Christian Cyclopedia

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1. Religious system founded by Gautama* Buddha, 6th c. BC, in N India; revolt against Brahmanism.* Denies authority of the Vats, rejects Brahmanic caste system, ritual, and philos. speculations, and offers a new way to salvation. The 2 canonical languages of Buddhism: Pall, of S or Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism, and Skt., of N or Mahayana Buddhism.

2. The texts on which our knowledge of early Buddhism is based are sacred books found in Ceylon, written in Pall and called Tipitaka (Skt. Tripitaka), that is Three Baskets (Pitaka), namely the Baskets of Vinaya, Sutta, and Abhidhamma (monastic rules and disciplines, teachings of the Buddha, and Buddhist higher philos., resp.). Other books come from Nepal, written in Skt., and from China and Tibet, written in the languages of those countries. In a way, Gautama's doctrine is not religion but practical atheism. Of the 5 requisites of religion, i. e., “the belief in a divine power, the acknowledgment of sin, the habit of prayer, the desire to offer sacrifice, and the hope of a future life” (F. M. Müller*), not one is found in Gautama's system. Though he did not deny existence of traditional gods, yet he held that prayer and sacrifice to them were of no avail, as they, like men, were subject to death and rebirth and in rebirth might sink to the level of inferior beings, while men in rebirth might rise to the level of gods. In anatta (absence of soul) he likewise denied the existence of the soul (see Transmigration of Souls). But, in common with Brahmanism, he held the pessimistic view that life was not worth living; that in his “five aggregates” of being (corporeality, feeling, perception, mental formations, and consciousness), man was subject to a continuous round of rebirths; that a man's karma, i. e., his acts in one existence, determined his lot in future existences; that salvation consisted not in escape from sin and hell (neither of which are recognized by Indian philosophies), but in obtaining freedom from rebirths; and that ignorance (avidya) is the cause of all evil. But as he rejected the Vedas and taught a new way of destroying ignorance and obtaining freedom from rebirth, his doctrine, like Jainism,* was considered a heresy by the Brahmans. He was also against the caste system.

3. Buddha's entire doctrine is based on the socalled “four noble truths,” which speak 1. of the universality of suffering, 2. of the causes of suffering, 3. of the cessation of suffering, and 4. of the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. Birth, decay, disease, death, separation from what we love, contact with what we hate, and failure to attain what we desire n. d. all is suffering. This suffering is caused by “thirst,” i. e., craving for life and its pleasures, and this attachment causes rebirth and continued misery. Freedom from rebirth and consequently from suffering can be obtained if this craving is completely destroyed. The path that leads to this end is the “noble eightfold path,” namely, “right belief, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right means of subsistence, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation.” This path is called the “middle path,” as it is removed from the extremes of a sensuous life and of asceticism. He who follows this path to its end becomes an arhat, or saint. He has destroyed his ignorance, become perfect by knowledge, and broken the fetters that bind him to the wheel of life. The supreme and final goal of this spiritual discipline is nirvana (Pali nibbana), literally “a blowing out,” namely of the desires and passions that lead to rebirth. As the old karma is exhausted and no new karma is added, the round of rebirths ceases and ends in an unconscious state. Whether this is equivalent to the annihilation of personality was not stated by Gautama, but many Buddhist texts interpret it in this sense. Nirvana may in a certain sense be obtained in this life by the arhat, but it is entered upon completely only at death.

4. The followers of Gautama soon were organized into a mendicant order open to all men over 20, physically and legally fit, without caste distinction. The monks (Pali bhikkus; Skt. bhikshus, i. e., “beggars”) obligated themselves to keep 10 commandments forbidding 1. taking of life, 2. theft, 3. sexual impurity, 4. lying, 5. use of intoxicating liquors, 6. eating at forbidden times, i. e., bet. noon and the following morning, 7. taking part in dancing, singing, music, theater, 8. using ornaments and perfume, 9. sleeping on beds raised from the floor, 10. receiving gold or silver. Every monk had to take the vow of absolute celibacy and poverty. Great stress was laid on the virtues of benevolence (even to animals), patience, and humility. Twice a month he had to confess his faults before the assembled brethren. He had to dress only in rags, beg food with an alms dish in his hand, live much of the time in forests, and spend many hours in contemplation. Thus an elaborate system of rules governed his entire life. Subordinated to the monks were the nuns, whom Gautama, according to tradition, admitted to the order only with great reluctance. Beside this monastic order also a lay membership was organized. But the rules for the lay members were far less strict. They were obligated to observe only the first 5 of the 10 commandments mentioned above and to practice benevolence and charity at all times. As Buddhism is atheistic in principle, it makes no provision for a cult or priesthood. Wherever these are found in modern forms of Buddhism, they are a later development.

5. Shortly after Gautama's death the first great council, attended by 500 arhats, met at Rajagaha (Rajagriha, modern Rajgir) to decide and take measures to preserve the authoritative teachings of the Buddha; here the canonical Tipitaka (Tripitaka) was formulated. A hundred yrs. after the death of the Buddha, after certain schismatic monks had been defeated, the 2d great council met at Vesali, under King Kalasoka's patronage. Zealous Buddhist Emperor Asoka convened the 3d great council at Pataliputra (modern Patna). Heretics were expunged and missionary plans were laid. Asoka sought the extension of Buddhism throughout his empire and the entire world. Other great councils were held ca. 25 BC, AD 1871, and 1954–56. A council called by King Kaniska (Kanishka) in the first c. AD is not recognized by the Theravada (see 6) but apparently left its mark on Buddhism in Tibet and China.

6. The later hist. of Indian Buddhism is marked by the great conflict bet. the schools called Hinayana (“Little Vehicle”) and Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”). This led to a permanent division into 2 sects. The Hinayana (Theravada) is the conservative system. It is based on the Pali canon, holds to the original teachings of Buddhism, regards Gautama as a mere man, and teaches that salvation can be obtained by only few mortals. It maintained itself in the S part of the Buddhist sphere (Ceylon, Burma, Siam). Mahayana Buddhism, on the other hand, called so because it claimed to be the better vessel to take man across the stream of existence to nirvana, follows the Skt. scriptures. It transformed Gautama into a god or an incarnation of the Absolute. It is the N form of Buddhism (Tibet, China, Korea, Japan). The peculiar hierarchical form into which it developed in Tibet is called Lamaism.* The last phase of decadent Indian Buddhism is that called Tantrayana, which developed from the Mahayana Buddhism of Tibet and introduced esoteric worship and magic and even sensual practices that weakened Buddhism and made revival almost impossible after the Muslim invaders destroyed the Mahayana temples and monasteries. Buddhism apparently lost out in India to Hinduism (which converted Buddhist temples into Hindu temples) and to Islam (which opposed Buddhism with violence); internal decay also contributed to the temporary disappearance of Buddhism from India. But it continued in Ceylon, Burma, Thailand, China, Indo-China (Vietnam), the East Indies (Malaya, Sumatra, Java, Bali, and Borneo), Korea, and Japan, and reached into the W world. After WW II it made some converts in India among the scheduled castes or untouchables; also some intellectuals showed interest.

7. The 6th conf. of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 1961, increased world interest in Buddhism. The WFB, est. 1950, has tried to secure unity among the branches of Buddhism in teachings and in cultural, educational, and missionary activities. A 1958 conference in Thailand dropped the distinction between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, but differences bet. them were strongly in evidence at the 1961 conference. Political problems of the nations represented (e.g., disarmament and differing regimes) disturbed the delegates, but joint work continued on the Encyclopaedia of Buddhism as planned in 1955.

8. In China Buddhism became intertwined with Taoism* and Confucianism,* in Japan with Shinto.*

See also Buddhist Churches of America; Chinese Philosophy, 5; Nichiren; Nichiren Buddhism; Nichiren-sho-shu; Sacred Literature; Soka Gakkai; Theosophy.

K. W. Morgan, The Path of the Buddha: Buddhism Interpreted by Buddhists (New York, 1956).


Edited by: Erwin L. Lueker, Luther Poellot, Paul Jackson
©Concordia Publishing House, 2000, All rights Reserved. Reproduced with Permission

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Original Editions ©Copyright 1954, 1975, 2000
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Content Reproduced with Permission

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