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For more detail, please find Encyclopaedia Britanica on the web at www.eb.com. Many thanks to Anthony Murphy for editing and production.


This page offers an overview of Buddhism.

Buddhism is a Pan-Asian religion and philosophy that has played a central role in the spiritual, cultural, and social life of the Eastern world and during the 20th century has spread to the West.

The Buddha's life and teachings

The Buddha, a designation which means the "Enlightened One," died in northeastern India between 500 and 350 BC. Shocked as a young man by the inevitability of sickness, old age, and death, he renounced his family life in order to wander as a shramana, or ascetic, in search of religious understanding and a way of release from the human condition. Through meditation he achieved enlightenment, or ultimate understanding. Thereafter, the Buddha instructed his followers in the dharma (truth) and the "Middle Way," a path between a worldly life and extremes of self-denial.

The essence of the Buddha's early preaching was said to be the Four Noble Truths: (1) life is fundamentally disappointment and suffering; (2) suffering is a result of one's desires for pleasure, power, and continued existence; (3) in order to stop disappointment and suffering one must stop desiring; and (4) the way to stop desiring and thus suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path--right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness, and right concentration.

The Theravada tradition

After the death of the Buddha efforts were made to consolidate the teachings and structures of the Buddhist community. Several important Buddhist councils were held to decide questions of faith and order, leading finally to the distinction between those who believed they held to the most ancient traditions (the Theravadins) and those who claimed their understandings represented the highest and most complete account of Buddha's message (the Mahayanists).

Theravada doctrine emphasizes the composite nature of all things. Phenomenal realities are conceived as being in constant flux, as aggregates of momentary elements without any enduring selfhood. The Theravada tradition explicated necessary regulations for the community, meditative techniques and rituals, and the stages leading to arhatship (the pinnacle of spiritual attainment).

The Mahayana tradition

Between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD, there appeared new Buddhist scriptures that purported to represent the Buddha's most advanced and complete teaching. Their ideal was that of the bodhisattva ( one who has taken the vow to become a buddha), whose compassionate vow to save all sentient beings was contrasted with the aloof self-preoccupation of the Theravada arhat. The influential Dhyana (Chinese: Ch'an; Japanese: Zen) tradition stressed meditation and a sudden enlightenment experience. Mahayana became the predominant form of Buddhism throughout East Asia and has had an immeasurable impact on the civilizations of China, Korea, and Japan.

Tantric Buddhism

Tantric Buddhism became prominent in India in the 7th century AD. An esoteric path requiring strict guidance under an accomplished master, Tantric ritual involved both the identification of the initiate with a visualized deity and action intended to demonstrate the adept's transcendence of all dualistic categories such as good and evil, male and female, samsara and nirvana. Tantrism became the predominant influence on the development of a special form of Buddhism in Mongolia and Tibet.

Buddhist architecture and iconography.

Buddhist doctrine and philosophy have given rise to a remarkable flowering of material culture. Architectural and iconographic features naturally vary from country to country, but basic functions remain the same.

The temple is the main sanctuary, in which services, both public and private, are performed. The monastery is a complex of buildings, located usually in a spot chosen for its beauty and seclusion, whose function is to house the activities of the monks. Veneration of relics and personal belongings of the Buddha has been present in Buddhism from the beginning. This honours the Buddha in the preservation of his relics or those of his chief disciples.

In addition to temple design and decoration, Buddhism historically has stimulated creativity in other artistic areas; the traditions of poetry and painting associated with Zen Buddhism are notable examples.


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