Jacob Kinnard. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.


Buddhism is the world’s oldest missionary religion. Since its beginnings some 2,500 years ago in northern India, it has spread to nearly every region of the world. There are now more than 350 million Buddhists in the world, most of whom belong to one or the other of the two major schools: the Mahayana and the Theravada. About 98 percent of the world’s Buddhists can be found in Asia, but there are significant Buddhist communities throughout Europe, North America, and Australia. There are Buddhists who are poor rice farmers in Malaysia and who are wealthy business owners in Chicago.

As it has spread, Buddhism has by necessity also changed, expanding to adapt to many different cultural, linguistic, and geographical settings, incorporating local beliefs and practices, and shifting to accommodate often fluid social and political contexts. The Buddhist tradition thus displays an incredible variety of beliefs and practices. There is no central Buddhist organization, single authoritative text, or simple set of defining practices. Buddhism is, to its core, a pluralistic religion.

Despite its incredible diversity, though, there are elements that cut across the many contexts in which Buddhism and Buddhists flourish. These elements include beliefs and traditions that, although perhaps slightly different depending on their specific settings, could be recognized and practiced by all Buddhists. For instance, all Buddhists recite the simple formula known as the Three Refuges (also known as the Triple Gem): “I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the dharma, I go for refuge to the sangha.” Buddhists can be heard chanting these lines in Colombo, Bangkok, Beijing, Sidney, Rome, or Los Angeles. Certain core philosophical tenets and beliefs that cut across the Buddhist world include karma, nirvana, and renunciation. While attention must be paid to the diverse contexts, beliefs, and practices of Buddhism, the Buddhist tradition as a whole can also be fruitfully examined.

Perhaps the single most significant unifying factor for the world’s diverse Buddhist populations is the figure of the Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama. Although the various schools of Buddhism have different specific understandings of and attitudes toward the Buddha, each of them, without exception, recognizes, respects, and reveres him. What makes the Buddha so significant in Buddhism is not simply that he is the founder of the religion but also that he serves as the template for every Buddhist, the model for the life of the individual. It is not enough to receive and understand his teachings or to worship him; rather, one must strive to be like the Buddha—to replicate his life.


The founder of Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, who would later be known simply as the Buddha, was by birth what we would now call a Hindu. Although Buddhism breaks with the Hindu tradition in significant ways, it was at the start very much a reform movement from within Hinduism. It is thus essential to understand something of the religious worldview of India in the sixth century B.C.E. in order to understand the Buddha’s own religious worldview and why Buddhism took the particular shape that it did.

The Buddha was born into a world in flux, of shifting religious ideals and changing social structures. The dominant religion in northern India up until this point was Brahmanism, based on a body of texts called the Vedas, which had developed orally beginning about 1500 B.C.E. This religious system was also beginning to be challenged from a number of fronts.

The Vedic religious world was one of numerous deities, or devas, many of whom were personified forces of nature. Humans could interact with and influence these devas via sacrifice; offerings such as grain, milk, and animals were placed in a sacrificial fire by a priest, or Brahman, and “consumed” by the gods. In return, according to the Vedas, humans would receive boons from the gods: abundant crops, healthy sons, protection, and so on.

This was, furthermore, a hierarchical religious world, formally defined by the division of society into four classes, orvarnas, membership in which was determined solely by birth. At the top were the sacrificial priests, the Brahmans. It was their role and duty to perform the religious rituals and to preserve and recite the Vedas—to memorize the thousands of verses, to chant them at the sacrificial rituals, and to orally pass these texts on to successive generations of Brahmans. In so doing, the Brahmans maintained the order, or dharma (Pali, dhamma), of the world, assuring that the gods would be appeased. Directly below the Brahmans in the hierarchy were the Kshatriyas, the warriors and sociopolitical rulers. Just as it was the duty of the Brahmans to maintain the order of the divine world, so was it the dharma of the Kshatriyas to preserve order in the human realm. Below the Kshatriyas were the Vaishyas, the cultivators and keepers of domestic animals. It was their dharma, accordingly, to provide food and material goods. Below them were the Shudras, the laborers and servants, whose dharma it was to ensure the cleanliness of the other three classes of humans. Outside this system was a group called untouchables, or outcasts, who had no defined role in the social system and who were viewed as disorderly, as adharmic in character and nature.

This was a system of mutual dependence but also of restriction. There was no upward mobility in this system. One Vedic text (the “Purusha Shukta” of the Rig Veda) that describes the creation of the universe envisions this social system as a human being who is sacrificed to create the world: the Brahmans are the mouth of the human (because of their oral preservation and performance of the sacred verses of the Veda); the Kshatriyas are the arms (because they are the “strong arms” of the social world); the Vaishyas are the thighs (the support of the body); and, significantly, the Shudras are the feet (the lowest but in many ways the most fundamental). Thus, social and cosmic order (dharma) can be maintained only if each part of the body is present and “healthy.” Certainly the feet are lower than the head, but without the feet the body cannot stand.

A new genre of religious discourse, a body of texts known as the Upanishads, began to emerge out of the Vedic ritual religious world sometime between the seventh and the fifth century B.C.E. Although they would eventually become part of Hinduism, these texts—orally transmitted, like the Vedas—began to question the efficacy of the formal sacrifice and introduced essential new religious ideas that would be adopted, in part, by the Buddha: the idea of rebirth (samsara), the law of cause and effect (karma), the concept of liberation (moksha) from samsara, and the practice of asceticism and meditation (yoga).

As the ideas of the Upanishads began to spread, some individuals took them to heart and set out to experience the liberation that they described. These individuals renounced their ties to the material world and set out as wanderers, spreading these new ideas even farther and debating philosophical and meditational points. These various wanderers were called shramanas, and the earliest Buddhists saw themselves as a subset of this group of itinerant religious seekers. Also among these individuals was Mahavira, the founder of another new religious tradition, Jainism.

At about the same time, important social changes were in process along the Gangetic Plain in northern India. Kingdoms began to emerge out of the smaller kinship structures, and with these kingdoms came cities and highly structured systems of government. Furthermore, trade routes began to develop between these cities, and with trade came both economic growth and the emergence of a monied merchant class. This latter group is particularly important in the emergence of Buddhism, for although they had economic status, they, as members of the Vaishya caste, did not have religious status; the Buddha would offer a new religious path that allowed them to develop that status.

Buddhist tradition holds that the man who would become the Buddha was born in a small village near what is now the border between Nepal and India in the middle of the sixth century B.C.E. He was born into a Kshatriya family, part of the Shakka clan, and was given the name Siddhartha (he whose goal will be accomplished) Gautama.

According to legend, his birth was asexual. In a dream that his mother had, the fetus was implanted in her womb by a white elephant. His father, upon learning of his wife’s unusual impregnation, had the dream interpreted by a group of Brahman priests, who stated that the boy was destined to greatness, either as a great king (cakravartin) or a religious leader. From the start it was clear that he would be an extraordinary human being. Siddhartha emerged from the womb—some versions have him diving out of his mother’s side—and immediately took seven steps in each of the four directions, proclaiming that he was the foremost creature in each of them.

Because of the prediction of the priests, Siddhartha’s father kept him confined to the palace grounds, making sure that the young boy could see and experience only sweetness and light. In an early sermon, the Buddha describes his childhood this way: “Bhikkhus [monks], I was delicately nurtured, exceedingly delicately nurtured, delicately nurtured beyond measure. In my father’s residence lotus-ponds were made: one of blue lotuses, one of red and another of white lotuses, just for my sake … My turban was made of Kashi cloth [silk from modern Varanasi], as was my jacket, my tunic, and my cloak … I had three palaces: one for winter, one for summer and one for the rainy season … In the rainy season palace, during the four months of the rains, I was entertained only by female musicians, and I did not come down from the palace” (from the Anguttara Nikaya). Within the confines of the palace, Siddhartha lived, essentially, a normal Brahmanical life, passing from the student stage to the beginnings of the householder stage, but all the while being groomed to eventually become king. He married and had a child, a son named Rahula.

One day Siddhartha persuaded his chariot driver to take him outside the gates of the palace, and there he saw the first of four things that would transform his life. Upon seeing an old man, Siddhartha asked his driver, “Good charioteer, who is this man with white hair, supporting himself on the staff in his hand, with his eyes veiled by the brows, and limbs relaxed and bent? Is this some transformation in him, or his original state, or mere chance?” The driver answered that it was old age, and the prince asked, “Will this evil come upon me also?” The answer was, of course, “Yes.”

On two subsequent trips outside the palace grounds, Siddhartha saw a diseased man and then a dead man, and on each occasion he had much the same discussion with the driver. These first encounters with suffering (duhkha; Pali, dukkha) transformed the happy prince into a brooding young man. As one text puts it, “He was perturbed in his lofty soul at hearing of old age, like a bull on hearing the crash of a thunderbolt nearby.” Siddhartha wondered if perhaps this luxurious palace life was not reality but instead was an illusion of some sort, and he thenceforth wandered around in a profound existential crisis.

The fourth thing he saw was a wandering ascetic, and having encountered not only the duhkha that characterizes the world but also, in the ascetic, a potential way out of this realm of suffering, Siddhartha resolved to leave the palace and go out into the world and wander in search of the truth. He sneaked out in the middle of the night after first going to his sleeping father to explain that he was not leaving out of lack of respect nor out of selfishness but because he had a profound desire to liberate the world from old age and death, from the fear of suffering that comes with old age and death. In short, Siddhartha wanted to rid the world of suffering.

He went off and quickly mastered meditation with a variety of teachers, but he was frustrated and thought that there must be something more than what he experienced as only temporary meditational trances. He thus set out on his own and was soon joined by five other shramanas. Together they began a course of rigorous asceticism. Siddhartha applied himself with great rigor to this radical lifestyle for several years, getting to the point that he could sit in meditation for days, barely eating. The narratives of his life story say that at this point he could exist on a daily diet consisting of one sesame seed, one grain of rice, or one jujube. Eventually he reached a state in which he was barely breathing, barely alive: “Because of so little nourishment, all my limbs became like some withered creepers with knotted joints; my buttocks like a buffalo’s hoof; my back-bone protruding like a string of balls; my ribs like rafters of a dilapidated shed; the pupils of my eyes appeared sunk deep in their sockets as water appears shining at the bottom of a deep well; my scalp became shriveled and shrunk as a bitter gourd cut unripe becomes shriveled and shrunk by sun and wind … the skin of my belly came to be cleaving to my back-bone; when I wanted to obey the calls of nature, I fell down on my face then and there; when I stroked my limbs with my hand, hairs rotted at the roots fell away from my body” (from the Majjhima Nikaya).

While meditating one day Siddhartha remembered a passing moment in his childhood when he had slipped into a state of utter calm and equilibrium as he watched a plough turn the earth. He realized with this simple vision that he must somehow return to that humble moment and forge a middle path between the extreme asceticism he had been practicing (and which only leads to more suffering) and the sensual indulgence of his former life in the palace. His fellow shramanas abandoned him, cursing and denouncing him as weak willed. At this point a passing woman named Sujata saw the emaciated renouncer that he had become and offered him a simple gift, a bowl of rice gruel. With this modest nourishment Siddhartha sat down beneath a ficus tree near the town of Gaya (known as Bodh Gaya after the Buddha attained enlightenment here) and made rapid progress. In the middle of his meditations he was challenged by an evil superhuman being named Mara, the embodiment of temptations of all kinds, as well as of fear, delusion, and death. In defeating Mara, Siddhartha metaphorically overcame all such hindrances and quickly attained enlightenment, or bodhi (awakening).

After his awakening, at the age of 35, the Buddha spent several weeks meditating on the various aspects of the truth, which he called dharma, that he had realized. He was initially hesitant to share his teachings, however, for he felt that the complexity of his meditational vision would be too difficult for humans to grasp and would lead to further confusion and suffering. At this point, according to the tradition, the gods went to the Buddha to convince him to accept his vocation of teacher, appealing to his compassion and assuring him that in fact there were people capable of understanding the dharma. One god used the image of a lotus pond: In a lotus pond there are some lotuses still under water or even under the mud; there are others that have risen only up to the water level; and there are still others that stand above water and are untouched by it. In a similar way, in this world there are people of different levels of development. Thus challenged, the Buddha determined to proclaim the insight he had gained and set out for nearby Sarnath, where he would offer his first discourse on the dharma.

The Buddha’s first “sermon” was given to the very ascetics who had earlier joined him during his meditations but had lost faith in him. They gathered around him as he spoke of what is known as the first turning of the Wheel of the Dharma. He laid out the basic outline of his knowledge and experience of enlightenment to these five shramanas. This first discourse represents, in many ways, the beginning of Buddhism, since it is with the sharing of his personal religious experience that the Buddha created the organized religion that is Buddhism.

The content of that first sermon was so powerful, the tradition maintains, that the Buddha’s first five disciples quickly—after one week—attained enlightenment, becoming arhats (worthy ones). These first five followers, in turn, went forth and began to teach the dharma that the Buddha had shared with them; this is the beginning of the Buddhist sangha, the community and institution of monks that is at the heart of the religion. For the next 40 years the Buddha traveled almost without stop throughout India, sharing the dharma and gathering followers. He did, however, stay in one place for three months out of every year during the monsoon season. This period, known later as the rain season retreat, became an essential element in the formation not only of Buddhist monasticism but also of a Buddhist lay community. Monks settled in small communities throughout India, debating amongst themselves, establishing a formal religious canon and an accepted body of religious practices, and sharing the Buddha’s teachings with the laypeople. The laity, in turn, supported the monks materially by providing them with shelter, food, robes, and alms bowls.

Toward the end of his life, the Buddha instructed his followers that no single person or group of people could hold authority over the community of monks and laypeople. Rather, the authority was to be shared by all. As much as this created an egalitarian religious community, it also, after the Buddha’s death, opened the way both for productive debate about the meaning and significance of the teachings that the Buddha had left behind and for disagreement and schism. Initially the Buddha’s teachings were only preserved orally by followers who had actually heard his discourses. These teachings were gathered in three collections, or “baskets.” These three sets of what the tradition regards as the Buddha’s actual words are known as the Tripitaka (Pali, Tipitaka): the Vinaya (Discipline), the Dharma (Doctrine), and the Abhidharma (Pali, Abhidhamma; Advanced Doctrine). As these collections were being formed, debates arose among the different groups of monks about the content of these discourses as well as their significance. Furthermore, new situations that had not been explicitly addressed by the Buddha arose, leading to the need for new rules and resulting in further disagreements.

These debates often led to schisms within the Buddhist community. The tradition records that shortly after the Buddha’s death a council was held in the town of Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, in Bihar) to discuss issues of doctrine and practice; another council was held about a century later. As a result of the disagreements—over proper practice and doctrine—voiced at these councils, the sangha eventually divided into two different lines of monastic ordination, the Sthavira (Elders) and the Mahasanghika (Great Assembly), whose differences initially mostly revolved around issues of monastic discipline, or Vinaya. These two groups would evolve into the Theravada and Mahayana, respectively, developing different doctrinal and ritual standards and becoming established in different parts of Asia.

One of the most important figures in the history of Buddhism was Ashoka, the ruler (230-207 B.C.E.) of a large empire in India who not only became a Buddhist himself but established a model of dharmic kinship that would remain the standard template for all Buddhist rulers to follow. Ashoka erected numerous large stone pillars throughout India with edicts inscribed on them. These edicts laid out many of the basic aspects of the Buddha’s teachings as well as guidelines for how to live a good Buddhist life. Furthermore, Ashoka established the standard of royal support for the monks by building monastic shelters, planting shade trees and digging wells to aid travelers, and spreading the physical remains of the Buddha throughout India. The physical remains were particularly important in the spread and growth of Buddhism. Enshrined in chaityas and stupas—burial mounds of varying size—they became objects of devotion and important gathering places, often associated with significant events in the Buddha’s life, allowing the monks to spread the dharma to larger and larger groups. Ashoka also sent out a number of missionaries, including his own son, Mahinda, to introduce Buddhism and establish monastic orders in other parts of the world, such as Sri Lanka, Southwest and Southeast Asia, and even Greece.

Ashoka had set an important precedent in his support for Buddhism; the support of rulers was an essential element in the expansion and vitality of the religion. For their part, kings were attracted to Buddhism because of its emphasis on individual morality, the lack of caste hierarchy, and the symbiosis between the sangha and the state. The monks needed the king to provide land, food, and protection, while the king found in the sangha a moral legitimization of his righteous rule. The ideal king was a dharmaraja (king of dharma)—just, generous, and moral, upholding and promoting the teachings of the Buddha. This basic model is one that continues to be replicated in Buddhist countries today.

As Buddhism spread, the Theravada school (sometimes called Southern Buddhism) became particularly well established in Southern Asia, in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, and Cambodia. The Mahayana school (sometimes called Northern Buddhism) spread north, first to China and then to the rest of East Asia. These two major divisions in turn divided into many different subgroups and schools, adapting to their particular settings. In Tibet, for instance, the form of Mahayana that became established was Tantra (or Vajrayana), an extrapolation from the core Mahayana beliefs that puts particular emphasis on the transformative effects of ritual. In China and then later Japan, the Ch’an (Zen in Japan) school developed a form of the Mahayana that places particular emphasis on the meditation experience. Thus, although Buddhism essentially died out in India by the thirteenth century, its fundamentally missionary character, and its ability to adapt and adopt, enabled it to flourish elsewhere in Asia.

Buddhism first entered the Western consciousness with colonialism. In the nineteenth century intellectual interest in Buddhism developed in Europe and North America, creating a distinct scholarly field focused on the translation of Buddhist texts from their original languages, as well as their philosophical analysis, an offshoot of which was the gradual availability of accessible books on Buddhist belief and practice. Although there have never been huge numbers of Buddhists in the West—estimates vary, but probably no more than 5 million of the world’s 500 million Buddhists live in the West—they have been an important religious presence. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the West also saw an influx of Asian immigrants who brought with them Buddhism, establishing small temples and communities throughout Europe and North America.

Central Doctrines

As Buddhism gained followers and monks began to form distinct groups, often united on the basis of doctrinal commonalities and matters of monastic discipline, Buddhism was marked by a doctrinal explosion. By the first millennium of the common era, substantial new texts began to appear: commentaries on the Buddha’s sermons, new Vinaya texts, and entirely new texts that were claimed to have been hidden by the Buddha himself. This doctrinal profusion is truly one of the hallmarks of Buddhism. That said, however, certain key doctrines also are shared by all Buddhists.

Underlying virtually all of Buddhism is the basic doctrine of samsara, which Buddhism shares with Hinduism. Samsara is really a fundamental worldview or ethos, an understanding of the world that holds that all beings, including animals, are part of an endless (and beginningless) cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. Furthermore, Buddhism holds that the physical universe is itself made up of infinite world systems, spread out infinitely in space, and that these world systems, like the individual person, are also subject to the cycle of birth and rebirth. It was, in many ways, the realization of the horror of samsara that led to the Upanishads and the shramana movements. These movements attempted to devise a religious mode of action and thought that would provide a way out of this endless cycle of rebirth.

The Buddhist view of the cosmos is predicated on samsara and holds that there are both different world systems and different realms that are arranged in a tripartite structure: the “sense-desire” realm at the bottom, the “pure form” realm above that, and the “formless” realm at the top. Within these three divisions are further subrealms into which a being can be reborn: the human realm, the animal realm, the hungry ghost (preta) realm, various hells, and, higher up, deva(divine) realms. Although it is not the highest realm, the human realm is considered the most promising because in this realm are both suffering, which acts as a motivation to advance, and free will, which enables humans to act on this impulse. It is important to note that Buddhism holds that even the divine beings, despite their power, are subject to the laws of samsara.

Karma (which means “act” or “deed”), another concept shared with Hinduism, is the linchpin of the whole religious system of Buddhism, in that karma is what determines the quality of each rebirth and keeps the individual in the samsara. On its most basic level, karma is the natural law of cause and effect, inherent in the very structure of the world, a cumulative system in which good acts produce good results, bad acts bad results. Beings are then reborn in good or bad realms, depending on their cumulative karma in each birth. Karma is frequently described in Buddhist texts as being a seed (phalam) that will eventually grow fruit, which is, naturally, dependent on what sort of seed was sown.

The Buddhist understanding of karma, though, further stipulates that it is not just the act that determines the karmic result but also the motivation behind the act. Thus, good acts done for the wrong reason can produce negative karmic results, and likewise bad acts that might have been done for good reasons (or accidentally) do not necessarily produce negative karmic results. Indeed, Buddhism holds that bad thoughts are every bit as detrimental as intentional bad actions.

Negative karma is most typically created through intentionally harming other beings and through greed. Positive karma is most easily created through compassionate acts and thoughts and through giving selflessly (which is, ultimately, motivated by compassion).

The doctrine of impermanence (anitya) is rooted in the four visions that prompted Siddhartha to abandon his life in the palace. What he realized, when he saw old age, disease, and death, was that all beings are in a fundamental state of flux and, ultimately, decay. This is, in an important sense, a fundamental corollary to the reality of samsara—the human being, just as the world, is constantly evolving, decaying, and reforming. Furthermore, it is the failure to recognize this flux that causes beings to suffer, since they grasp on to that which is impermanent—life, love, material objects, and so on—wishing it will last. The Buddha condenses this basic idea in a simple pronouncement (in Pali): yad aniccam tam dukkham (whatever is impermanent is suffering). Since everything is necessarily impermanent, then everything ultimately involves suffering, which he succinctly expresses in the phrase sabbam dukkham (everything is suffering).

The doctrine of no self (anatman; Pali, anatta) is frequently misunderstood in the West. The Buddha does not mean that human beings have no personality but, rather, that because everything in the world is impermanent, there can be no permanent self. In this way Buddhism significantly breaks from Hindu doctrine, which holds that there does exist a permanent self that is reborn time and time again in samsara. But if there is no permanent self, what is it that is reborn? It is karmic residue alone. In his second sermon, the Buddha explains that what we think of as the self is only a collection of personality traits (skandas). They create the impression that there are both objects to be perceived and a person to perceive the objects, when in fact all of these objects are impermanent, constantly changing.

One of the clearest expressions of this basic Buddhist idea is demonstrated in a conversation between the monk Nagasena and King Milinda, contained in the Milindapanha. Nagasena uses the example of a chariot to illustrate no self, explaining to Milinda that although one can point to, ride, or see a chariot, it only exists in-so far as it is a collection of parts—axles, wheels, reins, and so on—and that since no single part can be called the chariot, there is no essential, independent thing called a chariot, just as there is no essential, independent self.

Often called “the chain of conditioned arising” or “the chain of becoming,” pratitya-samutpada (Pali, paticca-samuppada) is broken into 12 links and is one of the most important Buddhist doctrines, one about which Buddha’s disciple Sariputta says, “Whoever understands conditioned arising understands the dharma.” This is a more elaborate understanding of karma and samsara, a vision of cause and effect in which everything in the world is dependent on some other thing for its existence, succinctly expressed in this simple formula, which occurs in any number of Pali texts: “When this is, that is / This arising, that arises / When this is not, that is not / This ceasing, that ceases.” In other words, one thing begets another. Birth begets life, which begets decay, which begets death, which begets birth, and around and around. To get out of the circle, one must break the chain somewhere, most efficiently at its weakest link, ignorance, which is done by applying oneself to mastering the dharma.

The Four Noble Truths is really the doctrinal foundation of Buddhism, a kind of basic blueprint of the Buddha’s teachings, delivered in his first sermon at Sarnath after attaining enlightenment.

The first Noble Truth, suffering (duhkha; Pali, dukkha), posits that suffering exists in the world. This we see in the story of Siddhartha in the palace: The young prince is made aware that the world is not all wonderful, as it appears to be in the palace, but in fact that the rosy life was just an illusion. In the first sermon, the Buddha says that birth is duhkha, old age is duhkha, sickness is duhkha, death is duhkha—in fact, everything is duhkha, including things that seem to be pleasurable.

The first Noble Truth is intended not to engender a pessimistic worldview in Buddhists but, rather, to alert them to the reality of the world and to promote a clear, truthful view of that world. Furthermore, the response to the reality of suffering, as we see clearly in the Buddha’s own desire to realize and share the dharma, is to show compassion (karuna) and kindness (maitri) to all living beings.

The second Noble Truth is the arising (samudaya) of suffering. Since suffering exists, the Buddha posits, it must have a cause, which is most simply expressed as tanha (thirst or desire). This thirst takes many forms: the desire for life, for things, for love. Although on its face this, too, may seem to engender a pessimistic worldview, in which the individual must stifle all sensual pleasure, it is important again to stress that the Buddha advocates a middle path, between sensual indulgence and extreme asceticism. Pleasurable experiences should be experienced for what they are, without grasping. Indeed, the Buddha pronounces that it is precisely because humans mindlessly grasp things and experiences, always rushing to the next, that they fail to fully experience their lives, including that which is pleasurable. The point then is not to deny the sensual but to fully experience sensations and thoughts as they are happening.

The third Noble Truth is cessation (nirodha) of suffering. Just as the Buddha saw that if suffering exists it must logically have an origin, so, too, must it have an end. The end of duhkha is, logically, related to its source; nirodha comes as a result of ending craving, of stopping the grasping after things that are impermanent. When one stops grasping, one stops generating karma, and it is karma and karma alone that keeps beings trapped in samsara. The absolute elimination of karma is nirvana, eternal freedom from the bondage of samsara.

Of all Buddhist concepts, nirvana has perhaps been the most misunderstood. Although it is frequently equated with heaven or described as a state of bliss, nirvana is actually the absence of all states. The Sanskrit word literally means “to blow out, to extinguish,” as one would blow out a candle. Nirvana then refers to the absolute elimination of karma. Since karma is what keeps us in samsara, what constitutes our very being, the elimination of karma logically means an elimination of being. This is the end of duhkha, the end of the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, beyond all states of existence.

Despite the fact that nirvana is the Buddhist understanding of ultimate salvation, the Buddha himself had little to say on the topic, often warning his followers of the dangers of grasping on to the end goal at the expense of living a focused, compassionate life. He describes it as the “extinction of desire, the extinction of illusion” and also as the “abandoning and destruction of desire and craving for these Five Aggregates of attachment; that is the cessation of duhkha.” When asked once if nirvana were a state or not a state of existence, however, the Buddha responded that this was an unanswerable question and left it at that. The point again is that the focus should be on mindful progression on the path, not on the destination. The person who spends too much time obsessively focusing on nirvana—or on any aspect of existence or doctrinal complexity—is, the Buddha said, like the man who, upon being shot by a poison arrow, asks who shot it, how did he aim, what sort of wood the arrow was made of, and so on. The point is that the man must first remove the arrow before the poison kills him.

That said, however, later Buddhist schools inevitably took up the question of nirvana, frequently engaging in long philosophical analysis of the possibility of describing it in positive terms. In some Mahayana schools nirvana is, in fact, often described as a kind of state of blissful calm.

The fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path (marga; Pali, magga). Often envisioned as the Wheel of the Dharma with eight spokes, this is the middle path between extreme asceticism and extreme hedonism, a systematic and practical way to realize the truth and eliminate suffering. The Eightfold Path is traditionally divided into three distinct phases that should, ideally, be progressively mastered.

The first phase is sila (ethics) and involves purifying one’s outward behavior (and motivations for such behavior). The Buddha describes three elements in sila (the first three steps of the Eightfold Path): (1) right action, (2) right speech, and (3) right livelihood. Next comes samadhi (meditation), which is broken down, likewise, into three elements (the next three steps): (4) right effort, (5) right mindfulness, and (6) right concentration. The third phase is prajna (wisdom) and is broken down into two elements (the last two steps): (7) right understanding and (8) right intentions. Prajna is not just knowledge or things one learns. Rather, it is a profound way of understanding being in the world. Prajna is often described as a sword that cuts through all illusion, a mental faculty that enables one to fully experience the world as it is without grasping. A later Mahayana school uses an image of geese reflected on a perfectly still pond to describe this state: The average person looks at the pond and, upon seeing the reflection of a flock of geese, immediately looks up. But the person who has perfected prajna does not look up but, rather, fully experiences the thing that he or she is seeing in the moment, the reality of the reflection, without distractions. In a sense such a person does not think at all but only sees the world as it is—what the Buddha called yathabhutam (in a state of perpetual flux).

With the rise of Mahayana Buddhism sometime shortly after the turn of the first millennium, new and increasingly more complex doctrines emerged, extending the original teachings of the Buddha. In particular, new understandings of both the character and activity of the Buddha emerged, and new doctrines evolved that held that the Buddha had not, in fact, completely left the world when he died and attained nirvana but was still an active presence in the world.

This is first articulated in the doctrine of the various bodies (kayas) of the Buddha. The first of these bodies—which are not, in fact, conceived of strictly as physical forms but rather more like the different ways in which the Buddha continues to be present in the world—is the dharmakaya, or “body of the teachings.” This is the Buddha’s form as wisdom, truth, and the real nature of reality (emptiness). This is that which characterizes the Buddha as the Buddha. Sometimes called Buddhaness, dharmakaya is the whole collection of wonderful qualities that are known as the Buddha. It also refers to the teachings, in their essence. The second body is called the nirmanakaya, or “transformation body” (also sometimes called the rupakaya, or “form body”). This is the earthly form, or manifestation, of the Buddha. Finally there is a more rarified form of the Buddha called the sambhogakaya, or “enjoyment body,” the form of the Buddha that those who have attained enlightenment enjoy and interact with.

Related to this idea of the multiple bodies of the Buddha was the emergence of the concept of the bodhisattva—an enlightened being who works for the welfare of all those still caught in samsara—which is perhaps the hallmark of the Mahayana schools. Although bodhisattva was a common word in the earliest of Buddhist texts, these pre-Mahayana schools held that once the Buddha had attained enlightenment, he taught the dharma to his disciples and then, on his death, entered nirvana, or parinirvana, thus ending his existence in the realm of samsara forever. The Buddha’s immediate disciples were known as arhats (worthy ones) upon attaining enlightenment, and they too entered nirvana upon death. The Mahayana, however, were critical of this position—they derisively called the arhats pratyekabuddhas, or “solitary Buddhas”—and posited that the Buddha and all other enlightenment beings postponed final nirvana out of their compassion for the sufferings of other beings, choosing to remain in samsara to perfect their own Buddhahood and work for the benefit of all other beings, until each one attains enlightenment.

There are a number of important elements here. For one thing, all beings were now conceived as at once having the innate potential to become a Buddha and also sharing in a kind of universal enlightenment as well. The path then was reconceived as being the path of the bodhisattva, a path that takes many, many lives but is intent on developing bodhicitra (the awakened mind and the very quality of enlightenment), a quality that fundamentally shifts one’s attention away from the self to a selfless concern for the well-being of others. Each bodhisattva takes a vow to help other beings and to continue to do so indefinitely, a vow that involves cultivating a set of six—later expanded to 10—perfections, or paramitas. The 10 perfections are (1) dana (generosity), (2) sila (morality), (3) ksanti (patience and forbearance), (4) virya (vigor, the endless and boundless energy that bodhisattvas employ when helping others), (5) dhyana (meditation), (6) prajna (wisdom), (7) upaya (skillful means), (8) conviction, (9) strength, and (10) knowledge. Once a bodhisattva has mastered these 10 perfections, then he is fully realized as a buddha.

With the rise of the ideal of the bodhisattva came also the development of a complex pantheon of enlightened beings. Three of the most popular and most important bodhisattvas are Maitreya, Avalokiteshvara, and Manjushri.

Eventually the Buddha’s teachings will lose their potency owing to the natural decay of the world. When things become unbearable, Maitreya will be reborn and will provide for the welfare of all beings and promote a new set of teachings.

The quintessential Buddhist savior figure and the embodiment of compassion, Avalokiteshvara is perhaps the most popular of all bodhisattvas. His name is significant: He is the “lord who sees all,” in the sense that he sees all suffering and responds immediately. He saves us from dangers: fire, drowning in a river, being lost at sea, murder, demonic attack, fierce beasts and noxious snakes or insects, legal punishment, attack by bandits, falling from steep precipices, extremes of weather, internecine civil or military unrest, and others.

Especially associated with wisdom, Manjushri is a key figure in numerous Mahayana scriptures, and he has been the focus of significant cultic activity throughout Mahayana Buddhist countries. His name means “gentle glory,” although he is called by many names and epithets, some of which refer to his relation to speech (Vagishvara, “lord of speech”) or to his disarming youth (Kumarabhuta, “in the form of a youth” or “having become the crown prince”). Because he is destined soon to become a Buddha, Manjushri is often called “prince of the teachings.”

A concept that first appears in the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) texts, the idea of emptiness (shunyata) extends the Buddha’s teachings about dependent origination and posits that all phenomena are dependent for their being on some other thing. The first-century thinker Nagarjuna introduced the most radical understanding of this concept, arguing that just as the terms “long” and “short” take on meaning only in relation to each other and are themselves devoid of independent qualities (longness or shortness), so too do all phenomena (all dharmas) lack their own being (svabhava). If a thing were to have an independent and unchanging own being, Nagarjuna reasons, then it would follow that it is neither produced nor existent, because origination and existence presuppose change and transience. All things, physical as well as mental, can originate and develop only when they are empty of their own being. Nevertheless, Nagarjuna contends, elements do have what he calls a conventional reality, so that we still interact with them, think thoughts, and so on, even if ultimately they are empty of reality. Related to this is the concept of skillful means, upaya, which refers to the bodhisattva’s employment of whatever means are necessary to help beings toward enlightenment. Language, for instance, is itself empty, in that it depends on external references to make sense, but language is necessary to communicate and is therefore a skillful means through which to spread the dharma.

Moral Code of Conduct

One of the things that makes the theory and practice of ethics (sila) particularly interesting in the Buddhist context is the tension that exists, right on the surface, between the individual’s responsibility for his or her own salvation—as exemplified by the Buddha’s advice that one must be one’s own island (atta dipa), dependent on no one other than one’s self for salvation—and the individual’s connection with social life, as governed by the collective nature of karma. This is perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the Buddha’s own life story. For instance, in Johnston’s translation of The Buddhacarita, or, Acts of the Buddha, the young Siddhartha’s wife, Yashodhara, when she hears that Siddhartha has abandoned her, falls upon the ground “like a Brahminy duck without its mate”—a common symbol of lifelong marital partnership, such that one duck will die of remorse upon the death of the other. Likewise, his son is described as “poor Rahula,” who is fated “never to be dandled in his father’s lap” (pp. viii, 58).

The ethical and moral challenge is always to strike a balance between one’s concern for the suffering of others and one’s own progress on the path; too much concern for other people can be a hindrance, just as not enough can generate negative karma. The key to Buddhist ethics, if not in fact to the whole of the Buddha’s teachings, is the cultivation of mindfulness (sati)—to develop a mental attitude of complete and selfless awareness, a mental attitude that necessarily influences the manner in which one acts toward other living beings, a mental awareness that fundamentally informs one’s every act and intention to act.

For the monk the ethical system is extremely complex and extensive, contained primarily and explicitly in the Vinaya but secondarily and implicitly in every utterance of the Buddha. To be a monk is to be necessarily ethical. For the layperson the ethical guidelines are less specific, seeming to amount to “live the proper life.” This means that one must be aware that all acts and all beings are part of samsara and are thus caught up in karma and pratitya-samutpada (Pali,paticca-samuppada; the chain of conditioned arising). Whatever one does has effects, and those effects are not always obvious. The implications here are perhaps best ethically stated when the Buddha says, “Oh Bhikkhus, it is not easy to find a being who has not formerly been your mother, or your father, your brother, your sister or your son or daughter” (Samyutta Nikaya, vol. II, p. 189). In other words, any act necessarily affects not only the immediate actor but all beings, who are, logically, karmically connected.

It is also important to remember that we are still within the basic Brahmanical milieu here. What we see in Buddhism, however, is an emphasis on the individual as he or she fits into society, not an emphasis on how society molds or controls the individual, as we see in Hinduism, where the emphasis is on order and duty, on making sure that everything and everyone stays in the proper place—hence caste, life stages, and so on. This is not to say that this societal component is entirely absent in Buddhism, since one of the motivations for the individual to act ethically is to make society work. Without social order things would fall utterly apart, as is perhaps best articulated in what is sometimes called the Buddhist book of Genesis, the Aganna Sutta, which describes a social world in which chaos and decay emerge precisely because beings act greedily and selfishly. Proper, ethical action in Buddhism is not performed out of duty or some higher cosmic order, however; rather, one acts ethically out of one’s own free will, because without such proper action, the individual can make no progress on the path.

The importance of proper giving (dana) is utterly central to Buddhist ethics and to the life of both the layperson and the monk; indeed, dana can be said to be the key to monk-lay relations. The first principle that must be noted here is that in Buddhism there is a marked ambiguity about material wealth. The concept of non-attachment, the absence of grasping, is of crucial importance here; from the Buddhist perspective material goods are only important as a means of cultivating non-attachment. Again, however, the middle way is emphasized: Too many possessions can lead to attachment, just as too few can lead to craving. Any material prosperity offers at once the opportunity for greater giving and the cultivation and expression of non-attachment, but such prosperity also offers a temptation toward the kind of anti-dharmic self-indulgence that leads to increased entrapment in the web of worldly existence.

The model donor in Buddhism is the laywoman Sujata, who gave Siddhartha the simple and selfless gift of rice gruel, which enabled him to gain the strength to make the final push to enlightenment. What makes this act of dana so important is that Sujata gave her gift modestly, with no self-interest, no expectation of gain or reward; she was responding with selfless compassion to Siddhartha’s obvious need.

Equally important as a model donor is the king Vessantara, whose story is told in a popular tale from the Jataka collection that provides not only a model of ethical giving but also a cautionary tale about the karmic consequences of giving too much. In this story Vessantara eventually gives away his kingdom and prosperity, his wife and children, everything, and the result is suffering for all until everything is restored and Vessantara realizes the need to give modestly.

Monks also engage in dana, although rather than giving material goods, which they necessarily depend on the laity for, they give what the Dhammapada says is the best gift of all: “The gift of dharma excels all gifts.”

Two important metaphors for proper ethical giving are bija and khsetra. Bija basically means “seed” but is nearly always used to describe the seed of an auspicious act. This act, if it is indeed done with the correct selfless motives, bears karmic fruit (phala); the act itself is called kushala, which can be defined as “good, moral, skillful, proper,” or, to use the best Buddhism definition, that which is “karmically wholesome”—in other words, a gift that is given with proper intention, given out of selfless compassion. The best field in which to plant a seed is the sangha (community of monks), and the best seed to plant is an act of giving, dana. The sangha is thus consistently referred to as a fertile karmic field. This imagery is further developed in times when there are monastic schisms or crises, in which case the monks are sometimes described as a barren field in which no seeds will bear fruit. This imagery is not limited to the monks and gifts to them but refers to any auspicious action.

Buddhist acts of charity, then, are fundamentally symbiotic in nature. The laypeople provide the monks with the material support that they need—shelter, robes, food, and so on—and in the process cultivate the crucial attitudes of non-attachment and compassion, a kind of domestic asceticism that is not disruptive of the social order. The monks, in turn, depend on the laypeople and return the material gifts with the gift of the Buddha’s teachings. Furthermore, the ideology of dana is such that the laypeople’s gifts will only bear “fruit” (that is, positive karma) if the monks are pure (in other words, a fertile field). If a particular monastery becomes corrupt, then the laypeople will give somewhere else, providing a kind of ethical imperative for monastic purity.

A crucial element in all of this is the concept of punya (merit), which is positive karma. By giving selflessly, one “earns” merit, accumulating positive karma, which determines the quality of one’s next rebirth. If one is too attached to this merit, though—too focused on the end products and not the selfless and compassionate act of giving (and giving up)—then one in fact earns not positive karma but negative, which will hinder one’s ultimate spiritual progress.

The pancha sila are the basic ethical guidelines for the layperson, although they are not necessarily followed rigidly by everyone. In some ways they are rather like the Ten Commandments in Judaism and Christianity, in that they are the basis for ethical behavior, a kind of practical blueprint. A fundamental difference from the Ten Commandments, though, is that the pancha sila are voluntarily followed and are a matter of personal choice, not an imperative to act in a particular manner.

The first guideline is No killing. The basic idea here is that every individual is connected with all other living beings. Buddhists go to considerable lengths to qualify this precept, giving five conditions that govern it: (1) presence of a living being, (2) knowledge of this, (3) intention to kill, (4) act of killing, and (5) death.

What is most important about this first precept is not its negative form, injunction against killing, but its positive aspect, that of compassion and loving kindness. This positive aspect is one of the most common things upon which laypeople meditate, often with this verse from the Metta Sutta: “May all beings be happy and secure; / May their hearts be wholesome. / Whatever living beings there be—/ Feeble or strong, tall, stout or medium, / Short, small or large, without exception—/ Seen or unseen, / Those dwelling far or near, / Those who are born or who are to be born, / May all beings be happy.”

The second guideline is No taking what is not given. This is particularly important for the monks. Here the concept ofdana is crucial. Because one of the chief ethical activities of the layperson is to give unselfishly to the sangha, this giving is contingent on the monks accepting, also unselfishly, whatever is given. The monks are not to take anything that is not given to them. This holds true also for the layperson, in that he or she is not to steal.

The third guideline is No sexual misconduct. This prevents lust and envy, which are the most powerful forms of thirst (tanha).

The fourth guideline is No false speech. Lies create deception and illusion and lead to grasping. Also, for the monks, this is about not speaking false doctrines.

The fifth guideline is No liquor, which clouds the mind and prevents sati (mindfulness).

In addition to these five basic principles, monks follow additional basic rules, sometimes three, sometimes five: No untimely meals (thereby promoting group sharing of food and hindering the desire to hoard); No dancing or playing of music (thereby promoting a sober, nonfrivolous life); No adornments or jewelry (which would be against the basic ascetic attitude of the monk); No high seats (an injunction intended to promote equality in the sangha); and No handling of money (thereby preventing greed and attachments).

Sacred Books

The Buddha famously told his chief disciple, Ananda, that after his death, the dharma he was leaving behind would continue to be the present teacher, the “guiding light,” to all future Buddhists, a scene that establishes the paramount importance of sacred texts in Buddhism. Tradition holds that during the first rainy-season retreat after the Buddha’s death, thus sometime in the latter half of the sixth century B.C.E., the Buddha’s disciples gathered at Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, in Bihar) and orally collected all of the Buddha’s teachings into three sets, or “three baskets” (tripitaka; Pali, tipitaka). By about the end of the first century C.E., these oral texts were written down. These three collections form the basis of the Buddhist canon.

The first collection of the Pali Tipitaka is the Sutta Pitaka, some 30 volumes of the Buddha’s discourses as well as various instructional and ritual texts. The Vinaya Pitaka, or collection of monastic rules, includes the list of 227 rules for the monks (311 for nuns), called the Patimokkha, and detailed accounts as to how and why they were developed. The Vinaya also contains narratives of the Buddha’s life, rules for rituals, ordination instructions, and an extensive index of topics covered. The third group of texts is the Abhidhamma Pitaka, or collection of scholastic doctrines. These are highly abstract, philosophical texts dealing with all manner of issues, particularly the minutiae that make up human experience. The last of these texts, the Patthana Abhidhamma, stretches for some 6,000 pages.

In addition to the fundamental texts of the Tipitaka, each text also is accompanied by an extensive commentary, and often several subcommentaries, that clarifies the grammatical and linguistic ambiguities of the text and also extends the analysis, serving as a kind of reader’s (or listener’s) guide through the book’s sometimes confusing philosophical and ritual points.

With the rise of the Mahayana, new books were added to this basic canonical core, most of them composed in Sanskrit; the tradition holds, however, that these were not new sacred texts but were the higher teachings of the Buddha himself that were set aside for a later revealing. Perhaps the best known of these is the Lotus Sutra, composed probably around the turn of the first millennium, and also the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) texts. Additional texts continued to be added as the Mahayana schools developed in India. As Buddhism branched out, these texts, and the earlier Tipitaka, were translated by Buddhist monks from both Tibet and China. These translations sometimes led to further expansion of the canon, particularly in Tibet, where the rise of the Vajrayana (Tantric) schools led to more new texts; likewise, as Ch’an (Zen in Japan) developed, new sacred texts were written and preserved.

Sacred Symbols

Early Buddhism employed a variety of visual symbols to communicate aspects of the Buddha’s teachings: the Wheel of the Dharma, symbolic of his preaching (“turning”) his first sermon and also, with its eight spokes, of Buddhism’s Eightfold Path; the bodhi tree, which symbolizes not only the place of his enlightenment (under the tree) but the enlightenment experience itself; the throne, symbolizing his status as “ruler” of the religious realm and also, through its emptiness, his passage into final nirvana; the deer, symbolizing the place of his first sermon, the Deer Park at Sarnath, and also the protective qualities of the dharma; the footprint, symbolizing both his former physical presence on earth and his temporal absence; and the lotus, symbolic of the individual’s journey up through the “mud” of existence, to bloom, with the aid of the dharma, into pure enlightenment. Later Buddhism added countless other symbols. Among them, in the Mahayana, for instance, the sword becomes a common symbol of the incisive nature of the Buddha’s teachings; in Tibet the vajra (diamond or thunderbolt) is a ubiquitous symbol of the pure and unchanging nature of the dharma.

Early and Modern Leaders

The Buddha’s immediate disciples not only formed the first Buddhist community but also were responsible for orally preserving his teachings. One of the most important of these early followers was Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin, who accompanied the Buddha for more than 20 years and figures prominently in many early Buddhist texts. Sariputta, one of the Buddha’s first converts (along with Mahamogallana), was the Buddha’s most trusted disciple and was often depicted as the wisest. Sariputta also served as the Buddha’s son’s teacher when he joined the sangha (community of monks). Another important early figure is Mahakassapa, a Brahman who became a close disciple of the Buddha. Mahakassapa presided over the first Buddhist Council at Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir, in Bihar) and was later celebrated in Ch’an (Zen in Japan) as the receiver of the first transmission of the Buddha’s special, esoteric teachings, when the Buddha, upon being asked a question about the dharma, is said to have held up a flower and Mahakassapa smiled, silently signifying his reception of this special teaching. The Buddha’s aunt, Mahapajapati, also figures prominently in several early texts. Not only did she raise him after his mother’s death but she was ordained as the first woman admitted to sangha.

The Greco-Bactrian king Milinda, also called Menander or Menandros, reigned over Afghanistan and Northern India in the latter half of the second century B.C.E. and is one of the most important royal converts to Buddhism. He had a series of discussions with a Buddhist monk, Nagasena, which were compiled into a famous work entitled the Milindapanha.Perhaps the most famous of all historical figures in Buddhism is the Indian king Ashoka (ruled 230-207 B.C.E.). He was the founder of the Maurya Dynasty and the first king to rule over a united India, as well as being one of Buddhism’s first royal patrons. Ashoka abolished war in his empire, restricted killing for food, built hospitals, erected thousands of stupas (Buddhist burial mounds), and engraved a series of edicts on rocks and pillars throughout his empire that articulated the basic moral and ethical principle of Buddhism. Ashoka was also instrumental in the spread of Buddhism outside of India. His son, Mahinda (third century B.C.E.), was the leader of a Buddhist missionary enterprise to Sri Lanka and was thus instrumental in the spread of Buddhism outside of India.

Another important early Buddhist king was Harsha-vardhana (606-47). He ruled a large empire in northern India and became an important Buddhist convert. Like his predecessor Ashoka, he is described in Buddhist texts as a model ruler—benevolent, energetic, and just, active in the administration and prosperity of his empire—and, like Ashoka, he is frequently invoked as a model for all righteous rulers.

There are many early historical figures outside of India. One of the most important records of the early Buddhist world comes to us from the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien (fourth to fifth century). Not only did he obtain many Sanskrit texts of the Pali Tipitaka that he translated upon his return to China in 414, but he also wrote an influential record of his travels that remains one of the most informative views of the early Buddhist world in India. He was followed by another Chinese pilgrim, Hsuan-tsang (602-64). Hsuan-tsang, like his predecessor Fa-hsien, was a Buddhist monk who traveled throughout India collecting doctrinal texts, which he then translated from Sanskrit into Chinese, and left a detailed record of his travels. Hsuan-tsang was also the founder in China of the Consciousness-Only (Yogacara) school.

The sixth-century South Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidharma is a central figure in Chinese and, later, Japanese Buddhism. He arrived at the Chinese court in 520 and is credited with founding the Ch’an (Zen) school of Buddhism. Other important East Asian historical figures are Honen (1133-1212), also called Genku, who in 1175 established the Jodo (Pure Land) school in Japan; Shinran (1173-1263), founder of the True Pure Land School of Japanese Buddhism, who is also credited with popularizing congregational worship and introducing reforms, such as salvation by faith alone, marriage of priests, and meat eating; and Nichiren (1222-82), founder of the Nichiren sect in Japan.

In Tibet the monk Padmasambhava (eighth century) is one of the best-known and important figures. He is a Tantric saint who was instrumental in introducing Buddhism to Tibet; mythologically he is credited with converting to Buddhism the local demons and gods who tormented the Tibetan people, turning them into protectors of the religion. Atisha (982-1054) was an Indian monk and scholar who went to Tibet in 1038. He is credited with entirely reforming the prevailing Buddhism in Tibet by enacting measures to enforce celibacy in the existing order and to raise the level of morality within the Tibetan sangha. He founded the Kadampa school, which later became the Geluk-pa school. Like his Chinese counterparts Fa-hsien and Hsuan-tsang, Buston (1008-64), a Tibetan Buddhist, translated much of the Buddhist sacred literature, including Tantra texts, into classic Tibetan and is sometimes credited with making the definitive arrangements of the Kanjur and Tanjur, the two basic Tibetan collections of Buddhist principles. He also produced a history of Buddhism in Tibet that is among the most important documents for Buddhism’s early development in that region. Finally, two extremely important semihistorical figures are Marpa (1012-96) and Milarepa (1040-1143). Marpa was a Tibetan layman thought to have imported songs and texts from Bengal to Tibet, but he is best known and most venerated as the guru of Milarepa. Milarepa was a saint and poet of Tibetan Buddhism who continues to be extremely popular. His well-known autobiography recounts how in his youth he practiced black magic in order to take revenge on relatives who deprived his mother of the family inheritance and then later repented and sought Buddhist teaching. Milarepa stands figuratively as the model for all Tibetans.

One of the most important religious and social leaders in Tibet is the Panchen Lama, who ranks second only to the Dalai Lama among the Grand Lamas of the Geluk-pa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. His seat is in the Tashilhumpo monastery at Shigatse. The current Dalai Lama (born in 1935) is the spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists. He has lived in exile since 1959, when the Chinese invaded Tibet. The Dalai Lama has been instrumental not only in aiding the Tibetan people but also in spreading Buddhism to the West.

The Sri Lankan Buddhist Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) stands as one of the most important Buddhist propagandists of the modern era. Dharmapala was intimately involved in the restoration of Bodh Gaya in India, the birthplace of Buddhism, and with spreading Buddhism to the West. He was for much of his life closely associated with Henry Steele Olcott (1832-1907), an American who, along with H.H. Blavatsky, founded the Theosophical Society. Olcott worked to establish a new lay Buddhism in Sri Lanka, where he founded schools and lay organizations, and he wrote The Buddhist Catechism, which was an important tool in reestablishing and preserving Buddhism among the lay population of Sri Lanka.

One of the most important early scholars of Buddhism was T.W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922). Rhys Davids was professor of Pali at London University and one of the founders of the university’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Along with his wife, Caroline, he pioneered the translation, study, and transmission of Pali text in the West. Ananda Metteyya (Charles Henry Allan Bennett; 1872-1923) is another important Western Buddhist. The son of an electrical engineer, he was born in London and trained as an analytical chemist before becoming the first British bhikkhu (monk) and Buddhist missionary. Bhikkhu Ñanamoli (Osbert Moore; 1905-60) was a pioneer British bhikkhu and Pali scholar who went to Sri Lanka and was ordained as a monk. He translated The Visuddhimagga into English as The Path of Purification; he also translated Nettippakarana (The Guide) and Patisambhidamagga (Path of Discrimination), as well as most of the sections of the Majjhima Nikaya and several from the Samyutta Nikaya. Ayya Khema (Ilse Ledermann; 1923-97) was born in Berlin to Jewish parents; in 1938 she escaped from Germany and began studying Buddhism. In 1978 she helped to establish Wat Buddha-Dhamma, a forest monastery near Sydney, Australia. She later set up the International Buddhist Women’s Centre as a training center for Sri Lankan nuns and the Parappuduwa Nun’s Island at Dodanduwa, Sri Lanka.

Major Theologians and Authors

One of the most important biographical accounts of the Buddha’s life, the Buddhacarita, is also the first complete biography of the Buddha; it was written by Asvaghosa (second century). Perhaps the most important theologian of early Buddhism was Nargarjuna (second to third century), sometimes called “the second Buddha.” Nagarjuna is considered to be the founder of the Madhyamika (Middle Way) school and is counted as a patriarch of both Zen and Vajrayana (Tantra). He is held in the highest regard by all branches of the Mahayana. Another important early author was Kumarajiva (344-413), a Buddhist scholar and missionary who had a profound influence in China as a translator and a clarifier of Buddhist terminology and philosophy. Buddhaghosa (fifth century) was one of the greatest Buddhist scholars in the religion’s history. He translated Sinhalese commentaries into Pali, wrote numerous commentaries himself, and composed the Visuddhimagga (later translated as Path of Purification by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli). Asanga (310-90) was the founder of the Yogacara (Consciousness-Only) school of Buddhism. He is closely associated with the Indian philosopher Vasubandhu (420-500). The two founded the Yogacara school of Mahayana Buddhism. Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakosa is one of the fullest expositions of the Abhidharma teachings of the Theravada school. Dhammapala (sixth to seventh century) was the author of numerous commentaries on the Pali canon and stands as one of the most influential figures in the Theravada. Shantideva (seventh to eighth century) is a later representative of the Madhyamika school of Mahayana Buddhism and author of two important surviving works, the Shikshasamuccaya (Compendium of Doctrines) and Bodhisattva Avatara (Entering the Path of Enlightenment), the latter of which is still used in Tibetan Buddhism as a teaching text.

Organizational Structure

The fundamental structure of Buddhism is that it is a self-governing body of individuals, each of whom is theoretically equal and intent on his or her own salvation while compassionately mindful of fellow beings. As soon as Buddhist monks began to form into groups, however, there was a need for rules (contained in the Vinaya Pitaka) and also for a degree of hierarchy that was needed to keep order, to enforce the rules, and to maintain religious purity within the community. This hierarchy was, and continues to be, based on seniority—the longer one has been a monk, the more seniority he or she has. There is thus no single authority in the Buddhist world. Rather, each school has a leader or group of leaders who provide guidance to the community as a whole, and the degree of internal hierarchy varies considerably from school to school and country to country.

There has always been a symbiosis between the sangha (community of monks) and the laity. The former depends on the latter for material support, while the latter depends on the former for religious instruction. In these roles they keep each other in check. The laity ensures the purity of the sangha in that unless the community of monks remains well regulated and pure, the laity’s gifts will not bear fruit (positive karma); likewise, the sangha serves as a constant reminder and model to the laity of the proper, salvifically beneficial religious life.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

The earliest holy sites in Buddhism were probably associated with the places where the Buddha’s relics were located. The tradition holds that after the Buddha’s body was cremated, his remains were divided into several portions that were set up in burial mounds (stupas) at important crossroads. These places provided opportunities for laypeople and monks to contemplate the Buddha’s teachings. The number of these reliquaries soon multiplied—Ashoka, the early Indian king, was said to have divided the relics into 84,000 pieces, placing them in stupas throughout India—and generally were under the care and protection of monasteries. Hence, not only were monasteries places of residence for the monks, they also became meeting places for the laity, places to hear the dharma and also to pay homage to the Buddha. Now virtually every monastic complex has a reliquary or stupa and a central meeting hall where the monks gather to recite the twice-monthly Patimokkha (the Vinaya rules) and receive donations from the laity, and also where the laity gather to hear dharma talks.

In medieval India eight special pilgrimage places developed, all associated with significant events in the Buddha’s life. Bodh Gaya, for instance, is the site of his enlightenment and continues to be a major place of pilgrimage for monks and laypeople from throughout the Buddhist world, as well as being home to several important monasteries representing Buddhists from many different countries and traditions. Outside of India new holy places developed as Buddhism developed, some places having mythological significance, some having specific historical or national significance associated with famous monks.

What is Sacred?

The earliest Buddhist traditions placed particular emphasis on the remains of the Buddha, which were divided into three basic categories: physical relics, such as bones and teeth; objects that the Buddha had used, such as his robe and relic bowl; and representations or images of the Buddha. The tradition holds that Ashoka divided the physical relics into 84,000 portions and distributed them throughout India. This is clearly an exaggeration, since the number of bodily relics enshrined in stupas throughout the Buddhist world vastly extends beyond the limits of a single physical body. Images of the Buddha are the most common object of devotion. Although it is typically held that images are to serve as objects of contemplation and emulation, an opportunity to cultivate the Buddha’s own auspicious qualities, they are also often invested with a kind of physical power and, like the relics, said to embody something of the presence of the Buddha himself (particularly in the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools). In addition to sculptural images of the Buddha, there is in the Mahayana and Vajrayana a vast pantheon of bodhisattvas who become objects of devotion. Significant monks, likewise, frequently become objects of devotion. In Japan, for instance, the bodies of particularly famous monks are embalmed and sometimes encased in shellac and then put on display, thus displaying a kind of present master.

Holidays and Festivals

There are a great many special days in the Buddhist tradition. Some of these days celebrate significant birthdays (of the Buddha or of the bodhisattvas), whereas others have to do with significant events in the monastic world. Typically on a festival day laypeople go to their local temple or monastery and offer food to the monks, vow to uphold the five ethical precepts (pancha sila), and listen to the dharma; they also distribute food to the poor and make offerings of food, robes, and money to the monks.

In countries where the Theravada prevails (Thailand, Myanmar [Burma], Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Laos), the Buddhist New Year is celebrated for three days from the first full-moon day in April. In predominantly Mahayana countries (China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet), the New Year typically starts on the first full-moon day in January, although this varies from country to country.

Vesak (the Buddha’s birthday) is the most significant Buddhist festival of the year, as it celebrates the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha, all of which tradition holds occurred on the same day. Vesak takes place on the first full-moon day in May.

On the full-moon day of the eighth lunar month (approximately July), the Asalha Puja Vesak takes place. This holiday commemorates the Buddha’s first teaching, “The Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” at the Deer Park in Sarnath.

Uposatha (or Poya) Days are four monthly holy days—when there is a new moon, a full moon, and quarter moons—that are observed in Theravada countries.

Pavarana Day marks the conclusion of the rainy-season retreat (vassa).

The Kathina (Robe Offering) Ceremony is held on an auspicious day within one month of the conclusion of the three-month rainy-season retreat for the monastic order. The ceremony marks not only the return of the monks into the larger community but the time when new robes and other requisites may be offered by the laity to the monks and nuns.

Specific to Myanmar (Burma), Abhidhamma Day celebrates the occasion when the Buddha is said to have gone to the Tushita heaven to teach his dead mother the Abhidharma. It is held on the full moon of the seventh month of the Burmese lunar year starting in April, which corresponds to the full-moon day in October.

In Thailand, at the end of the Kathin Festival season, the Loy Krathong (Floating Bowls) Festival takes place on the full-moon night of the 12th lunar month. People bring bowls made of leaves that they fill with flowers, candles, and incense and then float in the water. As the bowls float away, all bad luck is said to disappear. The traditional practice of Loy Krathong was meant to pay homage to the holy footprint of the Buddha on the beach of the Namada River in India.

Specific to Sri Lanka, the Festival of the Tooth takes place in Kandy, where the tooth relic of the Buddha is enshrined. The tooth itself, kept deep inside many caskets, is never actually seen. But once a year in August, on the night of the full moon, there is a special procession for it, which was traditionally said to protect the kingdom.

Ulambana (Ancestor Day) is celebrated throughout the Mahayana tradition from the first to the 15th days of the eighth lunar month. It is believed that the gates of hell are opened on the first day, and the ghosts may visit the world for 15 days. Food offerings are made during this time to relieve the sufferings of these ghosts. On the 15th day (Ulambana), people visit cemeteries to make offerings to the departed ancestors. Many Theravadins from Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand also observe this festival.

Avalokiteshvara’s birthday is a festival that celebrates the bodhisattva ideal represented by Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin), who represents the perfection of compassion in the Mahayana traditions of Tibet and China. The festival occurs on the first full-moon day in March.

Mode of Dress

The most distinct mode of dress in the Buddhist world is the robes worn by monks and nuns. The symbolic significance of this form of dress can be easily seen in the common phrase for becoming a monk, “taking the robes.” Although the color and style of robes varies considerably from country to country, as well as from school to school, all monastics wear robes. Not only does the robe physically mark the monk as distinct from the layperson, but it also serves as a physical reminder of the monk’s ascetic lifestyle. The Buddha himself fashioned his own robe out of donated scraps and recommended that his followers do the same. Buddhist robes continue to be symbolically constructed in the same manner, sewn together out of many smaller pieces of cloth (although not usually actual scraps). Robes are most often saffron in color, although the range of colors goes from yellow to red, depending on the monastery.

On auspicious days throughout the Buddhist world, particularly full-moon days (Uposatha Days), pious laypeople will often wear special clothing, usually all white, to signify their purity and taking of the pancha sila (five ethical vows). In Sri Lanka the reformer Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) formalized this mode of dress by proposing a special kind of ascetic layperson (called anagarika) who always adhered to the Buddhist ethical guidelines and always wore the simple, all-white garb.

Dietary Practices

Specific meals for specific occasions vary considerably throughout the Buddhist world, but virtually all traditions in all countries share two basic dietary prohibitions: alcohol is typically prohibited (always for monks), being regarded as a clouder of reason; likewise, meat is typically not eaten. One of the most basic ethical principles in Buddhism is that which prohibits the killing of any other being; this principle fundamentally informs Buddhist dietary practices. Vegetarianism is the ideal, certainly, but not always the practice, even in monasteries. Monks in particular are put in a kind of ethical double bind when it comes to eating. As much as they may wish to practice vegetarianism, in countries where monks go from home to home begging for their meals, they are also under an ethical and philosophical obligation to take (without grasping) whatever is offered; this provides the laity with the opportunity for a kind of domestic asceticism. Thus, if a layperson offers meat, the monk is obligated to accept it. The prohibition against killing or harming other beings, however, importantly involves intention, and if the monk had no say in the killing of the animal and if it was not killed specifically for him, then no karmic taint adheres to him because there was no ill intention on his part.

On particularly important holidays or festival days, Buddhists often eat special foods. For instance, in many countries laypeople eat a special milk and rice mixture, a kind of gruel intended to symbolically replicate Sujata’s initial gift of rice gruel to the Buddha, which enabled him to gain the strength for enlightenment.


Puja, or “honor,” is a ubiquitous form of worship throughout the Buddhist world, most typically directed at images of the Buddha and the various bodhisattvas and at the Buddha’s relics. Although the Buddha himself explicitly stated that he was not to be worshiped, either while he was alive or after his death—and that it was the dharma that should, instead, be learned and practiced—puja, in fact, often looks very much like worship, sometimes involving a great outpouring of emotion and adoration, even amounting to what seems like worship of a god. Buddhists frequently make offerings to images, typically fruit but sometimes money, as a gesture of respect, as an act of renunciation, or, in some cases, in the hopes of some favor in return, perhaps happiness or prosperity. Such acts of devotion are often performed in temples but can also be performed in small shrines in the home.

Puja typically involves not only the making of an offering but also meditation and prayer. Frequently a Buddhist layperson will approach an image, make his or her offering, and then kneel in prayer or meditation. These meditations sometimes involve a mental reconstruction of the Buddha’s auspicious qualities—perhaps his compassion or his profound wisdom—with the hope of cultivating those qualities oneself. The meditation might be directed to the well-being of others, one’s family members in particular, or one’s ancestors. These are often individual acts of quiet and contemplative devotion, but in some settings they can also be congregational as well. Likewise, such devotion sometimes is quite physical in nature. In Tibet, for instance, Buddhist laypeople will frequently circumambulate a stupa, turning smaller prayer wheels as they do (symbolically turning the Wheel of the Dharma), a ritual act that is also sometimes performed by making a series of bodily prostrations. Increasingly, laypeople are also becoming involved in formal meditation, traditionally the province of monks only. In Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and Sri Lanka, for instance, lay meditation classes are held at monasteries and temples.

Buddhist weddings are a relatively recent phenomenon, largely developed as a result of colonial exclusion of those who were not formally married. In some instances monks officiate at such events, although this is unusual. Funerals, though, quite often involve monks, who recite sacred texts, offer prayers for the dead intended to ensure their speedy and auspicious rebirth, and in some cases chant special “protective” verses intended to ward off potentially evil spirits associated with incomplete karmic transference from one birth to the next.

The first places of pilgrimage in Buddhism were associated with the Buddha’s relics. The Buddha said his followers could go to these places and feel great joy and tranquility. Furthermore, the Buddha explicitly stated that even those who died on the journey to such a place would experience the same mental and physical benefits as those who reached their destination. As Buddhism spread throughout India and the rest of Asia, new pilgrimage places emerged, some directly associated with the Buddha’s relics or with important events in his life and others more local in significance. The physical act of pilgrimage became, by extension, analogous to the inner journey that one “on the path” was to make. As such, pilgrimage is a kind of renunciation in microcosm, a departure from—and symbolic renunciation of—the mundane and domestic world in pursuit of a higher religious goal. Pilgrims, like monks, frequently dress in simple, distinctive clothes; they take vows of chastity and abstain from any karmically harmful acts; they meditate and study. Certainly the pilgrim, unlike the monk, eventually returns to normal life, but the ideal is that he or she returns changed by the experience and shares this change with those who did not make the journey.

Rites of Passage

The most basic rite of passage in Buddhism is the taking of the Three Refuges (also known as the Triple Gem): “I go for refuge to the Buddha, I go for refuge to the dharma, I go for refuge to the sangha.” This is a ritual recitation of the intent to live as a Buddhist, to embody the dharma, and to seek guidance from the dharma, and, as such, it is a kind of minimal condition for becoming a Buddhist. For the monk, this simple ritual is the first step in a far more elaborate rite of passage: formal ordination into the sangha. The first step in this elaborate process is severing one’s ties with domestic life, a ritual renunciation that is usually called “leaving home for homelessness.” It is followed by a series of vows, particularly the vow to follow the code of monastic discipline, the Vinaya. For lay Buddhists other significant rites of passage are birth; marriage, which in many Buddhist countries is frequently marked by the taking of specifically Buddhist vows; and death, which marks not only the end of this life but the transition to the next rebirth.


The Buddha stressed several key issues with regard to membership within the Buddhist tradition, among these the following two: first, Buddhism was open to anyone, regardless of social status or gender (this would later become an issue within the sangha, however, as women were excluded in at least some Buddhist schools); and second, that becoming a Buddhist was an entirely self-motivated act. In a sense the Buddha and his early followers did engage in missionizing activities, but they did so not so much to gain converts to their new religion as to share the dharma out of compassion, out of an attempt to alleviate the suffering (duhkha; Pali, dukkha) that, according to the Buddha, characterizes life. The first formal Buddhist mission was initiated by Ashoka (third century B.C.E.), who sent his son, Mahinda, to Sri Lanka to establish a lineage of monks in that country.

Buddhists have never been particularly zealous in spreading their religion. Rather, Buddhist ideals have historically been imported and incorporated into indigenous practices, such as the integration of Buddhism with Taoism and Confucianism in China or the integration of Buddhism and the indigenous Bon tradition in Tibet. This has meant, in practice, that Buddhism has typically grown and spread through would-be converts coming to the religion rather than the religion actively seeking them out. One important way Buddhism has grown in the modern era is through immigration of Asians to Europe and North America, particularly since the end of World War II. These immigrants gradually set up temples in their adopted countries, and frequently curious non-Asians were drawn in. Furthermore, because temples were often begun by lay Buddhists, new and expanded roles for the laity emerged.

In Asia, also, many popular new movements have emerged during this same period. The lay movement Soka Gakkai International, which began in Japan but has spread throughout the world, adopts the teachings of the thirteenth-century Zen teacher Nichiren and focuses on a kind of practical self-transformation through chanting. In Sri Lanka the Sarvodaya movement has expanded Buddhist membership by focusing on practical, village-oriented development projects with a decidedly Buddhist orientation. In Thailand the Dhammakaya movement, founded by a laywoman, has become enormously popular. And in India there has been a resurgence of Buddhism among the untouchable population since the public conversion of the first president of India, A.K. Ambedkar, in 1956 (there are now some 6 million Ambedkar, or Dalit, Buddhists in India).

Religious Tolerance

Because of its emphasis on self-effort and its recognition that people learn and progress at different rates, Buddhism has always been a profoundly tolerant religious tradition, tending to view other religions not so much as competitors but as different versions of the same basic quest for truth and salvation. Indeed, the Buddha never proposed that his was the only path but rather that it was the most efficacious; a person following some other religious tradition, an early text states, would be like a man slowly walking to his destination, whereas the Buddhist was like a man riding a cart to that same place. Certainly the walker and the rider would both, in time, reach their destinations, but the latter would arrive much sooner.

This is not to say that Buddhists have not engaged in polemical attacks against other religions. Certainly they have, such as the scholarly attacks on Hinduism that were common in Buddhism in the medieval Indian milieu. This is also not to say that Buddhists have not clashed, sometimes violently, with members of other religions. In modern Sri Lanka, for instance, Buddhists and Hindus have been fighting against each other in a civil war that has taken the lives of tens of thousands; however, this and other such clashes tend not to be wars about differing religious ideologies so much as they are about ethnic and political tensions.

Social Justice

On the surface it would appear that Buddhism would not be a religion that lends itself to taking an active role in social issues, given that at its core is the individual search for individual salvation. It is imperative, however, to understand that the Buddha set out for his quest for enlightenment not out of a selfish quest for spiritual fulfillment but out of compassion and the burning desire to alleviate the suffering of all beings, and it is this fundamental emphasis on compassion that informs and orients the Buddhist sense of social justice.

In the latter part of the twentieth century there emerged across the Buddhist world a phenomenon that scholars and Buddhists alike have labeled engaged Buddhism, a broad and varied movement that addresses issues such as poverty, education, and human rights.

The number of Buddhist organizations addressing economic issues throughout the world has grown tremendously since the middle of the twentieth century. These organizations participate in a staggering range of activities, from those that operate purely on the village level to those with a decidedly international scope. One of the most interesting modern Buddhist groups to deal with the issue of poverty is Sarvodaya, which began in 1958 with the purpose of addressing social, economic, and environmental issues in Sri Lanka. In 1987 Sarvodaya started Sarvodaya Economic Enterprises Development Services (SEEDS), intended explicitly to address poverty and economic issues. The goals of SEEDS are nothing short of the eradication of poverty, accomplished through developing, at the local and village level, means for sustainable livelihood. SEEDS provides vocational training, helps local groups develop projects related to agriculture and marketing, assists in technical issues, and provides low-interest loans to help start sustainable projects. Although this is a movement specific to Sri Lanka, countless other such movements have emerged in South, Southeast, and East Asia. For instance, the Metta Dana Project, based in central Myanmar (Burma), is a similar grassroots organization that focuses not only on poverty but also on health care and educational issues. Likewise, the Tzu Chi Foundation, in Taiwan, in addition to addressing a large range of social issues, provides a range of charities and economic relief, including home repair, medical aid, food distribution, and funeral assistance. In India the Karuna Trust, formed in 1980 by a group of Western Buddhists, focuses specifically on India’s approximately 6 million formerly untouchable Buddhist converts, sometimes called Dalit Buddhists, providing disaster relief and support for a wide range of economic development projects.

Buddhist education has traditionally been in the monasteries—this is where monks receive their formal education and where laypeople traditionally go to hear dharma talks. One of the first people to promote a more formal educational system was Henry Steele Olcott, who, along with the Sri Lankan reformer Anagarika Dharmapala, established a network of distinctly Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Since then Buddhist schools have been founded, with varying degrees of success, throughout Asia. One particularly important aspect of this has been the education of women. As new female monastic movements have emerged across Asia, such groups have focused specifically on the education of girls and young women. In Taiwan the Fo Kuang Shan movement has been active in Buddhist education, establishing a network of Buddhist schools from primary schools to college.

Buddhist groups specifically concerned with human rights began to draw widespread recognition during the Vietnam War, when Buddhist monks took an active role in protesting not only American military involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia but also the activities of the communist governments in those countries. One particularly prominent figure in this movement has been Thich Nhat Hanh, an outspoken monk who left Vietnam in 1966 and took up residence in France, where he has continued to be an important voice. He is the founder of Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat that promotes a cross-cultural, interdenominational appreciation of human life.

Buddhist human rights activists have been particularly active in Myanmar (Burma) and Tibet. The Free Burma Coalition (FBC), for instance, is an umbrella organization that was founded in 1995 by a group of Burmese and American graduate students to address human rights violations by Myanmar’s military. FBC is associated with the National League for Democracy, a group that has been led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. FBC is a large network, particularly active on the Internet, of activists, dissident academics in exile, labor groups, and refugees, all working to ensure the protection of human rights in Myanmar’s highly volatile political climate. Tibet has been an even more consistent focus of human rights groups since the 1950s and the exile of the Dalai Lama to India. In part motivated by the Dalai Lama himself, numerous groups in the West and in Tibet have worked to monitor and protect human rights in that country by organizing protests, mounting letter-writing campaigns, appealing to foreign governments for political and economic pressure, and so on. Prominent Buddhist organizations such as Soka Gakkai and Fo Kuang Shan in East Asia are also actively engaged in human rights issues, as are countless distinctly Buddhist human rights organizations and movements throughout Asia and the West.

Social Aspects

Buddhist texts are essentially silent on the subject of marriage. Although the Buddha did not lay out rules on married life, he did offer basic guidelines for how to live happily within marriage. Married people should be honest and faithful and avoid adultery—indeed, one of the ethical rules in the pancha sila is the prohibition against sexual misconduct, which is frequently taken in practice to be the endorsement of marital fidelity and monogamy. In the Parabhava Sutta, for instance, a significant cause of human error and negative karma is involvement with multiple women. As for polygamy, the Buddhist laity are advised to limit themselves to one wife.

In traditionally Buddhist countries marriage is a completely secular affair taking various forms: monogamy or polygamy. In many South and Southeast Asian countries, marriage is traditionally arranged, based on, among other elements, social standing, education, and compatibility of horoscopes. Although monks may be invited to a marriage ceremony, their role is not to conduct the marriage itself but, rather, to bless the newly married couple as they set out on a new stage of their lives. Ceremonies vary considerably from country to country and school to school. In the Theravada, for instance, the couple might recite a text such as the Sigalovada Sutta, which deals generally with marital duties, and they might also recite a devotional text such as the Mangala Sutta.

Likewise, Buddhist views about the family tend to be general in nature, based in principle on the interconnectedness of karma. Because the traditional Buddhist family is a large and extended group that includes aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and so on, one has a duty to honor and respect both one’s immediate family and one’s extended family. In a famous statement the Buddha remarked that one should be kind and compassionate to all living beings because there can be found no being who was not once in some former life one’s brother, sister, mother, or father. In many Buddhist countries, particularly those of East Asia, one of the most important familial duties is toward one’s dead ancestors, who are thought to exist in a special realm and who depend on the living to continue to honor and care for them.

Controversial Issues

In general, because Buddhism has no single, centralized religious authority, and because it philosophically and practically places the emphasis on individual effort, there is no single stance on any controversial issue. Buddhists, if it is possible to generalize, tend to believe that most issues are decided by the individual or by the basic ethical guidelines that were first laid out by the Buddha himself and then subsequently elaborated on in the Vinaya Pitaka. One central tenet that informs Buddhist’s understanding of such controversial issues as capital punishment and abortion is the prohibition against harming any living beings. Issues such as divorce, which can frequently be governed by religious rules and authorities, are generally left up to the individuals involved.

There is no foundation in Buddhism for Buddhists to oppose birth control. Generally it is held that Buddhist laypeople may use any traditional or modern measures to prevent conception, since birth control simply prevents a potential being from coming into existence and does not harm any sentient beings.

Abortion presents a more difficult, more ambiguous issue. The precept that prohibits killing (and harming) beings stipulates that killing is governed by five conditions, the first of which is the presence of a living being, and so it very much depends on one’s stance on this issue, which is as contested in Buddhism as it is in the West.

One would think that Buddhism would have been entirely open to women, because it is purely one’s own effort, one’s own ability to understand the nature of the dharma and to realize the truth of impermanence, that determines where one is on the path. In other words, we might expect to find inclusiveness in Buddhism, and to a certain extent we do. One’s gender should not, in theory, hinder one’s spiritual attainment any more than one’s caste would. In practice, however, the status of women has been anything but clear in Buddhism.

In the early textual tradition the vision of women is often quite negative, and women become a kind of hindrance and a distraction, the embodiment of illusion and the objects of lustful grasping. There are, to be sure, also positive images of women—as mothers, as devoted wives, as model givers. This last role is particularly important, for among the laity it is the women of the community who are often most actively involved in supporting the sangha and, as a result, in receiving the dharma.

The issue of female monks has been a consistently contested one, since the Buddha himself reluctantly allowed his aunt Mahapajapati to join the sangha but with the stipulation that female monks (Pali, bhikkhuni) would be subject to additional rules. In practice, though, the lineage of female monastics died out fairly early in the Theravada, and it has only been in the modern era, often as the result of the efforts of Western female Buddhists, that the female sangha has been revived, and even in these cases women monks are sometimes viewed with suspicion and even open hostility. Nonetheless, in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, women monastics have been an important voice and an important symbolic presence. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools, as well as in Zen, female monks, although certainly not the norm, are more common than in the Theravada. China and Korea are the only East Asian countries to allow for full female ordination. Beginning in the early 1980s a move for full female ordination began in Tibetan Buddhism, with the first all-female monastery being built in Ladakh, India, home of many Tibetan Buddhists since the Dalai Lama’s exile in 1959. Similarly, Thai Buddhist woman began to organize a female monastic order in the 1970s. In Sri Lanka a German woman, Ayya Khema, began a female monastic order in the 1980s, one that has continued to grow. In 2000 the International Association of Buddhist Women was founded. This umbrella organization brings together the various female sanghas and provides a vital nexus of unity and activism.

Cultural Impact

Monks are prohibited from listening to music and from dancing; such things represent, from a monastic point of view, a lack of control of the senses, a kind of indulgence and distraction that is not conducive to mindfulness. Nonetheless, monks have often chanted Buddhist texts, and the effect can be almost musical. In contemporary Sri Lanka a special class of monks is trained in such chanting, and recordings of their recitations are frequently sold as popular music, although the monks themselves have been careful to stipulate that this is simply a more effective means of transmitting the dharma and not intended for aesthetic enjoyment. Elsewhere, in Tibet and East Asia, different forms of chanting, sometimes with musical accompaniment, are common and popular. From the lay perspective, music can sometimes be a significant form of offering, or dana, and an expression of faith in, and attention to, the Buddha’s teachings. Furthermore, at many Buddhist temples drumming, flute and horn playing, and lyrical chanting all accompany devotional and ritual activity.

Some of the earliest examples of Buddhist art and architecture are the great stupas of Bharhut, Sanchi, and Amaravati; not only did these stupas contain relics of the Buddha, but they were embellished with spectacular stone reliefs. More than decoration or ornamentation, these sculptures were intended to visually convey the Buddha’s teachings, to instruct laypeople and monks alike in the dharma. Key events in the Buddha’s life are depicted—for example, his defeat of the evil Mara or the simple gift of sustenance offered by the laywoman Sujata that enabled Siddhartha to attain enlightenment.

The very nature of a sculptural image in Buddhism is complex. Although there has been some debate about the matter, it is clear that Buddhists began to depict the Buddha early on, perhaps even before he died. The Buddha himself said that images of him would be permissible only if they were not worshiped. Rather, such images should provide an opportunity for reflection and meditation. Virtually all Buddhist temples and monasteries throughout the world contain sculptural images of the Buddha and the bodhisattvas. These images range from simple stone sculptures of the Buddha to incredibly intricate depictions of a bodhisattva like Kanon in Japan, with his thousand heads and elaborate hand gestures and iconographic details. And although these images function in the ritual context of the temple and monastery, they also serve an artistic and aesthetic purpose.

In Tibet particularly, an important artistic form is the mandala, an aid in meditation that symbolically depicts a world populated by bodhisattvas and other beings. Mandalas, which are often painted on cloth scrolls but can also be depicted in three-dimensional media or made out of sand (to emphasize the impermanence of all things), are intended to lead the meditator visually from the outer world of appearance and illusion to the inner core of being, the very nature of the self and emptiness. In East Asia, Zen has profound influence on the arts, and there is a long, rich tradition of Buddhist painting. Painting is seen as a form of meditation, a method of attaining insight into the immediacy of the moment and the transiency of the natural world. Other important artistic Buddhist endeavors in East Asia include archery, gardening, and the tea ceremony, all of which combine ritual action, meditation, and artistic expression.

Most of the Buddhist architecture of India is long gone, although Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment, continues to be a vital center of activity not only for India’s Buddhists but for Buddhist pilgrims throughout the world. Some of the most spectacular examples of Buddhist architecture can be found in Southeast Asia. At Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, for instance, Buddhist kings constructed an enormous monument that re-creates the cosmic hierarchy of divine and semi-divine beings in order to symbolically convey the concept that their earthly rule paralleled a celestial one; the ruins of similar monuments can be found in Pagan, Myanmar (Burma), in the ancient cities of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka, and in several ancient cities in Thailand. One of the most magnificent examples of Buddhist art and architecture is the temple complex at Borobudur, on the island of Java in Indonesia, an almost unfathomably elaborate and extensive architectural marvel.