Buddhism: a brief historical overview


By Dr Alexander WynneLast updated 2010-02-18

BBC Report

The Buddha

The Buddha was born in Kapilavatthu, close to the modern Nepalese area of Tilaurakot, in about 480 BCE.

Little is known about his early life, apart from that he belonged to the Sakya clan and that his family name was Gotama.

At the age of 29, after marriage and the birth of a son, Gotama abandoned his family and travelled to the Indian kingdom of Magadha (roughly modern day Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh) as a wandering spiritual seeker. He tried various spiritual methods before having a religious experience or ‘awakening’ near the modern Indian town of Bodhgaya.

After this event, Gotama became known as the ‘awakened one’ (or buddha), and spent the next forty-five years wandering in and around Magadha, teaching his new doctrine and establishing a religious community. He died in about 400 BCE in the village of Kusināra, close to the modern Indian town of Kushinagar, aged eighty.

The early Buddhist community

The followers of the Buddha were either homeless wanderers like him, with only the most basic possessions (such as a bowl to beg food), or they were pious laypeople who provided material support for them. From the beginning the lay followers gifted the wanderers parks in which they could stay in simple dwellings, either for the odd night as they passed through on their travels, or during the rainy season (when wandering was forbidden).

These early Buddhist settlements were often located on the outskirts of towns and cities, close enough to teach the laity and so ensure material support, and yet isolated enough to encourage the meditative way of life taught by the Buddha. The Buddhist community as a whole is called the Sangha, a word also used to describe Buddhist groups in particular areas.

Top

A pan-Indian religion

Ashoka and the spread of Buddhism

For a hundred and fifty years, the Buddhist movement was largely confined to the area around Magadha. This changed during the reign of the Mauryan ruler Ashoka (c.268-231 BCE).

After converting to Buddhism, Ashoka spread the religion throughout his empire, thus enabling it to become the first pan-Indian religion, and also for it to be exported abroad: to the Far East via the Silk Road to China, and to South East Asia from Sri Lanka. In this way Buddhism became the first world religion.

Buddhist monasticism

Even before Ashoka’s patronage, it is likely that the Buddhist wanderers had started to live permanently in the Buddhist centres situated at the edges of towns and in parks. In the century or two after Ashoka, these centres developed into world’s first monasteries.

Monastic institutions dominated Buddhism for the rest of its time in India. A typical Buddhist monastery contained living quarters for monks (and/or nuns), a stūpa (a dome-like structure built over the remains of the Buddha and other important Buddhist saints), a pipal tree (called the ‘Bodhi tree’, or ‘tree of awakening’, since the Buddha was sat under this tree when he attained his awakening), and a shrine room containing an image or statue of the Buddha.

Mahāyāna Buddhism

Shortly before the Christian era, a new ideology emerged in Indian Buddhism: the ‘great vehicle’, or Mahāyāna. Mahāyāna Buddhists were committed to attaining the full awakening of the Buddha, and so called themselves ‘Bodhisattvas’ (those ‘devoted to awakening’), for the Buddha had been called this while he followed his path to awakening.

Mahāyāna Buddhists criticised the religious goal of the Indian Buddhist mainstream. They did not doubt that Buddhist saints could attain freedom from rebirth, but deemed the full awakening of a Buddha superior since its attainment enables one to help others achieve liberation more effectively.

Tantric Buddhism

A new form of Buddhism appeared in North-East India from around the seventh century CE onwards. Heavily influenced byHindu Tantrism – especially the version devoted to the Hindu god Shiva – Buddhist Tantra, also known as the ‘Vajrayāna’ (the ‘Diamond Vehicle’), dominated Buddhism during its final phase in India. Many of the great monastic scholars from the 8th century CE onwards were Tantric adepts.

Tantric Buddhists believed that their religious practices led to the rapid attainment of the Mahāyāna goal of full awakening. These practices included the repetition of magical formulas (mantras), complicated visualisations in which the practitioner imagined himself as a Tantric deity (in order to absorb the deity’s supernatural qualities), and complex rituals based aroundmandalas (patterned diagrams, drawn on the ground, representing the cosmos and the various deities thought to inhabit it).

The disappearance of Buddhism in India

Buddhism remained strong during the rule of the Guptas (4th to 6th centuries CE), despite increased support for the emergent classical Hinduism. But as the Gupta empire declined and suffered from Hun invasions from the North-West in the late 5th century, trade declined and old patterns of Buddhist support began to fail.

During this period of political fragmentation in the North, kingdoms from central and South India became more important. Some of these kingdoms were strong supporters of the Hindu god Shiva, and consequently support for Buddhism declined.

Buddhism began to disappear after the demise the Pāla empire of north-eastern India in the 12th century. Muslim incursions into India at this time targeted the important Buddhist monasteries of Bihar, such as Nālandā and Vikramashīla (destroyed by Islamic Turks in 1197 and 1203 respectively). This effectively meant the end of Buddhism in India.

Top

Beyond India

Buddhism in Sri Lanka

Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka in the mid-third century BCE by missionaries connected to Ashoka. Mahinda, the son of Ashoka, founded the Mahāvihāra monastery in the ancient capital Anurādhapura, and the order of nuns was founded soon after this by Mahinda’s sister Sanghamittā.

Other important Sri Lankan monasteries were founded in the 1st century BCE (Abhayagiri) and the 3rd century CE (Jetavana), although these monastic orders were merged into the Mahāvihāra lineage in 1165. The period of the 11th and 12th century was one of wars with the South Indian Tamils, and in 1180 Burmese missions were sent to restore the monastic lineage of the Mahāvihāra, and so ensure that the order of monks did not die out (unfortunately, this was the fate of the order of nuns).

Buddhism in Sri Lanka declined as various European countries began to exert political control there: from the 16th century Portugese, Dutch and British. Monastic Buddhism again required foreign missions to ensure it did not die out, this time through a Thai mission in 1753. The monastic order was not badly affected by the civil war in Sri Lanka, however, which ended in 2009.

Buddhism in South East Asia

A Buddhist presence in South East Asia during the reign of Ashoka is not impossible, but it is more certain that Buddhism had arrived in the area of modern Burma and Thailand by the 5th century CE. The Burmese missions to Sri Lanka of the 11th century prove that Theravāda Buddhism had definitely become established in the region by this time.

South East Asia was dominated by the Khmer empire from the 5th to the 15th centuries. Khmer culture was influenced by both Hindu and Buddhist elements, including Mahāyāna Buddhism. Theravāda Buddhism was present in the Khmer region from the 8th century onwards, but did not come to prominence until the 12th century, the time when Angkor Wat was constructed.

Thai kingdoms came to prominence in the 13th century. The Thais adopted Theravāda Buddhism in the latter half of the 13th century, enabling Theravāda to flourish first around the northern capital of Sukothai in the 15th century and then around the Southern capital of Ayudhya in the 18th century.

Thai Buddhism is now dominated by the Mahānikāya and Dhammayutika sects, both of which are also the main groupings in Cambodia. There are six monastic sects in Burma, the most dominant being the Thudhamma.

Buddhism in East Asia

Buddhism entered China between the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE. It was transmitted by Buddhists from central Asia and India, through the Buddhist centres that had sprung up along the Silk Road. Between the third and fifth century CE, numerous Buddhist texts, especially Mahāyāna Sūtras, were translated into Chinese and many monasteries were established.

Buddhism was at its strongest in China during the T’ang dynasty (618-907 CE), but declined thereafter, especially from the 15th century onwards. Although it was still the largest organised religion at the beginning of the 20th century, communist rule after 1949 and the cultural revolution of 1966-1972 effectively forced the end of Buddhism in China.

Numerous Buddhist schools emerged in China; some were closely related to Indian schools, others were unique to China. Among the latter, the Pure Land and Ch’an schools were most important.

The Ch’an school claims it was founded by the Indian meditation master Bodhidharma in the 5th century CE. The Southern school of Ch’an stressed the fact that awakening is attained in an instant; its tendency is away from scholasticism and towards the practice of sitting meditation.

Pure Land Buddhism is based on the Mahāyāna idea that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas exist in various realms throughout the universe; these ‘Buddha fields’ are thought to be the best places in which a person can progress along the path to awakening. Chinese Buddhists hoped to attain rebirth in the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitābha, and there progress to full awakening, through chanting his name.

Chinese forms of Buddhism spread to Korea in the 4th century, and many of the Chinese schools had become well-established by the 6th century. The Ch’an school was particularly important during the 8th and 9th centuries. Korean Buddhism was suppressed from 1392 onwards, and without any state support the number of monasteries and sects declined. At the beginning of the twentieth century only two sects remained, and these were merged into a single grouping, the Chogye sect, in 1935.

Buddhism was introduced into Japan in 538 CE from Korea, and within fifty years had become the official religion. During the 8th century many schools arrived from China, numerous temples were built, laying the foundations for Buddhism to flourish between the 9th and 13th centuries. It was during this period that the Japanese Pure Land school emerged, founded in the 12th century by Honen and his disciple Shinran; an important sub-school was founded by Nichiren in the 13th century.

Ch’an Buddhism developed in Japan during the 12th and 13th centuries, becoming known as Zen. The two traditions of Japanese Zen, the Rinzai and Soto schools, developed from the Linji and Caodong schools of Ch’an.

Modern Japanese Buddhism is notable for the emergence of many new groups since the second world war, such as Soka Gakkai, based on the teachings of Nichiren.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism developed from the Tantric form of Indian Buddhism, but also includes magical practices from the pre-Buddhist Bön religion. Peculiar to Tibetan Buddhism is the belief that the reincarnations of some important teachers (‘Lamas’) can be identified and restored to their previous position. There are four main schools Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug.

The Nyingma school traces their origin to Padmasambhava, a semi-legendary figure said to have accompanied Shāntarakshita to Tibet in the 8th century CE. They are especially associated with the practice of Dzogchen meditation, the aim of which is to realise the mind’s state of primordial purity.

The Kagyu school claims to have been founded by Tilopa and Nāropa, Indian Tantric practitioners of the 11th century. Their teachings were transmitted to Marpa, who in turn transmitted them to Milarepa and Gampopa, who founded the first Kagyu monastery.

The first Sakya monastery was founded in 1075 by Drokmi, after he had studied in the Indian monastery of Vikramashīla for eight years. He also adopted Tantric practices associated with the Indian Buddhist Atīsha, who had founded the Kadampa school in Tibet the early eleventh century, although this subsequently died out.

The Gelug school was founded in the fourteenth century by Tsongkhapa. It is noted for its scholarly expertise and for a vigorous adherence to the monastic rules. The chief teachers of the Drepung monastery receive the title ‘Dalai Lama‘; in recent centuries the Dalai Lamas been the political leaders of Tibet. The14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese invasion and is currently (2010) the leader of the Tibetan government in exile, based in the north Indian town of Dharamsala.

Top

Buddhism in the modern world

Theravāda Buddhism remains strong in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma, although in Burma Buddhist monks were involved in the attempted uprising of 2007, and reports suggest that many were killed in its suppression.

Buddhism was decimated by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during the 1970s, when all monks were forced to disrobe and tens of thousands were killed. It has since been re-established, but remains but in a much weakened form, as it is in Laos. The Theravāda order of nuns died out in the 12th or 13th century. Theravāda Buddhism was re-established in India in the 1950s by the social reformer B.R. Ambedkar.

Mahāyāna Buddhism is strong in Japan and retains a considerable presence in South Korea (although Buddhist activity is strictly limited in communist North Korea). There has been hardly any Buddhist activity in China since the religious prohibitions of the cultural revolution.

Both Mahāyāna (Zen and Pure Land) and Theravāda are today found in Vietnam, despite the declined under the Vietnam war and communist rule. There is also a small Theravāda presence.

Tibetan Buddhism was almost totally destroyed by the Chinese during the cultural revolution: most monasteries were sacked and tens of thousands of monks and nuns were either killed or imprisoned. Tibetan communities have reformed in exile, particularly in India and along the Himalayas in Nepal. Bhutan has managed to retain its Tibetan Buddhist traditions without much change in modern times.

Many schools of Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism can now be found in the West. Tibetan Buddhism is particularly prominent, because of the forced departure of many of its teachers from Tibet.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/history/overview_1.shtml

g �fu�~��for Buddhism to flourish between the 9th and 13th centuries. It was during this period that the Japanese Pure Land school emerged, founded in the 12th century by Honen and his disciple Shinran; an important sub-school was founded by Nichiren in the 13th century.

Ch’an Buddhism developed in Japan during the 12th and 13th centuries, becoming known as Zen. The two traditions of Japanese Zen, the Rinzai and Soto schools, developed from the Linji and Caodong schools of Ch’an.

Modern Japanese Buddhism is notable for the emergence of many new groups since the second world war, such as Soka Gakkai, based on the teachings of Nichiren.

Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism developed from the Tantric form of Indian Buddhism, but also includes magical practices from the pre-Buddhist Bön religion. Peculiar to Tibetan Buddhism is the belief that the reincarnations of some important teachers (‘Lamas’) can be identified and restored to their previous position. There are four main schools Tibetan Buddhism: Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug.

The Nyingma school traces their origin to Padmasambhava, a semi-legendary figure said to have accompanied Shāntarakshita to Tibet in the 8th century CE. They are especially associated with the practice of Dzogchen meditation, the aim of which is to realise the mind’s state of primordial purity.

The Kagyu school claims to have been founded by Tilopa and Nāropa, Indian Tantric practitioners of the 11th century. Their teachings were transmitted to Marpa, who in turn transmitted them to Milarepa and Gampopa, who founded the first Kagyu monastery.

The first Sakya monastery was founded in 1075 by Drokmi, after he had studied in the Indian monastery of Vikramashīla for eight years. He also adopted Tantric practices associated with the Indian Buddhist Atīsha, who had founded the Kadampa school in Tibet the early eleventh century, although this subsequently died out.

The Gelug school was founded in the fourteenth century by Tsongkhapa. It is noted for its scholarly expertise and for a vigorous adherence to the monastic rules. The chief teachers of the Drepung monastery receive the title ‘Dalai Lama‘; in recent centuries the Dalai Lamas been the political leaders of Tibet. The14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese invasion and is currently (2010) the leader of the Tibetan government in exile, based in the north Indian town of Dharamsala.

Top

Buddhism in the modern world

Theravāda Buddhism remains strong in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma, although in Burma Buddhist monks were involved in the attempted uprising of 2007, and reports suggest that many were killed in its suppression.

Buddhism was decimated by the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia during the 1970s, when all monks were forced to disrobe and tens of thousands were killed. It has since been re-established, but remains but in a much weakened form, as it is in Laos. The Theravāda order of nuns died out in the 12th or 13th century. Theravāda Buddhism was re-established in India in the 1950s by the social reformer B.R. Ambedkar.

Mahāyāna Buddhism is strong in Japan and retains a considerable presence in South Korea (although Buddhist activity is strictly limited in communist North Korea). There has been hardly any Buddhist activity in China since the religious prohibitions of the cultural revolution.

Both Mahāyāna (Zen and Pure Land) and Theravāda are today found in Vietnam, despite the declined under the Vietnam war and communist rule. There is also a small Theravāda presence.

Tibetan Buddhism was almost totally destroyed by the Chinese during the cultural revolution: most monasteries were sacked and tens of thousands of monks and nuns were either killed or imprisoned. Tibetan communities have reformed in exile, particularly in India and along the Himalayas in Nepal. Bhutan has managed to retain its Tibetan Buddhist traditions without much change in modern times.

Many schools of Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhism can now be found in the West. Tibetan Buddhism is particularly prominent, because of the forced departure of many of its teachers from Tibet.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/buddhism/history/overview_1.shtml

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: