Buddhism

[the Buddha]
Sanskrit: budh, to know, the enlightened one

A prince named Siddhartha (c.560-480 B.C.), called also by his family names of Gautama or Sakya-Muni, the son of a local ruler in modern Nepal. Of ascetic tendencies and Brahmanistic education he cast aside luxuries to seek perfection, and spent years as an austere hermit. Finding peace elusive he turned to meditation and the formulation of his religious system. Enthusiastically he set out to spread his doctrine, and won numerous disciples with whom he went ahout preaching, and whom he finally formed into a brotherhood of monks. After forty years of zealous labor he died in his eightieth year. After cremation his remains were preserved in mounds called topes, stupas, or dagobas. Tradition depicts him as the most exalted character of pagan antiquity; a great and good man of magnetic personality, he was absorbed with the idea of liberating men from misery. Buddha left no writings. Soon after his death followers codified his teachings comprising the three classes of the Tripitaka (triple basket) forming the canon of Southern Buddhists. Extra-canonical books include the “Commentaries of Buddhagosa,” “Questions of King Milinda,” and a history of Buddhism to the 4th century A.D. The Tripitaka of Northern Buddhists includes the “Lotus of the True Laws,” “Book of Exploits,” and two legendary lives of Buddha.

[the wheel of life]
Buddhism is the religious and monastic system founded about 500 B.C. by Buddha, on the basis of pantheistic Brahmanism. Its end is liberation from misery by freeing from attachment to conscious existence. In common with Brahmanism it holds: belief in Karma, that the acts of a previous existence determine the character of this present life; belief in a constant series of rebirths for all set on preserving individual existence; belief that the ultimate end consists in a state of eternal, unconscious repose. It differs in the rejection of the Vedas and of Vedic rites. It ignores the all-god Brahma. The gods are realities but dependence on them is denied, hence prayer and offering are useless. It differs in its conception of the final state and of the method of attainment. All desire must be extinguished; whence follows cessation of misery, a final state called Nirvana (a blowing out), one of eternal, unconscious repose. For the imperfect the various Brahmanistic heavens of positive delight were retained. Buddha formed his disciples into communities of monks leading a contemplative life of poverty, celibacy, and self-denial. Destruction of all forms of life was forbidden. Communities of nuns were also formed. Buddha did not advocate social reform, but his religion ignores caste; virtue constitutes superiority. Buddha was venerated after death, but being in Nirvana and insensible to honors, for the popular need of a conscious personality to whom to pray Buddhist monks produced Metteyya (Maitreya), the living one, a divine bodhisattva destined to incarnation and leadership, and honored as future saviour. Such is the Southern Buddhism of southern India, Ceylon, Burma, and Siam, the closest in orthodoxy to original Buddhism.

About A.D. 100 Northern Buddhism was modified to include worship of an eternal, supreme deity, Adi-Buddha, of whom Buddha was regarded as an incarnation. Around this supreme deity were countless bodhisattvas destined to become future incarnate Buddhas; to rank among these became the ideal end. In place of Nirvana, Sukhavati, the heaven of sensuous delight where reigned Amitabha, an emanation of the eternal Buddha, became the goal of longing. To attain to this end virtue plus an extravagant worship of relics and statues, pilgrimages, and recitation of sacred names and of magic formulas were practised, together with other forms of superstition. This innovation subversive of Buddha’s teaching and known as Mahayana or Great Vehicle, supplanted the older system of the south contemptuously styled Hinayana or Little Vehicle.

Buddhism soon became a formidable rival of Brahmanism. About 250 B.C. missionaries were sent to evangelize. In A.D. 67 they penetrated China where conversions multiplied. With the supplanting of Southern Buddhism in the north in the 2nd century A.D. a corresponding change took place in China. Two bodhisattvas of Mahayana became favorite subjects of worship: Amitabha and Avalokitesvara or Fousa Kwanyin, preserver from evil. Confined mostly to the masses, Buddhism is regarded as an accretion to professed Confucianism. Excessive devotion to statues and relics, magic arts, and many superstitions of Taoism are practised. Chinese Buddhism was introduced into Korea 4th century A.D., and into Japan 6th century A.D., and spread over central and eastern Asia with local additions and changes. In original purity Buddhism can be associated only with the Southern Buddhists numbering at most 30,000,000. Widespread Northern Buddhism with its local accretions and variations is a confusion of beliefs and practises. The spread of Buddhism was accomplished only by subversion, and accommodation to local superstitions.