Buddhism is the world’s fourth-largest religion with over 520 million followers, or over 7% of the global population, known as Buddhists. Buddhism encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha and resulting interpreted philosophies. Buddhism is a path of practice and spiritual development leading to Insight into the true nature of reality. Buddhism originated in ancient India as a Sramana tradition sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, spreading through much of Asia. Two major extant branches of Buddhism are generally recognized by scholars: Theravada (“The School of the Elders”) and Mahayana (“The Great Vehicle”).

Most Buddhist traditions share the goal of overcoming suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth, either by the attainment of Nirvana or through the path of BuddhahoodBuddhist schools vary in their interpretation of the path to liberation, the relative importance and canonicity assigned to the various Buddhist texts, and their specific teachings and practices. Widely observed practices include taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, observance of moral precepts, monasticism, meditation, and the cultivation of the Paramitas (virtues).

Theravada Buddhism has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. Mahayana, which includes the traditions of Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Shingon and Tiantai (Tendai), is found throughout East Asia.

Vajrayana, a body of teachings attributed to Indian adepts, may be viewed as a separate branch or as an aspect of Mahayana BuddhismTibetan Buddhism, which preserves the Vajrayana teachings of eighth-century India, is practiced in the countries of the Himalayan region, Mongolia, and Kalmykia.

Life of the Buddha

Main article: Gautama Buddha and Gautama Buddha Quotes
See also: MaitreyaMiracles Of Gautama Buddha, and Gautama Buddha in World Religions

Buddhism is an Indian religion attributed to the teachings of the Buddha, supposedly born Siddhārtha Gautama, and also known as the Tathāgata (“thus-gone”) and Sakyamuni (“sage of the Sakyas”). Early texts have his personal name as “Gautama” or “Gotama” (Pali) without any mention of “Siddhārtha,” (“Achieved the Goal”) which appears to have been a kind of honorific title when it does appear. The details of Buddha’s life are mentioned in many Early Buddhist Texts but are inconsistent, and his social background and life details are difficult to prove, the precise dates uncertain.

Buddhist Monk And Buddha Statue - by sasint

Buddhist Monk And Buddha Statue – by sasint

The evidence of the early texts suggests that he was born as Siddhārtha Gautama in Lumbini and grew up in Kapilavasthu, a town in the plains region of the modern Nepal-India border, and that he spent his life in what is now modern Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Some hagiographic legends state that his father was a king named Suddhodana, his mother was queen Maya, and he was born in Lumbini gardens. However, scholars such as Richard Gombrich consider this a dubious claim because a combination of evidence suggests he was born in the Shakyas community – one that later gave him the title Shakyamuni, and the Shakya community was governed by a small oligarchy or republic-like council where there were no ranks but where seniority mattered instead. Some of the stories about Buddha, his life, his teachings, and claims about the society he grew up in may have been invented and interpolated at a later time into the Buddhist texts.

According to the Buddhist sutras, Gautama was moved by the innate suffering of humanity and its endless repetition due to rebirth. He set out on a quest to end this repeated suffering. Early Buddhist canonical texts and early biographies of Gautama state that Gautama first studied under Vedic teachers, namely Alara Kalama (Arada Kalama) and Uddaka Ramaputta (Udraka Ramaputra), learning meditation and ancient philosophies, particularly the concept of “nothingness, emptiness” from the former, and “what is neither seen nor unseen” from the latter.

A Greco-Buddhist statue, one of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st–2nd century CE, Gandhara.

One of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Greco-Buddhist art, Gandhara.

Finding these teachings to be insufficient to attain his goal, he turned to the practice of asceticism. This too fell short of attaining his goal, and then he turned to the practice of dhyana, meditation, which he had already discovered in his youth. He famously sat in meditation under a Ficus religiosa tree now called the Bodhi Tree in the town of Bodh Gaya in the Gangetic plains region of South Asia. He gained insight into the workings of karma and his former lives, and attained enlightenment, certainty about the Middle Way (madhyamā-pratipad) as the right path of spiritual practice to end suffering (dukkha) from rebirths in Saṃsāra. As a fully enlightened Buddha (samyaksaṃbuddha), he attracted followers and founded a Sangha (monastic order). Now, as the Buddha, he spent the rest of his life teaching the Dharma he had discovered, and died at the age of 80 in Kushinagar, India.

Buddha’s teachings were propagated by his followers, which in the last centuries of the 1st millennium BCE became over 18 Buddhist sub-schools of thought, each with its own basket of texts containing different interpretations and authentic teachings of the Buddha; these over time evolved into many traditions of which the more well known and widespread in the modern era are Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism.


Main article: Glossary of Buddhism

Four Noble Truths – dukkha and its ending

Main articles: the Noble Eightfold Path, Dukkha and Four Noble Truths

The Four Truths express the basic orientation of Buddhism: we crave and cling to impermanent states and things, which is dukkha, “incapable of satisfying” and painful. This keeps us caught in saṃsāra, the endless cycle of repeated rebirth, dukkha and dying again. But there is a way to liberation from this endless cycle to the state of nirvana, namely following the Noble Eightfold Path.

The truth of dukkha is the basic insight that life in this mundane world, with its clinging and craving to impermanent states and things is dukkha, and unsatisfactory. Dukkha can be translated as “incapable of satisfying,” “the unsatisfactory nature and the general insecurity of all conditioned phenomena”; or “painful.” Dukkha is most commonly translated as “suffering,” but this is inaccurate, since it refers not to episodic suffering, but to the intrinsically unsatisfactory nature of temporary states and things, including pleasant but temporary experiences. We expect happiness from states and things which are impermanent, and therefore cannot attain real happiness.

The Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths. Sanskrit manuscript. Nalanda, Bihar, India.

The Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths. Sanskrit manuscript. Nalanda, Bihar, India.

In Buddhism, dukkha is one of the three marks of existence, along with impermanence and anattā (non-self). Buddhism, like other major Indian religions, asserts that everything is impermanent (anicca), but, unlike them, also asserts that there is no permanent self or soul in living beings (anattā). The ignorance or misperception (avijjā) that anything is permanent or that there is self in any being is considered a wrong understanding, and the primary source of clinging and dukkha.

Dukkha arises when we crave (tanha) and cling to these changing phenomena. The clinging and craving produces karma, which ties us to samsara, the round of death and rebirth. Craving includes kama-tanha, craving for sense-pleasures; bhava-tanha, craving to continue the cycle of life and death, including rebirth; and vibhava-tanha, craving to not experience the world and painful feelings.

Dukkha ceases, or can be confined, when craving and clinging cease or are confined. This also means that no more karma is being produced, and rebirth ends. Cessation is nirvana, “blowing out,” and peace of mind.

By following the Buddhist path to moksha, liberation, one starts to disengage from craving and clinging to impermanent states and things. The term “path” is usually taken to mean the Noble Eightfold Path, but other versions of “the path” can also be found in the Nikayas. The Theravada tradition regards insight into the four truths as liberating in itself.

The cycle of rebirth

Main article: Saṃsāra (Buddhism)

Saṃsāra means “wandering” or “world”, with the connotation of cyclic, circuitous change. It refers to the theory of rebirth and “cyclicality of all life, matter, existence”, a fundamental assumption of Buddhism, as with all major Indian religions. Samsara in Buddhism is considered to be dukkha, unsatisfactory and painful, perpetuated by desire and avidya (ignorance), and the resulting karma.

The theory of rebirths, and realms in which these rebirths can occur, is extensively developed in Buddhism, in particular Tibetan Buddhism with its wheel of existence (Bhavacakra) doctrine. Liberation from this cycle of existence, nirvana, has been the foundation and the most important historical justification of Buddhism.

The later Buddhist texts assert that rebirth can occur in six realms of existence, namely three good realms (heavenly, demi-god, human) and three evil realms (animal, hungry ghosts, hellish). Samsara ends if a person attains nirvana, the “blowing out” of the desires and the gaining of true insight into impermanence and non-self reality.


Main article: Rebirth (Buddhism)

Rebirth refers to a process whereby beings go through a succession of lifetimes as one of many possible forms of sentient life, each running from conception to death. In Buddhist thought, this rebirth does not involve any soul, because of its doctrine of anattā (anātman, no-self doctrine) which rejects the concepts of a permanent self or an unchanging, eternal soul, as it is called in Hinduism and Christianity. According to Buddhism there ultimately is no such thing as a self in any being or any essence in any thing.

The Buddhist traditions have traditionally disagreed on what it is in a person that is reborn, as well as how quickly the rebirth occurs after each death. Some Buddhist traditions assert that “no self” doctrine means that there is no perduring self, but there is avacya (inexpressible) self which migrates from one life to another. The majority of Buddhist traditions, in contrast, assert that vijñāna (a person’s consciousness) though evolving, exists as a continuum and is the mechanistic basis of what undergoes rebirth, rebecoming and redeath. The rebirth depends on the merit or demerit gained by one’s karma, as well as that accrued on one’s behalf by a family member.

Each rebirth takes place within one of five realms according to Theravadins, or six according to other schools – heavenly, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts and hellish.

In East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism, rebirth is not instantaneous, and there is an intermediate state (Tibetan “bardo”) between one life and the next. The orthodox Theravada position rejects the wait, and asserts that rebirth of a being is immediate However there are passages in the Samyutta Nikaya of the Pali Canon that seem to lend support to the idea that the Buddha taught about an intermediate stage between one life and the next.


Main article: Karma in Buddhism

In Buddhism, karma (from “action, work”) drives saṃsāra – the endless cycle of suffering and rebirth for each being. Good, skilful deeds (kusala) and bad, unskilful deeds (akusala) produce “seeds” in the unconscious receptacle (ālaya) that mature later either in this life or in a subsequent rebirth. The existence of karma is a core belief in Buddhism, as with all major Indian religions, it implies neither fatalism nor that everything that happens to a person is caused by karma.

A central aspect of Buddhist theory of karma is that intent (cetanā) matters and is essential to bring about a consequence or phala “fruit” or vipāka “result”. However, good or bad karma accumulates even if there is no physical action, and just having ill or good thoughts creates karmic seeds; thus, actions of body, speech or mind all lead to karmic seeds. In the Buddhist traditions, life aspects affected by the law of karma in past and current births of a being include the form of rebirth, realm of rebirth, social class, character and major circumstances of a lifetime. It operates like the laws of physics, without external intervention, on every being in all six realms of existence including human beings and gods.

A notable aspect of the karma theory in Buddhism is merit transfer. A person accumulates merit not only through intentions and ethical living, but also is able to gain merit from others by exchanging goods and services, such as through dāna (charity to monks or nuns). Further, a person can transfer one’s own good karma to living family members and ancestors.


Main articles: MokshaNirvana (Buddhism) and Enlightenment in Buddhism

The cessation of the kleshas and the attainment of nirvana (nibbāna), with which the cycle of rebirth ends, has been the primary and the soteriological goal of the Buddhist path for monastic life since the time of the Buddha. The term “path” is usually taken to mean the Noble Eightfold Path, but other versions of “the path” can also be found in the Nikayas. In some passages in the Pali Canon, a distinction is being made between right knowledge or insight (sammā-ñāṇa), and right liberation or release (sammā-vimutti), as the means to attain cessation and liberation.

Nirvana literally means “blowing out, quenching, becoming extinguished”. In early Buddhist texts, it is the state of restraint and self-control that leads to the “blowing out” and the ending of the cycles of sufferings associated with rebirths and redeaths. Many later Buddhist texts describe nirvana as identical with anatta with complete “emptiness, nothingness”. In some texts, the state is described with greater detail, such as passing through the gate of emptiness (sunyata) – realizing that there is no soul or self in any living being, then passing through the gate of signlessness (animitta) – realizing that nirvana cannot be perceived, and finally passing through the gate of wishlessness (apranihita) – realizing that nirvana is the state of not even wishing for nirvana.

The nirvana state has been described in Buddhist texts partly in a manner similar to other Indian religions, as the state of complete liberation, enlightenment, highest happiness, bliss, fearlessness, freedom, permanence, non-dependent origination, unfathomable, and indescribable. It has also been described in part differently, as a state of spiritual release marked by “emptiness” and realization of non-self.

While Buddhism considers the liberation from saṃsāra as the ultimate spiritual goal, in traditional practice, the primary focus of a vast majority of lay Buddhists has been to seek and accumulate merit through good deeds, donations to monks and various Buddhist rituals in order to gain better rebirths rather than nirvana.

Dependent arising

Main articles: Pratītyasamutpāda and Twelve Nidānas

Pratityasamutpada, also called “dependent arising, or dependent origination“, is the Buddhist theory to explain the nature and relations of being, becoming, existence and ultimate reality. Buddhism asserts that there is nothing independent, except the state of nirvana. All physical and mental states depend on and arise from other pre-existing states, and in turn from them arise other dependent states while they cease.

The ‘dependent arisings’ have a causal conditioning, and thus Pratityasamutpada is the Buddhist belief that causality is the basis of ontology, not a creator God nor the ontological Vedic concept called universal Self (Brahman) nor any other ‘transcendent creative principle’. However, the Buddhist thought does not understand causality in terms of Newtonian mechanics, rather it understands it as conditioned arising. In Buddhism, dependent arising is referring to conditions created by a plurality of causes that necessarily co-originate a phenomenon within and across lifetimes, such as karma in one life creating conditions that lead to rebirth in one of the realms of existence for another lifetime.

Buddhism applies the dependent arising theory to explain origination of endless cycles of dukkha and rebirth, through its Twelve Nidānas or “twelve links” doctrine. It states that because Avidyā (ignorance) exists Saṃskāras(karmic formations) exists, because Saṃskāras exists therefore Vijñāna (consciousness) exists, and in a similar manner it links Nāmarūpa (sentient body), Ṣaḍāyatana (six senses), Sparśa (sensory stimulation), Vedanā (feeling), Taṇhā (craving), Upādāna (grasping), Bhava (becoming), Jāti (birth), and Jarāmaraṇa (old age, death, sorrow, pain).

By breaking the circuitous links of the Twelve Nidanas, Buddhism asserts that liberation from these endless cycles of rebirth and dukkha can be attained.

Not-Self and Emptiness

Main articles: Anātman and Śūnyatā

A related doctrine in Buddhism is that of anattā (Pali) or anātman (Sanskrit). It is the view that there is no unchanging, permanent self, soul or essence in phenomena. The Buddha and Buddhist philosophers who follow him such as Vasubandhu and Buddhaghosa, generally argue for this view through by analyzing the person through the schema of the five aggregates, and then attempting to show that none of these five components of personality can be permanent or absolute. This can be seen in Buddhist discourses such as the Anattalakkhana Sutta.

Emptiness” or “voidness” (Skt: Śūnyatā, Pali: Suññatā), is a related concept with many different interpretations throughout the various Buddhisms. In early Buddhism, it was commonly stated that all five aggregates are void (rittaka), hollow (tucchaka), coreless (asāraka), for example as in the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta (SN 22:95). Similarly, in Theravada Buddhism, it often simply means that the five aggregates are empty of a Self.

Emptiness is a central concept in Mahāyāna Buddhism, especially in Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka school, and in the Prajñāpāramitā sutras. In Madhyamaka philosophy, emptiness is the view which holds that all phenomena (dharmas) are without any svabhava (literally “own-nature” or “self-nature”), and are thus without any underlying essence, and so are “empty” of being independent. This doctrine sought to refute the heterodox theories of svabhava circulating at the time.

Three Jewels

Main articles: Three Jewels

Triratna symbol

Triratna symbol

All forms of Buddhism revere and take spiritual refuge in the “three jewels” (triratna): Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

The Three Jewels are:

  • The Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha, the Blessed One, the Awakened with true knowledge
  • The Dharma, the precepts, the practice, the Four Truths, the Eightfold Path
  • The Sangha, order of monks, the community of Buddha’s disciples

Reciting the three refuges is considered in Buddhism not as a place to hide, rather a thought that purifies, uplifts and strengthens.


Main article: Buddhahood

While all varieties of Buddhism revere “Buddha” and “buddhahood“, they have different views on what these are. Whatever that may be, “Buddha” is still central to all forms of Buddhism.

In Theravada Buddhism, a Buddha is someone who has become awake through their own efforts and insight. They have put an end to their cycle of rebirths and have ended all unwholesome mental states which lead to bad action and thus are morally perfected. While subject to the limitations of the human body in certain ways (for example, in the early texts, the Buddha suffers from backaches), a Buddha is said to be “deep, immeasurable, hard-to-fathom as is the great ocean,” and also has immense psychic powers (abhijñā).

Theravada generally sees Gautama Buddha (the historical Buddha Sakyamuni) as the only Buddha of the current era. While he is no longer in this world, he has left us the Dharma (Teaching), the Vinaya (Discipline) and the Sangha (Community). There are also said to be two types of Buddhas, a sammasambuddha is also said to teach the Dharma to others, while a paccekabuddha (solitary buddha) does not teach.

Mahāyāna Buddhism meanwhile, has a vastly expanded cosmology, with various Buddhas and other holy beings (aryas) residing in different realms. Mahāyāna texts not only revere numerous Buddhas besides Sakyamuni, such as Amitabha and Vairocana, but also see them as transcendental or supramundane (lokuttara) beings. Mahāyāna Buddhism holds that these other Buddhas in other realms can be contacted and are able to benefit beings in this world. In Mahāyāna, a Buddha is a kind of “spiritual king”, a “protector of all creatures” with a lifetime that is countless of eons long, rather than just a human teacher who has transcended the world after death. Buddha Sakyamuni’s life and death on earth is then usually understood as a “mere appearance” or “a manifestation skilfully projected into earthly life by a long-enlightened transcendent being, who is still available to teach the faithful through visionary experiences.”


Main article: Dharma

Dharma” (Pali: Dhamma) in Buddhism refers to the Buddha’s teaching, which includes all of the main ideas outlined above. While this teaching reflects the true nature of reality, it is not a belief to be clung to, but a pragmatic teaching to be put into practice. It is likened to a raft which is “for crossing over” (to nirvana) not for holding on to.

It also refers to the universal law and cosmic order which that teaching both reveals and relies upon. It is an everlasting principle which applies to all beings and worlds. In that sense it is also the ultimate truth and reality about the universe, it is thus “the way that things really are.”

The Dharma is the second of the three jewels which all Buddhists take refuge in. All Buddhas in all worlds, in the past, present and in the future, are believed by Buddhists to understand and teach the Dharma. Indeed, it is part of what makes them a Buddha that they do so.


Main articles: SanghaBodhisattva, and Arhat

Other key Mahāyāna views

Main articles: Yogachara and Buddha-nature

Mahāyāna Buddhism also differs from Theravada and the other schools of early Buddhism in promoting several unique doctrines which are contained in Mahāyāna sutras and philosophical treatises.

One of these is the unique interpretation of emptiness and dependent origination found in the Madhyamaka school. Another very influential doctrine for Mahāyāna is the main philosophical view of the Yogācāra school variously, termed Vijñaptimātratā-vāda (“the doctrine that there are only ideas” or “mental impressions”) or Vijñānavāda (“the doctrine of consciousness”). According to Mark Siderits, what classical Yogācāra thinkers like Vasubandhu had in mind is that we are only ever aware of mental images or impressions, which may appear as external objects, but “there is actually no such thing outside the mind.” There are several interpretations of this main theory, many scholars see it as a type of Idealism, others as a kind of phenomenology.

Another very influential concept unique to Mahāyāna is that of “Buddha-nature” (buddhadhātu) or “Tathagata-womb” (tathāgatagarbha). Buddha-nature is a concept found in some 1st-millennium CE Buddhist texts, such as the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras. According to Paul Williams these Sutras suggest that ‘all sentient beings contain a Tathagata’ as their ‘essence, core inner nature, Self’. According to Karl Brunnholzl “the earliest mahayana sutras that are based on and discuss the notion of tathāgatagarbha as the buddha potential that is innate in all sentient beings began to appear in written form in the late second and early third century.” For some, the doctrine seems to conflict with the Buddhist anatta doctrine (non-Self), leading scholars to posit that the Tathāgatagarbha Sutras were written to promote Buddhism to non-Buddhists. This can be seen in texts like the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, which state that Buddha-nature is taught to help those who have fear when they listen to the teaching of anatta. Buddhist texts like the Ratnagotravibhāga clarify that the “Self” implied in Tathagatagarbha doctrine is actually “not-Self“. Various interpretations of the concept have been advanced by Buddhist thinkers throughout the history of Buddhist thought and most attempt to avoid anything like the Hindu Atman doctrine.

These Indian Buddhist ideas, in various synthetic ways, form the basis of subsequent Mahāyāna philosophy in Tibetan Buddhism and East Asian Buddhism.

The path to liberation

Main article: Buddhist Paths to liberation

While the Noble Eightfold Path is best-known in the west, a wide variety of practices and stages have been used and described in the Buddhist traditions. Basic practices include sila (ethics), samadhi (meditation, dhyana) and prajna (wisdom), as described in the Noble Eightfold Path. An important additional practice is a kind and compassionate attitude toward every living being and the world. Devotion is also important in some Buddhist traditions, and in the Tibetan traditions visualizations of deities and mandalas are important. The value of textual study is regarded differently in the various Buddhist traditions. It is central to Theravada and highly important to Tibetan Buddhism, while the Zen tradition takes an ambiguous stance.

An important guiding principle of Buddhist practice is the Middle Way (madhyamapratipad). It was a part of Buddha’s first sermon, where he presented the Noble Eightfold Path that was a ‘middle way‘ between the extremes of asceticism and hedonistic sense pleasures. In Buddhism, states Harvey, the doctrine of “dependent arising” (conditioned arising, pratītyasamutpāda) to explain rebirth is viewed as the ‘middle way‘ between the doctrines that a being has a “permanent soul” involved in rebirth (eternalism) and “death is final and there is no rebirth” (annihilationism).

Paths to liberation in the early texts

A common presentation style of the path (mārga) to liberation in the Early Buddhist Texts is the “graduated talk”, in which the Buddha lays out a step by step training.

In the early texts, numerous different sequences of the gradual path can be found. One of the most important and widely used presentations among the various Buddhist schools is The Noble Eightfold Path, or “Eightfold Path of the Noble Ones” (‘āryāṣṭāṅgamārga’). This can be found in various discourses, most famously in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (The discourse on the turning of the Dharma wheel).

Other suttas such as the Tevijja Sutta, and the Cula-Hatthipadopama-sutta give a different outline of the path, though with many similar elements such as ethics and meditation.

According to Rupert Gethin, the path to awakening is also frequently summarized by another a short formula: “abandoning the hindrances, practice of the four establishings of mindfulness, and development of the awakening factors.”

Noble Eightfold Path

Main articles: Noble Eightfold Path


The Dharmachakra represents the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path consists of a set of eight interconnected factors or conditions, that when developed together, lead to the cessation of dukkha. These eight factors are: Right View (or Right Understanding), Right Intention (or Right Thought), Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

This Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, and asserts the path to the cessation of dukkha (suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness). The path teaches that the way of the enlightened ones stopped their craving, clinging and karmic accumulations, and thus ended their endless cycles of rebirth and suffering.

This Eightfold Path is the fourth of the Four Noble Truths, and asserts the path to the cessation of dukkha (suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness). The path teaches that the way of the enlightened ones stopped their craving, clinging and karmic accumulations, and thus ended their endless cycles of rebirth and suffering.

The Noble Eightfold Path is grouped into three basic divisions, as follows:

Division Eightfold factor Sanskrit, Pali Description
1. Right view samyag dṛṣṭi,
sammā ditthi
The belief that there is an afterlife and not everything ends with death, that Buddha taught and followed a successful path to nirvana; according to Peter Harvey, the right view is held in Buddhism as a belief in the Buddhist principles of karma and rebirth, and the importance of the Four Noble Truths and the True Realities.
2. Right intention samyag saṃkalpa,
sammā saṅkappa
Giving up home and adopting the life of a religious mendicant in order to follow the path; this concept, states Harvey, aims at peaceful renunciation, into an environment of non-sensuality, non-ill-will (to lovingkindness), away from cruelty (to compassion).
Moral virtues
3. Right speech samyag vāc,
sammā vāca
No lying, no rude speech, no telling one person what another says about him, speaking that which leads to salvation;
4. Right action samyag karman,
sammā kammanta
No killing or injuring, no taking what is not given; no sexual acts in monastic pursuit, for lay Buddhists no sensual misconduct such as sexual involvement with someone married, or with an unmarried woman protected by her parents or relatives.
5. Right livelihood samyag ājīvana,
sammā ājīva
For monks, beg to feed, only possessing what is essential to sustain life. For lay Buddhists, the canonical texts state right livelihood as abstaining from wrong livelihood, explained as not becoming a source or means of suffering to sentient beings by cheating them, or harming or killing them in any way.
(Sanskrit and samādhi)
6. Right effort samyag vyāyāma,
sammā vāyāma
Guard against sensual thoughts; this concept, states Harvey, aims at preventing unwholesome states that disrupt meditation.
7. Right mindfulness samyag smṛti,
sammā sati
Never be absent minded, conscious of what one is doing; this, states Harvey, encourages mindfulness about impermanence of the body, feelings and mind, as well as to experience the five skandhas, the five hindrances, the four True Realities and seven factors of awakening.
8. Right concentration samyag samādhi,
sammā samādhi
Correct meditation or concentration (dhyana), explained as the four jhānas.

Theravada presentations of the path

Theravada Buddhism is a diverse tradition and thus includes different explanations of the path to awakening. However, the teachings of the Buddha are often encapsulated by Theravadins in the basic framework of the Four Noble Truths and the Eighthfold Path.

Some Theravada Buddhists also follow the presentation of the path laid out in Buddhaghosa’s Visuddhimagga. This presentation is known as the “Seven Purifications” (satta-visuddhi). This schema and its accompanying outline of “insight knowledges” (vipassanā-ñāṇa) is used by modern influential Theravadin scholars, such Mahasi Sayadaw (in his “The Progress of Insight”) and Nyanatiloka Thera (in “The Buddha’s Path to Deliverance”).

Mahayana presentations of the path

Mahāyāna Buddhism is based principally upon the path of a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva refers to one who is on the path to buddhahood. The term Mahāyāna was originally a synonym for Bodhisattvayāna or “Bodhisattva Vehicle.”

In the earliest texts of Mahāyāna Buddhism, the path of a bodhisattva was to awaken the bodhicitta. Between the 1st and 3rd century CE, this tradition introduced the Ten Bhumi doctrine, which means ten levels or stages of awakening. This development was followed by the acceptance that it is impossible to achieve Buddhahood in one (current) lifetime, and the best goal is not nirvana for oneself, but Buddhahood after climbing through the ten levels during multiple rebirths. Mahāyāna scholars then outlined an elaborate path, for monks and laypeople, and the path includes the vow to help teach Buddhist knowledge to other beings, so as to help them cross samsara and liberate themselves, once one reaches the Buddhahood in a future rebirth. One part of this path are the pāramitā (perfections, to cross over), derived from the Jatakas tales of Buddha’s numerous rebirths.

The doctrine of the bodhisattva bhūmis was also eventually merged with the Sarvāstivāda Vaibhāṣika schema of the “five paths” by the Yogacara school. This Mahāyāna “five paths” presentation can be seen in Asanga’s Mahāyānasaṃgraha.

The Mahāyāna texts are inconsistent in their discussion of the pāramitās, and some texts include lists of two, others four, six, ten and fifty-two. The six paramitas have been most studied, and these are:

  1. Dāna pāramitā: perfection of giving; primarily to monks, nuns and the Buddhist monastic establishment dependent on the alms and gifts of the lay householders, in return for generating religious merit; some texts recommend ritually transferring the merit so accumulated for better rebirth to someone else
  2. Śīla pāramitā: perfection of morality; it outlines ethical behaviour for both the laity and the Mahayana monastic community; this list is similar to Śīla in the Eightfold Path (i.e. Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood)
  3. Kṣānti pāramitā: perfection of patience, willingness to endure hardship
  4. Vīrya pāramitā: perfection of vigour; this is similar to Right Effort in the Eightfold Path
  5. Dhyāna pāramitā: perfection of meditation; this is similar to Right Concentration in the Eightfold Path
  6. Prajna paramita: perfection of insight (wisdom), awakening to the characteristics of existence such as karma, rebirths, impermanence, no-self, dependent origination and emptiness; this is complete acceptance of the Buddha teaching, then conviction, followed by ultimate realisation that “dharmas are non-arising”.

In Mahāyāna Sutras that include ten pāramitā, the additional four perfections are “skillful means, vow, power and knowledge”. The most discussed pāramitā and the highest rated perfection in Mahayana texts is the “Prajna-paramita“, or the “perfection of insight”. This insight in the Mahāyāna tradition, states Shōhei Ichimura, has been the “insight of non-duality or the absence of reality in all things”.

East Asian Buddhism

East Asian Buddhism in influenced by both the classic Indian Buddhist presentations of the path such as the eighth-fold path as well as classic Indian Mahāyāna presentations such as that found in the Da zhidu lun.

There many different presentations of soteriology, including numerous paths and vehicles (yanas) in the different traditions of East Asian Buddhism. There is no single dominant presentation. In Zen Buddhism for example, one can find outlines of the path such as the Two Entrances and Four Practices, The Five ranks, The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures and The Three mysterious Gates of Linji.

Indo-Tibetan Buddhism

In Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, the path to liberation is outlined in the genre known as Lamrim (“Stages of the Path”). All the various Tibetan schools have their own Lamrim presentations. This genre can be traced to Atiśa’s 11th-century A Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment (Bodhipathapradīpa).

Common Buddhist Practices

Hearing and Learning the Dharma

In various suttas which present the graduated path taught by the Buddha, such as the Samaññaphala Sutta and the Cula-Hatthipadopama Sutta, the first step on the path is hearing the Buddha teach the Dharma. This then said to lead to the acquiring of confidence or faith in the Buddha’s teachings.

Mahayana Buddhist teachers such as Yin Shun also state that hearing the Dharma and study of the Buddhist discourses is necessary “if one wants to learn and practice the Buddha Dharma.”Likewise, in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, the “Stages of the Path” (Lamrim) texts generally place the activity of listening to the Buddhist teachings as an important early practice.


Main article: Refuge (Buddhism)

Traditionally, the first step in most Buddhist schools requires taking of the “Three Refuges”, also called the Three Jewels (triratna, Pali: tiratana) as the foundation of one’s religious practice. This practice may have been influenced by the Brahmanical motif of the triple refuge, found in the Rigveda 9.97.47, Rigveda 6.46.9 and Chandogya Upanishad 2.22.3–4. Tibetan Buddhism sometimes adds a fourth refuge, in the lama. The three refuges are believed by Buddhists to be protective and a form of reverence.

The ancient formula which is repeated for taking refuge affirms that “I go to the Buddha as refuge, I go to the Dhamma as refuge, I go to the Sangha as refuge.” Reciting the three refuges, according to Harvey, is considered not as a place to hide, rather a thought that “purifies, uplifts and strengthens the heart”.

Śīla – Buddhist ethics

Main article: Buddhist ethics

Śīla (Sanskrit) or sīla (Pāli) is the concept of “moral virtues”, that is the second group and an integral part of the Noble Eightfold Path. It generally consists of right speech, right action and right livelihood.

One of the most basic forms of ethics in Buddhism is the taking of “precepts”. This includes the Five Precepts for laypeople, Eight or Ten Precepts for monastic life, as well as rules of Dhamma (Vinaya or Patimokkha) adopted by a monastery.

Other important elements of Buddhist ethics include giving or charity (dāna), Mettā (Good-Will), Heedfulness (Appamada), ‘self-respect’ (Hri) and ‘regard for consequences’ (Apatrapya).


Main article: Five precepts

Buddhist scriptures explain the five precepts (pañcasīlapañcaśīla) as the minimal standard of Buddhist morality. It is the most important system of morality in Buddhism, together with the monastic rules. The five precepts apply to both male and female devotees, and these are:

  1. Abstain from killing (Ahimsa);
  2. Abstain from stealing;
  3. Abstain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct;
  4. Abstain from lying;
  5. Abstain from intoxicants.

Undertaking and upholding the five precepts is based on the principle of non-harming (Pāli and ahiṃsa). The Pali Canon recommends one to compare oneself with others, and on the basis of that, not to hurt others. Compassion and a belief in karmic retribution form the foundation of the precepts. Undertaking the five precepts is part of regular lay devotional practice, both at home and at the local temple. However, the extent to which people keep them differs per region and time. They are sometimes referred to as the śrāvakayāna precepts in the Mahāyāna tradition, contrasting them with the bodhisattva precepts.

The five precepts are not commandments and transgressions do not invite religious sanctions, but their power has been based on the Buddhist belief in karmic consequences and their impact in the afterlife. Killing in Buddhist belief leads to rebirth in the hell realms, and for a longer time in more severe conditions if the murder victim was a monk. Adultery, similarly, invites a rebirth as prostitute or in hell, depending on whether the partner was unmarried or married. These moral precepts have been voluntarily self-enforced in lay Buddhist culture through the associated belief in karma and rebirth. Within the Buddhist doctrine, the precepts are meant to develop mind and character to make progress on the path to enlightenment.

The monastic life in Buddhism has additional precepts as part of patimokkha, and unlike lay people, transgressions by monks do invite sanctions. Full expulsion from sangha follows any instance of killing, engaging in sexual intercourse, theft or false claims about one’s knowledge. Temporary expulsion follows a lesser offence. The sanctions vary per monastic fraternity (nikaya).

Lay people and novices in many Buddhist fraternities also uphold eight (asta shila) or ten (das shila) from time to time. Four of these are same as for the lay devotee: no killing, no stealing, no lying, and no intoxicants. The other four precepts are:

  1. No sexual activity;
  2. Abstain from eating at the wrong time (e.g. only eat solid food before noon);
  3. Abstain from jewellery, perfume, adornment, entertainment;
  4. Abstain from sleeping on high bed i.e. to sleep on a mat on the ground.

All eight precepts are sometimes observed by lay people on uposatha days: full moon, new moon , the first and last quarter following the lunar calendar. The ten precepts also include to abstain from accepting money.

In addition to these precepts, Buddhist monasteries have hundreds of rules of conduct, which are a part of its patimokkha.


Main articles: Vinaya

Vinaya is the specific code of conduct for a sangha of monks or nuns. It includes the Patimokkha, a set of 227 offences including 75 rules of decorum for monks, along with penalties for transgression, in the Theravadin tradition. The precise content of the Vinaya Pitaka (scriptures on the Vinaya) differs in different schools and tradition, and different monasteries set their own standards on its implementation. The list of pattimokkha is recited every fortnight in a ritual gathering of all monks. Buddhist text with vinaya rules for monasteries have been traced in all Buddhist traditions, with the oldest surviving being the ancient Chinese translations.

Monastic communities in the Buddhist tradition cut normal social ties to family and community, and live as “islands unto themselves”. Within a monastic fraternity, a sangha has its own rules. A monk abides by these institutionalized rules, and living life as the vinaya prescribes it is not merely a means, but very nearly the end in itself. Transgressions by a monk on Sangha vinaya rules invites enforcement, which can include temporary or permanent expulsion.

Restraint and renunciation

See also: Fasting in Buddhism

Another important practice taught by the Buddha is the restraint of the senses (indriyasamvara). In the various graduated paths, this is usually presented as a practice which is taught prior to formal sitting meditation, and which supports meditation by weakening sense desires that are a hindrance to meditation. According to Anālayo, sense restraint is when one “guards the sense doors in order to prevent sense impressions from leading to desires and discontent.” This is not an avoidance of sense impression, but a kind of mindful attention towards the sense impressions which does not dwell on their main features or signs (nimitta). This is said to prevent harmful influences from entering the mind. This practice is said to give rise to an inner peace and happiness which forms a basis for concentration and insight.

A related Buddhist virtue and practice is renunciation, or the intent for desirelessness (nekkhamma). Generally, renunciation is the giving up of actions and desires that are seen as unwholesome on the path, such as lust for sensuality and worldly things. Renunciation can be cultivated in different ways. The practice of giving for example, is one form of cultivating renunciation. Another one is the giving up of lay life and becoming a monastic (bhiksu o bhiksuni). Practicing celibacy (whether for life as a monk, or temporarily) is also a form of renunciation. Many Jataka stories such as the focus on how the Buddha practiced renunciation in past lives.

One way of cultivating renunciation taught by the Buddha is the contemplation (anupassana) of the “dangers” (or “negative consequences”) of sensual pleasure (kāmānaṃ ādīnava). As part of the graduated discourse, this contemplation is taught after the practice of giving and morality.

Another related practice to renunciation and sense restraint taught by the Buddha is “restraint in eating” or moderation with food, which for monks generally means not eating after noon. Devout laypersons also follow this rule during special days of religious observance (uposatha). Observing the Uposatha also includes other practices dealing with renunciation, mainly the eight precepts.

For Buddhist monastics, renunciation can also be trained through several optional ascetic practices called dhutaṅga.

In different Buddhist traditions, other related practices which focus on fasting are followed.

Mindfulness and Clear Comprehension

Main articles: Mindfulness and Mindfulness in Buddhism

The training of the faculty called “mindfulness” (Pali: sati or Sanskrit: smṛti, literally meaning “recollection, remembering”) is central in Buddhism. According to Analayo, mindfulness is a full awareness of the present moment which enhances and strengthens memory. The Indian Buddhist philosopher Asanga defined mindfulness thus: “It is non-forgetting by the mind with regard to the object experienced. Its function is non-distraction.” According to Rupert Gethin, sati is also “an awareness of things in relation to things, and hence an awareness of their relative value.”

There are different practices and exercises for training mindfulness in the early discourses, such as the four Satipaṭṭhānas (smṛtyupasthāna, “establishments of mindfulness”) and Ānāpānasati (ānāpānasmṛti, “mindfulness of breathing”).

A closely related mental faculty, which is often mentioned side by side with mindfulness, is sampajañña (“clear comprehension”). This faculty is the ability to comprehend what one is doing and is happening in the mind, and whether it is being influenced by unwholesome states or wholesome ones.

Samadhi (dhyana) – meditation

Main articles: Buddhist meditation, Samadhi, Samatha, and Dhyāna in Buddhism

A wide range of meditation practices has developed in the Buddhist traditions, but “meditation” primarily refers to the attainment of “samādhi and the practice of dhyāna (Pali: jhāna). Samādhi is a calm, undistracted, unified and concentrated state of consciousness. It is defined by Asanga as “one-pointedness of mind on the object to be investigated. Its function consists of giving a basis to knowledge (jñāna).”

Dhyāna is “state of perfect equanimity and awareness (upekkhā-sati-parisuddhi),” reached through focused mental training.

The practice of dhyāna aids in maintaining a calm mind, and avoiding disturbance of this calm mind by mindfulness of disturbing thoughts and feelings.


The earliest evidence of yogis and their meditative tradition, states Karel Werner, is found in the Keśin hymn 10.136 of the Rigveda. While evidence suggests meditation was practised in the centuries preceding the Buddha, the meditative methodologies described in the Buddhist texts are some of the earliest among texts that have survived into the modern era. These methodologies likely incorporate what existed before the Buddha as well as those first developed within Buddhism.

According to Bronkhorst, the Four Dhyanas was a Buddhist invention. Bronkhorst notes that the Buddhist canon has a mass of contradictory statements, little is known about their relative chronology, and “there can be no doubt that the canon – including the older parts, the Sutra and Vinaya Pitaka – was composed over a long period of time”. Meditative practices were incorporated from other sramanic movements; the Buddhist texts describe how Buddha learnt the practice of the formless dhyana from Brahmanical practices, in the Nikayas ascribed to Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. The Buddhist canon also describes and criticizes alternative dhyana practices, which likely mean the pre-existing mainstream meditation practices of Jainism and Hinduism.

Buddha added a new focus and interpretation, particularly through the Four Dhyanas methodology, in which mindfulness is maintained. Further, the focus of meditation and the underlying theory of liberation guiding the meditation has been different in Buddhism. For example, states Bronkhorst, the verse 4.4.23 of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad with its “become calm, subdued, quiet, patiently enduring, concentrated, one sees soul in oneself” is most probably a meditative state. The Buddhist discussion of meditation is without the concept of soul and the discussion criticizes both the ascetic meditation of Jainism and the “real self, soul” meditation of Hinduism.

Four rupa-jhāna and four arupa-jhāna

For Nirvana, Buddhist texts teach various meditation methodologies, of which rupa-jhana (four meditations in the realm of form) and arupa-jhana (four meditations in the formless realm) have been the most studied. These are described in the Pali Canon as trance-like states in the world of desirelessness. The four dhyanas under rupa-jhanas are:

  1. First dhyana: detach from all sensory desires and sinful states that are a source of unwholesome karma. Success here is described in Buddhist texts as leading to discursive thinking, deliberation, detachment, sukha (pleasure) and priti (rapture).
  2. Second dhyana: cease deliberation and all discursive thoughts. Success leads to one-pointed thinking, serenity, pleasure and rapture.
  3. Third dhyana: lose feeling of rapture. Success leads to equanimity, mindfulness and pleasure, without rapture.
  4. Fourth dhyana: cease all effects, lose all happiness and sadness. Success in the fourth meditation stage leads to pure equanimity and mindfulness, without any pleasure or pain.

There is a wide variety of scholarly opinions (both from modern scholars and from traditional Buddhists) on the interpretation of these meditative states as well as varying opinions on how to practice them.

The formless attaiments

The arupa-jhanas (formless realm meditation) are also four, which are entered by those who have mastered the rupa-jhanas (Arhats). The first formless dhyana gets to infinite space without form or colour or shape, the second to infinity of perception base of the infinite space, the third formless dhyana transcends object-subject perception base, while the fourth is where he dwells in nothing-at-all where there are no feelings, no ideas, nor are there non-ideas, unto total cessation. The four rupa-dhyanas in Buddhist practice lead to rebirth in successfully better rupa Brahma heavenly realms, while arupa-dhyanas lead into arupa heavens.

Richard Gombrich notes that the sequence of the four rupa-jhanas describes two different cognitive states. The first two describe a narrowing of attention, while in the third and fourth jhana attention is expanded again. Alexander Wynne further explains that the dhyana-scheme is poorly understood. According to Wynne, words expressing the inculcation of awareness, such as satisampajāno, and upekkhā, are mistranslated or understood as particular factors of meditative states, whereas they refer to a particular way of perceiving the sense objects.

Meditation and insight

See also: Vipassanā, Samatha, and Yoga

In the Pali canon, the Buddha outlines two meditative qualities which are mutually supportive: samatha (“calm”) and vipassanā (insight). The Buddha compares these mental qualities to a “swift pair of messengers” who together help deliver the message of nibbana (SN 35.245).

The various Buddhist traditions generally see Buddhist meditation as being divided into those two main types. Samatha is also called “calming meditation”, and focuses on stilling and concentrating the mind i.e. developing samadhi and the four dhyānas. According to Damien Keown, vipassanā meanwhile, focuses on “the generation of penetrating and critical insight (paññā)”.

There are numerous doctrinal positions and disagreements within the different Buddhist traditions regarding these qualities or forms of meditation. For example, in the Pali Four Ways to Arahantship Sutta (AN 4.170), it is said that one can develop calm and then insight, or insight and then calm, or both at the same time. Meanwhile, in Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośakārikā, vipaśyanā is said to be practiced once one has reached samadhi by cultivating the four foundations of mindfulness (smṛtyupasthānas).

Beginning with comments by La Vallee Poussin, a series of scholars have argued that these two meditation types reflect a tension between two different ancient Buddhist traditions regarding the use of dhyāna, one which focused on insight based practice and the other which focused purely on dhyāna. However, other scholars such as Analayo and Rupert Gethin have disagreed with this “two paths” thesis, instead seeing both of these practices as complementary.

The Brahma-vihara

Main article: Brahmavihara and Brahma in Buddhism

The four immeasurables or four abodes, also called Brahma-viharas, are virtues or directions for meditation in Buddhist traditions, which helps a person be reborn in the heavenly (Brahma) realm. These are traditionally believed to be a characteristic of the deity Brahma and the heavenly abode he resides in.

The four Brahma-vihara are:

  1. Loving-kindness (mettā, maitrī) is active good will towards all;
  2. Compassion (Pāli and karuṇā) results from metta; it is identifying the suffering of others as one’s own;
  3. Empathetic joy (Pāli and muditā): is the feeling of joy because others are happy, even if one did not contribute to it; it is a form of sympathetic joy;
  4. Equanimity (upekkhā, upekṣā): is even-mindedness and serenity, treating everyone impartially.

According to Peter Harvey, the Buddhist scriptures acknowledge that the four Brahmavihara meditation practices “did not originate within the Buddhist tradition”. The Brahmavihara (sometimes as Brahmaloka), along with the tradition of meditation and the above four immeasurables are found in pre-Buddha and post-Buddha Vedic and Sramanic literature. Aspects of the Brahmavihara practice for rebirths into the heavenly realm have been an important part of Buddhist meditation tradition.

According to Gombrich, the Buddhist usage of the brahma-vihāra originally referred to an awakened state of mind, and a concrete attitude toward other beings which was equal to “living with Brahman” here and now. The later tradition took those descriptions too literally, linking them to cosmology and understanding them as “living with Brahman” by rebirth in the Brahma-world. According to Gombrich, “the Buddha taught that kindness – what Christians tend to call love – was a way to salvation.”

Visualizations: deities, mandalas

See also: Generation stage and Mandala

Mandala of the Buddhist Deity Chakrasamvara

Mandala of the Buddhist Deity Chakrasamvara

Idols of deity and icons have been a part of the historic practice, and in Buddhist texts such as the 11th-century Sadanamala, a devotee visualizes and identifies himself or herself with the imagined deity as part of meditation. This has been particularly popular in Vajrayana meditative traditions, but also found in Mahayana and Theravada traditions, particularly in temples and with Buddha images.

In Tibetan Buddhism tradition, mandala are mystical maps for the visualization process with cosmic symbolism. There are numerous deities, each with a mandala, and they are used during initiation ceremonies and meditation. The mandalas are concentric geometric shapes symbolizing layers of the external world, gates and sacred space. The meditation deity is in the centre, sometimes surrounded by protective gods and goddesses. Visualizations with deities and mandalas in Buddhism is a tradition traceable to ancient times, and likely well established by the time the 5th-century text Visuddhimagga was composed.

Practice: monks, laity

According to Peter Harvey, whenever Buddhism has been healthy, not only ordained but also more committed lay people have practised formal meditation. Loud devotional chanting however, adds Harvey, has been the most prevalent Buddhist practice and considered a form of meditation that produces “energy, joy, loving kindness and calm”, purifies mind and benefits the chanter.

Throughout most of Buddhist history, meditation has been primarily practised in Buddhist monastic tradition, and historical evidence suggests that serious meditation by lay people has been an exception. In recent history, sustained meditation has been pursued by a minority of monks in Buddhist monasteries. Western interest in meditation has led to a revival where ancient Buddhist ideas and precepts are adapted to Western mores and interpreted liberally, presenting Buddhism as a meditation-based form of spirituality.

Prajñā – insight

Main articles: PrajñāBodhiKenshōSatoriSubitism, and Vipassanā

Prajñā (Sanskrit) or paññā (Pāli) is wisdom, or knowledge of the true nature of existence. Another term which is associated with prajñā and sometimes is equivalent to it is vipassanā (Pāli) or vipaśyanā (Sanskrit), which is often translated as “insight”. In Buddhist texts, the faculty of insight is often said to be cultivated through the four establishments of mindfulness.

In the early texts, Paññā is included as one of the “five faculties” (indriya) which are commonly listed as important spiritual elements to be cultivated (see for example: AN I 16). Paññā along with samadhi, is also listed as one of the “trainings in the higher states of mind” (adhicittasikkha).

The Buddhist tradition regards ignorance (avidyā), a fundamental ignorance, misunderstanding or mis-perception of the nature of reality, as one of the basic causes of dukkha and samsara. Overcoming this ignorance is part of the path to awakening. This overcoming includes the contemplation of impermanence and the non-self nature of reality, and this develops dispassion for the objects of clinging, and liberates a being from dukkha and saṃsāra.

Prajñā is important in all Buddhist traditions. It is variously described as wisdom regarding the impermanent and not-self nature of dharmas (phenomena), the functioning of karma and rebirth, and knowledge of dependent origination. Likewise, vipaśyanā is described in a similar way, such as in the Paṭisambhidāmagga, where it is said to be the contemplation of things as impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self.

Some scholars such as Bronkhorst and Vetter have argued that the idea that insight leads to liberation was a later development in Buddhism and that there are inconsistencies with the early Buddhist presentation of samadhi and insight. However, others such as Collett Cox and Damien Keown have argued that insight is a key aspect of the early Buddhist process of liberation, which cooperates with samadhi to remove the obstacles to enlightenment (i.e., the āsavas).

In Theravāda Buddhism, the focus of vipassanā meditation is to continuously and thoroughly know how phenomena (dhammas) are impermanent (annica), not-Self (anatta) and dukkha. The most widely used method in modern Theravāda for the practice of vipassanā is that found in the Satipatthana Sutta. There is some disagreement in contemporary Theravāda regarding samatha and vipassanā. Some in the Vipassana Movement strongly emphasize the practice of insight over samatha, and other Theravadins disagree with this.

In Mahāyāna Buddhism, the development of insight (vipaśyanā) and tranquility (śamatha) are also taught and practiced. The many different schools of Mahāyāna Buddhism have a large repertoire of meditation techniques to cultivate these qualities. These include visualization of various Buddhas, recitation of a Buddha’s name, the use of tantric Buddhist mantras and dharanis. Insight in Mahāyāna Buddhism also includes gaining a direct understanding of certain Mahāyāna philosophical views, such as the emptiness view and the consciousness-only view. This can be seen in meditation texts such as Kamalaśīla’s Bhāvanākrama ( “Stages of Meditation”, 9th century), which teaches insight (vipaśyanā) from the Yogācāra-Madhyamaka perspective.


Main article: Buddhist devotion

Three monks seeking alms in Lhasa, Tibet. 1993.

Three monks seeking alms in Lhasa, Tibet. 1993.

Devotion is an important part of the practice of most Buddhists. Devotional practices include ritual prayer, prostration, offerings, pilgrimage, and chanting. In Pure Land Buddhism, devotion to the Buddha Amitabha is the main practice. In Nichiren Buddhism, devotion to the Lotus Sutra is the main practice. Bhakti (called Bhatti in Pali) has been a common practice in Theravada Buddhism, where offerings and group prayers are made to deities and particularly images of Buddha. According to Karel Werner and other scholars, devotional worship has been a significant practice in Theravada Buddhism, and deep devotion is part of Buddhist traditions starting from the earliest days.

Guru devotion is a central practice of Tibetan Buddhism. The guru is considered essential and to the Buddhist devotee, the guru is the “enlightened teacher and ritual master” in Vajrayana spiritual pursuits.

For someone seeking Buddhahood, the guru is the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, wrote the 12th-century Buddhist scholar Sadhanamala. The veneration of and obedience to teachers is also important in Theravada and Zen Buddhism.

Vegetarianism and Animal Ethics

Main article: Buddhist vegetarianism

Being based on the Indian principle of ahimsa (non-harming), the Buddha’s ethics strongly condemn the harming of all sentient beings, including all animals. He thus condemned the animal sacrifice of the brahmins as well hunting, and killing animals for food. This has led to various policies by Buddhist Kings such as Asoka meant to protect animals, such as the establishing of ‘no slaughter days’ and the banning of hunting on certain circumstances.

However, early Buddhist texts depict the Buddha as allowing monastics to eat meat. This seems to be because monastics begged for their food and thus were supposed to accept whatever food was offered to them. This was tempered by the rule that meat had to be “three times clean” which meant that “they had not seen, had not heard, and had no reason to suspect that the animal had been killed so that the meat could be given to them”. Also, while the Buddha did not explicitly promote vegetarianism in his discourses, he did state that gaining one’s livelihood from the meat trade was unethical. However, this rule was not a promotion of a specific diet, but a rule against the actual killing of animals for food. There was also a famed schism which occurred in the Buddhist community when Devadatta attempted to make vegetarianism compulsory and the Buddha disagreed.

In contrast to this, various Mahayana sutras and texts like the Mahaparinirvana sutraSurangama sutra and the Lankavatara sutra state that the Buddha promoted vegetarianism out of compassion. Indian Mahayana thinkers like Shantideva promoted the avoidance of meat. Throughout history, the issue of whether Buddhists should be vegetarian has remained a much debated topic and there is a variety of opinions on this issue among modern Buddhists.

In the East Asian Buddhism, most monastics are expected to be vegetarian, and the practice is seen as very virtuous and it is taken up by some devout laypersons. Most Theravadins in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia do not practice vegetarianism and eat whatever is offered by the lay community, who are mostly also not vegetarians. But there are exceptions, some monks choose to be vegetarian and some abbots like Ajahn Sumedho have encouraged the lay community to donate vegetarian food to the monks. Mahasi Sayadaw meanwhile, has recommended vegetarianism as the best way to make sure one’s meal is pure in three ways. Also, the new religious movement Santi Asoke, promotes vegetarianism. According to Peter Harvey, in the Theravada world, vegetarianism is “universally admired, but little practiced.” Because of the rule against killing, in many Buddhist countries, most butchers and others who work in the meat trade are non-Buddhists.

Likewise, most Tibetan Buddhists have historically tended not to be vegetarian, however, there have been some strong debates and pro-vegetarian arguments by some pro-vegetarian Tibetans. Some influential figures have spoken and written in favor of vegetarianism throughout history, including well known figures like Shabkar and the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who has mandated

Buddhist texts

Main articles: Buddhist texts
See also: Sutra

Buddhism, like all Indian religions, was initially an oral tradition in ancient times. The Buddha’s words, the early doctrines, concepts, and their traditional interpretations were orally transmitted from one generation to the next. The earliest oral texts were transmitted in Middle Indo-Aryan languages called Prakrits, such as Pali, through the use of communal recitation and other mnemonic techniques.

The first Buddhist canonical texts were likely written down in Sri Lanka, about 400 years after the Buddha died. The texts were part of the Tripitakas, and many versions appeared thereafter claiming to be the words of the Buddha. Scholarly Buddhist commentary texts, with named authors, appeared in India, around the 2nd century CE. These texts were written in Pali or Sanskrit, sometimes regional languages, as palm-leaf manuscripts, birch bark, painted scrolls, carved into temple walls, and later on paper.

Unlike what the Bible is to Christianity and the Quran is to Islam, but like all major ancient Indian religions, there is no consensus among the different Buddhist traditions as to what constitutes the scriptures or a common canon in Buddhism. The general belief among Buddhists is that the canonical corpus is vast. This corpus includes the ancient Sutras organized into Nikayas, itself the part of three basket of texts called the Tripitakas. Each Buddhist tradition has its own collection of texts, much of which is translation of ancient Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts of India. The Chinese Buddhist canon, for example, includes 2184 texts in 55 volumes, while the Tibetan canon comprises 1108 texts—all claimed to have been spoken by the Buddha—and another 3461 texts composed by Indian scholars revered in the Tibetan tradition. The Buddhist textual history is vast; over 40,000 manuscripts—mostly Buddhist, some non-Buddhist—were discovered in 1900 in the Dunhuang Chinese cave alone.

Early Buddhist texts

Main article: Early Buddhist Texts and Āgama in Buddhism
See also: Early Buddhism

The Early Buddhist Texts refers to the literature which is considered by modern scholars to be the earliest Buddhist material. The first four Pali Nikayas, and the corresponding Chinese Āgamas are generally considered to be among the earliest material. Apart from these, there are also fragmentary collections of EBT materials in other languages such as Sanskrit, Khotanese, Tibetan and Gāndhārī. The modern study of early Buddhism often relies on comparative scholarship using these various early Buddhist sources to identify parallel texts and common doctrinal content. One feature of these early texts are literary structures which reflect oral transmission, such as widespread repetition.

The Tripitakas

Main article: Tripitaka and Pāli Canon

After the development of the different early Buddhist schools, these schools began to develop their own textual collections, which were termed Tripiṭakas (Triple Baskets).

Many early Tripiṭakas, like the Pāli Tipitaka, were divided into three sections: Vinaya Pitaka (focuses on monastic rule), Sutta Pitaka (Buddhist discourses) and Abhidhamma Pitaka, which contain expositions and commentaries on the doctrine.

The Pāli Tipitaka (Tripiṭaka, three pitakas), which means “three baskets”, refers to the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka. These constitute the oldest known canonical works of Buddhism. The Vinaya Pitaka contains disciplinary rules for the Buddhist monasteries. The Sutta Pitaka contains words attributed to the Buddha. The Abhidhamma Pitaka contain expositions and commentaries on the Sutta, and these vary significantly between Buddhist schools.

The Pāli Tipitaka is the only surviving early Tipitaka. According to some sources, some early schools of Buddhism had five or seven pitakas. Much of the material in the Canon is not specifically “Theravadin”, but is instead the collection of teachings that this school preserved from the early, non-sectarian body of teachings. According to Peter Harvey, it contains material at odds with later Theravadin orthodoxy. He states: “The Theravadins, then, may have added texts to the Canon for some time, but they do not appear to have tampered with what they already had from an earlier period.”

Abhidharma and the Commentaries

Main article: Abhidharma

A distinctive feature of many Tripitaka collections is the inclusion of a genre called Abhidharma, which dates from the 3rd century BCE and later. According to Collett Cox, the genre began as explanations and elaborations of the teachings in the suttas but over time evolved into an independent system of doctrinal exposition.

Over time, the various Abhidharma traditions developed various disagreements which each other on points of doctrine, which were discussed in the different Abhidharma texts of these schools. The major Abhidharma collections which modern scholars have the most information about are those of the Theravāda and Sarvāstivāda schools.

In Sri Lanka and South India, the Theravāda Abhidhamma system was the most influential. In addition to the Abhidharma project, some of the schools also began accumulating a literary tradition of scriptural commentary on their respective Tripitakas. These commentaries were particularly important in the Theravāda school, and the Pali commentaries (Aṭṭhakathā) remain influential today. Both Abhidhamma and the Pali Commentaries influenced the Visuddhimagga, an important 5th-century text by the Theravada scholar Buddhaghosa, who also translated and compiled many of the Aṭṭhakathās from older Sinhalese sources.

The Sarvāstivāda school was one of the most influential Abhidharma traditions in North India. The magnum opus of this tradition was the massive Abhidharma commentary called the Mahāvibhaṣa (‘Great Commentary’), compiled at a great synod in Kashmir during the reign of Kanishka II (c. 158–176). The Abhidharmakosha of Vasubandhu is another very influential Abhidharma work from the northern tradition, which continues to be studied in East Asian Buddhism and in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism.

Theravada texts

In addition to the Pali Canon, the important commentary texts of the Theravada tradition include the 5th-century Visuddhimagga by Buddhaghosa of the Mahavihara school. It includes sections on shila (virtues), samadhi (concentration), panna (wisdom) as well as Theravada tradition’s meditation methodology.

Mahāyāna texts

Main article: Mahayana sutras
See also: Salistamba Sutra

The Mahāyāna sūtras are a very broad genre of Buddhist scriptures that the Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition holds are original teachings of the Buddha. Modern historians generally hold that the first of these texts were composed probably around the 1st century BCE or 1st century CE.

In Mahāyāna, these texts are generally given greater authority than the early Āgamas and Abhidharma literature, which are called “Śrāvakayāna” or “Hinayana” to distinguish them from Mahāyāna sūtras. Mahāyāna traditions mainly see these different classes of texts as being designed for different types of persons, with different levels of spiritual understanding. The Mahāyāna sūtras are mainly seen as being for those of “greater” capacity.

The Mahāyāna sūtras often claim to articulate the Buddha’s deeper, more advanced doctrines, reserved for those who follow the bodhisattva path. That path is explained as being built upon the motivation to liberate all living beings from unhappiness. Hence the name Mahāyāna (lit., the Great Vehicle). Besides the teaching of the bodhisattva, Mahāyāna texts also contain expanded cosmologies and mythologies, with many more Buddhas and powerful bodhisattvas, as well as new spiritual practices and ideas.

The modern Theravada school does not treat the Mahāyāna sūtras as authoritative or authentic teachings of the Buddha. Likewise, these texts were not recognized as authoritative by many early Buddhist schools and in some cases, communities such as the Mahāsāṃghika school split up due to this disagreement.

Recent scholarship has discovered many early Mahāyāna texts which shed light into the development of Mahāyāna. Among these is the Śālistamba Sutra which survives in Tibetan and Chinese translation. This text contains numerous sections which are remarkably similar to Pali suttas. The Śālistamba Sutra was cited by Mahāyāna scholars such as the 8th-century Yasomitra to be authoritative. This suggests that Buddhist literature of different traditions shared a common core of Buddhist texts in the early centuries of its history, until Mahāyāna literature diverged about and after the 1st century CE.

Mahāyāna also has a very large literature of philosophical and exegetical texts. These are often called śāstra (treatises) or vrittis (commentaries). Some of this literature was also written in verse form (karikās), the most famous of which is the Mūlamadhyamika-karikā (Root Verses on the Middle Way) by Nagarjuna, the foundational text of the Madhyamika school.

Tantric texts

Main article: Tantras in Buddhism

During the Gupta Empire, a new class of Buddhist sacred literature began to develop, which are called the Tantras. By the 8th century, the tantric tradition was very influential in India and beyond. Besides drawing on a Mahāyāna Buddhist framework, these texts also borrowed deities and material from other Indian religious traditions, such as the Śaiva and Pancharatra traditions, local god/goddess cults, and local spirit worship (such as yaksha or nāga spirits).

Some features of these texts include the widespread use of mantras, meditation on the subtle body, worship of fierce deities, and antinomian and transgressive practices such as ingesting alcohol and performing sexual rituals.


Main article: History of Buddhism and Buddhist Mythology

Historical roots

Historically, the roots of Buddhism lie in the religious thought of Iron Age India around the middle of the first millennium BCE. This was a period of great intellectual ferment and socio-cultural change known as the “Second urbanisation”, marked by the composition of the Upanishads and the historical emergence of the Sramanic traditions.

New ideas developed both in the Vedic tradition in the form of the Upanishads, and outside of the Vedic tradition through the Śramaṇa movements. The term Śramaṇa refers to several Indian religious movements parallel to but separate from the historical Vedic religion, including Buddhism, Jainism and others such as Ājīvika.

Several Śramaṇa movements are known to have existed in India before the 6th century BCE (pre-Buddha, pre-Mahavira), and these influenced both the āstika and nāstika traditions of Indian philosophy. According to Martin Wilshire, the Śramaṇa tradition evolved in India over two phases, namely Paccekabuddha and Savaka phases, the former being the tradition of individual ascetic and the latter of disciples, and that Buddhism and Jainism ultimately emerged from these. Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical ascetic groups shared and used several similar ideas, but the Śramaṇa traditions also drew upon already established Brahmanical concepts and philosophical roots, states Wiltshire, to formulate their own doctrines. Brahmanical motifs can be found in the oldest Buddhist texts, using them to introduce and explain Buddhist ideas. For example, prior to Buddhist developments, the Brahmanical tradition internalized and variously reinterpreted the three Vedic sacrificial fires as concepts such as Truth, Rite, Tranquility or Restraint. Buddhist texts also refer to the three Vedic sacrificial fires, reinterpreting and explaining them as ethical conduct.

The Śramaṇa religions challenged and broke with the Brahmanic tradition on core assumptions such as Atman (soul, self), Brahman, the nature of afterlife, and they rejected the authority of the Vedas and Upanishads. Buddhism was one among several Indian religions that did so.

Indian Buddhism

Main article: History of Buddhism in India
See also: Early Buddhism

The history of Indian Buddhism may be divided into five periods: Early Buddhism (occasionally called pre-sectarian Buddhism), Nikaya Buddhism or Sectarian Buddhism: The period of the early Buddhist schools, Early Mahayana Buddhism, Late Mahayana, and the era of Vajrayana Buddhism or the “Tantric Age”.

Pre-sectarian Buddhism

Main article: Pre-sectarian Buddhism

According to Lambert Schmithausen Pre-sectarian Buddhism is “the canonical period prior to the development of different schools with their different positions.”

The early Buddhist Texts include the four principal Nikāyas (and their parallel Agamas) together with the main body of monastic rules, which survive in the various versions of the patimokkha. However, these texts were revised over time, and it is unclear what constitutes the earliest layer of Buddhist teachings. One method to obtain information on the oldest core of Buddhism is to compare the oldest extant versions of the Theravadin Pāli Canon and other texts. The reliability of the early sources, and the possibility to draw out a core of oldest teachings, is a matter of dispute. According to Vetter, inconsistencies remain, and other methods must be applied to resolve those inconsistencies.

According to Schmithausen, three positions held by scholars of Buddhism can be distinguished:

  1. “Stress on the fundamental homogeneity and substantial authenticity of at least a considerable part of the Nikayic materials;”
  2. “Scepticism with regard to the possibility of retrieving the doctrine of earliest Buddhism;”
  3. “Cautious optimism in this respect.”
Core teachings

According to Mitchell, certain basic teachings appear in many places throughout the early texts, which has led most scholars to conclude that Gautama Buddha must have taught something similar to the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, Nirvana, the three marks of existence, the five aggregates, dependent originationkarma and rebirth.

. Yet critical analysis reveals discrepancies, which point to alternative possibilities.

Bruce Matthews notes that there is no cohesive presentation of karma in the Sutta Pitaka, which may mean that the doctrine was incidental to the main perspective of early Buddhist soteriology. Schmithausen has questioned whether karma already played a role in the theory of rebirth of earliest Buddhism. According to Vetter, “the Buddha at first sought “the deathless” (amata/amrta), which is concerned with the here and now. Only later did he become acquainted with the doctrine of rebirth.” Bronkhorst disagrees, and concludes that the Buddha “introduced a concept of karma that differed considerably from the commonly held views of his time.” According to Bronkhorst, not physical and mental activities as such were seen as responsible for rebirth, but intentions and desire.

Another core problem in the study of early Buddhism is the relation between dhyana and insight. Schmithausen states that the four noble truths as “liberating insight”, may be a later addition to texts such as Majjhima Nikaya 36.

According to both Bronkhorst and Anderson, the Four Noble Truths became a substitution for prajna, or “liberating insight”, in the suttas in those texts where “liberating insight” was preceded by the four jhānas. The four truths may not have been formulated in earliest Buddhism, and did not serve in earliest Buddhism as a description of “liberating insight”. Gotama’s teachings may have been personal, “adjusted to the need of each person.”

The three marks of existence – Dukkha, Annica, Anatta – may reflect Upanishadic or other influences. K.R. Norman supposes that these terms were already in use at the Buddha’s time, and were familiar to his hearers. According to Vetter, the description of the Buddhist path may initially have been as simple as the term “the middle way“. In time, this short description was elaborated, resulting in the description of the eightfold path. Similarly nibbāna is the common term for the desired goal of this practice, yet many other terms can be found throughout the Nikāyas, which are not specified.

Early Buddhist schools

Main articles: Early Buddhist schoolsBuddhist councils, and Theravada

According to the scriptures, soon after the parinirvāṇa (from “highest extinguishment”) of Gautama Buddha, the first Buddhist council was held. As with any ancient Indian tradition, transmission of teaching was done orally. The primary purpose of the assembly was to collectively recite the teachings to ensure that no errors occurred in oral transmission. Richard Gombrich states that the monastic assembly recitations of the Buddha’s teaching likely began during Buddha’s lifetime, similar to the First Council, that helped compose Buddhist scriptures.

The Second Buddhist council resulted in the first schism in the Sangha, probably caused by a group of reformists called Sthaviras who split from the conservative majority Mahāsāṃghikas. After unsuccessfully trying to modify the Vinaya, a small group of “elderly members”, i.e. sthaviras, broke away from the majority Mahāsāṃghika during the Second Buddhist council, giving rise to the Sthavira Nikaya.

The Sthaviras gave rise to several schools, one of which was the Theravada school. Originally, these schisms were caused by disputes over monastic disciplinary codes of various fraternities, but eventually, by about 100 CE if not earlier, schisms were being caused by doctrinal disagreements too. Buddhist monks of different fraternities became distinct schools and stopped doing official Sangha business together, but continued to study each other’s doctrines.

Following (or leading up to) the schisms, each Saṅgha started to accumulate their own version of Tripiṭaka (Pali Canons, triple basket of texts). In their Tripiṭaka, each school included the Suttas of the Buddha, a Vinaya basket (disciplinary code) and added an Abhidharma basket which were texts on detailed scholastic classification, summary and interpretation of the Suttas. The doctrine details in the Abhidharmas of various Buddhist schools differ significantly, and these were composed starting about the third century BCE and through the 1st millennium CE. Eighteen early Buddhist schools are known, each with its own Tripitaka, but only one collection from Sri Lanka has survived, in a nearly complete state, into the modern era.

Early Mahayana Buddhism

Main article: Mahayana

Several scholars have suggested that the Mahayana Buddhist tradition started in south India (modern Andhra Pradesh), and it is there that Prajnaparamita sutras, among the earliest Mahayana sutras, developed among the Mahāsāṃghika along the Kṛṣṇa River region about the 1st century BCE.

There is no evidence that Mahayana ever referred to a separate formal school or sect of Buddhism, but rather that it existed as a certain set of ideals, and later doctrines, for bodhisattvas. Initially it was known as Bodhisattvayāna (the “Vehicle of the Bodhisattvas“). Paul Williams states that the Mahāyāna never had nor ever attempted to have a separate Vinaya or ordination codes from the early schools of Buddhism. Records written by Chinese monks visiting India indicate that both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna monks could be found in the same monasteries, with the difference that Mahayana monks worshipped figures of Bodhisattvas, while non-Mahayana monks did not.

Much of the early extant evidence for the origins of Mahāyāna comes from early Chinese translations of Mahāyāna texts. These Mahayana teachings were first propagated into China by Lokakṣema, the first translator of Mahayana sutras into Chinese during the 2nd century CE. Some scholars have traditionally considered the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras to include the very first versions of the Prajnaparamita series, along with texts concerning Akṣobhya, which were probably composed in the 1st century BCE in the south of India.

Late Mahayana Buddhism

During the period of Late Mahāyāna, four major types of thought developed: Madhyamaka, Yogachara, Tathagatagarbha, and Buddhist logic as the last and most recent. In India, the two main philosophical schools of the Mahayana were the Madhyamaka and the later Yogachara. According to Dan Lusthaus, Madhyamaka and Yogachara have a great deal in common, and the commonality stems from early Buddhism. There were no great Indian teachers associated with tathagatagarbha thought.

Vajrayana (Esoteric Buddhism)

Main article: Vajrayana

Scholarly research concerning Esoteric Buddhism is still in its early stages and has a number of problems that make research difficult:

  1. Vajrayana Buddhism was influenced by Hinduism, and therefore research must include exploring Hinduism as well.
  2. The scriptures of Vajrayana have not yet been put in any kind of order.
  3. Ritual must be examined as well, not just doctrine.

Spread of Buddhism

Main article: Timeline of Buddhism

Buddhism may have spread only slowly in India until the time of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who was a public supporter of the religion. The support of Aśoka and his descendants led to the construction of more stūpas (Buddhist religious memorials) and to its spread throughout the Maurya empire and into neighbouring lands such as Central Asia and to the island of Sri Lanka. These two missions, in opposite directions, would ultimately lead, in the first case to the spread of Buddhism into China, Korea and Japan, and in the second case, to the emergence of Sinhalese Theravāda Buddhism and its spread from Sri Lanka to much of Southeast Asia.

This period marks the first known spread of Buddhism beyond India. According to the edicts of Aśoka, emissaries were sent to various countries west of India to spread Buddhism (Dharma), particularly in eastern provinces of the neighbouring Seleucid Empire, and even farther to Hellenistic kingdoms of the Mediterranean. It is a matter of disagreement among scholars whether or not these emissaries were accompanied by Buddhist missionaries.

In central and west Asia, Buddhist influence grew, through Greek-speaking Buddhist monarchs and ancient Asian trade routes. An example of this is evidenced in Chinese and Pali Buddhist records, such as Milindapanha and the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhāra. The Milindapanha describes a conversation between a Buddhist monk and the 2nd-century BCE Greek king Menander, after which Menander abdicates and himself goes into monastic life in the pursuit of nirvana. Some scholars have questioned the Milindapanha version, expressing doubts whether Menander was Buddhist or just favourably disposed to Buddhist monks.

The Kushans (mid 1st–3rd century CE) came to control the Silk Road trade through Central and South Asia, which brought them to interact with ancient Buddhist monasteries and societies involved in trade in these regions. They patronized Buddhist institutions, and Buddhist monastery influence, in turn, expanded into a world religion, according to Xinru Liu. Buddhism spread to Khotan and China, eventually to other parts of the far east.

Some of the earliest written documents of the Buddhist faith are the Gandharan Buddhist texts, dating from about the 1st century CE, and connected to the Dharmaguptaka school. These texts are written in the Kharosthi script, a script that was predominantly used in the Greco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms of northern India and that played a prominent role in the coinage and inscriptions of their kings.

The Islamic conquest of the Iranian Plateau in the 7th-century, followed by the Muslim conquests of Afghanistan and the later establishment of the Ghaznavid kingdom with Islam as the state religion in Central Asia between the 10th- and 12th-century led to the decline and disappearance of Buddhism from most of these regions.

To East and Southeast Asia

Main articles: Buddhism in Vietnam, Korean Buddhism, Buddhism in Japan, Chinese Esoteric Buddhism, and Chinese Buddhism

The Silk Road transmission of Buddhism to China is most commonly thought to have started in the late 2nd or the 1st century CE, though the literary sources are all open to question. The first documented translation efforts by foreign Buddhist monks in China were in the 2nd century CE, probably as a consequence of the expansion of the Kushan Empire into the Chinese territory of the Tarim Basin.

The first documented Buddhist texts translated into Chinese are those of the Parthian An Shigao (148–180 CE). The first known Mahāyāna scriptural texts are translations into Chinese by the Kushan monk Lokakṣema in Luoyang, between 178 and 189 CE. From China, Buddhism was introduced into its neighbors Korea (4th century), Japan (6th–7th centuries), and Vietnam (c. 1st–2nd centuries).

During the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618–907), Chinese Esoteric Buddhism was introduced from India and Chan Buddhism (Zen) became a major religion. Chan continued to grow in the Song Dynasty (960–1279) and it was during this era that it strongly influenced Korean Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism also became popular during this period and was often practiced together with Chan. It was also during the Song that the entire Chinese canon was printed using over 130,000 wooden printing blocks.

During the Indian period of Esoteric Buddhism (from the 8th century onwards), Buddhism spread from India to Tibet and Mongolia. Johannes Bronkhorst states that the esoteric form was attractive because it allowed both a secluded monastic community as well as the social rites and rituals important to laypersons and to kings for the maintenance of a political state during succession and wars to resist invasion. During the Middle Ages, Buddhism slowly declined in India, while it vanished from Persia and Central Asia as Islam became the state religion.

The Theravada school arrived in Sri Lanka sometime in the 3rd century BCE. Sri Lanka became a base for its later spread to southeast Asia after the 5th century CE (Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and coastal Vietnam). Theravada Buddhism was the dominant religion in Burma during the Mon Hanthawaddy Kingdom (1287–1552). It also became dominant in the Khmer Empire during the 13th and 14th centuries and in the Thai Sukhothai Kingdom during the reign of Ram Khamhaeng (1237/1247–1298).

Schools and traditions

Main articles: Schools of Buddhism and Buddhahood

Buddhists generally classify themselves as either Theravada or Mahayana. This classification is also used by some scholars and is the one ordinarily used in the English language. An alternative scheme used by some scholars divides Buddhism into the following three traditions or geographical or cultural areas: Theravada, East Asian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.

Some scholars use other schemes. Buddhists themselves have a variety of other schemes. Hinayana (literally “lesser or inferior vehicle”) is used by Mahayana followers to name the family of early philosophical schools and traditions from which contemporary Theravada emerged, but as the Hinayana term is considered derogatory, a variety of other terms are used instead, including Śrāvakayāna, Nikaya Buddhism, early Buddhist schools, sectarian Buddhism and conservative Buddhism.

Not all traditions of Buddhism share the same philosophical outlook, or treat the same concepts as central. Each tradition, however, does have its own core concepts, and some comparisons can be drawn between them:

  • Both Theravāda and Mahāyāna accept and revere the Buddha Sakyamuni as the founder, Mahāyāna also reveres numerous other Buddhas, such as Amitabha or Vairocana as well as many other bodhisattvas not revered in Theravāda.
  • Both accept the Middle Way, Dependent origination, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Three Jewels, the Three marks of existence and the Bodhipakṣadharmas (aids to awakening).
  • Mahāyāna focuses mainly on the bodhisattva path to Buddhahood which it sees as universal and to be practiced by all persons, while Theravāda does not focus on teaching this path and teaches the attainment of arhatship as a worthy goal to strive towards. The bodhisattva path is not denied in Theravāda, it is generally seen as a long and difficult path suitable for only a few. Thus the Bodhisattva path is normative in Mahāyāna, while it is an optional path for a heroic few in Theravāda.
  • Mahāyāna sees the arhat’s nirvana as being imperfect and inferior or preliminary to full Buddhahood. It sees arhatship as selfish, since bodhisattvas vow to save all beings while arhats save only themselves. Theravāda meanwhile does not accept that the arhat’s nirvana is an inferior or preliminary attainment, nor that it is a selfish deed to attain arhatship since not only are arhats described as compassionate but they have destroyed the root of greed, the sense of “I am”.
  • Mahāyāna accepts the authority of the many Mahāyāna sutras along with the other Nikaya texts like the Agamas and the Pali canon (though it sees Mahāyāna texts as primary), while Theravāda does not accept that the Mahāyāna sutras are buddhavacana (word of the Buddha) at all.

Theravada school

Main article: Theravada

The Theravāda tradition bases itself on the Pāli Canon, considers itself to be the more orthodox form of Buddhism and tends to be more conservative in doctrine and monastic discipline. The Pāli Canon is the only complete Buddhist canon surviving in an ancient Indian language. This language, Pāli, serves as the school’s sacred language and lingua franca. Besides the Pāli Canon, Theravāda scholastics also often rely on a post-canonical Pāli literature which comments on and interprets the Pāli Canon. These later works such as the Visuddhimagga, a doctrinal summa written in the fifth century by the exegete Buddhaghosa also remain influential today.

Theravāda derives from the Mahāvihāra (Tāmraparṇīya) sect, a Sri Lankan branch of the Vibhajyavāda Sthaviras, which began to establish itself on the island from the 3rd century BCE onwards.

Theravāda flourished in south India and Sri Lanka in ancient times; from there it spread for the first time into mainland southeast Asia about the 11th century into its elite urban centres. By the 13th century, Theravāda had spread widely into the rural areas of mainland southeast Asia, displacing Mahayana Buddhism and some traditions of Hinduism.

In the modern era, Buddhist figures such as Anagarika Dhammapala and King Mongkut sought to re-focus the tradition on the Pāli Canon, as well as emphasize the rational and “scientific” nature of Theravāda while also opposing “superstition”. This movement, often termed Buddhist modernism, has influenced most forms of modern Theravāda. Another influential modern turn in Theravāda is the Vipassana Movement, which led to the widespread adoption of meditation by laypersons.

Theravāda is primarily practised today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia as well as small portions of China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Bangladesh. It has a growing presence in the west, especially as part of the Vipassana Movement.

Mahayana traditions

Main article: Mahayana

Mahāyāna (“Great Vehicle”) refers to all forms of Buddhism which consider the Mahāyāna Sutras as authoritative scriptures and accurate rendering of Buddha’s words. These traditions have been the more liberal form of Buddhism allowing different and new interpretations that emerged over time. The focus of Mahāyāna is the path of the bodhisattva (bodhisattvayāna), though what this path means is interpreted in many different ways.

The first Mahāyāna texts date to sometime between the 1st century BCE and the 2st century CE. It remained a minority movement until the time of the Guptas and Palas, when great Mahāyāna monastic centres of learning such as Nālandā University were established as evidenced by records left by three Chinese visitors to India. These universities supported Buddhist scholarship, as well as studies into non-Buddhist traditions and secular subjects such as medicine. They hosted visiting students who then spread Buddhism to East and Central Asia.

Native Mahāyāna Buddhism is practised today in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, parts of Russia and most of Vietnam (also commonly referred to as “Eastern Buddhism”). The Buddhism practised in Tibet, the Himalayan regions, and Mongolia is also a form of Mahāyāna, but is also different in many ways due to its adoption of tantric practices and is discussed below under the heading of “Vajrayāna” (also commonly referred to as “Northern Buddhism”).

There are a variety of strands in Eastern Buddhism, of which “the Pure Land school of Mahāyāna is the most widely practised today.” In most of China, these different strands and traditions are generally fused together. Vietnamese Mahāyāna is similarly very eclectic. In Japan in particular, they form separate denominations with the five major ones being: Nichiren, peculiar to Japan; Pure Land; Shingon, a form of Vajrayana; Tendai, and Zen. In Korea, nearly all Buddhists belong to the Chogye school, which is officially Son (Zen), but with substantial elements from other traditions.

Vajrayana traditions

Main article: Vajrayana

The goal and philosophy of the Vajrayāna remains Mahāyānist, but its methods are seen by its followers as far more powerful, so as to lead to Buddhahood in just one lifetime. The practice of using mantras was adopted from Hinduism, where they were first used in the Vedas.

Various classes of Vajrayana literature developed as a result of royal courts sponsoring both Buddhism and Saivism. The Mañjusrimulakalpa, which later came to classified under Kriyatantra, states that mantras taught in the Saiva, Garuda and Vaisnava tantras will be effective if applied by Buddhists since they were all taught originally by Manjushri. The Guhyasiddhi of Padmavajra, a work associated with the Guhyasamaja tradition, prescribes acting as a Saiva guru and initiating members into Saiva Siddhanta scriptures and mandalas. The Samvara tantra texts adopted the pitha list from the Saiva text Tantrasadbhava, introducing a copying error where a deity was mistaken for a place.

Tibetan Buddhism preserves the Vajrayana teachings of eighth-century India. Tantric Buddhism is largely concerned with ritual and meditative practices. A central feature of Buddhist Tantra is deity yoga which includes visualization and identification with an enlightened yidam or meditation deity and its associated mandala. Another element of Tantra is the need for ritual initiation or empowerment (abhiṣeka) by a Guru or Lama. Some Tantras like the Guhyasamāja Tantra features new forms of antinomian ritual practice such as the use taboo substances like alcohol, sexual yoga, and charnel ground practices which evoke wrathful deities.


Main article: Zen and Japanese Zen
See also: Zen Scriptures

Zen Buddhism (禅), pronounced Chán in Chinese, seon in Korean or zen in Japanese (derived from the Sanskrit term dhyāna, meaning “meditation”) is a form of Mahayana Buddhism found in China, Korea and Japan. It lays special emphasis on meditation, and direct discovery of the Buddha-nature.

Zen Buddhism is divided into two main schools: Rinzai (臨済宗) and Sōtō (曹洞宗), the former greatly favouring the use in meditation on the koan (公案, a meditative riddle or puzzle) as a device for spiritual break-through, and the latter (while certainly employing koans) focusing more on shikantaza or “just sitting”.

Zen Buddhism is primarily found in Japan, with some presence in South Korea and Vietnam. The scholars of Japanese Soto Zen tradition in recent times have critiqued the mainstream Japanese Buddhism for dhatu-vada, that is assuming things have substantiality, a view they assert to be non-Buddhist and “out of tune with the teachings of non-Self and conditioned arising”, states Peter Harvey.

Monasteries and temples

Main article: Buddhist Monasticism

Buddhist institutions are often housed and centered around monasteries (viharas) and temples. Buddhist monastics originally followed a life of wandering, never staying in one place for long. During the three month rainy season (vassa) they would gather together in one place for a period of intense practice and then depart again. Some of the earliest Buddhist monasteries were at groves (vanas) or woods (araññas), such as Jetavana and Sarnath’s Deer Park. There originally seems to have been two main types of monasteries, monastic settlements (sangharamas) were built and supported by donors, and woodland camps (avasas) were set up by monks. Whatever structures were built in these locales were made out of wood and were sometimes temporary structures built for the rainy season.

Over time, the wandering community slowly adopted more settled cenobitic forms of monasticism. Also, these monasteries slowly evolved from the simpler collections of rustic dwellings of early Buddhism into larger more permanent structures meant to house the entire community, who now lived in a more collective fashion. During the Gupta era, even larger monastic university complexes (like Nalanda) arose, with larger and more artistically ornate structures, as well as large land grants and accumulated wealth.

There are many different forms of Buddhist structures. Classic Indian Buddhist institutions mainly made use of the following structures: monasteries, rock-hewn cave complexes (such as the Ajanta Caves), stupas (funerary mounds which contained relics), and temples such as the Mahabodhi Temple.

In Southeast Asia, the most widespread institutions are centered on wats, which refers to an establishment with various buildings such as an ordination hall, a library, monks’ quarters and stupas. East Asian Buddhist institutions also use various structures including monastic halls, temples, lecture halls, bell towers and pagodas. In Japanese Buddhist temples, these different structures are usually grouped together in an area termed the garan. In Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhist institutions are generally housed in gompas. They include monastic quarters, stupas and prayer halls with Buddha images.

The complexity of Buddhist institutions varies, ranging from minimalist and rustic forest monasteries to large monastic centers like Tawang Monastery. The core of traditional Buddhist institutions is the monastic community (Sangha) who manage and lead religious services. They are supported by the lay community who visit temples and monasteries for religious services and holidays.

In the modern era, the Buddhist “meditation centre”, which is mostly used by laypersons and often also staffed by them, has also become widespread.

Buddhism in the modern era

Colonial era

Main articles: Buddhist modernism

Buddhism has faced various challenges and changes during the colonization of Buddhist states by Christian countries and its persecution under modern states. Like other religions, the findings of modern science has challenged its basic premises. One response to some of these challenges has come to be called Buddhist modernism. Early Buddhist modernist figures such as the American convert Henry Olcott (1832– 1907) and Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) reinterpreted and promoted Buddhism as a scientific and rational religion which they saw as compatible with modern science.

East Asian Buddhism meanwhile suffered under various wars which ravaged China during the modern era, such as the Taiping rebellion and the Second World War (which also affected Korean Buddhism). During the Republican period (1912–49), a new movement called Humanistic Buddhism was developed by figures such as Taixu (1899–1947), and though Buddhist institutions were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), there has been a revival of the religion in China after 1977. Japanese Buddhism also went through a period of modernization during the Meiji Era. In Central Asia meanwhile, the arrival of Communist repression to Tibet (1966–1980) and Mongolia (between 1924–1990) had a strong negative impact on Buddhist institutions, though the situation has improved somewhat since the 80s and 90s.

Buddhism in the West

Main article: Buddhism in The West 

While there were some encounters of Western travelers or missionaries such as St. Francis Xavier and Ippolito Desideri with Buddhist cultures, it was not until the 19th century that Buddhism began to be studied by Western scholars. It was the work of pioneering scholars such as Eugène Burnouf, Max Müller, Hermann Oldenberg and Thomas William Rhys Davids that paved the way for modern Buddhist studies in the West. The English words such as Buddhism, “Boudhist”, “Bauddhist” and Buddhist were coined in the early 19th-century in the West, while in 1881, Rhys Davids founded the Pali Text Society – an influential Western resource of Buddhist literature in the Pali language and one of the earliest publisher of a journal on Buddhist studies. It was also during the 19th century that Asian Buddhist immigrants (mainly from China and Japan) began to arrive in Western countries such as the United States and Canada, bringing with them their Buddhist religion. This period also saw the first Westerners to formally convert to Buddhism, such as Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott. An important event in the introduction of Buddhism to the West was the 1893 World Parliament of Religions, which for the first time saw well-publicized speeches by major Buddhist leaders alongside other religious leaders.

The 20th century saw a prolific growth of new Buddhist institutions in Western countries, including the Buddhist Society, London (1924), Das Buddhistische Haus (1924) and Datsan Gunzechoinei in St Petersburg. The publication and translations of Buddhist literature in Western languages thereafter accelerated. After the second world war, further immigration from Asia, globalization, the secularization on Western culture as well a renewed interest in Buddhism among the 60s counterculture led to further growth in Buddhist institutions. Influential figures on post-war Western Buddhism include Shunryu Suzuki, Jack Kerouac, Alan Watts, Thích Nhất Hạnh, and the 14th Dalai Lama. While Buddhist institutions have grown, some of the central premises of Buddhism such as the cycles of rebirth and Four Noble Truths have been problematic in the West. In contrast, states Christopher Gowans, for “most ordinary [Asian] Buddhists, today as well as in the past, their basic moral orientation is governed by belief in karma and rebirth”. Most Asian Buddhist laypersons, states Kevin Trainor, have historically pursued Buddhist rituals and practices seeking better rebirth, not nirvana or freedom from rebirth.

Buddhism has spread across the world, and Buddhist texts are increasingly translated into local languages. While Buddhism in the West is often seen as exotic and progressive, in the East it is regarded as familiar and traditional. In countries such as Cambodia and Bhutan, it is recognized as the state religion and receives government support.

In certain regions such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, militants have targeted violence and destruction of historic Buddhist monuments.

Neo-Buddhism movements

Main articles: Secular Buddhism and Dalit Buddhist Movement

A number of modern movements in Buddhism emerged during the second half of the 20th century. These new forms of Buddhism are diverse and significantly depart from traditional beliefs and practices.

In India, B.R. Ambedkar launched the Navayana tradition – literally, “new vehicle”. Ambedkar’s Buddhism rejects the foundational doctrines and historic practices of traditional Theravada and Mahayana traditions, such as monk lifestyle after renunciation, karma, rebirth, samsara, meditation, nirvana, Four Noble Truths and others. Ambedkar’s Navayana Buddhism considers these as superstitions and re-interprets the original Buddha as someone who taught about class struggle and social equality. Ambedkar urged low caste Indian Dalits to convert to his Marxism-inspired reinterpretation called the Navayana Buddhism, also known as Bhimayana Buddhism. Ambedkar’s effort led to the expansion of Navayana Buddhism in India.

The Thai King Mongkut (r. 1851–68), and his son King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868–1910), were responsible for modern reforms of Thai Buddhism. Modern Buddhist movements include Secular Buddhism in many countries, Won Buddhism in Korea, the Dhammakaya movement in Thailand and several Japanese organizations, such as Shinnyo-en, Risshō Kōsei Kai or Soka Gakkai.

Some of these movements have brought internal disputes and strife within regional Buddhist communities. For example, the Dhammakaya movement in Thailand teaches a “true self” doctrine, which traditional Theravada monks consider as heretically denying the fundamental anatta (not-self) doctrine of Buddhism.

Cultural influence

Main article: Culture of Buddhism

Buddhism has had a profound influence on various cultures, especially in Asia. Buddhist philosophy, Buddhist art, Buddhist architecture, Buddhist cuisine and Buddhist festivals continue to be influential elements of the modern Culture of Asia, especially in East Asia and the Sinosphere as well as in Southeast Asia and the Indosphere. According to Litian Fang, Buddhism has “permeated a wide range of fields, such as politics, ethics, philosophy, literature, art and customs,” in these Asian regions.

Buddhist teachings influenced the development of modern Hinduism as well as other Asian religions like Taoism and Confucianism. For example, various scholars have argued that key Hindu thinkers such as Adi Shankara and Patanjali, author of the Yoga sutras, were influenced by Buddhist ideas. Likewise, Buddhist practices were influential in the early development of Indian Yoga.

Buddhist philosophers like Dignaga were very influential in the development of Indian logic and epistemology. Buddhist educational institutions like Nalanda and Vikramashila preserved various disciplines of classical Indian knowledge such as Grammar and Medicine and taught foreign students from China.

In an effort to preserve their sacred scriptures, Buddhist institutions such as temples and monasteries housed schools which educated the populace and promoted writing and literacy. This led to high levels of literacy among some traditional Buddhist societies such as Burma. According to David Steinberg, “Early British observers claimed that Burma was the most literate state between Suez and Japan, and one British traveler in the early nineteenth century believed that Burmese women had a higher percentage of literacy than British women.”

Buddhist institutions were also at the forefront of the adoption of Chinese technologies related to bookmaking, including paper, and block printing which Buddhists sometimes deployed on a large scale. The first surviving example of a printed text is a Buddhist charm, the first full printed book is the Buddhist Diamond Sutra (c. 868) and the first hand colored print is an illustration of Guanyin dated to 947.

Buddhists were also influential in the study and practice of traditional forms of Indian medicine. Buddhists spread these traditional approaches to health, sometimes called “Buddhist medicine”, throughout East and Southeast Asia, where they remain influential today in regions like Sri Lanka, Burma, Tibet and Thailand.

In the Western world, Buddhism has had a strong influence on modern New Age spirituality and other alternative spiritualities. This began with its influence on 20th century Theosophists such as Helena Blavatsky, which were some of the first Westerners to take Buddhism seriously as a spiritual tradition.

More recently, Buddhist meditation practices have influenced the development of modern psychology, particularly the practice of Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and other similar mindfulness based modalities. The influence of Buddhism on psychology can also be seen in certain forms of modern psychoanalysis.

Buddhism also influenced the modern avant-garde movements during the 1950s and 60s through people like D. T. Suzuki and his influence on figures like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.


See also: Buddhism by country

Buddhism is practised by an estimated 488 million, 495 million, or 535 million people as of the 2010s, representing 7% to 8% of the world’s total population.

China is the country with the largest population of Buddhists, approximately 244 million or 18% of its total population. They are mostly followers of Chinese schools of Mahayana, making this the largest body of Buddhist traditions. Mahayana, also practised in broader East Asia, is followed by over half of world Buddhists.

According to a demographic analysis reported by Peter Harvey (2013): Mahayana has 360 million adherents; Theravada has 150 million adherents; and Vajrayana has 18 million adherents.

According to Johnson and Grim (2013), Buddhism has grown from a total of 138 million adherents in 1910, of which 137 million were in Asia, to 495 million in 2010, of which 487 million are in Asia. Over 98% of all Buddhists live in the Asia-Pacific and South Asia region. North America had about 3.9 million Buddhists, Europe 1.3 million, while South America, Africa and the Middle East had an estimated combined total of about 1 million Buddhists in 2010.

Buddhism is the dominant religion in Bhutan, Myanmar, Cambodia, Tibet, Laos, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Large Buddhist populations live in China (18%), Japan (36%), Taiwan (35%), Macau (17%), North Korea (14%), Nepal (11%), Vietnam (10%), Singapore (33%), Hong Kong (15%) and South Korea (23%).

In Russia, Buddhists form majority in Tuva (52%) and Kalmykia (53%). Buryatia (20%) and Zabaykalsky Krai (15%) also have significant Buddhist populations.

Buddhism is also growing by conversion. In United States, only about a third (32%) of Buddhists in the United States are Asian; a majority (53%) are white. Buddhism in the America is primarily made up of native-born adherents, whites and converts. In New Zealand, about 25–35% of the total Buddhists are converts to Buddhism.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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