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Anisur Rahman:
The Life of Siddhartha Gautama
Dr. C. George Boeree
Shippensburg University



There was a small country in what is now southern Nepal that was ruled by a clan called the Shakyas.  The head of this clan, and the king of this country, was named Shuddodana Gautama, and his wife was the beautiful Mahamaya.  Mahamaya was expecting her first born.  She had had a strange dream in which a baby elephant had blessed her with his trunk, which was understood to be a very auspicious sign to say the least.

As was the custom of the day, when the time came near for Queen Mahamaya to have her child, she traveled to her father's kingdom for the birth.  But during the long journey, her birth pains began.  In the small town of Lumbini, she asked her handmaidens to assist her to a nearby grove of trees for privacy.  One large tree lowered a branch to her to serve as a support for her delivery.  They say the  birth was nearly painless, even though the child had to be delivered from her side.  After, a gentle rain fell on the mother and the child to cleanse them.

It is said that the child was born fully awake.  He could speak, and told his mother he had come to free all mankind from suffering.  He could stand, and he walked a short distance in each of the four directions.  Lotus blossoms rose in his footsteps.  They named him Siddhartha, which means "he who has attained his goals."  Sadly, Mahamaya died only seven days after the birth.  After that Siddhartha was raised by his mother’s kind sister,  Mahaprajapati.

King Shuddodana consulted Asita, a well-known sooth-sayer, concerning the future of his son.  Asita proclaimed that he would be one of two things:  He could become a great king, even an emperor.  Or he could become a great sage and savior of humanity.  The king, eager that his son should become a king like himself, was determined to shield the child from anything that might result in him taking up the religious life.  And so Siddhartha was kept in one or another of their three palaces, and was prevented from experiencing much of what ordinary folk might consider quite commonplace.  He was not permitted to see the elderly, the sickly, the dead, or anyone who had dedicated themselves to spiritual practices.  Only beauty and health surrounded Siddhartha.

Siddhartha grew up to be a strong and handsome young man.  As a prince of the warrior caste, he trained in the arts of war.  When it came time for him to marry, he won the hand of a beautiful princess of a neighboring kingdom by besting all competitors at a variety of sports. Yashodhara was her name, and they married when both were 16 years old.

As Siddhartha continued living in the luxury of his palaces, he grew increasing restless and curious about the world beyond the palace walls.  He finally demanded that he be permitted to see his people and his lands.  The king carefully arranged that Siddhartha should still not see the kind of suffering that he feared would lead him to a religious life, and decried that only young and healthy people should greet the prince.

As he was lead through Kapilavatthu, the capital, he chanced to see a couple of old men who had accidentally wandered near the parade route.  Amazed and confused, he chased after them to find out what they were.  Then he came across some people who were severely ill.  And finally, he came across a funeral ceremony by the side of a river, and for the first time in his life saw death.  He asked his friend and squire Chandaka the meaning of all these things, and Chandaka informed him of the simple truths that Siddhartha should have known all along:  That all of us get old, sick, and eventually die.

Siddhartha also saw an ascetic, a monk who had renounced all the pleasures of the flesh.  The peaceful look on the monks face would stay with Siddhartha for a long time to come.  Later, he would say this about that time:

When ignorant people see someone who is old, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be old some day.  I thought to myself:  I don’t want to be like the ignorant people.  After that, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with youth anymore.
When ignorant people see someone who is sick, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be sick some day.  I thought to myself:  I don’t want to be like the ignorant people.  After that, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with health anymore.

When ignorant people see someone who is dead, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be dead some day.  I thought to myself:  I don’t want to be like the ignorant people.  After than, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with life anymore. (AN III.39, interpreted)

At the age of 29, Siddhartha came to realize that he could not be happy living as he had been.  He had discovered suffering, and wanted more than anything to discover how one might overcome suffering.  After kissing his sleeping wife and newborn son Rahula goodbye, he snuck out of the palace with his squire Chandara and his favorite horse Kanthaka.  He gave away his rich clothing, cut his long hair, and gave the horse to Chandara and told him to return to the palace.    He studied for a while with two famous gurus of the day, but found their practices lacking.

He then began to practice the austerities and self-mortifications practiced by a group of five ascetics. For six years, he practiced. The sincerity and intensity of his practice were so astounding that, before long, the five ascetics became followers of Siddhartha.  But the answers to his questions were not forthcoming.  He redoubled his efforts, refusing food and water, until he was in a state of near death.
One day, a peasant girl named Sujata saw this starving monk and took pity on him.  She begged him to eat some of her milk-rice.  Siddhartha then realized that these extreme practices were leading him nowhere, that in fact it might be better to find some middle way between the extremes of the life of luxury and the life of self-mortification.  So he ate, and drank, and bathed in the river.  The five ascetics saw him and concluded that Siddhartha had given up the ascetic life and taken to the ways of the flesh, and left him.

In the town of Bodh Gaya, Siddhartha decided that he would sit under a certain fig tree as long as it would take for the answers to the problem of suffering to come.  He sat there for many days, first in deep concentration to clear his mind of all distractions, then in mindfulness meditation, opening himself up to the truth.  He began, they say, to recall all his previous lives, and to see everything that was going on in the entire universe.  On the full moon of May, with the rising of the morning star, Siddhartha finally understood the answer to the question of suffering and became the Buddha, which means “he who is awake.”

It is said that Mara, the evil one, tried to prevent this great occurrence.  He first tried to frighten Siddhartha with storms and armies of demons.  Siddhartha remained completely calm.  Then he sent his three beautiful daughters to tempt him, again to no avail.  Finally, he tried to ensnare Siddhartha in his own ego by appealing to his pride.  That, too, failed.  Siddhartha, having conquered all temptations, touched the ground with one hand and asked the earth to be his witness.

Siddhartha, now the Buddha, remained seated under the tree -- which we call the bodhi tree -- for many days longer. It seemed to him that this knowledge he had gained was far too difficult to communicate to others.  Legend has it that Brahma, king of the gods, convinced Buddha to teach, saying that some of us perhaps have only a little dirt in our eyes and could awaken if we only heard his story.  Buddha agreed to teach.

At Sarnath near Benares, about one hundred miles from Bodh Gaya, he came across the five ascetics he had practiced with for so long.  There, in a deer park, he preached his first sermon, which is called “setting the wheel of the teaching in motion.”  He explained to them the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.  They became his very first disciples and the beginnings of the Sangha or community of monks.

King Bimbisara of Magadha, having heard Buddha’s words, granted him a monastery near Rahagriha, his capital, for use during the rainy season.  This and other generous donations permitted the community of converts to continue their practice throughout the years, and gave many more people an opportunity to hear the teachings of the Buddha.

Over time, he was approached by members of his family, including his wife, son, father, and aunt.  His son became a monk and is particularly remembered in a sutra based on a conversation between father and son on the dangers of lying.  His father became a lay follower.  Because he was saddened by the departures of his son and grandson into the monastic life, he asked Buddha to make it a rule that a man must have the permission of his parents to become a monk.  Buddha obliged him.

His aunt and wife asked to be permitted into the Sangha, which was originally composed only of men.  The culture of the time ranked women far below men in importance, and at first it seemed that permitting women to enter the community would weaken it.  But the Buddha relented, and his aunt and wife became the first Buddhist nuns.

The Buddha said that it didn’t matter what a person’s status in the world was, or what their background or wealth or nationality might be.  All were capable of enlightenment, and all were welcome into the Sangha.  The first ordained Buddhist monk, Upali, had been a barber, yet he was ranked higher than monks who had been kings, only because he had taken his vows earlier than they!

Buddha’s life wasn’t without disappointments.  His cousin, Devadatta, was an ambitious man.  As a convert and monk, he felt that he should have greater power in the Sangha.   He managed to influence quite a few monks with a call to a return to extreme asceticism. Eventually, he conspired with a local king to have the Buddha killed and to take over the Buddhist community.  Of course, he failed.
Buddha had achieved his enlightenment at the age of 35.  He would teach throughout northeast India for another 45 years.  When the Buddha was 80 years old, he told his friend and cousin Ananda that he would be leaving them soon.  And so it came to be that in Kushinagara, not a hundred miles from his homeland, he ate some spoiled food and became very ill.  He went into a deep meditation under a grove of sala trees and died.  His last words were...

Impermanent are all created things;
Strive on with awareness.

Anisur Rahman:
The History of Buddhism
Dr. C. George Boeree
Shippensburg University


Soon after Buddha's death or parinirvana, five hundred monks met at the first council at Rajagrha, under the leadership of Kashyapa.  Upali recited the monastic code (Vinaya) as he remembered it.  Ananda, Buddha's cousin, friend, and favorite disciple -- and a man of prodigious memory! -- recited Buddha's lessons (the Sutras).  The monks debated details and voted on final versions.  These were then committed to memory by other monks, to be translated into the many languages of the Indian plains.  It should be noted that Buddhism remained an oral tradition for over 200 years.

In the next few centuries, the original unity of Buddhism began to fragment. The most significant split occurred after the second council, held at Vaishali 100 years after the first.  After debates between a more liberal group and traditionalists, the liberal group left and labeled themselves the Mahasangha -- "the great sangha."  They would eventually evolve into the Mahayana tradition of northern Asia.

The traditionalists, now referred to as Sthaviravada or "way of the elders" (or, in Pali, Theravada), developed a complex set of philosophical ideas beyond those elucidated by Buddha.  These were collected into the Abhidharma or "higher teachings."  But they, too, encouraged disagreements, so that one splinter group after another left the fold.  Ultimately, 18 schools developed, each with their own interpretations of various issues, and spread all over India and Southeast Asia.  Today, only the school stemming from the Sri Lankan Theravadan survives.


One of the most significant events in the history of Buddhism is the chance encounter of the monk Nigrodha and the emperor Ashoka Maurya.  Ashoka, succeeding his father after a bloody power struggle in 268 bc, found himself deeply disturbed by the carnage he caused while suppressing a revolt in the land of the Kalingas.  Meeting Nigrodha convinced Emperor Ashoka to devote himself to peace.  On his orders, thousands of rock pillars were erected, bearing the words of the Buddha, in the brahmi script -- the first written evidence of Buddhism.  The third council of monks was held at Pataliputra, the capital of Ashoka's empire.

There is a story that tells about a poor young boy who, having nothing to give the Buddha as a gift, collected a handful of dust and innocently presented it.  The Buddha smiled and accepted it with the same graciousness he accepted the gifts of wealthy admirers.  That boy, it is said, was reborn as the Emperor Ashoka.

Ashoka sent missionaries all over India and beyond.  Some went as far as Egypt, Palestine, and Greece.  St. Origen even mentions them as having reached Britain.  The Greeks of one of the Alexandrian kingdoms of northern India adopted Buddhism, after their King Menandros (Pali:  Milinda) was convinced by a monk named Nagasena -- the conversation immortalized in the Milinda Pañha.  A Kushan king of north India named Kanishka was also converted, and a council was held in Kashmir in about 100 ad. Greek Buddhists there recorded the Sutras on copper sheets which, unfortunately, were never recovered.

It is interesting to note that there is a saint in Orthodox Christianity named Josaphat, an Indian king whose story is essentially that of the Buddha.  Josaphat is thought to be a distortion of the word bodhisattva.

Sri Lanka and Theravada

Emperor Ashoka sent one of his sons, Mahinda, and one of his daughters, Sanghamitta, a monk and a nun, to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) around the year 240 bc.  The king of Sri Lanka, King Devanampiyatissa, welcomed them and was converted.  One of the gifts they brought with them was a branch of the bodhi tree, which was successfully transplanted.  The descendants of this branch can still be found on the island.

The fourth council was held in Sri Lanka, in the Aloka Cave, in the first century bc.  During this time as well, and for the first time, the entire set of Sutras were recorded in the Pali language on palm leaves.  This became Theravada's Pali Canon, from which so much of our knowledge of Buddhism stems.  It is also called the Tripitaka (Pali:  Tipitaka), or three baskets:  The three sections of the canon are the Vinaya Pitaka (the monastic law), the Sutta Pitaka (words of the Buddha), and the Abhidamma Pitaka (the philosophical commentaries).

In a very real sense, Sri Lanka's monks may be credited with saving the Theravada tradition:  Although it had spread once from India all over southeast Asia, it had nearly died out due to competition from Hinduism and Islam, as well as war and colonialism.  Theravada monks spread their tradition from Sri Lanka to Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos, and from these lands to Europe and the west generally.


Mahayana began in the first century bc, as a development of the Mahasangha rebellion.  Their more liberal attitudes toward monastic tradition allowed the lay community to have a greater voice in the nature of Buddhism.  For better or worse, the simpler needs of the common folk were easier for the Mahayanists to meet.  For example, the people were used to gods and heroes.  So, the Trikaya (three bodies) doctrine came into being:  Not only was Buddha a man who became enlightened, he was also represented by various god-like Buddhas in various appealing heavens, as well as by the Dharma itself, or Shunyata (emptiness), or Buddha-Mind, depending on which interpretation we look at -- sort of a Buddhist Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

More important, however, was the increased importance of the Bodhisattva.  A Bodhisattva is someone who has attained enlightenment, but who chooses to remain in this world of Samsara in order to bring others to enlightenment. He is a lot like a saint, a spiritual hero, for the people to admire and appeal to.

Along with new ideas came new scriptures.  Also called Sutras, they are often attributed to Buddha himself, sometimes as special transmissions that Buddha supposedly felt were too difficult for his original listeners and therefore were hidden until the times were ripe.  The most significant of these new Sutras are these:

Prajñaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom, an enormous collection of often esoteric texts, including the famous Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra.  The earliest known piece of printing in the world is, in fact, a copy of the Diamond Sutra, printed in China in 868 ad.

Suddharma-pundarika or White Lotus of the True Dharma, also often esoteric, includes the Avalokiteshwara Sutra, a prayer to that Bodhisattva.

Vimalakirti-nirdesha or Vimalakirti's Exposition, is the teachings of and stories about the enlightened householder Vimalakirti.

Shurangama-samadhi or Hero's Sutra, provides a guide to meditation, shunyata, and the bodhisattva.  It is most popular among Zen Buddhists

Sukhavati-vyuha or Pure Land Sutra, is the most important Sutra for the Pure Land Schools of Buddhism.  The Buddha tells Ananda about Amitabha and his Pure Land or heaven, and how one can be reborn there.

There are many, many others.  Finally, Mahayana is founded on two new philosophical interpretations of Buddhism: Madhyamaka and Yogachara.


Madhyamaka means "the middle way."  You may recall that Buddha himself called his way the middle way in his very first sermon.  He meant, at that time, the middle way between the extremes of hedonistic pleasure and extreme asceticism.  But he may also have referred to the middle way between the competing philosophies of
eternalism and annihilationism -- the belief that the soul exists forever and that the soul is annihilated at death.  Or between materialism and nihilism....  An Indian monk by the name of Nagarjuna took this idea and expanded on it to create the philosophy that would be known as Madhyamaka, in a book called the Mulamadhyamaka-karika, written about 150 ad.

Basically a treatise on logical argument, it concludes that nothing is absolute, everything is relative, nothing exists on its own, everything is interdependent.  All systems, beginning with the idea that each thing is what it is and not something else (Aristotle's law of the excluded middle), wind up contradicting themselves.  Rigorous logic, in other words, leads one away from all systems, and to the concept of shunyata.

Shunyata means emptiness.  This doesn't mean that nothing exists.  It means that nothing exists in and of itself, but only as a part of a universal web of being.  This would become a central concept in all branches of Mahayana.  Of course, it is actually a restatement of the central Buddhist concepts of anatman, anitya, and dukkha!


The second philosophical innovation, Yogachara, is credited to two brothers, Asanga and Vasubandhu,  who lived in India in the 300's ad.  They elaborated earlier movements in the direction of the philosophy of idealism or chitta-matra.  Chitta-matra means literally mind only.  Asanga and Vasubandhu believed that everything that exists is mind or consciousness.  What we think of as physical things are just projections of our minds, delusions or hallucinations, if you like.  To get rid of these delusions, we must meditate, which for the Yogachara school means the creation of pure consciousness, devoid of all content.  In that way, we leave our deluded individual minds and join with the universal mind, or Buddha-mind.


The last innovation was less philosophical and far more practical:  Tantra.  Tantra refers to certain writings which are concerned, not with philosophical niceties, but with the basic how-to of enlightenment, and not just with enlightenment in several rebirths, but enlightenment here-and-now!

In order to accomplish this feat, dramatic methods are needed, ones which, to the uninitiated, may seem rather bizarre.  Tantra was the domain of the siddhu, the adept -- someone who knows the secrets,  a magician in the ways of enlightenment.  Tantra involves the use of various techniques, including the well-known mandalas, mantras, and mudras.  mandalas are paintings or other representations of higher awareness, usually in the form of a circular pattern of images, which may provide the focus of one-pointed meditation.  Mantras are words or phrases that serve the same purpose, such as the famous "Om mani padme hum."  Mudras are hand positions that symbolize certain qualities of enlightenment.

Less well known are the yidams.  A yidam is the image of a god or goddess or other spiritual being, either physically represented or, more commonly, imagined clearly in the mind's eye.  Again, these represent archetypal qualities of enlightenment, and one-pointed meditation on these complex images lead the adept to his or her goal.

These ideas would have enormous impact on Mahayana.  They are not without critics, however:  Madhyamaka is sometimes criticized as word-play, and Yogachara is criticized as reintroducing atman, eternal soul or essence, to Buddhism.  Tantra has been most often criticized, especially for its emphasis on secret methods and strong devotion to a guru.  Nevertheless, these innovations led to a renewed flurry of activity in the first half of the first millenium, and provided the foundation for the kinds of Buddhism we find in China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere in east Asia.


Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Ming Ti had a dream which led him to send his agents down the Silk Road -- the ancient trade route between China and the west -- to discover its meaning.  The agents returned with a picture of the Buddha and a copy of the Sutra in 42 Sections.  This Sutra would, in 67 ad, be the first of many to be translated into Chinese.

The first Buddhist community in China is thought to be one in Loyang, established by "foreigners" around 150 ad, in the Han dynasty. Only 100 years later, there emerges a native Chinese Sangha.  And during the Period of Disunity (or Era of the Warring States, 220 to 589 ad), the number of Buddhist monks and nuns increase to as many as two million!  Apparently, the uncertain times and the misery of the lower classes were fertile ground for the monastic traditions of Buddhism.

Buddhism did not come to a land innocent of religion and philosophy, of course.  China, in fact, had three main competing streams of thought:  Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion.  Confucianisim is essentially a moral-political philosophy, involving a complex guide to human relationships.  Taoism is a life-philosophy involving a return to simpler and more "natural" ways of being.  And the folk religion -- or, should we say, religions -- consisted of rich mythologies, superstitions, astrology, reading of entrails, magic, folk medicine, and so on.  (Please understand that I am simplifying here:  Certainly Confucianism and Taoism are as sophisticated as Buddhism!)

Although these various streams sometimes competed with each other and with Buddhism, they also fed each other, enriched each other, and intertwined with each other.  Over time, the Mahayana of India became the Mahayana of China and, later, of Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Pure Land

The first example historically is Pure Land Buddhism (Ching-T'u, J: Jodo).  The peasants and working people of China were used to gods and goddesses, praying for rain and health, worrying about heaven and hell, and so on.  It wasn't a great leap to find in Buddhism's cosmology and theology the bases for a religious tradition that catered to these needs and habits, while still providing a sophisticated philosophical foundation.

The idea of this period of time as a fallen or inferior time -- traditional in China -- led to the idea that we are no longer able to reach enlightenment on our own power, but must rely on the intercession of higher beings.  The transcendent Buddha Amitabha, and his western paradise ("pure land"), introduced in the Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, was a perfect fit.


Another school that was to be particularly strongly influenced by Chinese thought was the Meditation School -- Dhyana, Ch'an, Son, or Zen.  Tradition has the Indian monk Bodhidharma coming from the west to China around 520 ad.  It was Bodhidharma, it is said, who carried the Silent Transmission to become the First Patriarch of the Ch'an School in China:

From the very beginning, Buddha had had reservations about his ability to communicate his message to the people.  Words simply could not carry such a sublime message.  So, on one occasion, while the monks around him waited for a sermon, he said absolutely nothing.  He simply held up a flower.  the monks, of course, were confused, except for Kashyapa, who understood and smiled.  The Buddha smiled back, and thus the Silent Transmission began.

Zen Buddhism focuses on developing the immediate awareness of Buddha-mind through meditation on emptiness.  It is notorious for its dismissal of the written and spoken word and occasionally for his rough-house antics.  It should be understood, however, that there is great reverence for the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, even when they are ostensibly ignoring, poking fun, or even turning them upside-down.

Zen has contributed its own literature to the Buddhist melting-pot, including The Platform Sutra, written by Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, around 700 ad., The Blue Cliff Record, written about 1000 ad., and The Gateless Gate, written about 1200 ad.  And we shouldn't forget the famous Ten Ox-Herding Pictures that many see as containing the very essence of Zen's message.

The Blossoming of Schools

During the Sui dynasty (581-618) and T'ang dynasty (618-907), Chinese Buddhism experienced what is referred to as the "blossoming of schools."  The philosophical inspirations of the Madhyamaka and Yogachara, as well as the Pure Land and Ch'an Sutras, interacting with the already sophisticated philosophies of Confucianism and Taoism, led to a regular renaissance in religious and philosophical thought.

We find the Realistic School, based on the "all things exist" Hinayana School;  the Three-Treatises School, based on Madhyamaka; the Idealist School, based on Yogachara; the Tantric School; the Flower Adornment School (Hua-Yen, J: Kegon), which attempted to consolidate the various forms; and the White Lotus School (T'ien-T'ai, J: Tendai), which focused on the Lotus Sutra.

All the Chinese Schools had their representatives in neighboring countries.  Korea was to develop its own powerful form of Ch'an called Son.  Vietnam developed a form of Ch'an that incorporated aspects of Pure Land and Hinayana.  But it was Japan that would have a field day with Chinese Buddhism, and pass the Mahayana traditions on to the US and the west generally.


Again, we begin with the legendary:  A delegation arrived from Korea with gifts for the Emperor of Japan in 538 ad., including a bronze Buddha and various Sutras.  Unfortunately a plague led the Emperor to believe that the traditional gods of Japan were annoyed, so he had the gifts thrown into a canal!  But the imperial court on the 600's, in their constant effort to be as sophisticated as the courts of their distinguished neighbors, the Chinese, continued to be drawn to Buddhism.

Although starting as a religion of the upper classes, in the 900's, Pure Land entered the picture as the favorite of the peasant and working classes.  And in the 1200's, Ch'an, relabeled Zen, came into Japan, where it was enthusiastically adopted by, among others, the warrior class or Samurai.

Zen was introduced into Japan by two particularly talented monks who had gone to China for their educations:  Eisai (1141-1215) brought Lin-chi (J: Rinzai) Ch'an, with its koans and occasionally outrageous antics;  Dogen (1200-1253) brought the more sedate Ts'ao-tung (J: Soto) Ch'an.  In addition, Dogen is particularly admired for his massive treatise, the Shobogenzo.

Ch'an has always had an artistic side to it.  In China and elsewhere, a certain simple, elegant style of writing and drawing developed among the monks.  In Japan, this became an even more influential aspect of Zen.  We have, for example, the poetry, calligraphy, and paintings of various monks -- Bankei (1622-1698), Basho (1644-1694), Hakuin (1685-1768), and Ryokan (1758-1831) -- which have become internationally beloved.

One last Japanese innovation is usually attributed to a somewhat unorthodox monk named Nichiren (1222-1282).  Having been trained in the Tendai or White Lotus tradition, he came to believe that the Lotus Sutra carried all that was necessary for Buddhist life.  More than that, he believed that even the name of the Sutra was enough!  So he encouraged his students to chant this mantra:  Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, which means "homage to the Lotus Sutra."  This practice alone would ensure enlightenment in this life.  In fact, he insisted, all other forms of Buddhism were of little worth.  Needless to say, this was not appreciated by the Buddhist powers of the day.  He spent the rest of his life in relative isolation.  The Nichiren School nevertheless proved to be one of the most successful forms of Buddhism on the planet!


Finally, let's turn out attention to the most mysterious site of Buddhism's history, Tibet.  Its first encounter with Buddhism occurred in the 700's ad, when a Tantric master, Guru Rinpoché, came from India to battle the demons of Tibet for control.  The demons submitted, but they remained forever a part of Tibetan Buddhism -- as its protectors!

During the 800's and 900's, Tibet went through a "dark age," during which Buddhism suffered something of a setback.  But, in the 1000's, it returned in force.  And in 1578, the Mongol overlords named the head of the Gelug School the Dalai Lama, meaning "guru as great as the ocean."  The title was made retroactive to two earlier heads of the school.  The fifth Dalai Lama is noted for bringing all of Tibet under his religious and political control.

The lineage continues down to the present 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, born 1935.  In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of his people and nation, which had been taken over by the Communist Chinese in 1951.

The West

It was in the latter half of the 1800's that Buddhism first came to be known in the west.  The great European colonial empires brought the ancient cultures of India and China back to the attention of the intellectuals of Europe.  Scholars began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts.  Adventurers explored previously shut-off places and recorded the cultures.  Religious enthusiasts enjoyed the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions.

In England, for example, societies sprang up for devotees of "orientalia,"  such as T. W. Rhys Davids' Pali Text Society and T. Christmas Humphreys' Buddhist Society.  Books were published, such as Sir Edwin Arnold's epic poem The Light of Asia (1879).  And the first western monks began to make themselves know, such as Allan Bennett, perhaps the very first, who took the name Ananda Metteya.  In Germany and France as well, Buddhism was the rage.

In the United States, there was a similar flurry of interest.  First of all, thousands of Chinese immigrants were coming to the west coast in the late 1800's, many to provide cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries.  Also, on the east coast, intellectuals were reading about Buddhism in books by Europeans.  One example was  Henry Thoreau, who, among other things, translated a French translation of a Buddhist Sutra into English.

A renewal of interest came during World War II, during which many Asian Buddhists -- such as the Zen author D. T. Suzuki -- came to England and the U.S., and many European Buddhists -- such as the Zen author Alan Watts -- came to the U.S.  As these examples suggest, Zen Buddhism was particularly popular, especially in the U.S., where it became enmeshed in the Beatnik artistic and literary movement as "beat Zen."

One by one, European and Americans who studied in Asia returned with their knowledge and founded monasteries and societies, Asian masters came to Europe and America to found monasteries, and the Asian immigrant populations from China, Japan, Vietnam and elsewhere, quietly continued their Buddhist practices.

Today, it is believed that there are more than 300 million Buddhists in the world, including at least a quarter million in Europe, and a half million each in North and South America.  I say "at least" because other estimates go as high as three million in the U.S. alone!  Whatever the numbers may be, Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world, after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism.  And, although it has suffered considerable setbacks over the centuries, it seems to be attracting more and more people, as a religion or a philosophy of life.



Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994).  Boston: Shambhala.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998).  Chicago:  Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Anisur Rahman:
The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom
Dr. C. George Boeree
Shippensburg University


The Four Noble Truths


1. Life is suffering;
2. Suffering is due to attachment;

3. Attachment can be overcome;

4. There is a path for accomplishing this.

1. Suffering is perhaps the most common translation for the Sanskrit word duhkha, which can also be translated as imperfect, stressful, or filled with anguish.

Contributing to the anguish is anitya -- the fact that all things are impermanent, including living things like ourselves.

Furthermore, there is the concept of anatman -- literally, "no soul". Anatman means that all things are interconnected and interdependent, so that no thing -- including ourselves -- has a separate existence.

2. Attachment is a common translation for the word trishna, which literally means thirst and is also translated as desire, clinging, greed, craving, or lust. Because we and the world are imperfect, impermanent, and not separate, we are forever "clinging" to things, each other, and ourselves, in a mistaken effort at permanence.

Besides trishna, there is dvesha, which means avoidance or hatred. Hatred is its own kind of clinging.

And finally there is avidya, ignorance or the refusal to see. Not fully understanding the impermanence of things is what leads us to cling in the first place.

3. Perhaps the most misunderstood term in Buddhism is the one which refers to the overcoming of attachment: nirvana. It literally means "blowing out," but is often thought to refer to either a Buddhist heaven or complete nothingness. Actually, it refers to the letting go of clinging, hatred, and ignorance, and the full acceptance of imperfection, impermanence, and interconnectedness.

4. And then there is the path, called dharma. Buddha called it the middle way, which is understood as meaning the middle way between such competing philosophies as materialism and idealism, or hedonism and asceticism.  This path, this middle way, is elaborated as the eightfold path.


The Eightfold Path

1. Right view is the true understanding of the four noble truths.

2. Right aspiration is the true desire to free oneself from attachment, ignorance, and hatefulness.

These two are referred to as prajña, or wisdom.

3. Right speech involves abstaining from lying, gossiping, or hurtful talk.

4. Right action involves abstaining from hurtful behaviors, such as killing, stealing, and careless sex.

5. Right livelihood means making your living in such a way as to avoid dishonesty and hurting others, including animals.

These three are refered to as shila, or morality.

6. Right effort is a matter of exerting oneself in regards to the content of one's mind: Bad qualities should be abandoned and prevented from arising again; Good qualities should be enacted and nurtured.

7. Right mindfulness is the focusing of one's attention on one's body, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness in such a way as to overcome craving, hatred, and ignorance.

8. Right concentration is meditating in such a way as to progressively realize a true understanding of imperfection, impermanence, and non-separateness.

The last three are known as samadhi, or meditation.


The Kalama Sutta

In the Kalama Sutta, we find the Kalamas, a people of apparently skeptical natures, asking Buddha for guidance in distinguishing good teachers from bad ones, and proper teachings from evil ones.  The Buddha answers in three parts, which are treasures of wisdom.  First, he outlines the criteria we should use to distinguish good from bad teachers and teachings:

"It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain.... Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another's seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, 'The monk is our teacher....'

"What do you think, Kalamas? Does greed appear in a man for his benefit or harm? Does hate appear in a man for his benefit or harm? Does delusion appear in a man for his benefit or harm?" -- "For his harm, venerable sir." -- "Kalamas, being given to greed, hate, and delusion, and being overwhelmed and vanquished mentally by greed, hate, and delusion, this man takes life, steals, commits adultery, and tells lies; he prompts another too, to do likewise. Will that be long for his harm and ill?" -- "Yes, venerable sir...."

"Kalamas, when you yourselves know: 'These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,' abandon them. "

Next, Buddha presents The Four Exalted Dwellings or Brahma Vihara:

"The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who in this way is devoid of coveting, devoid of ill will, undeluded, clearly comprehending and mindful, dwells, having pervaded, with the thought of amity, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of amity that is free of hate or malice.

"He lives, having pervaded, with the thought of compassion, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of compassion that is free of hate or malice.

"He lives, having pervaded, with the thought of gladness, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of gladness that is free of hate or malice.

"He lives, having pervaded, with the thought of equanimity, all corners of the universe; he dwells, having pervaded because of the existence in it of all living beings, everywhere, the entire world, with the great, exalted, boundless thought of equanimity that is free of hate or malice.

And finally, Buddha reveals how, no matter what our philosophical orientation, following this path will lead to happiness, The Four Solaces:

"The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom four solaces are found here and now.

"'Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.' This is the first solace found by him.

"'Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.' This is the second solace found by him.

"'Suppose evil (results) befall an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can ill (results) affect me who do no evil deed?' This is the third solace found by him.

"'Suppose evil (results) do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.' This is the fourth solace found by him.

"The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom, here and now, these four solaces are found."

(quotations adapted from The Anguttara Nikaya 3.65, Soma Thera Trans., emphases added.)


For other original sutras concerning the basics of Buddhist wisdom, see the following:

Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion --
An Analysis of the Path --
Ignorance --
Assumptions --
The River --
The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya --
The Dhammapada --



Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Rahula, Walpola (1959).  What the Buddha Taught.  NY:  Grove Press.

Gard, Richard (1962).  Buddhism.  NY:  George Braziller.

The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994).  Boston: Shambhala.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998).  Chicago:  Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Access in Insight: Gateways to Theravada Buddhism. (

Anisur Rahman:
Buddhist Cosmology
Dr. C. George Boeree
Shippensburg University


The following sections explain some of the concepts and ideas in Buddhism that  are taken by most Buddhists as metaphorical or even plain mythological.  Nevertheless, these things show up even in the most sophisticated texts, and so the student of Buddhism should be familiar with them -- even if they seem at times to take away rather than contribute to the deeper meaning of the Dharma.  Westerners are often less comfortable with these things than are easterners, who have grown up with these terms.  But a little thought and the reader will recognize that we have very similar concepts in the west, which we use in a similar fashion:  Heavens and hells, ghosts and angels, the trinity, the saints....  Whether we take them literally or not, they are a part of how we tell our stories.


The Buddhists, following the traditions of their Indian fore-fathers, saw the universe as infinite in time and space, and filled with an infinite number of worlds like our own.

Above our ordinary world, there are two realms:  the realm of form (rupa-dhatu) and the even higher realm of formlessness (arupa-dhatu). Below these is the realm of desire (kama-dhatu) which contains six domains (gatis), each with its own kinds of beings:

1.  Devas or gods.
2.  Asuras or titans (or jealous gods, or demigods),
3.  Manusyas or humans.
4.  Tiryaks or animals.
5.  Pretas or hungry ghosts.
6.  Narakas or demons (hell beings)
All of the above, even the realms of form and formlessness, are in samsara , imperfect existence, and therefore governed by karma and its fruits (vipaka).

The world extends around Mount Meru.  Above the peak is the realm of the Buddha fields (or heavens).  On the upper slopes you find the gods.  The titans live on the lower slopes.  Animals and humans live on the plains around the mountain.  Hungry ghosts live on or just below the surface.  And hell is deep under the earth.  All this is surrounded by a great ocean.

Time in Buddhist cosmology is measured in kalpas.  Originally, a kalpa was considered to be 4,320,000 years.  Buddhist scholars expanded it with a metaphor:  rub a one-mile cube of rock once every hundred years with a piece of silk, until the rock is worn away -- and a kalpa still hasn’t passed!  During a kalpa, the world comes into being, exists, is destroyed, and a period of emptiness ensues.  Then it all starts again.

Some of the actors in the Buddhist mythological drama include...

Brahma -- the supreme deva, who convinced Buddha to teach.
Indra -- a major deva, originally the Hindu sky god.
Prajña -- goddess of knowledge.  Buddha’s mother was considered an incarnation.
Mara -- a deva associated with death and hindrances to enlightenment.  It was Mara who tempted Buddha under the bodhi tree.
Yama -- the king of the 21 hells (see image above).
Nagas -- great serpents (or dragons, or water creatures). The king of the Nagas protected Buddha from a storm.
Gandharvas -- angelic beings who provide the gods with music



In Mahayana and especially Vajrayana, the idea of the Buddha and his Dharma evolved into a more elaborate system called the Trikaya, or three bodies of Buddha:

1.  Nirmanakaya -- The earthly Buddhas (and Bodhisattvas), especially as personified by Siddhartha Gautama.  In Tibet, the intentional human embodiment of a reborn master.

2.  Sambhogakaya -- Buddhas in their heavens, the result of accumulated merit.  Or, in Zen, enlightenment.  In Tibetan buddhism, this refers to the means of achieving the Dharmakaya, i.e. the power of meditation on the various visualized dieties called yidams which are archetypal symbols of different qualities of enlightenment.

3.  Dharmakaya -- The teachings of the Buddha, and the true nature of the Buddha, which is everything.  Buddha mind, or Shunyata.

In Tibet, they also refer to the body, speech, and mind of a master.  And they are represented by the mudra, the mantra, and the mandala, respectively.


Buddha Families

Transcendent (or Dhyani) Buddhas

These symbolize aspects of enlightened consciousness:

1.  Vairochana -- center, white, tathagata family, ignorance and wisdom, the primordial Buddha.

2.  Akshobhya --  east,  blue,  vajra (diamond) family, aggression and mirrorlike wisdom.

3.  Ratnasambhava -- south, yellow, ratna (jewel) family, pride and equanimity.

4.  Amitabha1 -- west,  red,  padma (lotus) family, passion and discriminating awareness, governs the present age.

5.  Amoghasiddhi -- north, green, karma family, envy and all-accomplishing wisdom.

Bodhisattvas and Buddhas

Corresponding to these five transcendent Buddhas, there are five Bodhisattvas and five earthly Buddhas:
  1.  Samantabhadra Krakucchanda
2.  Vajrapani Kanakamuni
3.  Ratnapani Kashyapa
4.  Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin)2 Shakyamuni (Siddhartha Gotama)
5.  Vishvapani Maitreya (the future Buddha)3
1  Amitabha is the transcendent Buddha of the Western “Pure Land.”  Amitabha rules over this period of time.

2  Avalokiteshwara (Chenrezi, Kwan Yin, Kwannon) is the boddhisattva of compassion.  Avalokiteshwara is often represented by a female figure, or an ambiguous one, in the  Mahayana tradition.  (See image at right)

The Taras are a set of 21 female saviors, born from Avalokiteshwara’s tears.  Green Tara and White Tara are the best known.

3  Maitreya is the future Buddha, who will be born 30,000 years from now.  The Chinese monk called Pu-tai (Ho-tei in Japanese) -- “the laughing buddha” -- is considered a pre-incarnation of Maitreya.


Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Rahula, Walpola (1959).  What the Buddha Taught.  NY:  Grove Press.

Gard, Richard (1962).  Buddhism.  NY:  George Braziller.

The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994).  Boston: Shambhala.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998).  Chicago:  Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Anisur Rahman:
The Wheel of Life
Dr. C. George Boeree
Shippensburg University



Samsara is this world, filled as it is with so much pain and sorrow.  All beings in this world are subject to the law of karma. Karma means volitional act, that is, something you do, say, or think that is in fact in your control.  Any such act has moral consequences, called vipaka, which means fruit.  In traditional Buddhism, this consequences can occur in this life, or in a future life.
Most Buddhists believe in rebirth.  For many, rebirth is no different from what the Hindus believed, i.e. reincarnation or transmigration -- moving from one's old body at death to a new body at birth or conception.  A little more precisely, rebirth is nothing more than the transmission of one's karma.  Buddha likened it to the flame that passes from one candle to another.  So the idea of an immortal soul, a continuing personality, is definitely not part of the rebirth idea.

Rebirth and similar concepts are not a part of most westerners' cultures, so many western Buddhists, as well as some eastern Buddhists, take rebirth as a metaphor, rather than literally.  Buddhism has never been a particularly literalist religion, so this is not at all taboo.  In fact, Buddha often avoids discussing the reality of one metaphysical idea or another as irrelevant to the practice of the Dharma.

The image to the right is the Tibetan Wheel of Life, which represents Samsara.  In the very center, there is a rooster chasing a pig chasing a snake chasing the rooster -- craving, hatred, and ignorance.  Around that are people ascending the white semicircle of life, and others descending the black semicircle of death.  The greatest portion of the Wheel is devoted to representations of the six realms -- the realm of the gods, the realm of the titans, the realm of humans, the realm of animals, the realm of the hungry ghosts, and the realm of demons -- each realm looked over by its own boddhisattva.  The outermost circle is the 12 steps of dependent origination.  The entire Wheel is held by Yama, the Lord of Death.



This is dependent origination, also known as conditioned arising, interdependent arising, conditional nexus, causal nexus....  It refers to the idea that, as long as we remain ignorant, clinging, and hateful, we will continue to create karma, and so continue to be reborn into this world full of suffering and pain.  It is described using the metaphor of a wheel of life, wherein one thing inevitably leads to another.

“All psychological and physical phenomena constituting individual existence are interdependent and mutually condition each other...” which is what entangles us in samsara. (The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion)

1.  Ignorance (avidya).  "A" is ignorant of the dharma.  The blind man cannot see the truth

2.  Impulses (samskara).  "A" therefore has intentions (karma), good, bad, or neutral, and acts on them.  A potter creates a new pot from clay and water.

3.  Consciousness (vijñana).  These create a new conscious being, "B," who enters a womb.  A monkey, with no self control, jumps from one branch to another.

4.  Name and form (namarupa).  "B" takes form.  Three or four men in a boat:  The body is the vehicle that carries us through life.

5.  The six bases (shadayatana).  "B" comes into a world of objects ready to be experienced.  House with doors and windows:  The senses let in the world, like windows let light into a house.

6.  Contact (sparsha).  "B" has contact with that world of objects.  Lovers symbolize the intimate contact between world and mind.

7.  Sensation (vedana).  "B" has perceptions of that world of objects.  A man with an arrow in his eye:  Sensations can be so strong that they blind us to the truth.

8.  Craving (trishna).  "B’s" perceptions give rise to desires.  A man drinking:  The promise of satisfaction only leads to intoxication.

9.  Clinging (upadana).  Desire leads "B" to cling to life, even at death.  Like a monkey clinging to a fruit tree, we cling to things.

10.  Becoming (bhava).  And another conscious being, "C," is begun. A pregnant woman:  A new life has begun.

11.  Birth (jati).  Thus, "C" is born.  A woman gives birth.

12.  Old age and death (jara-maranam).  And "C’s" birth leads inevitably to his or her old age and death. An old man carries a corpse to its resting place.

And the cycle continues, one thing leading to another....



The Ten Fetters (Samyojana) bind us to samsara.

1.  Belief in a separate personality or individuality (drishti)
2.  Doubt that has no desire for satisfaction (vichikitsa)
3.  Uncritical attachment to rules and rituals (silabbata-paramasa)
4.  Sensuous craving (kama-raga)
5.  Ill will, wishing harm on others (vyapada)
6.  Craving for a higher material existence (rupa-raga)
7.  Craving for non-material existence (arupa-raga)
8.  Conceit or egotism (mana)
9.  Restlessness (udhacca)
10.  Ignorance (avidya)



Dharmas are the ultimate elements or particles of the universe .  A little like atoms, they are very small, but they exist for only a split second, in keeping with the doctrine of impermanence. And while atoms are purely material, dharmas include all phenomena, mental and physical.  I like to think of them as little flashes of colored light, and I would translate the word as scintilla.  Don’t get confused between these and the Dharma, meaning the teachings of the Buddha!

Like the ancient Greeks, the ancient Buddhists thought there were four basic elements:  earth, water, air, and fire.  The dharma theory turns these elements into qualities, or even verbs:  fire becomes hot becomes burning; air becomes cool becomes blowing....  Ultimately, then, all “things” are nothing more than bundles of these qualities or actions, and are “empty” inside.  This led to one of the most important ideas of the Madhyamaka School of Mahayana Buddhism:  Shunyata, which means emptiness.

In Mahayana Buddhism, the dharmas were considered something more like phenomena than atoms, and the Yogachara School took the change even further, and considered them something more like ideas in the universal mind.


The Skandhas

Skandhas or aggregates are the parts of the self.  Sometimes they are called the aggregates of attachment, which bring about suffering.  Just like a car is nothing more than the sum of its parts, so we are nothing more than the sum of our parts.  There is no atman, meaning soul, self, or ego, holding the pieces together.  Nevertheless, just like the car can run despite being nothing but a collection of pieces, so we can live as a person.

Traditionally, there are five skandhas:

1.  The body, matter or form (rupa).  Includes the body and the sense organs.

2.  Feelings or sensations (vedana).  Pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings, coming out of contact between sense organs and objects, plus out of the contact between mind (manas) and mental objects (ideas, images...).

3.  Thoughts or perceptions (samjña).  Recognition of objects -- form, sound, smell, taste, bodily impressions, mental objects.

4.  Will, mental acts, or mental formations (samskara).  Volition, attention, discrimination, joy, happiness, equanimity, resolve, exertion, compulsion, concentration, etc.

5.  Consciousness (vijñana).  Awareness prior to recognition -- seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, kinesthesia, ideation.

The last four are called naman, name, meaning the psyche. Namarupa (name-form) is therefore the buddhist term for the person, mental and physical, which is nevertheless anatman, without soul or essence.

Ayatana is the six fields of naman: sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and mind, as well as the objects of these six senses.

The Yogachara school adds alaya-vijñana, a “storehouse” consciousness, similar to Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious.  What is stored there are called bijas or seeds, which are inborn and result from our karmic history.  They combine with manas or ego-mind to form the illusion of ordinary existence.  By stilling mind, storehouse consciousness becomes identical with tathagata, “suchness,” or the Buddha-mind.

Chitta means mind or consciousness.  In Yogachara, everything is ultimately chitta.  For this reason, Yogachara is also called the chitta-matra, “nothing but consciousness,” or idealistic school.


For more original sutras on the nature of samsara, rebirth, and karma, please see the following:

The Hole --
Fallen on Hard Times --
Happy --
Mother --
Living in Tune --
Sister Soma --
The Monk with Dysentery --
Old Age --


Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook.  Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Rahula, Walpola (1959).  What the Buddha Taught.  NY:  Grove Press.

Gard, Richard (1962).  Buddhism.  NY:  George Braziller.

The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994).  Boston: Shambhala.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998).  Chicago:  Encyclopaedia Britannica.


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