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"Buddhadharma" redirects here. For the magazine, see Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly.
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488–535 million
Gautama Buddha
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China, Thailand, Japan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Korea, Bhutan, India, More...
Buddhavacana, Tripiṭaka, Mahayana Sutras, Pāli Canon, (Tibetan canon, Chinese canon)
Sanskrit, Pali, Gandhari, Classical Chinese, Classical Tibetan, Tangut, Sinhalese, Thai, Khmer, Burmese, Mon, Korean, Japanese, varieties of Chinese, Vietnamese
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Standing Buddha statue at the Tokyo National Museum. One of the earliest known representations of the Buddha, 1st–2nd century CE.

Buddhism /ˈbudɪzəm/[1][2] is a religion[note 1][note 2][12] and dharma that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on teachings attributed to Gautama Buddha, commonly known as the Buddha ("the awakened one"). According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha lived and taught in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent, sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE in the ancient Magadha kingdom.[13] He is recognized by Buddhists as an awakened, divine,[14] or enlightened teacher who shared his insights to help sentient beings end their suffering through the elimination of ignorance and craving. Buddhists believe that this is accomplished through the direct understanding and perception of dependent origination and the Four Noble Truths.

Two major extant branches of Buddhism are generally recognized by scholars: Theravada Buddhism (Pali: "The School of the Elders") and Mahayana Buddhism (Sanskrit: "The Great Vehicle"). In Theravada Buddhism, the ultimate goal is the attainment of the sublime state of Nirvana, achieved by practicing the Noble Eightfold Path (also known as the Middle Way), thus escaping what is seen as a cycle of suffering and rebirth.[15] Theravada has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

Mahayana Buddhism, which includes the traditions of Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Shingon, and Tiantai (Tendai) is found throughout East Asia. Rather than Nirvana, Mahayana instead aspires to Buddhahood via the bodhisattva path, a state wherein one remains in the cycle of rebirth to help other beings reach awakening. Vajrayana, a body of teachings attributed to Indian siddhas, may be viewed as a third branch or merely a part of Mahayana; Tibetan Buddhism, which preserves the Vajrayana teachings of eighth century India,[16] is practiced in regions surrounding the Himalayas, Mongolia[17] and Kalmykia.[18] Tibetan Buddhism aspires to Buddhahood or rainbow body.[19]

Buddhist schools vary on the exact nature of the path to liberation, the importance and canonicity of various teachings and scriptures, and especially their respective practices.[20][21] Buddhism denies a creator deity and posits that mundane deities such as Mahabrahma are misperceived to be a creator.[22] Instead, the foundations of Buddhist tradition and practice are the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the community). "Taking refuge" in the triple gem has traditionally been a declaration and commitment to being on the Buddhist path, and in general distinguishes a Buddhist from a non-Buddhist.[23] Development along the Buddhist path is generally accomplished by practicing some or all of the Ten Meritorious Deeds; however, the threefold practice of generosity, virtue, and meditation (including samatha and vipassanā) is often given special emphasis. Other practices include the study of scriptures; cultivation of higher wisdom and discernment; renouncing conventional living and becoming a monastic; devotional practices; ceremonies; the Mahayana practices of bodhicitta, invocation of buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the Vajrayana practices of Generation stage and Completion stage.

Buddhists number between an estimated 488 million[web 1] and 535 million,[24] making it one of the world's major religions.

Life of the Buddha

stone relief sculpture of horse and men
"The Great Departure", relic depicting Gautama leaving home, first or second century (Musée Guimet).
Main articles: Gautama Buddha and Śramaṇa

This narrative draws on the Nidānakathā of the Jataka tales of the Theravada, which is ascribed to Buddhaghoṣa in the 5th century CE.[25] Earlier biographies such as the Buddhacarita, the Lokottaravādin Mahāvastu, and the Sarvāstivādin Lalitavistara Sūtra, give different accounts. Scholars are hesitant to make unqualified claims about the historical facts of the Buddha's life. Most accept that he lived, taught and founded a monastic order, but do not consistently accept all of the details contained in his biographies.[26][27]

drawing of Buddha in lotus position with followers in woods by stream
Ascetic Gautama with his five companions, who later comprised the first Sangha. (Painting in Laotian temple)

According to author Michael Carrithers, while there are good reasons to doubt the traditional account, "the outline of the life must be true: birth, maturity, renunciation, search, awakening and liberation, teaching, death."[28] In writing her biography of the Buddha, Karen Armstrong noted, "It is obviously difficult, therefore, to write a biography of the Buddha that meets modern criteria, because we have very little information that can be considered historically sound... [but] we can be reasonably confident Siddhatta Gotama did indeed exist and that his disciples preserved the memory of his life and teachings as well as they could."[29][dubious ]

The evidence of the early texts suggests that Siddhārtha Gautama was born in a community that was on the periphery, both geographically and culturally, of the northeastern Indian subcontinent in the fifth century BCE.[30] It was either a small republic, in which case his father was an elected chieftain, or an oligarchy, in which case his father was an oligarch.[30]

Vajrashila a tree shrine with gates and accolytes outside
The Vajrashila, where Gautama sat under a tree and became enlightened, Bodh Gaya, India, 2011.

According to this narrative, shortly after the birth of young prince Gautama, an astrologer named Asita visited the young prince's father, Suddhodana, and prophesied that Siddhartha would either become a great king or renounce the material world to become a holy man, depending on whether he saw what life was like outside the palace walls.

Śuddhodana was determined to see his son become a king, so he prevented him from leaving the palace grounds. But at age 29, despite his father's efforts, Gautama ventured beyond the palace several times. In a series of encounters—known in Buddhist literature as the four sights—he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a corpse and, finally, an ascetic holy man, apparently content and at peace with the world. These experiences prompted Gautama to abandon royal life and take up a spiritual quest.

Dhamek Stupa shrine in Sarnath, India, built by Ashoka where the Buddha gave his first sermon
Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath, India, where the Buddha gave his first sermon. It was built by Ashoka.

Gautama first went to study with famous religious teachers of the day, and mastered the meditative attainments they taught. But he found that they did not provide a permanent end to suffering, so he continued his quest. He next attempted an extreme asceticism, which was a religious pursuit common among the śramaṇas, a religious culture distinct from the Vedic one. Gautama underwent prolonged fasting, breath-holding, and exposure to pain. He almost starved himself to death in the process. He realized that he had taken this kind of practice to its limit, and had not put an end to suffering. So in a pivotal moment he accepted milk and rice from a village girl and changed his approach. He devoted himself to anapanasati meditation, through which he discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way (Skt. madhyamā-pratipad):[31] a path of moderation between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.[web 2][web 3]

Gold colored statue of man reclining on his right side
Buddha statue depicting Parinirvana (Mahaparinirvana Temple, Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India).

Gautama was now determined to complete his spiritual quest. At the age of 35, he famously sat in meditation under a Ficus religiosa tree now called the Bodhi Tree in the town of Bodh Gaya and vowed not to rise before achieving enlightenment. After many days, he finally destroyed the fetters of his mind, thereby liberating himself from the cycle of suffering and rebirth, and arose as a fully enlightened being (Skt. samyaksaṃbuddha). Soon thereafter, he attracted a band of followers and instituted a monastic order. Now, as the Buddha, he spent the rest of his life teaching the path of awakening he had discovered, traveling throughout the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent,[32][33] and died at the age of 80 (483 BCE) in Kushinagar, India. The south branch of the original fig tree available only in Anuradhapura Sri Lanka is known as Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.

Buddhist concepts

Main article: Glossary of Buddhism

Life and the world

Traditional Tibetan Buddhist Thangka depicting the Wheel of Life
Traditional Tibetan Buddhist Thangka depicting the Wheel of Life with its six realms


Main article: Saṃsāra (Buddhism)

Within Buddhism, samsara is defined as the continual repetitive cycle of birth and death that arises from ordinary beings' grasping and fixating on a self and experiences. Specifically, samsara refers to the process of cycling through one rebirth after another within the six realms of existence,[note 3] where each realm can be understood as physical realm or a psychological state characterized by a particular type of suffering. Samsara arises out of avidya (ignorance) and is characterized by dukkha (suffering, anxiety, dissatisfaction). In the Buddhist view, liberation from samsara is possible by following the Buddhist path.


Main article: Karma in Buddhism

In Buddhism, Karma (from Sanskrit: "action, work") is the force that drives saṃsāra—the cycle of suffering and rebirth for each being. Good, skillful deeds (Pali: "kusala") and bad, unskillful (Pāli: "akusala") actions produce "seeds" in the mind that come to fruition either in this life or in a subsequent rebirth.[34] The avoidance of unwholesome actions and the cultivation of positive actions is called sīla. Karma specifically refers to those actions of body, speech or mind that spring from mental intent (cetanā),[35] and bring about a consequence or phala "fruit" or vipāka "result".

In Theravada Buddhism there can be no divine salvation or forgiveness for one's karma, since it is a purely impersonal process that is a part of the makeup of the universe.[citation needed] In Mahayana Buddhism, the texts of certain Mahayana sutras (such as the Lotus Sutra, the Aṅgulimālīya Sūtra and the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra) claim that the recitation or merely the hearing of their texts can expunge great swathes of negative karma. Some forms of Buddhism (for example, Vajrayana) regard the recitation of mantras as a means for cutting off of previous negative karma.[36] The Japanese Pure Land teacher Genshin taught that Amitābha has the power to destroy the karma that would otherwise bind one in saṃsāra.[12][37]


A very large hill behind two palm trees and a boulevard, people walking are about one fifth the hill's height
Gautama's cremation site, Ramabhar Stupa in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India
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[38] to death. The doctrine of anattā (Sanskrit anātman) 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 independent from the rest of the universe. Buddhists also refer to themselves as the believers of the anatta doctrine—Nairatmyavadin or Anattavadin. Rebirth in subsequent existences must be understood as the continuation of a dynamic, ever-changing process of pratītyasamutpāda ("dependent arising") determined by the laws of cause and effect (karma) rather than that of one being, reincarnating from one existence to the next.

Each rebirth takes place within one of five realms according to Theravadins, or six according to other schools.[39][40]

  1. Naraka beings: those who live in one of many Narakas (Hells);
  2. Preta: sometimes sharing some space with humans, but invisible to most people; an important variety is the hungry ghost;[41]
  3. Animals: sharing space with humans, but considered another type of life;
  4. Human beings: one of the realms of rebirth in which attaining Nirvana is possible;
  5. Asuras: variously translated as lowly deities, demons, titans, or anti-gods; not recognized by Theravada tradition as a separate realm;[note 4]
  6. Devas including Brahmās: variously translated as gods, deities, spirits, angels, or left untranslated.

The above are further subdivided into 31 planes of existence.[web 4] Rebirths in some of the higher heavens, known as the Śuddhāvāsa Worlds or Pure Abodes, can be attained only by skilled Buddhist practitioners known as anāgāmis (non-returners). Rebirths in the Ārūpyadhātu (formless realms) can be attained by only those who can meditate on the arūpajhānas, the highest object of meditation.

According to East Asian and Tibetan Buddhism, there is an intermediate state (Tibetan "bardo") between one life and the next. The orthodox Theravada position rejects this; however there are passages in the Samyutta Nikaya of the Pali Canon that seem to lend support to the idea that the Buddha taught of an intermediate stage between one life and the next.[43][44][page needed]

Suffering's causes and solution

The Four Noble Truths

Main article: Four Noble Truths
color manuscript illustration of Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths, Nalanda, Bihar, India
The Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths. Sanskrit manuscript. Nalanda, Bihar, India.

The teachings on the Four Noble Truths are regarded as central to the teachings of Buddhism, and are said to provide a conceptual framework for Buddhist thought. These four truths explain the nature of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, unsatisfactoriness), its causes, and how it can be overcome. The four truths are:[note 5]

  1. The truth of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, unsatisfactoriness[note 6])
  2. The truth of the origin of dukkha
  3. The truth of the cessation of dukkha
  4. The truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha

The first truth explains the nature of dukkha. Dukkha is commonly translated as "suffering", "anxiety", "unsatisfactoriness", "unease", etc., and it is said to have the following three aspects:

  • The obvious suffering of physical and mental illness, growing old, and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A subtle dissatisfaction pervading all forms of life due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.[note 7]

The second truth is that the origin of dukkha can be known. Within the context of the four noble truths, the origin of dukkha is commonly explained as craving (Pali: tanha) conditioned by ignorance (Pali: avijja). On a deeper level, the root cause of dukkha is identified as ignorance (Pali: avijja) of the true nature of things. The third noble truth is that the complete cessation of dukkha is possible, and the fourth noble truth identifies a path to this cessation.[note 8]

Noble Eightfold Path

ships wheel with eight spokes represents the Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path—the fourth of the Buddha's Noble Truths—consists of a set of eight interconnected factors or conditions, that when developed together, lead to the cessation of dukkha.[45] 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.

Ajahn Sucitto describes the path as "a mandala of interconnected factors that support and moderate each other."[45] The eight factors of the path are not to be understood as stages, in which each stage is completed before moving on to the next. Rather, they are understood as eight significant dimensions of one's behaviour—mental, spoken, and bodily—that operate in dependence on one another; taken together, they define a complete path, or way of living.[46]

The eight factors of the path are commonly presented within three divisions (or higher trainings) as shown below:

Division Eightfold factor Sanskrit, Pali Description
(Sanskrit: prajñā,
Pāli: paññā)
1. Right view samyag dṛṣṭi,
sammā ditthi
Viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be
2. Right intention samyag saṃkalpa,
sammā sankappa
Intention of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness
Ethical conduct
(Sanskrit: śīla,
Pāli: sīla)
3. Right speech samyag vāc,
sammā vāca
Speaking in a truthful and non-hurtful way
4. Right action samyag karman,
sammā kammanta
Acting in a non-harmful way
5. Right livelihood samyag ājīvana,
sammā ājīva
A non-harmful livelihood
(Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi)
6. Right effort samyag vyāyāma,
sammā vāyāma
Making an effort to improve
7. Right mindfulness samyag smṛti,
sammā sati
Awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness;
being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion
8. Right concentration samyag samādhi,
sammā samādhi
Correct meditation or concentration, explained as the first four jhānas

The Four Immeasurables

Main article: Brahmavihara

While he searched for enlightenment, Gautama combined the yoga practice of his teacher Kalama with what later became known as "the immeasurables".[47][dubious ] Gautama thus invented a new kind of human, one without egotism.[47][dubious ] What Thich Nhat Hanh calls the "Four Immeasurable Minds" of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity[48][full citation needed] are also known as brahmaviharas, divine abodes, or simply as four immeasurables.[web 5] Pema Chödrön calls them the "four limitless ones".[49] Of the four, mettā or loving-kindness meditation is perhaps the best known.[web 5] The Four Immeasurables are taught as a form of meditation that cultivates "wholesome attitudes towards all sentient beings."[web 6][web 7]

The practitioner prays:

  1. May all sentient beings have happiness and its causes,
  2. May all sentient beings be free of suffering and its causes,
  3. May all sentient beings never be separated from bliss without suffering,
  4. May all sentient beings be in equanimity, free of bias, attachment and anger.[web 8]

Middle Way

Main article: Middle Way

An important guiding principle of Buddhist practice is the Middle Way (or Middle Path), which is said to have been discovered by Gautama Buddha prior to his enlightenment. The Middle Way has several definitions:

  1. The practice of non-extremism: a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification;
  2. The middle ground between certain metaphysical views (for example, that things ultimately either do or do not exist);[50]
  3. An explanation of Nirvana (perfect enlightenment), a state wherein it becomes clear that all dualities apparent in the world are delusory;
  4. Another term for emptiness, the ultimate nature of all phenomena (in the Mahayana branch), a lack of inherent existence, which avoids the extremes of permanence and nihilism or inherent existence and nothingness.

Nature of existence

monks wearing crimson robes debating at Sera Monastery, Tibet
Monks debating at Sera Monastery, Tibet

Buddhist scholars have produced a number of intellectual theories, philosophies and world view concepts (see, for example, Abhidharma, Buddhist philosophy and Reality in Buddhism). Some schools of Buddhism discourage doctrinal study, and some regard it as essential practice.

The concept of liberation (nirvāṇa)—the goal of the Buddhist path—is closely related to overcoming ignorance (avidyā), a fundamental misunderstanding or mis-perception of the nature of reality. In awakening to the true nature of the self and all phenomena one develops dispassion for the objects of clinging, and is liberated from suffering (dukkha) and the cycle of incessant rebirths (saṃsāra). To this end, the Buddha recommended viewing things as characterized by the three marks of existence.

Three Marks of Existence

The Three Marks of Existence are impermanence, suffering, and not-self.

Impermanence (Pāli: anicca) expresses the Buddhist notion that all compounded or conditioned phenomena (all things and experiences) are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent. Everything we can experience through our senses is made up of parts, and its existence is dependent on external conditions. Everything is in constant flux, and so conditions and the thing itself are constantly changing. Things are constantly coming into being, and ceasing to be. Since nothing lasts, there is no inherent or fixed nature to any object or experience. According to the doctrine of impermanence, life embodies this flux in the aging process, the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra), and in any experience of loss. The doctrine asserts that because things are impermanent, attachment to them is futile and leads to suffering (dukkha).

Suffering (Pāli: दुक्ख dukkha; Sanskrit दुःख duḥkha) is also a central concept in Buddhism. The word roughly corresponds to a number of terms in English including suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration. Although the term is often translated as "suffering", its philosophical meaning is more analogous to "disquietude" as in the condition of being disturbed. As such, "suffering" is too narrow a translation with "negative emotional connotations"[web 9] that can give the impression that the Buddhist view is pessimistic, but Buddhism seeks to be neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic. In English-language Buddhist literature translated from Pāli, "dukkha" is often left untranslated, so as to encompass its full range of meaning.[note 9][51][52]

statue of Buddha in lotus position at Angkor Thom in Cambodia
Angkor Thom in Cambodia

Not-self (Pāli: anatta; Sanskrit: anātman) is the third mark of existence. Upon careful examination, one finds that no phenomenon is really "I" or "mine"; these concepts are in fact constructed by the mind. In the Nikayas anatta is not meant as a metaphysical assertion, but as an approach for gaining release from suffering. In fact, the Buddha rejected both of the metaphysical assertions "I have a Self" and "I have no Self" as ontological views that bind one to suffering.[note 10] When asked if the self was identical with the body, the Buddha refused to answer. By analyzing the constantly changing physical and mental constituents (skandhas) of a person or object, the practitioner comes to the conclusion that neither the respective parts nor the person as a whole comprise a self.

Dependent arising

Main article: Pratītyasamutpāda

The doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda, (Sanskrit; Pali: paticcasamuppāda; Tibetan Wylie: rten cing 'brel bar 'byung ba; Chinese: 緣起) is an important part of Buddhist metaphysics. It states that phenomena arise together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. It is variously rendered into English as "dependent origination", "conditioned genesis", "dependent relationship", "dependent co-arising", "interdependent arising", or "contingency".

The best-known application of the concept of pratītyasamutpāda is the scheme of Twelve Nidānas (from Pāli "nidāna" meaning "cause, foundation, source or origin"), which explain the continuation of the cycle of suffering and rebirth (saṃsāra) in detail.[note 11]

Main article: Twelve Nidānas

The Twelve Nidānas describe a causal connection between the subsequent characteristics or conditions of cyclic existence, each one giving rise to the next:

  1. Avidyā: ignorance, specifically spiritual ignorance of the nature of reality;[53]
  2. Saṃskāras: literally formations, explained as referring to karma;
  3. Vijñāna: consciousness, specifically discriminative;[54]
  4. Nāmarūpa: literally name and form, referring to mind and body;[55]
  5. Ṣaḍāyatana: the six sense bases: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind-organ;
  6. Sparśa: variously translated contact, impression, stimulation (by a sense object);
  7. Vedanā: usually translated feeling: this is the "hedonic tone", i.e. whether something is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral;
  8. Tṛṣṇā: literally thirst, but in Buddhism nearly always used to mean craving;
  9. Upādāna: clinging or grasping; the word also means fuel, which feeds the continuing cycle of rebirth;
  10. Bhava: literally being (existence) or becoming. (The Theravada explains this as having two meanings: karma, which produces a new existence, and the existence itself.);[56]
  11. Jāti: literally birth, but life is understood as starting at conception;[57]
  12. Jarāmaraṇa: (old age and death) and also soka, parideva, dukkha, domanassa and upāyāsā (sorrow, lamentation, pain, affliction and despair).[web 10]

Sentient beings always suffer throughout saṃsāra until they free themselves from this suffering (dukkha) by attaining Nirvana. Then the absence of the first Nidāna—ignorance—leads to the absence of the others.


Main article: Śūnyatā

Mahayana Buddhism received significant theoretical grounding from Nagarjuna (perhaps c. 150–250 CE), arguably the most influential scholar within the Mahayana tradition. Nagarjuna's primary contribution to Buddhist philosophy was the systematic exposition of the concept of śūnyatā, or "emptiness", widely attested in the Prajñāpāramitā sutras that emerged in his era. The concept of emptiness brings together other key Buddhist doctrines, particularly anatta and dependent origination, to refute the metaphysics of Sarvastivada and Sautrantika (extinct non-Mahayana schools). For Nagarjuna, it is not merely sentient beings that are empty of ātman; all phenomena (dharmas) are without any svabhava (literally "own-nature" or "self-nature"), and thus without any underlying essence; they are "empty" of being independent; thus the heterodox theories of svabhava circulating at the time were refuted on the basis of the doctrines of early Buddhism. Nagarjuna's school of thought is known as the Mādhyamaka. Some of the writings attributed to Nagarjuna made explicit references to Mahayana texts, but his philosophy was argued within the parameters set out by the agamas. He may have arrived at his positions from a desire to achieve a consistent exegesis of the Buddha's doctrine as recorded in the Canon. In the eyes of Nagarjuna the Buddha was not merely a forerunner, but the very founder of the Mādhyamaka system.[58]

Sarvastivada teachings—which were criticized by Nāgārjuna—were reformulated by scholars such as Vasubandhu and Asanga and were adapted into the Yogacara school. While the Mādhyamaka school held that asserting the existence or non-existence of any ultimately real thing was inappropriate, some exponents of Yogacara asserted that the mind and only the mind is ultimately real (a doctrine known as cittamatra). Not all Yogacarins asserted that mind was truly existent; Vasubandhu and Asanga in particular did not.[web 11] These two schools of thought, in opposition or synthesis, form the basis of subsequent Mahayana metaphysics in the Indo-Tibetan tradition.

Besides emptiness, Mahayana schools often place emphasis on the notions of perfected spiritual insight (prajñāpāramitā) and Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha). There are conflicting interpretations of the tathāgatagarbha in Mahāyāna thought. The idea may be traced to Abhidharma, and ultimately to statements of the Buddha in the Nikāyas. In Tibetan Buddhism, according to the Sakya school, tathāgatagarbha is the inseparability of the clarity and emptiness of one's mind. In Nyingma, tathāgatagarbha also generally refers to inseparability of the clarity and emptiness of one's mind. According to the Gelug school, it is the potential for sentient beings to awaken since they are empty (i.e. dependently originated). According to the Jonang school, it refers to the innate qualities of the mind that expresses themselves as omniscience etc. when adventitious obscurations are removed. The "Tathāgatagarbha Sutras" are a collection of Mahayana sutras that present a unique model of Buddha-nature. Even though this collection was generally ignored in India,[59] East Asian Buddhism provides some significance to these texts.



stone Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, India, where Gautama Buddha attained Nirvana under the Bodhi Tree
Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, India, where Gautama Buddha attained Nirvana under the Bodhi Tree (left)
Main article: Nirvana (Buddhism)

Nirvana (Sanskrit; Pali: "Nibbāna") means "cessation", "extinction" (of craving and ignorance and therefore suffering and the cycle of involuntary rebirths (saṃsāra)), "extinguished", "quieted", "calmed"; it is also known as "Awakening" or "Enlightenment" in the West. The term for anybody who has achieved nirvana, including the Buddha, is arahant.

Bodhi (Pāli and Sanskrit, in devanagari: बॊधि) is a term applied to the experience of Awakening of arahants. Bodhi literally means "awakening", but it is more commonly translated into English as "enlightenment". In Early Buddhism, bodhi carried a meaning synonymous to nirvana, using only some different metaphors to describe the experience, which implies the extinction of raga (greed, craving),[web 12] dosa (hate, aversion)[web 13] and moha (delusion).[web 14] In the later school of Mahayana Buddhism, the status of nirvana was downgraded in some scriptures, coming to refer only to the extinction of greed and hate, implying that delusion was still present in one who attained nirvana, and that one needed to attain bodhi to eradicate delusion:

An important development in the Mahayana [was] that it came to separate nirvana from bodhi ('awakening' to the truth, Enlightenment), and to put a lower value on the former (Gombrich, 1992d). Originally nirvana and bodhi refer to the same thing; they merely use different metaphors for the experience. But the Mahayana tradition separated them and considered that nirvana referred only to the extinction of craving (passion and hatred), with the resultant escape from the cycle of rebirth. This interpretation ignores the third fire, delusion: the extinction of delusion is of course in the early texts identical with what can be positively expressed as gnosis, Enlightenment.

— Richard F. Gombrich, How Buddhism Began[60]

Therefore, according to Mahayana Buddhism, the arahant has attained only nirvana, thus still being subject to delusion, while the bodhisattva not only achieves nirvana but full liberation from delusion as well. He thus attains bodhi and becomes a buddha. In Theravada Buddhism, bodhi and nirvana carry the same meaning as in the early texts, that of being freed from greed, hate and delusion.

The term parinirvana is also encountered in Buddhism, and this generally refers to the complete nirvana attained by the arahant at the moment of death, when the physical body expires.


Main article: Buddhahood

According to Buddhist traditions a Buddha is a fully awakened being who has completely purified his mind of the three poisons of desire, aversion and ignorance. A Buddha is no longer bound by Samsara and has ended the suffering which unawakened people experience in life.

Buddhists do not consider Siddhartha Gautama to have been the only Buddha. The Pali Canon refers to many previous ones (see List of the 28 Buddhas), while the Mahayana tradition additionally has many Buddhas of celestial, rather than historical, origin (see Amitabha or Vairocana as examples, for lists of many thousands Buddha names see Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō numbers 439–448). A common Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist belief is that the next Buddha will be one named Maitreya (Pali: Metteyya).

Theravada Buddhism

In Theravada doctrine, a person may awaken from the "sleep of ignorance" by directly realizing the true nature of reality; such people are called arahants and occasionally buddhas. After numerous lifetimes of spiritual striving, they have reached the end of the cycle of rebirth, no longer reincarnating as human, animal, ghost, or other being. The commentaries to the Pali Canon classify these awakened beings into three types:

  • Sammasambuddha, usually just called the Buddha, who discovers the truth by himself and teaches the path to awakening to others
  • Paccekabuddha, who discovers the truth by himself but lacks the skill to teach others
  • Savakabuddha, who receive the truth directly or indirectly from a Sammasambuddha

Bodhi and nirvana carry the same meaning, that of being freed from craving, hate, and delusion. In attaining bodhi, the arahant has overcome these obstacles. As a further distinction, the extinction of only hatred and greed (in the sensory context) with some residue of delusion, is called anagami.

Mahayana Buddhism
bronze Great Statue of Amitābha in Kamakura, Japan
The Great Statue of Amitābha in Kamakura, Japan

In the Mahayana, the Buddha tends not to be viewed as merely human, but as the earthly projection of a beginningless and endless, omnipresent being (see Dharmakaya) beyond the range and reach of thought. Moreover, in certain Mahayana sutras, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are viewed essentially as One: all three are seen as the eternal Buddha himself.

The Buddha's death is seen as an illusion, he is living on in other planes of existence, and monks are therefore permitted to offer "new truths" based on his input. Mahayana also differs from Theravada in its concept of śūnyatā (that ultimately nothing has existence), and in its belief in bodhisattvas (enlightened people who vow to continue being reborn until all beings can be enlightened).[61]

The method of self-exertion or "self-power"—without reliance on an external force or being—stands in contrast to another major form of Buddhism, Pure Land, which is characterized by utmost trust in the salvific "other-power" of Amitabha Buddha. Pure Land Buddhism is a very widespread and perhaps the most faith-orientated manifestation of Buddhism and centres upon the conviction that faith in Amitabha Buddha and the chanting of homage to his name liberates one at death into the Blissful (安樂), Pure Land (淨土) of Amitabha Buddha. This Buddhic realm is variously construed as a foretaste of Nirvana, or as essentially Nirvana itself. The great vow of Amitabha Buddha to rescue all beings from samsaric suffering is viewed within Pure Land Buddhism as universally efficacious, if only one has faith in the power of that vow or chants his name.

Buddha eras

Buddhists believe Gautama Buddha was the first to achieve enlightenment in this Buddha era and is therefore credited with the establishment of Buddhism. A Buddha era is the stretch of history during which people remember and practice the teachings of the earliest known Buddha. This Buddha era will end when all the knowledge, evidence and teachings of Gautama Buddha have vanished. This belief therefore maintains that many Buddha eras have started and ended throughout the course of human existence.[web 15][web 16] The Gautama Buddha, therefore, is the Buddha of this era, who taught directly or indirectly to all other Buddhas in it (see types of Buddhas).

In addition, Mahayana Buddhists believe there are innumerable other Buddhas in other universes.[62] A Theravada commentary says that Buddhas arise one at a time in this world element, and not at all in others.[63] The understandings of this matter reflect widely differing interpretations of basic terms, such as "world realm", between the various schools of Buddhism.

The idea of the decline and gradual disappearance of the teaching has been influential in East Asian Buddhism. Pure Land Buddhism holds that it has declined to the point where few are capable of following the path, so it may be best to rely on the power of Amitābha.


Main article: Bodhisattva
stone statue of Prajñāpāramitā personified, Java
A statue of Prajñāpāramitā personified, Java

Bodhisattva means "enlightenment being", and generally refers to one who is on the path to buddhahood. Traditionally, a bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated bodhicitta, which is a spontaneous wish to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.[64] Theravada Buddhism primarily uses the term in relation to Gautama Buddha's previous existences, but has traditionally acknowledged and respected the bodhisattva path as well.[web 17]

According to Jan Nattier, the term Mahāyāna "Great Vehicle" was originally even an honorary synonym for Bodhisattvayāna "Bodhisattva Vehicle."[65] The Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, an early and important Mahayana text, contains a simple and brief definition for the term bodhisattva: "Because he has enlightenment as his aim, a bodhisattva-mahāsattva is so called."[66][67][68]

Mahayana Buddhism encourages everyone to become bodhisattvas and to take the bodhisattva vow, where the practitioner promises to work for the complete enlightenment of all beings by practicing the six pāramitās.[69] According to Mahayana teachings, these perfections are: dāna, śīla, kṣanti, vīrya, dhyāna, and prajñā.

A famous saying by the 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar-saint Shantideva, which the 14th Dalai Lama often cites as his favourite verse, summarizes the Bodhisattva's intention (Bodhicitta) as follows: "For as long as space endures, and for as long as living beings remain, until then may I too abide to dispel the misery of the world."[citation needed]



Main article: Buddhist devotion

Devotion is an important part of the practice of most Buddhists.[70] 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.


Main article: Yoga
bronze Statue of the Buddha in meditation position, Haw Phra Kaew, Vientiane Laos
Statue of the Buddha in meditation position, Haw Phra Kaew, Vientiane, Laos

Buddhism traditionally incorporates states of meditative absorption (Pali: jhāna; Skt: dhyāna).[71] The most ancient sustained expression of yogic ideas is found in the early sermons of the Buddha.[72] One key innovative teaching of the Buddha was that meditative absorption must be combined with liberating cognition.[73] The difference between the Buddha's teaching and the yoga presented in early Brahminic texts is striking. Meditative states alone are not an end, for according to the Buddha, even the highest meditative state is not liberating. Instead of attaining a complete cessation of thought, some sort of mental activity must take place: a liberating cognition, based on the practice of mindful awareness.[74]

Meditation was an aspect of the practice of the yogis in the centuries preceding the Buddha. The Buddha built upon the yogis' concern with introspection and developed their meditative techniques, but rejected their theories of liberation.[75] In Buddhism, mindfulness and clear awareness are to be developed at all times; in pre-Buddhist yogic practices there is no such injunction. A yogi in the Brahmanical tradition is not to practice while defecating, for example, while a Buddhist monastic should do so.[76]

Religious knowledge or "vision" was indicated as a result of practice both within and outside of the Buddhist fold. According to the Samaññaphala Sutta, this sort of vision arose for the Buddhist adept as a result of the perfection of "meditation" coupled with the perfection of "discipline" (Pali sīla; Skt. śīla). Some of the Buddha's meditative techniques were shared with other traditions of his day, but the idea that ethics are causally related to the attainment of "transcendent wisdom" (Pali paññā; Skt. prajñā) was original.[web 18]

The Buddhist texts are probably the earliest describing meditation techniques.[77] They describe meditative practices and states that existed before the Buddha as well as those first developed within Buddhism.[78] Two Upanishads written after the rise of Buddhism do contain full-fledged descriptions of yoga as a means to liberation.[79]

While there is no convincing evidence for meditation in pre-Buddhist early Brahminic texts, Wynne argues that formless meditation originated in the Brahminic or Shramanic tradition, based on strong parallels between Upanishadic cosmological statements and the meditative goals of the two teachers of the Buddha as recorded in the early Buddhist texts.[80] He mentions less likely possibilities as well.[81] Having argued that the cosmological statements in the Upanishads also reflect a contemplative tradition, he argues that the Nasadiya Sukta contains evidence for a contemplative tradition, even as early as the late Rig Vedic period.[80]

Refuge in the Three Jewels

stone footprint Gautama Buddha with Dharmachakra and Three Jewels
Relic depicting footprint of the Buddha with Dharmachakra and triratna, 1st century CE, Gandhāra.
Main articles: Refuge (Buddhism) and Three Jewels

Traditionally, the first step in most Buddhist schools requires taking refuge in the Three Jewels (Sanskrit: tri-ratna, Pāli: ti-ratana)[web 19] as the foundation of one's religious practice. The practice of taking refuge on behalf of young or even unborn children is mentioned[82] in the Majjhima Nikaya, recognized by most scholars as an early text (cf. Infant baptism). Tibetan Buddhism sometimes adds a fourth refuge, in the lama. In Mahayana, the person who chooses the bodhisattva path makes a vow or pledge, considered the ultimate expression of compassion. In Mahayana, too, the Three Jewels are perceived as possessed of an eternal and unchanging essence and as having an irreversible effect: "The Three Jewels have the quality of excellence. Just as real jewels never change their faculty and goodness, whether praised or reviled, so are the Three Jewels (Refuges), because they have an eternal and immutable essence. These Three Jewels bring a fruition that is changeless, for once one has reached Buddhahood, there is no possibility of falling back to suffering.[83]

The Three Jewels are:

  • The Buddha. This is a title for those who have attained Nirvana. See also the Tathāgata and Gautama Buddha. The Buddha could also be represented as a concept instead of a specific person: the perfect wisdom that understands Dharma and sees reality in its true form. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha can be viewed as the supreme Refuge: "Buddha is the Unique Absolute Refuge. Buddha is the Imperishable, Eternal, Indestructible and Absolute Refuge."[84]
  • The Dharma. The teachings or law of nature as expounded by the Gautama Buddha. It can also, especially in Mahayana, connote the ultimate and sustaining Reality that is inseparable from the Buddha. Further, from some Mahayana perspectives, the Dharma embodied in the form of a great sutra (Buddhic scripture) can replace the need for a personal teacher and can be a direct and spontaneous gateway into Truth (Dharma). This is especially said to be the case with the Lotus Sutra. Hiroshi Kanno writes of this view of the Lotus Sutra: "it is a Dharma-gate of sudden enlightenment proper to the Great Vehicle; it is a Dharma-gate whereby one awakens spontaneously, without resorting to a teacher".[85]
  • The Sangha. Those who have attained any of the Four stages of enlightenment, or simply the congregation of monastic practitioners. The monks' order, which began during the lifetime of the Buddha, is among the oldest organizations on Earth.

Pali texts employ the Brahmanical motif of the triple refuge, found in Rig Veda 9.97.47, Rig Veda 6.46.9 and Chandogya Upanishad 2.22.3-4[86]

Buddhist ethics

Main article: Śīla
stone statue of Gautama Buddha, 1st century CE, Gandhara
Statue of Gautama Buddha, 1st century CE, Gandhara, present-day Pakistan. (Musée Guimet)

Śīla (Sanskrit) or sīla (Pāli) is usually translated into English as "virtuous behavior", "morality", "moral discipline", "ethics" or "precept". It is an action committed through the body, speech, or mind, and involves an intentional effort. It is one of the three practices (sīla, samādhi, and paññā) and the second pāramitā. It refers to moral purity of thought, word, and deed. The four conditions of śīla are chastity, calmness, quiet, and extinguishment.

Śīla is the foundation of Samādhi/Bhāvana (Meditative cultivation) or mind cultivation. Keeping the precepts promotes not only the peace of mind of the cultivator, which is internal, but also peace in the community, which is external. According to the Law of Karma, keeping the precepts is meritorious and it acts as causes that would bring about peaceful and happy effects. Keeping these precepts keeps the cultivator from rebirth in the four woeful realms of existence.

Śīla refers to overall principles of ethical behavior. There are several levels of sīla, which correspond to "basic morality" (five precepts), "basic morality with asceticism" (eight precepts), "novice monkhood" (ten precepts) and "monkhood" (Vinaya or Patimokkha). Lay people generally undertake to live by the five precepts, which are common to all Buddhist schools. If they wish, they can choose to undertake the eight precepts, which add basic asceticism.

The five precepts are training rules in order to live a better life in which one is happy, without worries, and can meditate well:

  1. To refrain from taking life (non-violence towards sentient life forms), or ahimsā;
  2. To refrain from taking that which is not given (not committing theft);
  3. To refrain from sensual (including sexual) misconduct;
  4. To refrain from lying (speaking truth always);
  5. To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness (specifically, drugs and alcohol).

The precepts are not formulated as imperatives, but as training rules that laypeople undertake voluntarily to facilitate practice.[87] In Buddhist thought, the cultivation of dana and ethical conduct themselves refine consciousness to such a level that rebirth in one of the lower heavens is likely, even if there is no further Buddhist practice. There is nothing improper or un-Buddhist about limiting one's aims to this level of attainment.[88]

In the eight precepts, the third precept on sexual misconduct is made more strict, and becomes a precept of celibacy. The three additional precepts are:

6. To refrain from eating at the wrong time (eat only from sunrise to noon);
7. To refrain from dancing and playing music, wearing jewelry and cosmetics, attending shows and other performances;
8. To refrain from using high or luxurious seats and bedding.

The complete list of ten precepts may be observed by laypeople for short periods. For the complete list, the seventh precept is partitioned into two, and a tenth added:

6. To refrain from taking food at an unseasonable time, that is after the mid-day meal;
7. To refrain from dancing, music, singing and unseemly shows;
8. To refrain from the use of garlands, perfumes, ointments, and from things that tend to beautify and adorn (the person);
9. To refrain from (using) high and luxurious seats (and beds);
10. To refrain from accepting gold and silver;[89]

Monastic life

Buddhist monks in saffron robes standing performing a ceremony in Hangzhou, China
Buddhist monks performing a ceremony in Hangzhou, China

Vinaya is the specific moral code for monks and nuns. It includes the Patimokkha, a set of 227 rules for monks in the Theravadin recension. The precise content of the vinayapitaka (scriptures on Vinaya) differs slightly according to different schools, and different schools or subschools set different standards for the degree of adherence to Vinaya. Novice-monks use the ten precepts, which are the basic precepts for monastics.

Regarding the monastic rules, the Buddha constantly reminds his hearers that it is the spirit that counts. On the other hand, the rules themselves are designed to assure a satisfying life, and provide a perfect springboard for the higher attainments. Monastics are instructed by the Buddha to live as "islands unto themselves". In this sense, living life as the vinaya prescribes it is, as one scholar puts it: "more than merely a means to an end: it is very nearly the end in itself."[90]

In Eastern Buddhism, there is also a distinctive Vinaya and ethics contained within the Mahayana Brahmajala Sutra (not to be confused with the Pali text of that name) for Bodhisattvas, where, for example, the eating of meat is frowned upon and vegetarianism is actively encouraged (see vegetarianism in Buddhism). In Japan, this has almost completely displaced the monastic vinaya, and allows clergy to marry.


Buddhist monks in saffron robes kneeling in Thailand
Buddhist monks in Thailand
Main article: Buddhist meditation

Buddhist meditation is fundamentally concerned with two themes: transforming the mind and using it to explore itself and other phenomena.[91] According to Theravada Buddhism the Buddha taught two types of meditation, samatha meditation (Sanskrit: śamatha) and vipassanā meditation (Sanskrit: vipaśyanā). In Chinese Buddhism, these exist (translated chih kuan), but Chán (Zen) meditation is more popular.[92] According to Peter Harvey, whenever Buddhism has been healthy, not only monks, nuns, and married lamas, but also more committed lay people have practiced meditation.[93] According to Routledge's Encyclopedia of Buddhism, in contrast, throughout most of Buddhist history before modern times, serious meditation by lay people has been unusual.[94] The evidence of the early texts suggests that at the time of the Buddha, many male and female lay practitioners did practice meditation, some even to the point of proficiency in all eight jhānas (see the next section regarding these).[note 12]

Samādhi (meditative cultivation): samatha meditation

stone Samadhi Buddha statue in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
Samadhi Buddha statue in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

In the language of the Noble Eightfold Path, samyaksamādhi is "right concentration". The primary means of cultivating samādhi is meditation. Upon development of samādhi, one's mind becomes purified of defilement, calm, tranquil, and luminous.

Once the meditator achieves a strong and powerful concentration (jhāna, Sanskrit ध्यान dhyāna), his mind is ready to penetrate and gain insight (vipassanā) into the ultimate nature of reality, eventually obtaining release from all suffering. The cultivation of mindfulness is essential to mental concentration, which is needed to achieve insight.

Samatha meditation starts from being mindful of an object or idea, which is expanded to one's body, mind and entire surroundings, leading to a state of total concentration and tranquility (jhāna). There are many variations in the style of meditation, from sitting cross-legged or kneeling to chanting or walking. The most common method of meditation is to concentrate on one's breath (anapanasati), because this practice can lead to both samatha and vipassana'.

In Buddhist practice, it is said that while samatha meditation can calm the mind, only vipassanā meditation can reveal how the mind was disturbed to start with, which is what leads to insight knowledge (jñāna; Pāli ñāṇa) and understanding (prajñā Pāli paññā), and thus can lead to nirvāṇa (Pāli nibbāna). When one is in jhana, all defilements are suppressed temporarily. Only understanding (prajñā or vipassana) eradicates the defilements completely. Jhanas are also states that Arahants abide in order to rest.

In Theravāda
Main article: Jhāna in Theravada
A young monk in saffron robes standing in Sri Lanka temple
A young monk in Sri Lanka

In Theravāda Buddhism, the cause of human existence and suffering is identified as craving, which carries with it the various defilements. These various defilements are traditionally summed up as greed, hatred and delusion. These are believed deeply rooted afflictions of the mind that create suffering and stress. To be free from suffering and stress, these defilements must be permanently uprooted through internal investigation, analyzing, experiencing, and understanding of the true nature of those defilements by using jhāna, a technique of the Noble Eightfold Path. It then leads the meditator to realize the Four Noble Truths, Enlightenment and Nibbāna. Nibbāna is the ultimate goal of Theravadins.

Prajñā (Wisdom): vipassana meditation

Main articles: Prajñā and Vipassana

Prajñā (Sanskrit) or paññā (Pāli) means wisdom that is based on a realization of dependent origination, The Four Noble Truths and the three marks of existence. Prajñā is the wisdom that is able to extinguish afflictions and bring about bodhi. It is spoken of as the principal means of attaining nirvāṇa, through its revelation of the true nature of all things as dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), anicca (impermanence) and anatta (not-self). Prajñā is also listed as the sixth of the six pāramitās of the Mahayana.

Initially, prajñā is attained at a conceptual level by means of listening to sermons (dharma talks), reading, studying, and sometimes reciting Buddhist texts and engaging in discourse. Once the conceptual understanding is attained, it is applied to daily life so that each Buddhist can verify the truth of the Buddha's teaching at a practical level. Notably, one could in theory attain Nirvana at any point of practice, whether deep in meditation, listening to a sermon, conducting the business of one's daily life, or any other activity.


Main article: Zen
Ginkaku-ji, a Zen temple in Kyoto, Japan with stone slab bridge over stream
Ginkaku-ji, a Zen temple in Kyoto, Japan

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 Buddhism that became popular in China, Korea and Japan and that lays special emphasis on meditation.[note 13] Zen places less emphasis on scriptures than some other forms of Buddhism and prefers to focus on direct spiritual breakthroughs to truth.

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".[note 14]

Zen Buddhist teaching is often full of paradox, in order to loosen the grip of the ego and to facilitate the penetration into the realm of the True Self or Formless Self, which is equated with the Buddha himself.[note 15] According to Zen master Kosho Uchiyama, when thoughts and fixation on the little "I" are transcended, an Awakening to a universal, non-dual Self occurs: "When we let go of thoughts and wake up to the reality of life that is working beyond them, we discover the Self that is living universal non-dual life (before the separation into two) that pervades all living creatures and all existence."[99] Thinking and thought must therefore not be allowed to confine and bind one.[100]

Vajrayana and Tantra

Though based upon Mahayana, Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhism is one of the schools that practice Vajrayana or "Diamond Vehicle" (also referred to as Mantrayāna, Tantrayāna, Tantric Buddhism, or esoteric Buddhism). It accepts all the basic concepts of Mahāyāna, but also includes a vast array of spiritual and physical techniques designed to enhance Buddhist practice. Tantric Buddhism is largely concerned with ritual and meditative practices.[101] One component of the Vajrayāna is harnessing psycho-physical energy through ritual, visualization, physical exercises, and meditation as a means of developing the mind. Using these techniques, it is claimed that a practitioner can achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime, or even as little as three years. In the Tibetan tradition, these practices can include sexual yoga, though only for some very advanced practitioners.[102]


Main article: History of Buddhism

Philosophical roots

people sitting before stone shrine the Buddhist "Carpenter's Cave" at Ellora in Maharashtra, India
The Buddhist "Carpenter's Cave" at Ellora in Maharashtra, India

Historically, the roots of Buddhism lie in the religious thought of ancient India during the second half of the first millennium BCE.[103] That was a period of social and religious turmoil, as there was significant discontent with the sacrifices and rituals of Vedic Brahmanism.[note 16] It was challenged by numerous new ascetic religious and philosophical groups and teachings that broke with the Brahmanic tradition and rejected the authority of the Vedas and the Brahmans.[note 17][104] These groups, whose members were known as shramanas, were a continuation of a non-Vedic strand of Indian thought distinct from Indo-Aryan Brahmanism.[note 18] Scholars have reasons to believe that ideas such as samsara, karma (in the sense of the influence of morality on rebirth), and moksha originated in the shramanas, and were later adopted by Brahmin orthodoxy.[note 19][note 20][note 21][note 22][note 23][note 24]

stone ruin on hilltop with pond and water lily and mountains in backround
A ruined Buddhist temple on Gurubhakthula Konda (konda meaning "hill" in Telugu) in Ramatheertham village in Vizianagaram, a district of Andhra Pradesh, India

This view is supported by a study of the region where these notions originated. Buddhism arose in Greater Magadha, which stretched from Sravasti, the capital of Kosala in the north-west, to Rajagrha in the south east. This land, to the east of aryavarta, the land of the Aryas, was recognized as non-Vedic.[112] Other Vedic texts reveal a dislike of the people of Magadha, in all probability because the Magadhas at this time were not Brahmanised.[113][page needed] It was not until the 2nd or 3rd centuries BCE that the eastward spread of Brahmanism into Greater Magadha became significant. Ideas that developed in Greater Magadha prior to this were not subject to Vedic influence. These include rebirth and karmic retribution that appear in a number of movements in Greater Magadha, including Buddhism. These movements inherited notions of rebirth and karmic retribution from an earlier culture[114][page needed]

Rock-cut Lord Buddha statue at Bojjanakonda near Anakapalle India
Rock-cut Lord Buddha statue at Bojjanakonda near Anakapalle in the Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh, India

At the same time, these movements were influenced by, and in some respects continued, philosophical thought within the Vedic tradition as reflected e.g. in the Upanishads.[115] These movements included, besides Buddhism, various skeptics (such as Sanjaya Belatthiputta), atomists (such as Pakudha Kaccayana), materialists (such as Ajita Kesakambali), antinomians (such as Purana Kassapa); the most important ones in the 5th century BCE were the Ajivikas, who emphasized the rule of fate, the Lokayata (materialists), the Ajnanas (agnostics) and the Jains, who stressed that the soul must be freed from matter.[116] Many of these new movements shared the same conceptual vocabulary—atman ("Self"), buddha ("awakened one"), dhamma ("rule" or "law"), karma ("action"), nirvana ("extinguishing"), samsara ("eternal recurrence") and yoga ("spiritual practice").[note 25] The shramanas rejected the Veda, and the authority of the brahmans, who claimed they possessed revealed truths not knowable by any ordinary human means. Moreover, they declared that the entire Brahmanical system was fraudulent: a conspiracy of the brahmans to enrich themselves by charging exorbitant fees to perform bogus rites and give useless advice.[117]

Earliest teachings

Tracing the oldest teachings

Information of the oldest teachings may be obtained by analysis of the oldest texts. One method to obtain information on the oldest core of Buddhism is to compare the oldest extant versions of the Theravadin Pali Canon and other texts.[note 26] The reliability of these sources, and the possibility to draw out a core of oldest teachings, is a matter of dispute.[120][page needed][121][page needed][122][page needed][60][page needed] According to Vetter, inconsistencies remain, and other methods must be applied to resolve those inconsistencies.[118][note 27]

According to Schmithausen, three positions held by scholars of Buddhism can be distinguished:[126]

  1. "Stress on the fundamental homogeneity and substantial authenticity of at least a considerable part of the Nikayic materials;"[note 28]
  2. "Scepticism with regard to the possibility of retrieving the doctrine of earliest Buddhism;"[note 29]
  3. "Cautious optimism in this respect."[note 30]

Dhyana and insight

A core problem in the study of early Buddhism is the relation between dhyana and insight.[121][120][60] Schmithausen, in his often-cited article On some Aspects of Descriptions or Theories of 'Liberating Insight' and 'Enlightenment' in Early Buddhism notes that the mention of the four noble truths as constituting "liberating insight", which is attained after mastering the Rupa Jhanas, is a later addition to texts such as Majjhima Nikaya 36.[123][page needed]

Core teachings

Bruce Matthews notes that there is no cohesive presentation of karma in the Sutta Pitaka,[133] which may mean that the doctrine was incidental to the main perspective of early Buddhist soteriology.[133] Schmithausen is a notable scholar who has questioned whether karma already played a role in the theory of rebirth of earliest Buddhism.[134][page needed][135][note 31] According to Vetter, "the Buddha at first sought "the deathless" (amata/amrta), which is concerned with the here and now. According to Vetter, only after this realization did he become acquainted with the doctrine of rebirth."[137] Bronkhorst disagrees, and concludes that the Buddha "introduced a concept of karma that differed considerably from the commonly held views of his time."[138] According to Bronkhorst, not physical and mental activities as such were seen as responsible for rebirth, but intentions and desire.[139]

According to Tilmann Vetter, the core of earliest Buddhism is the practice of dhyāna.[121] Bronkhorst agrees that dhyana was a Buddhist invention,[120] whereas Norman notes that "the Buddha's way to release [...] was by means of meditative practices."[140] Discriminating insight into transiency as a separate path to liberation was a later development.[141][142]

According to the Mahāsaccakasutta,[note 32] from the fourth jhana the Buddha gained bodhi. Yet, it is not clear what he was awakened to.[140][120][page needed] "Liberating insight" is a later addition to this text, and reflects a later development and understanding in early Buddhism.[123][page needed][120][page needed] The mentioning of the four truths as constituting "liberating insight" introduces a logical problem, since the four truths depict a linear path of practice, the knowledge of which is in itself not depicted as being liberating.[143][note 33]

Although "Nibbāna" (Sanskrit: Nirvāna) is the common term for the desired goal of this practice, many other terms can be found throughout the Nikayas, which are not specified.[144][note 34]

According to Vetter, the description of the Buddhist path may initially have been as simple as the term "the middle way".[121] In time, this short description was elaborated, resulting in the description of the eightfold path.[121]

According to both Bronkhorst and Anderson, the four truths became a substitution for prajna, or "liberating insight", in the suttas[145][146] in those texts where "liberating insight" was preceded by the four jhanas.[147] According to Bronkhorst, the four truths may not have been formulated in earliest Buddhism, and did not serve in earliest Buddhism as a description of "liberating insight".[148] Gotama's teachings may have been personal, "adjusted to the need of each person."[147]

The three marks of existence 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.[149]

The Brahma-vihara was in origin probably a brahmanical term;[150] but its usage may have been common to the shramanic traditions.[120]

Indian Buddhism

The history of Indian Buddhism may be divided into five periods:[151] Early Buddhism (occasionally called Pre-sectarian Buddhism), Nikaya Buddhism or Sectarian Buddhism: The period of the Early Buddhist schools, Early Mahayana Buddhism, Later Mahayana Buddhism, and Esoteric Buddhism (also called Vajrayana Buddhism).

Pre-sectarian Buddhism

Pre-sectarian Buddhism is the earliest phase of Buddhism, recognized by nearly all scholars. Its main scriptures are the Vinaya Pitaka and the four principal Nikayas or Agamas. Certain basic teachings appear in many places throughout the early texts, so most scholars conclude that Gautama Buddha must have taught something similar to the Three marks of existence, the Five Aggregates, dependent origination, karma and rebirth, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and nirvana.[152] Some scholars disagree, and have proposed many other theories.[153][154][155]

Early Buddhist schools

According to the scriptures, soon after the parinirvāṇa (from Sanskrit: "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. In the first council, Ānanda, a cousin of the Buddha and his personal attendant, was called upon to recite the discourses (sūtras, Pāli suttas) of the Buddha, and, according to some sources, the abhidhamma. Upāli, another disciple, recited the monastic rules (vinaya). Most scholars regard the traditional accounts of the council as greatly exaggerated if not entirely fictitious.[note 35]Richard Gombrich noted Sariputta led communal recitations of the Buddha's teaching for preservation in the Buddha's lifetime in Sangiti Sutta (Digha Nikaya #33), and something similar to the First Council must have taken place to compose Buddhist scriptures.[156]

According to most scholars, at some period after the Second Council the Sangha began to break into separate factions.[note 36] The various accounts differ as to when the actual schisms occurred. According to the Dipavamsa of the Pāli tradition, they started immediately after the Second Council, the Puggalavada tradition places it in 137 AN, the Sarvastivada tradition of Vasumitra says it was in the time of Ashoka and the Mahasanghika tradition places it much later, nearly 100 BCE.

The root schism was between the Sthaviras and the Mahāsāṅghikas. The fortunate survival of accounts from both sides of the dispute reveals disparate traditions. The Sthavira group offers two quite distinct reasons for the schism. The Dipavamsa of the Theravāda says that the losing party in the Second Council dispute broke away in protest and formed the Mahasanghika. This contradicts the Mahasanghikas' own vinaya, which shows them as on the same, winning side. The Mahāsāṅghikas argued that the Sthaviras were trying to expand the vinaya and may also have challenged what they perceived were excessive claims or inhumanly high criteria for arhatship. Both parties, therefore, appealed to tradition.[157]

The Sthaviras gave rise to several schools, one of which was the Theravāda school. Originally, these schisms were caused by disputes over vinaya, and monks following different schools of thought seem to have lived happily together in the same monasteries, but eventually, by about 100 CE if not earlier, schisms were being caused by doctrinal disagreements too.[158]

Following (or leading up to) the schisms, each Saṅgha started to accumulate an Abhidharma, a detailed scholastic reworking of doctrinal material appearing in the Suttas, according to schematic classifications. These Abhidharma texts do not contain systematic philosophical treatises, but summaries or numerical lists. Scholars generally date these texts to around the 3rd century BCE, 100 to 200 years after the death of the Buddha. Therefore the seven Abhidharma works are generally claimed not to represent the words of the Buddha himself, but those of disciples and great scholars.[note 37] Every school had its own version of the Abhidharma, with different theories and different texts. The different Abhidharmas of the various schools did not agree with each other. Scholars disagree on whether the Mahasanghika school had an Abhidhamma Pitaka or not.[note 37][159]

Early Mahayana Buddhism

Main article: Mahāyāna
stone statue group, a Buddhist triad depicting, left to right, a Kushan, the future buddha Maitreya, Gautama Buddha, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, and a Buddhist monk. 2nd—3rd century. Guimet Museum
A Buddhist triad depicting, left to right, a Kushan, the future buddha Maitreya, Gautama Buddha, the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, and a Buddhist monk. 2nd—3rd century. Musée Guimet

Several scholars have suggested that the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, which are among the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras,[160][161] developed among the Mahāsāṃghika along the Kṛṣṇa River in the Āndhra region of South India.[162]

The earliest Mahāyāna sūtras to include the very first versions of the Prajñāpāramitā genre, along with texts concerning Akṣobhya Buddha, which were probably written down in the 1st century BCE in the south of India.[163][164] Guang Xing states, "Several scholars have suggested that the Prajñāpāramitā probably developed among the Mahāsāṃghikas in southern India, in the Āndhra country, on the Kṛṣṇa River."[165] A.K. Warder believes that "the Mahāyāna originated in the south of India and almost certainly in the Āndhra country."[166]

Anthony Barber and Sree Padma note that "historians of Buddhist thought have been aware for quite some time that such pivotally important Mahayana Buddhist thinkers as Nāgārjuna, Dignaga, Candrakīrti, Āryadeva, and Bhavaviveka, among many others, formulated their theories while living in Buddhist communities in Āndhra."[167] They note that the ancient Buddhist sites in the lower Kṛṣṇa Valley, including Amaravati, Nāgārjunakoṇḍā and Jaggayyapeṭa "can be traced to at least the third century BCE, if not earlier."[168] Akira Hirakawa notes the "evidence suggests that many Early Mahayana scriptures originated in South India."[169]

There is no evidence that Mahāyāna 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.[170] Initially it was known as Bodhisattvayāna (the "Vehicle of the Bodhisattvas").[171] Paul Williams has also noted that the Mahāyāna never had nor ever attempted to have a separate Vinaya or ordination lineage from the early schools of Buddhism, and therefore each bhikṣu or bhikṣuṇī adhering to the Mahāyāna formally belonged to an early school. This continues today with the Dharmaguptaka ordination lineage in East Asia, and the Mūlasarvāstivāda ordination lineage in Tibetan Buddhism. Therefore Mahāyāna was never a separate rival sect of the early schools.[172] From Chinese monks visiting India, we now know that both Mahāyāna and non-Mahāyāna monks in India often lived in the same monasteries side by side.[173]

Large empty outline of a person in a rock cliff showing Bamiyan before and after destruction
Buddhas of Bamiyan: Vairocana before and after destruction by the Taliban in 2001

The Chinese monk Yijing who visited India in the 7th century CE, distinguishes Mahāyāna from Hīnayāna as follows:[174]

Both adopt one and the same Vinaya, and they have in common the prohibitions of the five offences, and also the practice of the Four Noble Truths. Those who venerate the bodhisattvas and read the Mahāyāna sūtras are called the Mahāyānists, while those who do not perform these are called the Hīnayānists.

Much of the early extant evidence for the origins of Mahāyāna comes from early Chinese translations of Mahāyāna texts. These Mahāyāna teachings were first propagated into China by Lokakṣema, the first translator of Mahāyāna sūtras into Chinese during the 2nd century CE.[note 38] Some scholars have traditionally considered the earliest Mahāyāna sūtras to include the very first versions of the Prajñāpāramitā series, along with texts concerning Akṣobhya Buddha, which were probably composed in the 1st century BCE in the south of India.[176][note 39]

Late Mahayana Buddhism

During the period of Late Mahayana Buddhism, four major types of thought developed: Madhyamaka, Yogacara, Tathagatagarbha, and Buddhist Logic as the last and most recent.[178] In India, the two main philosophical schools of the Mahayana were the Madhyamaka and the later Yogacara.[179] According to Dan Lusthaus, Madhyamaka and Yogacara have a great deal in common, and the commonality stems from early Buddhism.[180] There were no great Indian teachers associated with tathagatagarbha thought.[181]

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:[182]

  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.

Development of Buddhism

Main article: Timeline of Buddhism
map showing diffusion of Buddhism at the time of emperor Ashoka from India
Buddhist proselytism at the time of emperor Ashoka (260–218 BCE).

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 efforts to spread Buddhism throughout the enlarged Maurya empire and even into neighboring lands—particularly to the Iranian-speaking regions of Afghanistan and Central Asia, beyond the Mauryas' northwest border, and to the island of Sri Lanka south of India. These two missions, in opposite directions, would ultimately lead, in the first case to the spread of Buddhism into China, and in the second case, to the emergence of Theravāda Buddhism and its spread from Sri Lanka to the coastal lands 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 neighboring 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.[183]

Coin depicting Indo-Greek king Menander facing right with headband
Coin depicting Indo-Greek king Menander, who, according to Buddhist tradition records in the Milinda Panha, converted to the Buddhist faith and became an arhat in the 2nd century BCE . (British Museum)

The gradual spread of Buddhism into adjacent areas meant that it came into contact with new ethnical groups. During this period Buddhism was exposed to a variety of influences, from Persian and Greek civilization, to changing trends in non-Buddhist Indian religions—themselves influenced by Buddhism. Striking examples of this syncretistic development can be seen in the emergence of Greek-speaking Buddhist monarchs in the Indo-Greek Kingdom, and in the development of the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhāra. A Greek king, Menander, has even been immortalized in the Buddhist canon.

The Theravada school spread south from India in the 3rd century BCE, to Sri Lanka and Thailand and Burma and later also Indonesia. The Dharmagupta school spread (also in 3rd century BCE) north to Kashmir, Gandhara and Bactria (Afghanistan).

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.[184][note 40] 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.[186]

In the 2nd century CE, Mahayana Sutras spread to China, and then to Korea and Japan, and were translated into Chinese. During the Indian period of Esoteric Buddhism (from the 8th century onwards), Buddhism spread from India to Tibet and Mongolia.

Buddhism today

Buddhist monk in Siberia in robes leaning on railing looking at temple
Buryat Buddhist monk in Siberia

By the late Middle Ages, Buddhism had become virtually extinct in India, although it continued to exist in surrounding countries. It is now again gaining strength worldwide.[187][188] China and India are now starting to fund Buddhist shrines in various Asian countries as they compete for influence in the region.[web 20]

Most Buddhist groups in the West are nominally affiliated with at least one of these three traditions:

Formal membership varies between communities, but basic lay adherence is often defined in terms of a traditional formula in which the practitioner takes refuge in The Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), and the Sangha (the Buddhist community). At the present time, the teachings of all three branches of Buddhism have spread throughout the world, and Buddhist texts are increasingly translated into local languages. While in the West Buddhism is often seen as exotic and progressive, in the East it is regarded as familiar and traditional. Buddhists in Asia are frequently well organized and well funded. In countries such as Cambodia and Bhutan, it is recognized as the state religion and receives government support. Modern influences increasingly lead to new forms of Buddhism that significantly depart from traditional beliefs and practices.

color map showing Buddhism is a major religion in Tibet, China, and Indochina
Map showing regions where Buddhism is a major religion

Overall there is an overwhelming diversity of recent forms of Buddhism.[note 41]

Late 20th century Buddhist movements

A number of modern movements or tendencies in Buddhism emerged during the second half of the 20th Century, including the Dalit Buddhist movement[189][190] (also sometimes called 'neo-Buddhism'), Engaged Buddhism, and the further development of various Western Buddhist traditions.

In the second half of the 20th Century a modern movement in Nichiren Buddhism: Soka Gakkai (Value Creation Society) emerged in Japan and spread further to other countries. Soka Gakkai International (SGI) is a lay Buddhist movement linking more than 12 million people around the world, and is currently described as "the most diverse"[191] and "the largest lay Buddhist movement in the world".[web 21]


Main article: Buddhism by country
purple Percentage of Buddhists by country, showing high in Burma to low in United States
Percentage of Buddhists by country, according to the Pew Research Center, as of 2010.

Buddhism is practiced by an estimated 488 million,[web 1] 495 million,[192] or 535 million[24] 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 18.2% of its total population.[web 1] They are mostly followers of Chinese schools of Mahayana, making this the largest body of Buddhist traditions. Mahayana, also practiced in broader East Asia, is followed by over half of world Buddhists.[web 1]

According to a demographic analysis reported by Peter Harvey (2013):[24] Mahayana has 360 million adherents; Theravada has 150 million adherents; and Vajrayana has 18,2 million adherents. Seven million additional Buddhists are found outside of Asia.

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.[192] According to them, there was a fast annual growth of Buddhism in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and several Western European countries (1910–2010). More recently (2000–2010), the countries with highest growth rates are Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and some African countries.[193]

There are 10 countries with the highest Buddhist majority:

Buddhism by percentage as of 2010[194]
Country Estimated Buddhist population Buddhists as % of total population
 Cambodia 13,701,660 96.90%
 Thailand 64,419,840 93.20%
 Burma 38,415,960 80.10%
 Bhutan 563,000 74.70%
 Sri Lanka 14,455,980 69.30%
 Laos 4,092,000 66.00%
 Mongolia 1,520,760 55.10%
 Japan 45,807,480 or 84,653,000 36.20% or 67%[195]
 Singapore 1,725,510 33.90%
 Taiwan 4,945,600 or 8,000,000 21.10% or 35%[196]

Schools and traditions

Main articles: Schools of Buddhism and Buddhahood

Buddhists generally classify themselves as either Theravada or Mahayana.[197] This classification is also used by some scholars[198] and is the one ordinarily used in the English language.[web 22] An alternative scheme used by some scholars[note 42] divides Buddhism into the following three traditions or geographical or cultural areas: Theravada, East Asian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.

monks in orange robes on stone steps in Cambodia
Young monks in Cambodia

Some scholars[note 43] use other schemes. Buddhists themselves have a variety of other schemes. Hinayana (literally "lesser vehicle") is used by Mahayana followers to name the family of early philosophical schools and traditions from which contemporary Theravada emerged, but as this term is rooted in the Mahayana viewpoint and can be considered derogatory, a variety of other terms are increasingly used instead, including Śrāvakayāna, Nikaya Buddhism, early Buddhist schools, sectarian Buddhism, conservative Buddhism, mainstream Buddhism and non-Mahayana 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. For example, according to one Buddhist ecumenical organization,[web 23] several concepts common to both major Buddhist branches:


This is a rough timeline of the development of the different schools/traditions:

Timeline: Development and propagation of Buddhist traditions (ca. 450 BCE – ca. 1300 CE)

  450 BCE[note 44] 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE[note 45]







Early Buddhist schools Mahāyāna Vajrayāna






Sri Lanka &
Southeast Asia










Tibetan Buddhism








East Asia


Early Buddhist schools
and Mahāyāna
(via the silk road
to China, and ocean
contact from India to Vietnam)


Nara (Rokushū)




Thiền, Seon
Tiantai / Jìngtǔ









Central Asia & Tarim Basin





Silk Road Buddhism


  450 BCE 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE
  Legend:   = Theravada   = Mahayana   = Vajrayana   = Various / syncretic

Theravada school

Main article: Theravada

The name Theravāda comes from the Sthaviras, from which the Theravadins claim descent. 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.[200] 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 sect.[201] Sinhalese Buddhist reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries portrayed the Pali Canon as the original version of scripture.[202] They also emphasized Theravada being rational and scientific.[202]

Theravāda is primarily practiced 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.

Theravadin Buddhists believe that personal effort is required to realize rebirth. Monks follow the vinaya: meditating, teaching and serving their lay communities. Laypersons can perform good actions, producing merit.[203]

Mahayana traditions

Main article: Mahayana
9th–10th century painting of Central Asian monks. Bezeklik, Eastern Tarim Basin
Chinese and Central Asian monks. Bezeklik, Eastern Tarim Basin, China, 9th–10th century. (National Institute of Informatics and the Tōyō Bunko)

Mahayana Buddhism flourished in India from the 5th century CE onwards, during the dynasty of the Guptas. Mahāyāna centres of learning were established, the most important one being the Nālandā University in north-eastern India.

Mahayana schools recognize all or part of the Mahayana Sutras. Some of these sutras became for Mahayanists a manifestation of the Buddha himself, and faith in and veneration of those texts are stated in some sutras (e.g. the Lotus Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra) to lay the foundations for the later attainment of Buddhahood itself.

monk in brown robes with conical hat kneeling by alms bowl
Japanese Mahayana Buddhist monk with alms bowl

Native Mahayana Buddhism is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, parts of Russia and most of Vietnam (also commonly referred to as "Eastern Buddhism"). The Buddhism practiced in Tibet, the Himalayan regions, and Mongolia is also Mahayana in origin, but is discussed below under the heading of Vajrayana (also commonly referred to as "Northern Buddhism"). There are a variety of strands in Eastern Buddhism, of which "the Pure Land school of Mahayana is the most widely practised today.".[204] In most of this area however, they are fused into a single unified form of Buddhism. 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.[205]

Vajrayana traditions

Main article: Vajrayana

Various classes of Vajrayana literature developed as a result of royal courts sponsoring both Buddhism and Saivism.[206] 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.[207] 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.[208] 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.[209]

Buddhist texts

Buddhist monk Geshe Konchog Wangdu in red robe reads Mahayana sutras on stand
Buddhist monk Geshe Konchog Wangdu reads Mahayana sutras from an old woodblock copy of the Tibetan Kanjur.
Main article: Buddhist texts

Buddhist scriptures and other texts exist in great variety. Different schools of Buddhism place varying levels of value on learning the various texts. Some schools venerate certain texts as religious objects in themselves, while others take a more scholastic approach. Buddhist scriptures are mainly written in Pāli, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese. Some texts still exist in Sanskrit and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

Unlike many religions, Buddhism has no single central text that is universally referred to by all traditions. However, some scholars have referred to the Vinaya Pitaka and the first four Nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka as the common core of all Buddhist traditions.[210][page needed] This could be considered misleading, as Mahāyāna considers these merely a preliminary, and not a core, teaching. The Tibetan Buddhists have not even translated most of the āgamas (though theoretically they recognize them) and they play no part in the religious life of either clergy or laity in China and Japan.[211] Other scholars say there is no universally accepted common core.[212] The size and complexity of the Buddhist canons have been seen by some (including Buddhist social reformer Babasaheb Ambedkar) as presenting barriers to the wider understanding of Buddhist philosophy.

The followers of Theravāda Buddhism take the scriptures known as the Pāli Canon as definitive and authoritative, while the followers of Mahāyāna Buddhism base their faith and philosophy primarily on the Mahāyāna sūtras and their own vinaya. The Pāli sutras, along with other, closely related scriptures, are known to the other schools as the āgamas.

Over the years, various attempts have been made to synthesize a single Buddhist text that can encompass all of the major principles of Buddhism. In the Theravada tradition, condensed 'study texts' were created that combined popular or influential scriptures into single volumes that could be studied by novice monks. Later in Sri Lanka, the Dhammapada was championed as a unifying scripture.

Dwight Goddard collected a sample of Buddhist scriptures, with the emphasis on Zen, along with other classics of Eastern philosophy, such as the Tao Te Ching, into his 'Buddhist Bible' in the 1920s. More recently, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar attempted to create a single, combined document of Buddhist principles in "The Buddha and His Dhamma". Other such efforts have persisted to present day, but currently there is no single text that represents all Buddhist traditions.

Pāli Tipitaka

Main article: Pāli Canon

The Pāli Tipitaka, which means "three baskets", refers to the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The Vinaya Pitaka contains disciplinary rules for the Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as explanations of why and how these rules were instituted, supporting material, and doctrinal clarification. The Sutta Pitaka contains discourses ascribed to Gautama Buddha. The Abhidhamma Pitaka contains material often described as systematic expositions of the Gautama Buddha's teachings.

The Pāli Tipitaka is the only early Tipitaka (Sanskrit: Tripiṭaka) to survive intact in its original language, but a number of early schools had their own recensions of the Tipitaka featuring much of the same material. We have portions of the Tipitakas of the Sārvāstivāda, Dharmaguptaka, Sammitya, Mahāsaṅghika, Kāśyapīya, and Mahīśāsaka schools, most of which survive in Chinese translation only. According to some sources, some early schools of Buddhism had five or seven pitakas.[213]

According to the scriptures, soon after the death of the Buddha, the first Buddhist council was held; a monk named Mahākāśyapa (Pāli: Mahākassapa) presided. The goal of the council was to record the Buddha's teachings. Upāli recited the vinaya. Ānanda, the Buddha's personal attendant, was called upon to recite the dhamma. These became the basis of the Tripitaka. However, this record was initially transmitted orally in form of chanting, and was committed to text in the last century BCE. Both the sūtras and the vinaya of every Buddhist school contain a wide variety of elements including discourses on the Dharma, commentaries on other teachings, cosmological and cosmogonical texts, stories of the Gautama Buddha's previous lives, and various other subjects.

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."[214]

Mahayana sutras

Main article: Mahayana sutras
Tripiṭaka Koreana in South Korea, over 81,000 wood printing blocks stored in racks
The Tripiṭaka Koreana in South Korea, an edition of the Chinese Buddhist canon carved and preserved in over 81,000 wood printing blocks.

The Mahayana sutras are a very broad genre of Buddhist scriptures that the Mahayana Buddhist tradition holds are original teachings of the Buddha. Some adherents of Mahayana accept both the early teachings (including in this the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, which was criticized by Nagarjuna and is in fact opposed to early Buddhist thought)[215] and the Mahayana sutras as authentic teachings of Gautama Buddha, and claim they were designed for different types of persons and different levels of spiritual understanding.

The Mahayana sutras 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).

According to Mahayana tradition, the Mahayana sutras were transmitted in secret, came from other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, or were preserved in non-human worlds because human beings at the time could not understand them:[216]

Some of our sources maintain the authenticity of certain other texts not found in the canons of these schools (the early schools). These texts are those held genuine by the later school, not one of the eighteen, which arrogated to itself the title of Mahayana, 'Great Vehicle'. According to the Mahayana historians these texts were admittedly unknown to the early schools of Buddhists. However, they had all been promulgated by the Buddha. [The Buddha's] followers on earth, the sravakas ('pupils'), had not been sufficiently advanced to understand them, and hence were not given them to remember, but they were taught to various supernatural beings and then preserved in such places as the Dragon World.

Approximately six hundred Mahayana sutras have survived in Sanskrit or in Chinese or Tibetan translations. In addition, East Asian Buddhism recognizes some sutras regarded by scholars as of Chinese rather than Indian origin.

Generally, scholars conclude that the Mahayana scriptures were composed from the 1st century CE onwards: "Large numbers of Mahayana sutras were being composed in the period between the beginning of the common era and the fifth century",[217] five centuries after the historical Gautama Buddha. Some of these had their roots in other scriptures composed in the 1st century BCE. It was not until after the 5th century CE that the Mahayana sutras started to influence the behavior of mainstream Buddhists in India: "But outside of texts, at least in India, at exactly the same period, very different—in fact seemingly older—ideas and aspirations appear to be motivating actual behavior, and old and established Hinnayana groups appear to be the only ones that are patronized and supported."[217] These texts were apparently not universally accepted among Indian Buddhists when they appeared; the pejorative label Hinayana was applied by Mahayana supporters to those who rejected the Mahayana sutras.

Only the Theravada school does not include the Mahayana scriptures in its canon. As the modern Theravada school is descended from a branch of Buddhism that diverged and established itself in Sri Lanka prior to the emergence of the Mahayana texts, debate exists as to whether the Theravada were historically included in the hinayana designation; in the modern era, this label is seen as derogatory, and is generally avoided.

Scholar Isabelle Onians asserts that although "the Mahāyāna ... very occasionally referred contemptuously to earlier Buddhism as the Hinayāna, the Inferior Way," "the preponderance of this name in the secondary literature is far out of proportion to occurrences in the Indian texts." She notes that the term Śrāvakayāna was "the more politically correct and much more usual" term used by Mahāyānists.[218] Jonathan Silk has argued that the term "Hinayana" was used to refer to whomever one wanted to criticize on any given occasion, and did not refer to any definite grouping of Buddhists.[219]

Comparative studies

Buddhism provides many opportunities for comparative study with a diverse range of subjects. For example, Buddhism's emphasis on the Middle way not only provides a unique guideline for ethics but has also allowed Buddhism to peacefully coexist with various differing beliefs, customs and institutions in countries where it has resided throughout its history. Also, its moral and spiritual parallels with other systems of thought—for example, with various tenets of Christianity—have been subjects of close study. In addition, the Buddhist concept of dependent origination has been compared to modern scientific thought, as well as Western metaphysics.


Main article: Criticism of Buddhism

Some Marxist groups have criticized Buddhism for causing Tibet to have an undeveloped, agrarian economy.[web 24]

See also


  1. ^ "Buddhism". (2009). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved November 26, 2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition
  2. ^ There are differences of opinion on the question of whether or not Buddhism should be considered a religion. Many sources, such as Peter Harvey or Joseph Goldstein refer to Buddhism as a religion.[3][4] Other sources note that the answer to this question depends upon how religion is defined.[5][6] [7][8][11]
  3. ^ Earlier Buddhist texts refer to five realms rather than six realms; when described as five realms, the god realm and demi-god realm constitute a single realm.
  4. ^ André Bareau: the top of p. 212 says: "Here are the theses of the Theravadins of the Mahavihara"; then begins a numbered list of doctrines over the following pages, including on p. 223: "There are only five destinies ... the kalakanjika asuras have the same colour, same nourishment, same foods, same lifespan as the petas, with whom ... they marry. As for the Vepacittiparisa, they have the same colour, same nourishment, same foods, same lifespan as the gods, with whom they marry."(Translated from the French)[42]
  5. ^ See the article Four Noble Truths for further details and citations. In particular, the section "The four truths" within that article provides a footnote showing variety of translations of these four statements.
  6. ^ For clarification of translations, see Dukkha#Translating the term dukkha.
  7. ^ See the article Dukkha for further details and citations.
  8. ^ See the article Four Noble Truths for further details and citations.
  9. ^ Rahula: What the Buddha Taught, Chapter 2
  10. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu, The Not-Self Strategy, See Point 3 – The Canon quote Thanissaro Bhikkhu draws attention to is the Sabbasava Sutta.
  11. ^ This twelve nidana scheme can be found, for instance, in multiple discourses in chapter 12 of the Samyutta NikayaNidana Vagga (e.g., see SN 12.2, Thanissaro, 1997a). Other "applications" of what might be termed "mundane dependent origination" include the nine-nidana scheme of Digha Nikaya 15 (e.g., Thanissaro, 1997b) and the ten-nidana scheme of Samyutta Nikaya 12.65 (e.g., Thanissaro, 1997c). So-called "transcendental dependent origination" (also involving twelve nidanas) is described in Samyutta Nikaya 12.23 (e.g., see Bodhi, 1995). In addition, Digha Nikaya 15 describes an eleven-nidana scheme (starting with "feeling") that leads to interpersonal suffering ("the taking up of sticks and knives; conflicts, quarrels, and disputes; accusations, divisive speech, and lies")
  12. ^ Shaw also notes that discourses on meditation are addressed to "bhikkhave", but that in this context the terms is more generic than simply (male) "monks" and refers to all practitioners, and that this is confirmed by Buddhaghosa.[95]
  13. ^ According to Charles S. Prebish:[96] "Although a variety of Zen 'schools' developed in Japan, they all emphasize Zen as a teaching that does not depend on sacred texts, that provides the potential for direct realization, that the realization attained is none other than the Buddha nature possessed by each sentient being ...".
  14. ^ Prebish comments (op. cit., p. 244): "It presumes that sitting in meditation itself (i.e. zazen) is an expression of Buddha nature." The method is to detach the mind from conceptual modes of thinking and perceive Reality directly. Speaking of Zen in general, Buddhist scholar Stephen Hodge writes: "... practitioners of Zen believe that Enlightenment, the awakening of the Buddha-mind or Buddha-nature, is our natural state, but has been covered over by layers of negative emotions and distorted thoughts. According to this view, Enlightenment is not something that we must acquire a bit at a time, but a state that can occur instantly when we cut through the dense veil of mental and emotional obscurations."[97]
  15. ^ Commenting on Rinzai Zen and its Chinese founder, Linji, Hisamatsu states: "Linji indicates our true way of being in such direct expressions as 'True Person' and 'True Self'. It is independent of words or letters and transmitted apart from scriptural teaching. Buddhism doesn't really need scriptures. It is just our direct awakening to Self ..."[98]
  16. ^ Buddhism: The foundations of Buddhism, The cultural context. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 19-07-2009, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online Library Edition
  17. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Hinduism: History of Hinduism: The Vedic period (2nd millennium – 7th century BCE); Challenges to Brahmanism (6th – 2nd century BCE); Early Hinduism (2nd century BCE – 4th century CE). Retrieved 19-07-2009.
  18. ^ According to Masih:[105] "Alongside Hinduism was the non-Aryan Shramanic culture with its roots going back to prehistoric times."
  19. ^ Masih:[106] "This confirms that the doctrine of transmigration is non-aryan and was accepted by non-vedics like Ajivikism, Jainism and Buddhism. The Indo-aryans have borrowed the theory of re-birth after coming in contact with the aboriginal inhabitants of India. Certainly Jainism and non-vedics [..] accepted the doctrine of rebirth as supreme postulate or article of faith."
  20. ^ Karel Werner:[107] "Rahurkar speaks of them as belonging to two distinct 'cultural strands' ... Wayman also found evidence for two distinct approaches to the spiritual dimension in ancient India and calls them the traditions of 'truth and silence.' He traces them particularly in the older Upanishads, in early Buddhism, and in some later literature."
  21. ^ Flood:[108] "The origin and doctrine of Karma and Samsara are obscure. These concepts were certainly circulating amongst sramanas, and Jainism and Buddhism developed specific and sophisticated ideas about the process of transmigration. It is very possible that the karmas and reincarnation entered the mainstream brahaminical thought from the sramana or the renouncer traditions."
  22. ^ Padmanabh S. Jaini states:[109] "Yajnavalkya's reluctance and manner in expounding the doctrine of karma in the assembly of Janaka (a reluctance not shown on any other occasion) can perhaps be explained by the assumption that it was, like that of the transmigration of soul, of non-brahmanical origin. In view of the fact that this doctrine is emblazoned on almost every page of sramana scriptures, it is highly probable that it was derived from them."
  23. ^ Govind Chandra Pande:[110] "Early Upanishad thinkers like Yajnavalkya were acquainted with the sramanic thinking and tried to incorporate these ideals of Karma, Samsara and Moksa into the vedic thought implying a disparagement of the vedic ritualism and recognising the mendicancy as an ideal."
  24. ^ Kashi Nath Upadhyaya: "The sudden appearance of this theory [of karma] in a full-fledged form is likely due, as already pointed out, to an impact of the wandering muni-and-shramana-cult, coming down from the pre-Vedic non-Aryan time."[111]
  25. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Buddhism: The foundations of Buddhism, the cultural context. Retrieved 19-07-2009.
  26. ^ The surviving portions of the scriptures of Sarvastivada, Mulasarvastivada, Mahisasaka, Dharmaguptaka and other schools,[118][119] and the Chinese Agamas and other surviving portions of other early canons.[citation needed]
  27. ^ Exemplary studies are the study on descriptions of "liberating insight" by Lambert Schmithausen,[123] the overview of early Buddhism by Tilmann Vetter,[121] the philological work on the four truths by K.R. Norman,[124] the textual studies by Richard Gombrich,[60] and the research on early meditation methods by Johannes Bronkhorst.[125]
  28. ^ Well-known proponents of the first position are A.K. Warder[subnote 1] and Richard Gombrich.[128][subnote 2]
  29. ^ A proponent of the second position is Ronald Davidson.[subnote 3]
  30. ^ Well-known proponent of the third position are J.W. de Jong,[130][subnote 4] Johannes Bronkhorst[subnote 5] and Donald Lopez.[subnote 6]
  31. ^ According to Schmithausen, "the karma doctrine may have been incidental to early Buddhist soteriology."[136]
  32. ^ Majjhima Nikaya 36
  33. ^ Vetter: [T]hey do not teach that one is released by knowing the four noble truths, but by practicing the fourth noble truth, the eighfold path, which culminates in right samadhi.[143]
  34. ^ Vetter: "I am especially thinking here of MN 26 (I p.163,32; 165,15;166,35) kimkusalagavesi anuttaram santivarapadam pariyesamano (searching for that which is beneficial, seeking the unsurpassable, best place of peace) and again MN 26 (passim), anuttaramyagakkhemam nibbiinam pariyesati (he seeks the unsurpassable safe place, the nirvana). Anuppatta-sadattho (one who has reached the right goal) is also a vague positive expression in the Arhatformula in MN 35 (I p, 235), see chapter 2, footnote 3, Furthermore, satthi (welfare) is important in e.g. SN 2.12 or 2.17 or Sn 269; and sukha and rati (happiness), in contrast to other places, as used in Sn 439 and 956. The oldest term was perhaps amata (immortal, immortality) [...] but one could say here that it is a negative term."[144]
  35. ^ Charles Prebish (2005). "Councils: Buddhist Councils". In Lindsay Jones. Encyclopedia of Religion. New York: Macmillan. 
  36. ^ See Journal of the Pāli Text Society, volume XVI, p. 105
  37. ^ a b "Abhidhamma Pitaka." Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2008
  38. ^ "The most important evidence — in fact the only evidence — for situating the emergence of the Mahayana around the beginning of the common era was not Indian evidence at all, but came from China. Already by the last quarter of the 2nd century CE, there was a small, seemingly idiosyncratic collection of substantial Mahayana sutras translated into what Erik Zürcher calls 'broken Chinese' by an Indoscythian, whose Indian name has been reconstructed as Lokaksema."[175]
  39. ^ "The south (of India) was then vigorously creative in producing Mahayana Sutras" Warder[177]
  40. ^ See Hill (2009), p. 30, for the Chinese text from the Hou Hanshu, and p. 31 for a translation of it.[185]
  41. ^ See Philosophy East and West, volume 54, page 270
  42. ^ (Harvey 1990),(Gombrich,1984); Gethin (1998), pp. 1–2, identifies "three broad traditions" as: (1) "The Theravāda tradition of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, also sometimes referred to as 'southern' Buddhism"; (2) "The East Asian tradition of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, also sometimes referred to as 'eastern' Buddhism"; and, (3) "The Tibetan tradition, also sometimes referred to as 'northern' Buddhism."; Robinson & Johnson (1982) divide their book into two parts: Part One is entitled "The Buddhism of South Asia" (which pertains to Early Buddhism in India); and, Part Two is entitled "The Development of Buddhism Outside of India" with chapters on "The Buddhism of Southeast Asia", "Buddhism in the Tibetan Culture Area", "East Asian Buddhism" and "Buddhism Comes West; Penguin handbook of Living Religions, 1984, page 279; Prebish & Keown, Introducing Buddhism, ebook, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2005, printed ed, Harper, 2006
  43. ^ See e.g. the multi-dimensional classification in Encyclopedia of Religion[199]
  44. ^ Cousins, L.S. (1996); Buswell (2003), Vol. I, p. 82; and, Keown & Prebish (2004), p. 107. See also, Gombrich (1988/2002), p. 32: “…[T]he best we can say is that [the Buddha] was probably Enlightened between 550 and 450, more likely later rather than earlier."
  45. ^ Williams (2000, pp. 6-7) writes: "As a matter of fact Buddhism in mainland India itself had all but ceased to exist by the thirteenth century CE, although by that time it had spread to Tibet, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia." Embree et al. (1958/1988), "Chronology," p. xxix: "c. 1000-1200: Buddhism disappears as [an] organized religious force in India." See also, Robinson & Johnson (1970/1982), pp. 100-1, 108 Fig. 1; and, Harvey (1990/2007), pp. 139-40.


  1. ^ According to A.K. Warder, in his 1970 publication "Indian Buddhism", from the oldest extant texts a common kernel can be drawn out.[119] According to Warder, c.q. his publisher: "This kernel of doctrine is presumably common Buddhism of the period before th great schisms of the fourth and third centuries BC. It may be substantially the Buddhism of the Buddha himself, although this cannot be proved: at any rate it is a Buddhism presupposed by the schools as existing about a hundred years after the parinirvana of the Buddha, and there is no evidence to suggest that it was formulated by anyone else than the Buddha and his immediate followers."[127]
  2. ^ Richard Gombrich: "I have the greatest difficulty in accepting that the main edifice is not the work of a single genius. By "the main edifice" I mean the collections of the main body of sermons, the four Nikāyas, and of the main body of monastic rules."[60]
  3. ^ Ronald Davidson: "While most scholars agree that there was a rough body of sacred literature (disputed)(sic) that a relatively early community (disputed)(sic) maintained and transmitted, we have little confidence that much, if any, of surviving Buddhist scripture is actually the word of the historic Buddha."[129]
  4. ^ J.W. De Jong: "It would be hypocritical to assert that nothing can be said about the doctrine of earliest Buddhism [...] the basic ideas of Buddhism found in the canonical writings could very well have been proclaimed by him [the Buddha], transmitted and developed by his disciples and, finally, codified in fixed formulas."[130]
  5. ^ Bronkhorst: "This position is to be preferred to (ii) for purely methodological reasons: only those who seek nay find, even if no success is guaranteed."[131]
  6. ^ Lopez: "The original teachings of the historical Buddha are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to recover or reconstruct."[132]


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