Major World Religions Buddhism and Buddhist Beliefs

About the major world religion Buddhism, some of the history, varieties, beliefs and meanings behind the Buddhist religious tradition.


Buddhism is both an ethical philosophy and a religion, deriving from the teaching of Gautama Buddha. Buddha, in Sanskrit, means "the enlightened one" and the title was 1st given to an Indian philosopher named Siddhartha (c. 563-483 B. C.), whose family name was Gautama. Born at the foot of the Himalayas in Lumbini in southern Nepal, Buddha was the son of a rajah of the Sakya clan and a member of the 2nd Hindu caste, the Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers). It had been prophesied he would be a universal teacher or a universal ruler. To keep him from becoming a teacher, his father tried to shield him from experiences that would reveal the misery of the world to him. Nonetheless, at 29, in the royal park, Buddha chanced to see a dead body, a sick man, an old man, and a yellow-robed monk with a begging bowl. The 1st 3 revealed the misery of the world to him, while the peace of the beggar suggested a suitable goal for his life. Leaving his wife, his child, and his princely inheritance behind, he became a wandering hermit in search of enlightenment.

For years Buddha sought but did not find. Finally he seated himself under a wild fig tree and resolved not to get up before he understood the cause of human misery. For 49 days he stayed there, holding out against the temptations of the Wicked One, Mara. Finally, he achieved nirvana, or enlightenment, after he realized all suffering is the result of desire, and the transcendence of desire would cause suffering to cease. For the rest of his life he preached this new gospel, dying at the age of 80.

Buddha taught a way of life which he called the Middle Path because it avoids the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. The aim of Buddhism is to achieve nirvana, which in Sanskrit means "blowing out." In nirvana, desire, passion and the ego are extinguished and the individual achieves the end of suffering--the serenity of utter extinction.

Buddhism, in its original form, is a democratic do-it-yourself religion in which salvation can be achieved directly without using intermediaries such as gods and priests. But, like so many religions, as it spread, Buddhism became more and more like those it replaced and Buddha, who was an atheist, was worshiped as a god surrounded by other gods and served by an elaborate structure of monastic orders, priesthoods, temples, and ritual.

The 2 main schools of Buddhism are Hinayana ("the lesser vehicle") and Mahayana ("the greater vehicle"). Hinayana--or Theravada ("the doctrine of the elders"), as it is also known--emphasizes that each individual is responsible for his or her own salvation. It is dominant in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Ceylon.

Mahayana lays stress on universal salvation, saying that all beings are tied together. It established itself firmly in China and spread to Korea and Japan, producing a diversity of sects including Nichiren, Lamaism, and Zen.

Nichiren is a native Japanese phenomenon. Founded by Nichiren (1222-1282) in an age when Japan was ruled by feudal lords, it adapted Buddhism to the Bushido warrior cult by teaching that the state and religion should be a unity. Lamaism, the religion of Tibet and neighboring regions, blended Mahayanist teaching with native demon worship and the erotic practices of tantrism.

Zen Buddhism was brought to China from southern India in the 6th century by the philosopher Bodhidharma. Stressing self-reliance and meditation, Zen seeks to substitute intuitive awareness for intellect and logic. It is intended to train the mind to jump beyond the limits of thought, to leap from thinking to knowing.

Today there are almost 250 million Buddhists in the world, almost all of whom live in Asia.

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