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The religious, monastic system, founded c. 500 B.C. on the basis of pantheistic Brahminism. The speculations of the Vedanta school of religious thought, in the eighth and following centuries, B.C., gave rise to several rival schemes of salvation. These movements started with the same morbid view that conscious life is a burden and not worth the living, and that true happiness is to be had only in a state like dreamless sleep free from all desires, free from conscious action. They took for granted the Upanishad doctrine of the endless chain of births, but they differed from pantheistic Brahminism both in their attitude towards the Vedas and in their plan for securing freedom from rebirth and from conscious existence. In their absolute rejection of Vedic rites, they stamped themselves as heresies. Of these the one destined to win greatest renown was Buddhism.


Of Buddha, the founder of this great movement, legendary tradition has much to say, but very little of historical worth is known. His father seems to have been a petty raja, ruling over a small community on the southern border of the district now known as Nepal. Buddha's family name was Gotama (Sanskrit Gautama), and it was probably by this name that he was known in life. In all likelihood it was after his death that his disciples bestowed on him a number of laudatory names, the most common being Buddha, i.e. "the enlightened". Like the newborn youths of his day, he must have spent some time in the study of the sacred Vedas. After the immemorial custom of the East, he married at an early age, and, if tradition may be trusted, exercised a prince's privilege of maintaining a harem. His principal wife bore him a son. His heart was not at rest. The pleasures of the world soon palled upon him, and abandoning his home he retired to the forest, where as a hermit he spent several years in austere self-discipline, studying doubtless, the way of salvaion as taught in the Upanishads. Even this did not bring peace to his mind. He gave up the rigorous fasts and mortifications, which nearly cost him his life, and devoted himself in his own way to long and earnest meditation, the fruit of which was his firm belief that he had discovered the only true method of escaping from the misery of rebirth and of attaining to Nirvana. He then set out to preach his gospel of deliverance, beginning at Benares. His magnetic personality and his earnest, impressive eloquence soon won over to his cause a number of the warrior caste. Brahmins, too, felt the persuasiveness of his words, and it was not long before he was surrounded by a band of enthusiastic disciples, in whose company he went from place to place, by making converts by his preaching. These soon became very numerous and were formed into a great brotherhood of monks. Such was the work to which Buddha gave himself with unsparing zeal for over forty years. At length, worn out by his long life of activity, he fell sick after a meal of dried boar's flesh, and died in the eightieth year of his age. The approximate date of his death is 480 B.C. It is noteworthy that Buddha was a contemporary of two other famous religious philosophers, Pythagoras and Confucius.

In the sacred books of later times Buddha is depicted as a character without flaw, adorned with every grace of mind and heart. There may be some hesitation in taking the highly coloured portrait of Buddhist tradition as the exact representation of the original, but Buddha may be credited with the qualities of a great and good man. The records depict him moving about from place to place, regardless of personal comfort, calm and fearless, mild and compassionate, considerate towards poor and rich alike, absorbed with the one idea of freeing all men from the bonds of misery, and irresistible in his manner of setting forth the way of deliverance. In his mildness, his readiness to overlook insults, his zeal, chastity, and simplicity of life, he reminds one not a little of St. Francis of Assisi. In all pagan antiquity no character has been depicted as so noble and attractive.


The chief sources for early Buddhism are the sacred books comprised in the first two divisions of the Ti-pitaka (triple-basket), the threefold Bible of the Southern School of Buddhists. In India, today, the Buddhists are found only in the North, in Nepal, and in the extreme South, in the island of Ceylon. They represent two different schools of thought, the Northern worshipping Buddha as supreme personal deity though at the same time adopting most of the degrading superstitions of Hinduism, the Southern adhering in great measure to the original teachings of Buddha. Each school has a canon of sacred books. The Northern canon is in Sanskrit, the Southern in Pali, a softer tongue, into which Sanskrit was transformed by the people of the South. The Southern canon, Ti-pitaka, which reflects more faithfully the teachings of Buddha and his early disciples, embraces

  • the Vinaya-pitaka, a collection of books on the disciplinary rules of the order,
  • the Sutta-pitaka, didactic tracts consisting in part of alleged discourses of Buddha; and
  • the Abhidhamma-pitaka, comprising more detailed treatises on doctrinal subjects.

Most of the Vinavas and some of the Suttas have been made accessible to English readers in the "Sacred Books of the East". The Ti-pitaka seems to date back to the second and third centuries B.C., but a few additions were made even after it was committed to writing in the early part of the first century of the Christian Era. While there may be doctrinal and disciplinary parts from the time of Buddha none of the twenty-nine books comprised in the Ti-pitaka can be proved to be older than 300 B.C. These books stripped of their tiresome repetitions, would be about equal in size to the Bible, though on the whole they are vastly inferior to the Sacred Scripture in spirituality, depth of thought, variety of subject, and richness of expression.
There are also a few extra-canonical books, likewise in Pali on which the Southern Buddhists set great value, the Dipavansa and Mahavansa, which give an uncritical history of Buddhism down to about A.D. 300, the "Commentaries of Buddhagosa", and the Milinda Panha, ably translated by Rhys Davids under the title "The Questions of King Milinda". These works belong to the fourth and following centuries of our era. In the Tri-pitaka of the Northern School are included the well-known Saddharma-pundarika (Lotus of the True Law), and the legendary biographies of Buddha, the Buddha Charita, and the Lalita Vistara (Book of Exploits), which are generally assigned to the last quarter of the first century A.D. Besides the Tri-pitaka, the Northern Buddhists reckon as canonical several writings of more recent times adapted from the abominable Hindu Tantras.


Buddhism was by no means entirely original. It had much in common with the pantheistic Vedanta teaching, from which it sprang belief in karma, whereby the character of the present life is the net product of the good and evil acts of a previous existence; belief in a constant series of rebirths for all who set their heart on preserving their individual existence; the pessimistic view that life at its best is misery and not worth living. And so the great end for which Buddha toiled was the very one which gave colour to the pantheistic scheme of salvation propounded by the Brahmin ascetics, namely, the liberation of men from misery by setting them free from attachment to conscious existence. It was in their conception of the final state of the saved, and of the method by which it was to be attained that they differed. The pantheistic Brahmin said:

Recognize your identity with the great impersonal god, Brahma, you thereby cease to be a creature of desires; you are no longer held fast in the chain of rebirths; at death you lose your individuality, your conscious existence, to become absorbed in the all-god Brahma.
In Buddha's system, the all-god Brahma was entirely ignored. Buddha put abstruse speculation in the background, and, while not ignoring the value of right knowledge, insisted on the saving part of the will as the one thing needful. To obtain deliverance from birth, all forms of desire must be absolutely quenched, not only very wicked craving, but also the desire of such pleasures and comforts as are deemed innocent and lawful, the desire even to preserve one's conscious existence. It was through this extinction of every desire that cessation of misery was to be obtained. This state of absence of desire and pain was known as Nirvana (Nibbana). This word was not coined by Buddha, but in his teaching, it assumed a new shade of meaning. Nirvana means primarily a "blowing out", and hence the extinction of the fire of desire, ill-will, delusion, of all, in short, that binds the individual to rebirth and misery. It was in the living Buddhist saint a state of calm repose, of indifference to life and death, to pleasure and pain, a state of imperturbable tranquility, where the sense of freedom from the bonds of rebirth caused the discomforts as well as the joys of life to sink into insignance. But it was not till after death that Nirvana was realized in its completeness. Some scholars have so thought. And, indeed, if the psychological speculations found in the sacred books are part of Buddha's personal teaching, it is hard to see how he could have held anything else as the final end of man. But logical consistency is not to be looked for in an Indian mystic. If we may trust the sacred books, he expressly refused on several occasions to pronounce either on the existence or the non-existence of those who had entered into Nirvana, on the ground that it was irrelevant, not conducive to peace and enlightenment. His intimate disciples held the same view. A monk who interpreted Nirvana to mean annihilation was taken to task by an older monk, and convinced that he had no right to hold such an opinion, since the subject was wrapped in impenetrable mystery. The learned nun Khema gave a similar answer to the King of Kosala, who asked if the deceased Buddha was still in existence. Whether the Perfect One exists after death, whether he does not exist after death, whether he exists and at the same time does not exist after death, whether he neither exists nor does not exist after death, has not been revealed by Buddha. Since, then, the nature of Nirvana was too mysterious to be grasped by the Hindu mind, too subtle to be expressed in terms either of existence or of non-existence, it would be idle to attempt a positive solution of the question. It suffices to know that it meant a state of unconscious repose, an eternal sleep which knew no awakening. In this respect it was practically one with the ideal of the pantheistic Brahmin.
In the Buddhist conception of Nirvana no account was taken of the all-god Brahma. And as prayers and offerings to the traditional gods were held to be of no avail for the attainment of this negative state of bliss, Buddha, with greater consistency than was shown in pantheistic Brahminism, rejected both the Vedas and the Vedic rites. It was this attitude which stamped Buddhism as a heresy. For this reason, too, Buddha has been set down by some as an atheist. Buddha, however, was not an atheist in the sense that he denied the existence of the gods. To him the gods were living realities. In his alleged sayings, as in the Buddhist scriptures generally, the gods are often mentioned, and always with respect. But like the pantheistic Brahmin, Buddha did not acknowledge his dependence on them. They were like men, subject to decay and rebirth. The god of today might be reborn in the future in some inferior condition, while a man of great virtue might succeed in raising himself in his next birth to the rank of a god in heaven. The very gods, then, no less than men, had need of that perfect wisdom that leads to Nirvana, and hence it was idle to pray or sacrifice to them in the hope of obtaining the boon which they themselves did not possess. They were inferior to Buddha, since he had already attained to Nirvana. In like manner, they who followed Buddha's footsteps had no need of worshipping the gods by prayers and offerings. Worship of the gods was tolerated, however, in the Buddhist layman who still clung to the delusion of individual existence, and preferred the household to the homeless state. Moreover, Buddha's system conveniently provided for those who accepted in theory the teaching that Nirvana alone was the true end of man but who still lacked the courage to quench all desires. The various heavens of Brahminic theology, with their positive, even sensual, delights were retained as the reward of virtuous souls not yet ripe for Nirvana. To aspire after such rewards was permitted to the lukewarm monk; it was commended to the layman. Hence the frequent reference, even in the earliest Buddhist writings to heaven and its positive delights as an encouragement to right conduct. Sufficient prominence is not generally given to this more popular side of Buddha's teaching, without which his followers would have been limited to an insignificant and short-lived band of heroic souls. It was this element, so prominent in the inscriptions of Asoka, that tempered the severity of Buddha's doctrine of Nirvana and made his system acceptable to the masses.

In order to secure that extinction of desire which alone could lead to Nirvana, Buddha prescribed for his followers a life of detachment from the comforts, pleasures, and occupations of the common run of men. To secure this end, he adopted for himself and his disciples the quiet, secluded, contemplative life of the Brahmin ascetics. It was foreign to his plan that his followers should engage in any form of industrial pursuits, lest they might thereby be entangled in worldly cares and desires. Their means of subsistence was alms; hence the name commonly applied to Buddhist monks was bhikkus, beggars. Detachment from family life was absolutely necessary. Married life was to be avoided as a pit of hot coals, for it was incompatible with the quenching of desire and the extinction of individual existence. In like manner, worldly possessions and worldly power had to be renounced-everything that might minister to pride, greed, or self-indulgence. Yet in exacting of his followers a life of severe simplicity, Buddha did not go to the extremes of fanaticism that characterized so many of the Brahmin ascetics. He chose the middle path of moderate asceticism which he compared to a lute, which gives forth the proper tones only when the strings are neither too tight nor too slack. Each member was allowed but one set of garments, of yellowish colour and of cheap quality. These, together with his sleeping mat, razor, needle, water-strainer, and alms bowl, constituted the sum of his earthly possessions. His single meal, which had to be taken before noon, consisted chiefly of bread, rice, and curry, which he gathered daily in his alms-bowl by begging. Water or rice-milk was his customary drink, wine and other intoxicants being rigorously forbidden, even as medicine. Meat, fish, and delicacies were rarely eaten except in sickness or when the monk dined by invitation with some patron. The use of perfumes, flowers, ointments, and participation in worldly amusements fell also into the class of things prohibited. In theory, the moral code of Buddhism was little more than a copy of that of Brahminism. Like the latter, it extended to thoughts and desires, no less than to words and deeds. Unchastity in all its forms, drunkenness, lying, stealing, envy, pride, harshness are fittingly condemned. But what, perhaps, brings Buddhism most strikingly in contact with Christianity is its spirit of gentleness and forgiveness of injuries. To cultivate benevolence towards men of all classes, to avoid anger and physical violence, to be patient under insult, to return good for evil-all this was inculated in Buddhism and helped to make it one of the gentlest of religions. To such an extent was this carried that the Buddhist monk, like the Brahmin ascetic, had to avoid with the greatest care the destruction of any form of animal life.

In course of time, Buddha extended his monastic system to include women. Communities of nuns while living near the monks, were entirely secluded from them. They had to conform to the same rule of life, to subsist on alms, and spend their days in retirement and contemplation. They were never as numerous as the monks, and later became a very insignificant factor in Buddhism. In thus opening up to his fellow men and women what he felt to be the true path of salvation, Buddha made no discrimination in social condition. Herein lay one of the most striking contrasts between the old religion and the new. Brahminism was inextricably intertwined with caste-distinctions. It was a privilege of birth, from which the Sudras and members of still lower classes were absolutely excluded. Buddha, on the contrary, welcomed men of low as well as high birth and station. Virtue, not blood, was declared to be the test of superiority. In the brotherhood which he built around him, all caste-distinctions were put aside. The despised Sudra stood on a footing of equality with the high-born Brahmin. In this religious democracy of Buddhism lay, doubtless, one of its strongest influences for conversion among the masses. But in thus putting his followers on a plane of equal consideration, Buddha had no intention of acting the part of a social reformer. Not a few scholars have attributed to him the purpose of breaking down caste-distinctions in society and of introducing more democratic conditions. Buddha had no more intention of abolishing caste than he had of abolishing marriage. It was only within the limits of his own order that he insisted on social equality just as he did on celibacy. Wherever Buddhism has prevailed, the caste-system has remained untouched.

Strictly speaking, Buddha's order was composed only of those who renounced the world to live a life of contemplation as monks and nuns. The very character of their life, however, made them dependent on the charity of men and women who preferred to live in the world and to enjoy the comforts of the household state. Those who thus sympathized with the order and contributed to its support, formed the lay element in Buddhism. Through this friendly association with the order, they could look to a happy reward after death, not Nirvana but the temporary de!ights of heaven, with the additional prospect of being able at some future birth to attain to Nirvana, if they so desired. The majority, however, did not share the enthusiasm of the Buddhist Arhat or saint for Nirvana, being quite content to hope for a life of positive, though impermanent, bliss in heaven.


The lack of all religious rites in Buddhism was not keenly felt during the lifetime of its founder. Personal devotion to him took the place of religious fervour. But he was not long dead when this very devotion to him began to assume the form of religious worship. His reputed relics, consisting of his bones, teeth, alms-bowl, cremation-vessel, and ashes from his funeral pyre, were enclosed in dome-shaped mounds called Dagobas, or Topes, or Stupas, and were honoured with offerings of lights, flowers, and incense. Pictures and statues of Buddha were multiplied on every side, and similarly honoured, being carried about on festal days in solemn procession. The places, too, associated with his birth, enlightenment, first preaching, and death were accounted especially sacred, and became the objects of pilgrimage and the occasion of recurring festivals. But as Buddha had entered into Nirvana and could not be sensible of these religious honours, the need was felt of a living personality to whom the people could pray. The later speculations of Buddhist monks brought such a personality to light in Metteyya (Maitreya), the loving one, now happily reigning in heaven as a bodhisattva, a divine being destined in the remote future to become a Buddha, again to set in motion the wheel of the law. To this Metteyya the Buddhists turned as the living object of worship of which they had so long felt the need, and they paid him religious homage as the future saviour of the world.

The emergence of the Northern School

Such was the character of the religious worship observed by those who departed the least from Buddha's teachings. It is what is found today in the so-called Southern Buddhism, held by the inhabitants of Ceylon, Burma, and Siam. Towards the end of first century A.D., however, a far more radical change took place in the religious views of the great mass of Buddhists in Northern India. Owing, doubtless, to the ever growing popularity of the cults of Vishnu and Siva, Buddhism was so modified as to allow the worship of an eternal, supreme deity, Adi-Buddha, of whom the historic Buddha was declared to have been an incarnation, an avatar. Around this supreme Buddha dwelling in highest heaven, were grouped a countless number of bodhisattvas, destined in future ages to become human Buddhas for the sake of erring man. To raise oneself to the rank of bodhisattva by meritorious works was the ideal now held out to pious souls. In place of Nirvana, Sukhavati became the object of pious longing, the heaven of sensuous pleasures, where Amitabha, an emanation of the eternal Buddha, reigned. For the attainment of Sukhavati, the necessity of virtuous conduct was not altogether forgotten, but an extravagant importance was attached to the worship of relics and statues, pilgrimages, and, above all, to the reciting of sacred names and magic formulas. Many other gross forms of Hindu superstition were also adopted. This innovation, completely subversive of the teaching of Buddha, supplanted the older system in the North. It was known as the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, in distinction to the other and earlier form of Buddhism contemptuously styled the Hinayana or Little Vehicle, which held its own in the South. It is only by the few millions of Southern Buddhists that the teachings of Buddha have been substantially preserved.

Buddha's order seems to have grown rapidly, and through the good will of rulers, whose inferior origin debarred them from Brahmin privileges, to have become in the next two centuries a formidable rival of the older religion. The interesting rock-edicts of Asoka-a royal convert to Buddhism who in the second quarter of the third century B.C. held dominion over the greater part of India-give evidence that Buddhism was in a most flourishing condition, while a tolerant and kindly spirit was displayed towards other forms of religion. Under his auspices missionaries were sent to evangelize Ceylon in the South, and in the North, Kashmer, Kandahar, and the so-called Yavana country, identified by most scholars with the Greek settlements in the Kabul valley and vicinity, and later known as Bactria. In all these places Buddhism quickly took root and flourished, though in the Northern countries the religion became later on corrupted and transformed into the Mahayana form of worship.

Buddhism in China

In the first century of the Christian Era, the knowledge of Buddha made its way to China. At the invitation of the Emperor Ming-ti, Buddhist monks came in A.D. 67 with sacred books, pictures, and relics. Conversions multiplied, and during the next few centuries the religious communications between the two countries were very close. Not only did Buddhist missionaries from India labour in China, but many Chinese monks showed their zeal for the newly adopted religion by making pilgrimages to the holy places in India. A few of them wrote interesting accounts, still extant, of what they saw and heard in their travels. Of these pilgrims the most noted are Fahien, who travelled in India and Ceylon in the years A.D. 399-414, and Hiouen-Tsang who made extensive travels in India two centuries later (A.D. 629-645). The supplanting of the earlier form of Buddhism in the northern countries of India in the second century led to a corresponding change in the Buddhism of China. The later missionaries, being mostly from the North of India, brought with them the new doctrine, and in a short time the Mahayana or Northern Buddhism prevailed. Two of the bodhisattvas of Mahayana theology became the favourite objects of worship with the Chinese-Amitabha, lord of the Sukhavati paradise, and Avalokitesvara, extravagantly praised in the "Lotus of the True Law" as ready to extricate from every sort of danger those who think of him or cherish his name. The latter, known as Fousa Kwanyin, is worshipped, now as a male deity, again as the goddess of mercy, who comes to the relief of the faithful. Amitabha goes by the Chinese name Amita, or Mito. Offerings of flowers and incense made before his statues and the frequent repetition, of his name are believed to ensure a future life of bliss in his distant Western paradise. An excessive devotion to statues and relics, the employment of magic arts to keep off evil spirits, and the observance of many of the gross superstitions of Taoism, complete the picture of Buddhism in China, a sorry representation of what Buddha made known to men. Chinese Buddhism was introduced into Korea in the fourth century, and from there taken to Japan two centuries later. The Buddhism of these countries is in the main like that of China, with the addition of a number of local superstitions. Annam was also evangelized by Chinese Buddhists at an early period.

Tibetan Buddhiism

Buddhism was first introduced into Tibet in the latter part of the seventh century, but it did not begin to thrive till the ninth century. In 1260, the Buddhist conqueror of Tibet, Kublai Khan, raised the head lama, a monk of the great Sakja monastery, to the position of spiritual and temporal ruler. His modern successors have the title of Dalai Lama. Lamaism is based on the Northern Buddhism of India, after it had become saturated with the disgusting elements of Siva worship. Its deities are innumerable, its idolatry unlimited. It is also much given to the use of magic formulas and to the endless repetition of sacred names. Its favourite formula is, Om mani padme hum (O jewel in the lotus, Amen), which, written on streamers exposed to the wind, and multiplied on paper slips turned by hand or wind or water, in the so-called prayer-wheels, is thought to secure for the agent unspeakable merit. The Dalai Lama, residing in the great monastery at Lhasa, passes for the incarnation of Amitabha, the Buddha of the Sukhavati paradise. Nine months after his death, a newly born babe is selected by divination as the reincarnate Buddha.

Catholic missionaries to Tibet in the early part of the last century were struck by the outward resemblances to Catholic liturgy and discipline that were presented by Lamaism-its infallible head, grades of clergy corresponding to bishop and priest, the cross, mitre, dalmatic, cope, censer, holy water, etc. At once voices were raised proclaiming the Lamaistic origin of Catholic rites and practices. Unfortunately for this shallow theory, the Catholic Church was shown to have possessed these features in common with the Christian Oriental churches long before Lamaism was in existence. The wide propagation of Nestorianism over Central and Eastern Asia as early as A.D. 635 offers a natural explanation for such resemblances as are accretions on Indian Buddhism. The missionary zeal of Tibetan lamas led to the extension of their religion to Tatary in the twelfth and following centuries. While Northern Buddhism was thus exerting a widespread influence over Central and Eastern Asia, the earlier form of Buddhism was making peaceful conquests of the countries and islands in the South. In the fifth century missionaries from Ceylon evangelized Burma. Within the next two centuries, it spread to Siam, Cambodia, Java, and adjacent islands.

Buddhism Today

The number of Buddhists throughout the world is commonly estimated at about four hundred and fifty millions, that is, about one-third of the human race. But on this estimate the error is made of classing an the Chinese and Japanese as Buddhists. Professor Legge, whose years of experience in China give special weight to his judgment, declares that the Buddhists in the whole world are not more than, one hundred millions, being far outnumbered not only by Christians, but also by the adherents of Confucianism and Hinduism. Professor Monier Williams holds the same views. Even if Buddhism, however, outranked Christianity in the number of adherents, it would be a mistake to attribute to the religion of Buddha, as some do, a more successful propagandism than to the religion of Christ. The latter has made its immense conquests, not by compromising with error and superstition, but by winning souls to the exclusive acceptance of its saving truths. Wherever it has spread, it has maintained its individuality. On the other hand, the vast majority of the adherents of Buddhism cling to forms of creed and worship that Buddha, if alive, would reprobate. Northern Buddhism became the very opposite of what Buddha taught to men, and in spreading to foreign lands accommodated itself to the degrading superstitions of the peoples it sought to win. It is only the Southern Buddhists of Ceylon, Burma, and Siam who deserve to be identified with the order founded by Buddha. They number at most but thirty millions of souls.

"Buddhism has the characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology; it covers both the natural & spiritual, and it is based on a religious sense aspiring from the experience of all things, natural and spiritual, as a meaningful unity" Albert Einstein

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