An Overview of Buddhism
this introduction to Buddhism there are sections on:
• Early History
• Beliefs and Practices
• Sects and Denominations
• Buddhism in the West
Buddhism was founded in Northern India by the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama
, circa 563-483 BCE). At the age of 29, he left his wife, children
and political involvement's in order to seek truth; this was an accepted
practice at the time for some men to leave their family and lead the
life of an ascetic. He studied Brahminism, but ultimately rejected
it. In 535 BCE, he reached enlightenment and assumed the title Buddha
(one who has awakened). He is also referred to as the Sakyamuni, (sage
of the Sakya clan). He promoted The Middle Way, rejecting both extremes
of the mortification of the flesh and of hedonism as paths toward
the state of Nirvana. He had many disciples and accumulated a large
public following by the time of his death in his early 80's. Two and
a half centuries later, a council of Buddhist monks collected his
teachings and the oral traditions of the faith into written form,
called the Tripitaka. This included a very large collection of commentaries
and traditions; most are called Sutras (discourses).
Buddhism is a religion which shares few concepts with Christianity.
For example, they do not believe in a transcendent or immanent or
any other type of God or Gods, the need for a personal savior, the
power of prayer, eternal life in a heaven or hell after death, etc.
They do believe in reincarnation: the concept that one must go through
many cycles of birth, living, and death. After many such cycles, if
a person releases their attachment to desire and the self, they can
The Buddha's Four Noble Truths may be described (somewhat simplicity)
• to be fully understood: the universality of suffering
• to be abandoned: the desire to have and control things which
• to be made visible: the supreme truth and final liberation
of nirvana which is achieved as the cause of suffering is eliminated.
The mind experiences complete freedom and liberation
• to be brought into being: the truth of the eightfold ariya
path leading to the cessation of suffering.
His Eightfold Path consists of:
• 1. right understanding
• 2. right thinking
• 3. right speech
• 4. right conduct
• 5. right livelihood
• 6. right effort
• 7. right mindfulness
• 8. right concentration
Buddhism is not a single monolithic religion. Many of its adherents
have combined the teachings of the Buddha with local religious rituals,
beliefs and customs. Little conflict occurs, because Buddhism at its
core is a philosophical system to which such additions can be easily
After the Buddah's death, splits occurred. There are now three main
systems of thought within Buddhism which are geographically and philosophically
separate. Each tradition in turn has many sects. One source (J.R.
Hinnels, A Handbook of Living Religions, Penguin, 1991) divides the
religion into three main groups by their location:
Southern Buddhism (known as Therevada Buddhism) has 100 million followers,
mainly in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and Thailand, and parts
of Vietnam. It started in Sri Lanka when Buddhist missionaries arrived
from India. They promoted the Vibhajjavada school (Separative Teaching).
By the 15th century, this form of the religion reached almost its
Concepts and practices include:
• Dana - thoughtful, ceremonial giving
• Sila - accepting Buddhist teaching and following it in practice;
• refraining from killing, stealing, wrong behaviour, use of
On special days, three additional precepts may be added, restricting
adornment, entertainment and comfort.
• Karma - the balance of accumulated sin and merit, which will
determine ones future in the present life, and the nature of the next
life to come.
• The Cosmos - consists of billions of worlds grouped into clusters;
clusters are grouped into galaxies, which are themselves grouped into
super-galaxies. The universe also has many levels: four underworlds
and 21 heavenly realms.
• Paritta - ritual chanting
Worship - of relics of a Buddha, of items made by a Buddha, or of
Festivals - days of the full moon, and three other days during the
lunar cycle are celebrated. There is a new year's festival, and celebrations
tied to the agricultural year.
Pilgrimages - particularly to Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka and India.
Eastern Buddhism is the predominant religion in China, Japan, Korea
and much of Vietnam. Buddhism's Mahayana tradition entered China during
the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220 CE). It found initial acceptance there
among the workers; later, it gradually penetrated the ruling class.
Buddhism reached Japan in the 6th century. It underwent severe repression
during the 1960's in China during the Cultural Revolution.
Eastern Buddhism contains many distinct schools: T'ein-t'ai, Hua-yen,
Pure Land teachings, and the Meditation school. They celebrate New
Years, harvest festivals, and five anniversaries from the lives of
Buddha and of the Bodhissattva Kuan-yin. They also engage in Dana,
Sila, Chanting. Worship and Pilgrimage.
Northern Buddhism has perhaps 10 million adherents in parts of China,
Mongolia, Russia and Tibet. It entered Tibet circa 640 CE. Conflict
with the native Tibetan religion of Bon caused it to go largely underground
until its revival in the 11th century. The heads of the Gelu school
of Buddhist teaching became the Dalai Lama, and ruled Tibet. It has
been, until recently, wrongly dismissed as a degenerate
form of Buddhism
Ceremony and ritual are emphasized. They also engage in Dana, Sila,
Chanting. Worship and Pilgrimage. They developed the practice of searching
out a young child at the time of death of an important teacher. The
child is believed to be the successor to the deceased teacher. They
celebrate New Years, harvest festivals and anniversaries of five important
events in the life of the Buddha. Buddhist and Tibetan culture suffered
greatly during the Cultural Revolution when an attempt was made to
destroy all religious belief.
Buddhism in the West
Southern Buddhism became established in Europe early in this century.
The Zen Buddhist tradition of Eastern Buddhism has also made inroads,
particularly in North America. Canadian Buddhists totaled 163,415
in the 1991 census.
With thanks to the Ontario Religious Tolerance Site for this Information
Holy Days in Buddhism
1. Nirvana Day is held in mid February. It commemorates the death
of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.
2. New Year Day is also celebrated in mid-February in China, Korea
3. Wesak is the Buddha's birthday in April or May. In some traditions,
it celebrates the Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death.
4. Khao Pansa marks the beginning of the Buddhist lent. It is the
preferred day for Buddhist men in some countries to be ordained
as monks. It is celebrated in the full moon of the eight lunar month,
5. Boun Ok Pansa marks the end of Lent. It is at the end of the
rainy season, in October.
6. Bodhi Day, in early December, celebrates the Buddha's enlightenment
in 596 BCE
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