosophy. Paintings depicting the key events in the historic Buddha's life adorn monasteries and temples throughout the Buddhist world.

In Buddhist tradition, the life-transforming experience for the young Shakyamuni was his encounter with human suffering, decay, and death that occurred on a sojourn beyond the protected world of the palace compound in which he lived. At age 29 he renounced the world and set out on a quest for meaning and enlightenment which he attained at age 37 after intense meditation at Bhodhgaya, a village in North India and a principal site of contemporary Buddhist pilgrimage. He went on to teach for some 40 years and the power of his teachings attracted more and more followers from multiple walks of life. The teachings in their concise analysis of the human condition and their clear guidance in achieving release from suffering spread extensively across northern India and were especially attractive because they provided an alternative to the rigid social and ritual strictures prevalent in Hindu north India at the time. Buddhism has always been open to everyone. People from all walks of life can enter into the Buddhist community either as monastic renouncers or lay devotees.

painting of Majushri

Majushri, Buddha of Wisdom.

The Buddha himself, his teachings or dharma, and the community of disciples or sangha constitute the "three jewels" of Buddhism. Those who joined the Buddha as mendicant renouncers formed the earliest Buddhist community or sangha out of which later monastic communities emerged. After the Buddha's death, this community of disciples compiled and continued the teachings. The heart of the Buddha's teachings relate to human suffering and release from misery. The most fundamental teachings of the Buddha are encapsulated in the "four noble truths":

  1. the normal condition of this world is misery or suffering;
  2. suffering stems from desire or attachment to this world that is in its essence impermanent;
  3. the end of suffering can be attained by quelling attachment to this world;
  4. quelling attachment can be achieved through following the eightfold path of right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.

Along with this basic analysis of the human predicament as one of suffering, the Buddha gained acute understanding of human psychology and physiology which formed the basis for later philosophical developments of Buddhism as well as the foundation for many advanced meditative practices. Essential to this teaching was the principle of "no-soul" or no essence to what we consider the "self." In Buddhist world view the self is momentary and the production of a personality itself is conditional and impermanent. These basic teachings are framed in a fundamental distinction between samsara or "this world," a world of suffering and impermanence, and nirvana, a state defined by one scholar as "transcendence beyond all conceptualization."

Over the twelve centuries immediately succeeding the historic Buddha's death, the early mendicant communities transformed into permanent monastic institutions in India with the generous support of lay patrons. Buddhism also began to spread throughout Asia. From this period of intellectual ferment and philosophical development emerged three major traditions of Buddhism now commonly recognized by Buddhist scholars. Theravada Buddhism or the "the way of the elders" claims a close adherence to the original teachings as passed down by the immediate disciples of the Buddha. Theravada Buddhism thrives in contemporary Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and parts of Southwest China and bases its practice on texts written in the ancient Indian language of Pali.

three-faced Buddha statue

Namgyalma, Victorious Buddha.

Mahayana Buddhism or "the greater vehicle" took recognizable form within 600 years after the Buddha's death. In the textual traditions of Mahayana Buddhists are sutras or discourses of the Buddha not found in Theravada tradition. Mahayana particularly elaborated the idea of Boddhisattvas or enlightened ones who put off their own attainment of nirvana until it is possible for all sentient beings to do so. Mahayana Buddhism had particular impact in Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Nepal and parts of Inner Asia. Consistent with and elaborating on Mahayana teachings is the third major Buddhist tradition generally referred to as Vajrayana or "powerbolt vehicle." The powerbolt (vajra in Sanskrit; rDo-rje in Tibetan) stands for the absolute truth of Buddhism. Vajrayana practitioners concentrated on developing "skill in means" or distinctive practices in pursuing enlightenment. Vajrayana as an extension of Mahayana developed principally in Tibet, Nepal, northern India, Mongolia, and parts of China.

Although Buddhist scholars distinguish these three main philosophical schools, Buddhism also developed in unique ways according to the cultural environments in which it thrived. Thus in addition to these three main philosophical strands we can identify distinctive cultural developments of Buddhist thought and practice in Tibetan Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, Sinhalese Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism and so forth as Buddhism was integrated with local traditions.

Tibet became especially important in the preservation and transformation of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist philosophy and practice. The seventh century King of Tibet Srong-brtsan-sgam-po is usually credited with the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet and most critically he sponsored the introduction of a new script which was used to translate Indian Buddhist works written in Sanskrit into Tibetan language. Many of these texts were lost in India and contemporary scholars study the Tibetan texts to reconstruct the history of Buddhist philosophy and practice in India.

Namgyal India monks performing ritual ceremony

Namgyal monks performing a ritual puja at Dharamsala, India.

In the century following this initial introduction, Buddhism made significant advances in Tibet with a profusion of translations of texts. The first Tibetan monastery was established at Samye where a great debate took place in 792 which set the course of Tibetan Buddhism along the lines of particular Mahayana discipline. The next major impetus to Buddhist development as recorded in Tibetan history was the arrival of the Indian Mahayana scholar Atisha in the 11th century that fully consolidated the centrality of a disciplined Mahayana practice in Tibet. What has been described as a "restoration" of Buddhism during this period set the stage for the further institutionalization and development of the major monastic orders in Tibet. The earliest of the major orders -- the bKa'-gdams-pa, the Sa-skya-pa, and the bKa'-gyud-pa (and offshoot Karma-pa) -- trace their origins to the 10th and 11th centuries. The rNying-ma-pa or the old order continued practices associated with the very early introduction to Buddhism in the 8th century.

During the early part of the 15th century a Buddhist scholar, Tsong-ka-pa (1357-1419), founded a monastery out which a new order known as the dGe-lugs-pa or "model of virtue" order emerged. The dGe-lugs-pa path stressed monastic discipline and a gradual path to enlightenment along with esoteric meditative and ritual practice. During the 16th and 17th centuries the dGe-lugs-pa order came to a prominent position politically and spiritually in Tibet. Of particular note, the position of Dalai Lama which passed through a process of reincarnation came to be associated with the dGe-lugs-pa order. The Dalai Lamas based at the Potala in Lhasa along the Panchen Lamas based at the Tashilhunpo Monastery located in Shigatse became the temporal and spiritual leaders of Tibet and remained so until 1959.

Namgyal India monks in large group portrait

Namgyal monks at Dharamsala, India.

The situation changed radically for Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism in 1959 when the Chinese invaded Tibet and took over direct administration of political Tibet which then became incorporated into China as the Tibetan Autonomous Region. The Chinese forced His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, to flee Tibet along with thousands of other monks and Tibetan laity. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has overseen the Tibetan Government in exile since 1960 in Dharamsala, India, the center for Tibetan refugees and the Tibetan diaspora. Chinese communist rulers considered Buddhism and Buddhist traditions "backward" and feudal. They undertook a campaign in Tibet proper to destroy Buddhist institutions. This process came to a head during the Cultural Revolution which lasted from the mid 1960s until the mid 1970s when particular havoc was wrecked on cultural and religious traditions within political Tibet. Thousands of people in Tibet as well as elsewhere in China starved, were imprisoned, or were executed and thousands of people fled Tibet for refugee communities in the neighboring states of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Thousands of monastic institutions and much of the cultural heritage of Tibet was destroyed or looted at this time. More recent Chinese regimes have allowed a modicum of reconstruction of monastic buildings and monastic traditions but in a carefully limited way. The Chinese have actively encouraged the colonization of Tibet by Han Chinese and the major Tibetan cities now have Chinese populations that rival in number the indigenous Tibetan community.

Namgyal Ithaca monks and students in debate

Namgyal monks and Western students debate at Namgyal Ithaca.

Tibetan refugee communities in India and elsewhere -- often with the substantial support of followers in the West as well as other parts of Asia -- have been able to keep traditions of teaching and learning alive. Of particular note has been the expansion of Tibetan Buddhist institutions in Europe and America, continuing a process of intercommunication between Buddhist Asia and the West which began in the latter part of the 19th century. Buddhism has always been transnational but this process has accelerated in the contemporary world with new media for communication. Buddhists throughout the world find themselves in dialogue among themselves, with other religious and philosophical traditions, and with modern science. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has assumed a prominent position in this global era of philosophical and spiritual communication. He has not only sustained his place as the religious leader of the Tibetan people both inside and outside Tibet but he is recognized as a spiritual leader at a global scale. His steadfast adherence to the Buddhist principles of non-violence led to his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for peace in 1989 and has helped to make the message of Buddhism resonate throughout the world.

Some Further Reading:

  • Goldstein, Melvyn C. 1989 A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Lama, Dalai. 1990 Freedom in Exile. New York: Harper Collins.
  • Lopez, Donald S. 1998 Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Pardue, Peter. 1968 Buddhism: A Historical Introduction to Buddhist Values and Political Forms They Have Assumed in Asia. New York: The Macmillan Company.
  • Shakya, Tsering. 2000 The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947. New York: Penguin.
  • Snellgrove, David. 1987 Indo-Tibetan Buddhism: Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors. 2 vols. Boston: Shambala.
  • Snellgrove, David, and Hugh Richardson. 1968 A Cultural History of Tibet. New York: Frederik A. Praeger.
  • Stein, R. A. 1962 Tibetan Civilization. J. E. S. Driver, transl. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.
  • Zablocki, Abraham. 2005 The Global Mandala: The Transnational Transformation of Tibetan Buddhism. Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Cornell University.