Buddhism is an ancient practice that exists till today. We know many religious practices that exist today have a link to another going back to history. As such, you may wonder if there is or was any religion that the teachings of the Buddha sprang up from.
The truth is that Buddhism from history does not get its teachings from any other religion. Of course, Buddhism came as a result of a young prince Siddhartha Gautama who sought after enlightenment and shared his findings with his friends. Thus, the Buddha brought about a whole new idea and understanding of life and spirituality. Although, the practice of Buddhism generally may link to Hinduism in certain ways. This is because Siddhartha Gautama practiced Hinduism from birth. In other words, the young prince was born into a Hindi family which was the dominating religion in India at the time.
This page highlights the history of Buddhism and the attributes that made it different from other religions surrounding it. On this note, we will take a look at the early days’ practice of Buddhism.
Buddhism Early Days
Buddhism started as a monastic movement in Northeast India as the Buddha (the enlightened one) shared the details of his awakening. At this time, the Brahman tradition dominated the day. However, with the introduction of Buddhism, a new and different direction comes to the people.
The Buddha gained grounds with his teachings rather quickly. Therefore, he rejected many aspects of the core Hindu philosophy. Also, he affected many changes as he taught that the Vedic scripture is invalid, therein rejecting the cult sacrifices that has root in the scripture. More so, the Buddha challenged the priesthood authority. He made open his movement to anyone interested regardless of the caste. Thus, the Buddha made it clear that birth should not be a case to a person’s spiritual life.
The teachings of the Buddha encompass all spheres of life. However, in the light of his enlightenment, the Buddha taught basically on the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path (the middle way), Anatman (no soul), Karma, Rebirth, and Nirvana. You will learn more about these teachings when you study the “Core Beliefs of Buddhism”.
The Growth of Buddhism
Buddhism is a practice that developed over many years. During this development and growth, the significance of Buddhism was not only felt in India. Also, it touched other countries such as Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar (previously Burma), Laos and further into China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, and Vietnam. These are notable countries in Asia “Where Buddhism is Practiced”.
Buddhism was able to adapt to various traditions. As a result, the practice grew and traveled to many surrounding countries. At this time, the teachings of the Buddha survived through oral transmission as the Buddha himself never left a written thought.
How Did the Practice of Buddhism Survive After the Death of the Buddha?
The Buddha advised his followers to diligently work out their liberation. Thus, just before he died, he kindly turned down the request of the followers to appoint a successor. After the death of the Buddha, the followers needed to adopt a new approach for maintaining unity since the mode of transmission of the Buddha’s message was still oral. Certainly, there was a need to agree on matters of practicing and doctrine as well. This led to the periodic meetings of the monastic orders. As such, the tradition focuses on four such occasions as the “major council”.
The following characterized the growth of Buddhism after the Buddha’s demise:
- Major Councils
- Converting the Oral Teachings to Written Texts
- Apparent Conflict
- New Grouping
- Expansion in Asia
- New Buddhist Sects
- Buddhism in Our Society Today
Listed above are the major transitions in the development of the teachings and practices of Buddhism.
The First Council
The first council held immediately after the death of the Buddha. Mahakasyapa (a Buddhist monk) presided over this council. And, the location of this council was Rajagrha (known today as Rajgir). The main aim of this council is to agree on and recite the real teachings of the Buddha. Also, it covered the proper discipline for the monks. This council strengthened the followers of the Buddha and reassured them of the teachings.
The Second Council
According to tradition, the second council came about a century after the first. The location of the second council is Vaishali. Basically, this council was to address ten questionable practices of monks from the Vajjian confederacy which include the use of money, drinking of palm wine and other activities that appear irregular. Afterward, the council declared these as unlawful.
This event sometimes appears as the origin of the first major split in Buddhism. Thus, the schism gave birth to Mahasanghikas (great assembly) and the Sthaviras (the stricter elders). However, this was not yet official at the time, but will soon be several years to come to another meeting held. This is so as there was growing tension within the Sangha due to disagreement over disciplinary matters. More so, this disagreement cuts across the arhat nature, and the specific duties of the laity.
The Third Council
In the third century BC., King Ashoka called the third council. The location of this council was Pataliputra (known today as Patna). It was the monk Moggaliputta that convened this council. The agenda for this council was to cleanse the Sangha of falsehood monks and those who spread heresy on the practice. Before now, a large number of false monks joined the order mostly due to the patronage gotten from royalty.
The council was able to disapprove these false teachings and laid off the ones that held to them. Also, it was at this time that the Tipitaka (the Buddhist scripture) became complete. The Tipitaka contains the original teachings and doctrine agreed upon in the first council (the dharma), some subtle philosophies (Abhidharma), and the disciplinary rules of the monks (Vinaya).
Another important aspect of the third council was letting go of missionaries to various countries with the true Buddhist message.
The Fourth Council
This was the last traditionally recognized major council. In general, this council was under the support of King Kanishka. And, the purpose of this council was to call back peace and unity within the already separate sects. However, the Theravada Buddhist sect questioned the authenticity of the council.
Converting the Oral Teachings to Written
The Buddha passed on his teachings through the oral method. Even after the death of the Buddha, the followers continued with the same oral transmission. But, around the 1st century BC, these oral teachings were being written down to form the Buddhist Literature or scripture. At this time, some schools wrote the texts in Sanskrit. However, there is no surviving complete canon written in Sanskrit, even while Sanskrit canons are in existence. The complete Theravadin canon surviving was written in Pali which is a common language that originated from Sanskrit.
The Buddhist canon is the Tipitaka (Pali) or Tripitaka (Sanskrit). It means the “Three Baskets” because the canon contains three sets of writings. These include the Abhidharma Pitaka (discussion and classification of the Buddhist philosophy, psychology, and doctrine), the Sutta Pitaka (Pali) or sutra Pitaka (Sanskrit) this is a body of discourses, and the Vinaya Pitaka (a collection of rules that guides the monks and the nuns).
The Abhidharma Pitaka
This section of the Tipitaka contains seven separate parts of well-detailed works. These include classifications of psychological facts observed, analysis of the metaphysical, and a thesaurus explaining technical vocabularies. Certainly, even while the text content of this work collection may sound authoritative, it has little to do with the lay community.
The Sutta Pitaka
In general, this section of the Tipitaka contains a kind of discussion between the Buddha and others in a dialogue form. It is a five-part work collection which includes the following:
Digha Nikaya – Lengthy Discussions
Majjhima Nikaya – Discussions of Medium length
Samyutta Nikaya – Grouped Discussions
Anguttara Nikaya – Discussions on numbered subjects
Khuddaka Nikaya – Miscellaneous Texts
Note that in the last part of this collection, the Dhammapada (the teachings of the Buddha on mental wellbeing and moral values summarized) and the Jatakas (stories of the Buddha’s previous lives) make up a greater part.
The Vinaya Pitaka
This section of the Tipitaka talks about the code of conduct guiding the monks and nuns. As such, it contains over 225 rules and each with a story of the original reason why it was made. Generally, the arrangement of these rules is according to the weight of the consequences when violated.
The Tipitaka is traditionally the literature of the Theravada Buddhist sect. However, on the other hand, the Mahayana Buddhists do not strictly abide by the Tipitaka as the only authoritative scripture. As a result, various Mahayana branches use other scriptures as authoritative at various times along the history. Some of these scriptures include the saddharmapundarika (the Lotus of the Good Law Sutra or more commonly the Lotus Sutra), the Avatamsaka Sutra (Garland sutra), the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra, and other collection of texts referred to as Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom).
Also, the Theravada Buddhist sect used two notable non-canonical scriptures which are the Visuddhimagga (the path of purification) and the Milindapanha (Questions of King Milinda). Where the Visuddhimagga dealt with meditation practices and Buddhist thoughts, the Milindapanha dealt with the basic problems of Buddhist thoughts in a dialogue manner. Furthermore, the Visuddhimagga is a great work of a famous Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosa.
After the death of the Buddha, the followers strictly adopted and held on to the teachings of their master. However, not too long with this belief, conflicting understanding of the teachings appeared. Of course, this led to the upspring of eighteen schools of Buddhism. These schools were strongly conserving the Buddha’s teachings and literal-minded. Amongst the schools, Theravada was accused of not caring about the lay community, as such that they are too individualistic. With this, the more liberal-minded monks started leaving the rest of the Sangha. This started in the second council.
After the group of monks broke away from the Sangha, they came together to form a new concept of the practice. As such, they left the conservative monks to continue a new journey. These monks are the Mahasanghikas. Their new concept considers the Buddha as a transcendental being. Hence, the Buddha in human form was just the transcendental Buddha’s apparition. Thus, he came to provide liberation for humankind. By this concept, we have an early model of Mahayana Buddhism.
The separatists continued with their concept of transcendental Buddha. Thus, the Mahayana sect adopted the “Trikaya” (the threefold nature of the Buddha). The Trikaya or triple body consists of:
- The body of Essence,
- The body of communal bliss, and
- Body of transformation.
The Buddha’s body of essence represents his true nature. Thus, it is perceived as consciousness or void and unchangeable. It is beyond form and absolute. However, this body of essence only makes itself manifest through the body of communal bliss. In this body, the Buddha appears in heavenly glories sitting in a godlike appearance. Then, in the body of transformation, the Buddha transforms into human nature to come close to liberate the humankind. And, the Buddha has come in many of this form to humans having the Gautama Buddha as one of such comings in the body of transformation.
Developing the concept of the heavenly manifestation of Buddha and divine grace including important devotions made some scholars define Mahayana as bringing “Hinduism” into Buddhism.
Also, the idea of bodhisattva originated from the Mahayana sect as the ultimate stage of existence a Buddhist should aspire. This is just like the Arhat of the Theravada sect. However, the followers of Mahayana tradition sees the bodhisattva as superior. This is because the bodhisattva is not one who only attains enlightenment, but he also chooses not to enter into the final Nirvana. Of course, he does so to help others through the path of enlightenment. He transfers merit through compassion and loving-kindness to other sentient beings.
Expansion in Asia
Buddhism spread rapidly among the neighboring countries of birth and then throughout Asia. Missionaries dispatched by King Ashoka after the third council was able to introduce Buddhism to the South and Northwest part of the subcontinent. However, they recorded failure in countries along the Mediterranean.
The credit for introducing Buddhism to Sri Lanka goes to Mahinda (the son of King Ashoka) and Sanghamitta (the daughter of King Ashoka). They saw to the conversion of Sri Lanka to a Buddhist state.
Buddhism then continued to spread from Myanmar to Thailand, China, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, Japan, and Tibet. Actually, to know more, see “Where Buddhism Is Practiced”.
Centuries after the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, they already adopted the idea of Abbots of their monasteries being reincarnated figures of bodhisattvas. On the same note, they called the chief of the abbots the Dalai Lama. Then, from about mid Seventeenth century, had been ruling Tibet in a form of theocratic government. The “Origin and Teachings of Tibetan Buddhism” will explain further the teachings of Buddhism in Tibet.
New Buddhist Sects
Down the line, other ideas about the practice of Buddhism grew from various countries already practicing Buddhism. Of course, these ideas led to the formation of new Buddhist Sects. Some of the popular sects are the Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren Buddhism.
Zen Buddhism teaches focus on meditation to attain personal enlightenment rather than studying the scripture or keeping the doctrine. Thus, frequently practicing meditation will wake the Buddha in you. This sect started in China through the influence of Bodhidharma a monk from India who arrived in China at about 520.
Pure Land Buddhism
Those who devote to Pure Land pay homage to the Buddha Amitabha (the Buddha of infinite light). As such, Pure Land emphasizes that attaining rebirth into the Pure Land (or eternal paradise) wholly depends on faith and devotion to the Buddha Amitabha. Therefore, you likely see followers of this sect reciting “Homage to the Buddha Amitabha” a countless number of times. Although, they believe that a single saying in truth can secure one space in the Pure Land.
This sect originated in Japan in the Thirteenth century. Its name was after the founder. Basically, Nichiren placed emphasis on the Lotus Sutra. It believed that the essence of the Buddha’s teachings lies in it. Consequently, the devotees strive towards enlightenment by simply reciting “Homage to the Lotus Sutra”.
Buddhism in Our Society Today
Buddhism today is traveling throughout the world. Recently, there is a rise in the practice among western society. However, this is not without the community making it suitable for the existing tradition. Surely, Buddhism has a great adaptability feature. This is due to the Buddha’s way of inquiry or seeking out the ultimate truth.
In Asia, many countries still have Buddhism as their major religious practice. But, in India where the practice originated, it barely has strong practitioners. Between the Eighth and Twelfth centuries, India lost interest in Buddhism. Hence, the practice died out in the country.
The Position of the Lay Buddhist Community
Buddhism encourages individual worship than group worship. Thus, the lay community Expresses their faith as a personal devotion. Although, there are Buddhist ceremonies which the laity will gather to celebrate.
From the history of Buddhism, we saw that Buddhism is an independent practice which originated through the efforts of Siddhartha Gautama. Thus, the practice does not base on any other religion.
Well, the Buddha started with some basic teachings on which he founded Buddhism. Then, he tried correcting some beliefs and practices in Hinduism which he believed were wrong since Hinduism was the practice of the day at the time. This is the relationship Buddhism had with Hinduism.
Although, later on, some emerging sects of Buddhism shared beliefs with Hinduism. Of course, people introduced to such sects may believe Buddhism bases on Hinduism.