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Buddhism (bo͝odˈĭzəm), religion and philosophy founded in India c.525 B.C. by Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha. There are over 300 million Buddhists worldwide. One of the great world religions, it is divided into two main schools: the Theravada or Hinayana in Sri Lanka and SE Asia, and the Mahayana in China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. A third school, the Vajrayana, has a long tradition in Tibet and Japan. Buddhism has largely disappeared from its country of origin, India, except for the presence there of many refugees from the Tibet region of China and a small number of converts from the lower castes of Hinduism.

Basic Beliefs and Practices

The basic doctrines of early Buddhism, which remain common to all Buddhism, include the “four noble truths”: existence is suffering (dukhka); suffering has a cause, namely craving and attachment (trishna); there is a cessation of suffering, which is nirvana; and there is a path to the cessation of suffering, the “eightfold path” of right views, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Buddhism characteristically describes reality in terms of process and relation rather than entity or substance.

Experience is analyzed into five aggregates (skandhas). The first, form (rupa), refers to material existence; the following four, sensations (vedana), perceptions (samjna), psychic constructs (samskara), and consciousness (vijnana), refer to psychological processes. The central Buddhist teaching of non-self (anatman) asserts that in the five aggregates no independently existent, immutable self, or soul, can be found. All phenomena arise in interrelation and in dependence on causes and conditions, and thus are subject to inevitable decay and cessation. The casual conditions are defined in a 12-membered chain called dependent origination (pratityasamutpada) whose links are: ignorance, predisposition, consciousness, name-form, the senses, contact, craving, grasping, becoming, birth, old age, and death, whence again ignorance.

With this distinctive view of cause and effect, Buddhism accepts the pan-Indian presupposition of samsara, in which living beings are trapped in a continual cycle of birth-and-death, with the momentum to rebirth provided by one's previous physical and mental actions (see karma). The release from this cycle of rebirth and suffering is the total transcendence called nirvana.

From the beginning, meditation and observance of moral precepts were the foundation of Buddhist practice. The five basic moral precepts, undertaken by members of monastic orders and the laity, are to refrain from taking life, stealing, acting unchastely, speaking falsely, and drinking intoxicants. Members of monastic orders also take five additional precepts: to refrain from eating at improper times, from viewing secular entertainments, from using garlands, perfumes, and other bodily adornments, from sleeping in high and wide beds, and from receiving money. Their lives are further regulated by a large number of rules known as the Pratimoksa. The monastic order (sangha) is venerated as one of the “three jewels,” along with the dharma, or religious teaching, and the Buddha. Lay practices such as the worship of stupas (burial mounds containing relics) predate Buddhism and gave rise to later ritualistic and devotional practices.

Early Buddhism

India during the lifetime of the Buddha was in a state of religious and cultural ferment. Sects, teachers, and wandering ascetics abounded, espousing widely varying philosophical views and religious practices. Some of these sects derived from the Brahmanical tradition (see Hinduism), while others opposed the Vedic and Upanishadic ideas of that tradition. Buddhism, which denied both the efficacy of Vedic ritual and the validity of the caste system, and which spread its teachings using vernacular languages rather than Brahmanical Sanskrit, was by far the most successful of the heterodox or non-Vedic systems. Buddhist tradition tells how Siddhartha Gautama, born a prince and raised in luxury, renounced the world at the age of 29 to search for an ultimate solution to the problem of the suffering innate in the human condition. After six years of spiritual discipline he achieved the supreme enlightment and spent the remaining 45 years of his life teaching and establishing a community of monks and nuns, the sangha, to continue his work.

After the Buddha's death his teachings were orally transmitted until the 1st cent. B.C., when they were first committed to writing (see Buddhist literature; Pali). Conflicting opinions about monastic practice as well as religious and philosophical issues, especially concerning the analyses of experience elaborated as the systems of Abhidharma, probably caused differing sects to flourish rapidly. Knowledge of early differences is limited, however, because the earliest extant written version of the scriptures (1st cent. A.D.) is the Pali canon of the Theravada school of Sri Lanka. Although the Theravada [doctrine of the elders] is known to be only one of many early Buddhist schools (traditionally numbered at 18), its beliefs as described above are generally accepted as representative of the early Buddhist doctrine. The ideal of early Buddhism was the perfected saintly sage, arahant or arhat, who attained liberation by purifying self of all defilements and desires.

The Rise of Mahayana Buddhism

The positions advocated by Mahayana [great vehicle] Buddhism, which distinguishes itself from the Theravada and related schools by calling them Hinayana [lesser vehicle], evolved from other of the early Buddhist schools. The Mahayana emerges as a definable movement in the 1st cent. B.C., with the appearance of a new class of literature called the Mahayana sutras. The main philosophical tenet of the Mahayana is that all things are empty, or devoid of self-nature (see sunyata). Its chief religious ideal is the bodhisattva, which supplanted the earlier ideal of the arahant, and is distinguished from it by the vow to postpone entry into nirvana (although meriting it) until all other living beings are similarly enlightened and saved.

The bodhisattva is an actual religious goal for lay and monastic Buddhists, as well as the name for a class of celestial beings who are worshiped along with the Buddha. The Mahayana developed doctrines of the eternal and absolute nature of the Buddha, of which the historical Buddha is regarded as a temporary manifestation. Teachings on the intrinsic purity of consciousness generated ideas of potential Buddhahood in all living beings. The chief philosophical schools of Indian Mahayana were the Madhyamika, founded by Nagarjuna (2d cent. A.D.), and the Yogacara, founded by the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu (4th cent. A.D.). In this later Indian period, authors in different schools wrote specialized treatises, Buddhist logic was systematized, and the practices of Tantra came into prominence.

The Spread of Buddhism

In the 3d cent. B.C. the Indian emperor Aśoka greatly strengthened Buddhism by his support and sent Buddhist missionaries as far afield as Syria. In succeeding centuries, however, the Hindu revival initiated the gradual decline of Buddhism in India. The invasions of the White Huns (6th cent.) and the Muslims (11th cent.) were also significant factors behind the virtual extinction of Buddhism in India by the 13th cent.

In the meantime, however, its beliefs had spread widely. Sri Lanka was converted to Buddhism in the 3d cent. B.C., and Buddhism has remained its national religion. After taking up residence in Sri Lanka, the Indian Buddhist scholar Buddhaghosa (5th cent. A.D.) produced some of Theravada Buddhism's most important scholastic writings. In the 7th cent. Buddhism entered Tibet, where it has flourished, drawing its philosophical influences mainly from the Madhyamika, and its practices from the Tantra.

Buddhism came to SE Asia in the first five centuries A.D. All Buddhist schools were initially established, but the surviving forms today are mostly Theravada. About the 1st cent. A.D. Buddhism entered China along trade routes from central Asia, initiating a four-century period of gradual assimilation. In the 3d and 4th cent. Buddhist concepts were interpreted by analogy with indigenous ideas, mainly Taoist, but the work of the great translators Kumarajiva and Hsüan-tsang provided the basis for better understanding of Buddhist concepts.

The 6th cent. saw the development of the great philosophical schools, each centering on a certain scripture and having a lineage of teachers. Two such schools, the T'ien-t'ai and the Hua-Yen, hierarchically arranged the widely varying scriptures and doctrines that had come to China from India, giving preeminence to their own school and scripture. Branches of Madhyamika and Yogacara were also founded. The two great nonacademic sects were Ch'an or Zen Buddhism, whose chief practice was sitting in meditation to achieve “sudden enlightenment,” and Pure Land Buddhism, which advocated repetition of the name of the Buddha Amitabha to attain rebirth in his paradise.

Chinese Buddhism encountered resistance from Confucianism and Taoism, and opposition from the government, which was threatened by the growing power of the tax-exempt sangha. The great persecution by the emperor Wu-tsung (845) dealt Chinese Buddhism a blow from which it never fully recovered. The only schools that retained vitality were Zen and Pure Land, which increasingly fused with one another and with the native traditions, and after the decline of Buddhism in India, neo-Confucianism rose to intellectual and cultural dominance.

From China and Korea, Buddhism came to Japan. Schools of philosophy and monastic discipline were transmitted first (6th cent.–8th cent.), but during the Heian period (794–1185) a conservative form of Tantric Buddhism became widely popular among the nobility. Zen and Pure Land grew to become popular movements after the 13th cent. After World War II new sects arose in Japan, such as the Soka Gakkai, an outgrowth of the nationalistic sect founded by Nichiren (1222–82), and the Risshokoseikai, attracting many followers.


See H. C. Warren, Buddhism in Translations (1896, repr. 1963); D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism (1956); A. Wright, Buddhism in Chinese History (1959, repr. 1979); E. Conze, Buddhism (1953, repr. 1959), Buddhist Scriptures (1959), and Buddhist Thought in India (1962, repr. 1967); E. Zürcher, Buddhism (1962); K. S. S. Ch'en, Buddhism in China (1964, repr. 1972); W. T. de Bary, The Buddhist Tradition in India, China, and Japan (1969); T. Ling, The Buddha (1973); R. Lester, Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia (1973); W. Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (2d ed. 1974); D. and A. Matsunaga, Foundations of Japanese Buddhism (1974–76); S. J. Tambiah, World Conqueror and World Renouncer (1976); L. Hurvitz, Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma (1976); R. H. Robinson, The Buddhist Religion (3d ed. 1982); and R. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism (1988); J. Ishikawa, The Bodhisattva (1990).

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a Far Eastern ethical religion deriving from the teachings of Buddha, ‘the enlightened one’, a Hindu nobleman in 6th-century BC Nepal. Subsequently, Buddhism has spread widely and has taken several forms. The road to salvation, according to Buddha, is self-denial, self-discipline and meditation, with the goal of escape from the endless cycle of reincarnation which would otherwise occur. Nirvana, or complete spiritual fulfilment, is the ultimate objective. As such, the orientation of Buddhism has often been, in Weber's terminology, ‘other-worldly’. At times, however, Buddhism has also been a highly political religion, as in Lamaism or as part of protest movements within Third World societies.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Buddhism is a humanistic philosophy with deep psychological insights. Some practitioners worship gods, others do not. The Buddha himself is not worshiped as a god, but he is venerated as a completed, spiritual teacher.

Buddhism's principal concept is that human consciousness can be transformed from attachment to ego, suffering, and objects of desire to the unattached bliss of Nirvana. The path of this transformation was demonstrated by the Buddha, an enlightened man who showed the way out of the wheel of life, death, and rebirth—the material world seemingly ruled by attachment and ignorance. Buddhism's fundamental practice is meditation, and its fundamental social expression is the Samgha, the order of priests.

One of the keys to understanding Buddhism is the concept of anatman, "no self." To understand anatman, we must begin with Buddha's Four Noble Truths: All life is suffering; suffering is caused by desire; there can be an end to desire; and to end desire, follow the Eightfold Path.

In the process of seeking for the meaning of life, Buddha came to realize that:

All Life Is Suffering

By this Buddha did not mean that life is a miserable experience. Rather, he was pointing out that even the most joyous moment contains the thought that the moment cannot last. Every life will come to an end. Everything is in the process of dying. At the moment of birth the journey begins toward death. The reality of death should be acknowledged, not denied or feared to the point of debilitation.

The Buddha would never discourage jogging, joining an exercise club, or pursuing a healthy diet. But he would insist these activities should be performed to enhance life, rather than to create the illusion that death can be postponed. The healthiest person alive will someday die. Hence, all life is suffering.

But the knowledge of death is not necessarily tragic. Death is a part of life. So what causes suffering? Is it simply the knowledge that good times don't last forever? No.

Suffering Is Caused by Desire

We want what we cannot have. We desire something because we believe it will bring happiness or release from sorrow. We attempt to hold on to joyous moments, trying to make them last forever. We gather things around us to protect us from suffering, so life becomes a matter of accumulating and desiring more of those things—a bigger house, a more suitable mate, better clothes, a more comfortable car, a higher-paying job that will provide more money to buy more things.

Buddha believed people consist of five skandhas, or bundles. Rather than consisting of a "soul" stuck in a body, people are made up of various parts, blending together to produce a whole. The five skandhas are:

Form (outward appearance) Feelings (inward emotions) Perceptions (how we visualize what we feel) Impulses (Karmic dispositions—the forces that propel life forward toward a goal) Background consciousness (that from which we spring and to which we return)

To see how these things work together, consider, as an example, an inner conversation before buying a new car:

That's a nice car. (The form of the car pleases us.)

I want that car! (We experience an inward emotion of desire.)

I can just see myself driving down the street. Imagine the stares of approval I'd get. (We visualize how we would feel.)

I deserve that car. It was meant for me! (We believe Karma, or fate, brought us to this place and time.)

I've always wanted a car like that! (We come to believe our purchase is somehow eternally predestined.)

Note the progress from skandha to skandha. Form stimulates feelings, which form perceptions, provoke impulses, and inform consciousness.

The problem, according to Buddha, is that most people get stuck on the word "I." "I" want, "I" feel, "I" visualize. But who is this "I"? "I" is obviously the villain of the piece, because it is this "I" who is setting in progress the chain of desires that lead to suffering. By saying "I," we demonstrate that we feel as though we are somehow an individual separate from the rest of the world. If "I" am "me," and "you" are "you," then we are obviously separate from each other. And if "I" desire something, then the "I" that desires must be an entity separate from the desire itself.

Buddha would say we are misreading the data. The "I" who sees and perceives is simply a phenomenon. It is an illusion. It does not really exist. It is a word expressing the way we perceive what is, in fact, the bundle of parts that make up our whole.

We are now approaching the point where we can begin to understand anat- man. We have seen that suffering is caused by desire. Buddha came to realize that "desire" was the weak point. This is where Buddhism becomes positive.

There Can Be an End to Desire

Suffering is like fire. It needs fuel. Remove the fuel and the fire goes out. Desire is the fuel that feeds suffering. If the perceived "I" can stop desiring, suffering can be stopped. It's as simple (and as difficult) as that.

Follow the Eightfold Path

But how do we stop desiring? How do we control such a basic human tendency? The path is difficult. Buddha's Fourth Noble Truth describes it as the Eightfold Path:

Right Understanding (seeing through illusions such as the idea that wealth will bring happiness) Right Thought or Motives (doing for others rather than for oneself) Right Speech (even to ourselves—positive words are better than negative ones) Right Action (doing nothing that would have to be kept hidden) Right Livelihood (work must be consistent with beliefs) Right Effort (constant awareness of the Eightfold Path) Right Mindfulness (doing everything purposefully) Right Meditation (final attainment of the trance state of anatman, "no self"; we understand that we are one with everything and connected to it all, without being aware that we are aware—we simply "are")

When we come to the point wherein the "I," the ego, has retreated, taking its proper place as simply a phenomenon, we are freed from the desires upon which the "I" has insisted. Once we are freed from desire, suffering cannot exist, because suffering is caused by desire.

Acceptance replaces desire, and there is a vast difference between the two. Acceptance has to do with embracing the duality of life as it is in the moment, not desiring to modify it, change it, or judge it. This is the Middle Way between the pairs of opposites, joy and sorrow. Instead of clinging to the joy and attempting to hold onto it by any and all methods, we accept joy when it comes just as we accept sorrow when it comes. And by seeking acceptance, we discover the Middle Way between joy and sorrow to the place of peace that embraces both. This is enlightenment.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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A Buddhist monk receives offerings in the cave-enclosed temple of Wat Suwan Kuha in Phuket, Thailand. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Gautama Siddhartha (ca. 563–483 BCE) was a young prince of northeast India. He was born among the Sakyas, a tribe of the Kshatriya warrior caste in what is now Nepal. His father ruled the Gautama clan and in later years Siddhartha himself became known as Gautama, though it was not his given name. His mother died shortly after his birth, and his father sheltered him from all contact with anything but pleasure and luxury. At age 29, Siddhartha became aware that most people did not share this priveledged life experience, and that pain and suffering were everywhere. On this realization, Siddhartha renounced his home and family and set out to seek the “supreme peace of Nirvana.” He had two Brahmin religious teachers, but became dissatisfied and looked elsewhere. He tried many practices, including extreme asceticism, before finally finding meditation.

It is said that enlightenment came to him as he sat under a boddhi tree, or Tree of Wisdom. This enlightenment was the realization of four basic truths, usually referred to as the “Four Noble Truths:” Life entails dissatisfaction (pain); dissatisfaction is a result of clinging and craving; there is an end to all dissatisfaction; the way to the end of dissatisfaction is the path. In turn “the Path,” or “the Eightfold Path,” is Wisdom (right view; right thought), Morality (right speech, right action, right livelihood) and Meditation (right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration). Furthermore, he determined that the cause of all the suffering in the world, and of the endless series or birth and rebirth, was due to selfish craving and desire. If this could be extinguished, he reasoned, one could achieve freedom from the Wheel of Life and the never-ending suffering associated with it. In discovering this, Siddhartha became Buddha, or “the Enlightened One.”

For the next 45 years, Buddha wandered the countryside teaching what he had learned. He organized a community of monks known as the sangha to continue his teachings after his death. They preached “The Word,” known as the Dharma. It was not until sixty years after his death, that Buddha’s teachings were set down in writing. These teachings became known as the Sutras (from the Sanskrit meaning “thread”). Buddhism’s simple formula is: “I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma; I take refuge in the Sangha” … the Buddha, the Teaching, and the Order. There is no priesthood and there are no other rites or creeds. All that the teacher can do is set the listener on the path by example and precept.

Buddhism is today the religion of Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Tibet, half of Japan, much of China, and is found in many other countries around the world. It has a large following in the United States, where there are now more Buddhists than can be found in India.


Bechert, H. and R. Gombrich: The World of Buddhism. London: Thames & Hudson, 1984
Buckland, Raymond: Signs, Symbols & Omens. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 2003
Fields, Rick: How the Swans Came to the Lake. Boston: Shambhala, 1981
Gach, Gary: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism. Indianapolis: Alpha, 2002
Snelling, John: Elements of Buddhism. Shaftsbury: Element Books, 1990
The Spirit Book © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



one of the three world religions. (The other two are Christianity and Islam.) Buddhism originated in ancient India in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. and in the course of its development split into several religious-philosophic schools. The Indian prince Siddhartha Gautama, later called the Buddha, which means “the awakened one” or “the enlightened one,” is regarded as the founder of Buddhism.

Buddhism appeared at a time when India, then a conglomerate of minor despotic monarchic states and tribal federations, was in the process of forming a united state, a process completed by the establishment of the empire of the Mauryas in the fourth century B.C. It was a time of destruction of the established foundations of life and a sharpening of the contradictions between social groups and castes; an additional complication lay in the mixed ethnic composition of the population. This critical situation evoked among the people a desire to escape, if only into the sphere of the unreal. Buddhism was the answer to this wish. It was a reaction against the Brahman religion, and it opposed the caste system sanctioned by Brahmanism, proclaiming equality for everybody regardless of caste and estate. At the time of its origin Buddhism attained wide popularity owing to the universality of the path to “salvation” that it offered. At the same time, it was acceptable to the rulers of the society as well, because of its social passivity and its aloofness from the concrete historical situation.

As early as the first centuries of its existence, Buddhism split into 18 sects. The ideological differences among them led to the convocation of councils: at Rajagaha around 477 B.C., at Vesali around 367 B.C., at Pataliputra in the third century B.C., and at Kashmir in the second century A.D. The most important event in the history of Buddhism was the formation of the sect of the Mahasanghikas, or “Members of the Great Order,” during the meeting of the Second Council. This marked the beginning of the Buddhist schism which occurred at the beginning of the Christian era and divided Buddhism into its two largest branches: the Hinayana, or “lesser vehicle” or “narrow path”; and the Mahayana, or “greater vehicle” or “wide path.” Between the first and fifth centuries the main religious-philosophic schools of Buddhism were developed in their final form: within Hinayana the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika; and within Mahayana the Yogacara, or Vijnyanavada, and the Madhyamika. The followers of Hinayana call their movement Theravada Buddhism, which means “teaching of the elders.”

The flowering of Buddhism in India took place from the middle of the first millennium B.C. to the beginning of the first millennium A.D. The end of this period coincided with the development of Hinduism and was marked by a definite disintegration of the specific character of Buddhism and a tendency to move toward Hinduism. However, although it submerged itself into Hinduism in India toward the beginning of the 12th century, Buddhism did not disappear. It had been preached by missionary monks, especially the emissaries of the emperor Ashoka, a zealous follower of Buddhism in the third century B.C., and had spread over all of Southeast and Central Asia, taking hold in parts of Middle Asia and Siberia as well. Between the third century B.C. and the middle of the first millennium A.D., Buddhism had been established in Ceylon, Indonesia, and Indochina. In the first centuries A.D. it had begun to penetrate into China and Tibet; in the fourth to sixth centuries into Korea and Japan; in the 16th and 17th centuries into Mongolia; and in the 18th century into Buriatia. Hinayana prevailed in the southeastern countries, acquiring the name of Southern Buddhism. In the northern countries Mahayana took hold and became known as Northern Buddhism.

In India, Mahayana was considerably influenced by Brahmanism and Hinduism (the Vedantas and yoga). Encountering the conditions and cults of the northern countries, Mahayana developed different tendencies, combining with Taoism in China, Shintoism in Japan, and naturalistic beliefs in Tibet. Northern Buddhism split into several sects, one of which is the Zen sect, which originated in China in the fifth century (in Chinese, Ch’an); this sect is now mainly found in Japan. In the fifth century a special trend parallel to Hindu Tantrism appeared in Buddhism. This was called Vajrayana, and under its influence the new school of Lamaism arose. Although extremely susceptible to the influences of various ideologies, Buddhism preserved unchangeably its central principle, assimilating the borrowed elements to its own fundamental doctrine, cult, and mythology.

The religious-philosophic literature of Buddhism is vast and includes works in Pali, Sanskrit, mixed Sanskrit, Sinhalese, Tibetan, Burmese, Khmer, Chinese, Japanese, and other languages. A large part of Hinayana literature is contained in the so-called Pali canon, Tipitaka, which means “the three baskets.” Among the noncanonic works of the Hinayana school are the Milindapanha and the Abhidharma-kosa by Vasubandhu. A large part of the Hinayana canon belongs to the Mahayana literature, which includes Sanskrit translations. Mahayana literature also includes the so-called basic Mahayana sutras and other source books such as the Mahavastu, the Divyavadana (or Collection of Divine Avadanas), and the Lalita Vistara, as well as the writings of Asvaghosa (of which the most important is the Buddhacarita), Aryasura (who wrote the Jataka-mala, or Garland of Birth-Tales), Santideva, and others. The speculative philosophy of Mahayana is represented by numerous works, the most important of which are the works of Nagarjuna (who wrote the Madhyamikakarika) and Asanga. All of the Mahayana writings and most of the Hinayana canon have been translated from Sanskrit and sometimes directly from Pali into Chinese and later into Tibetan. In Tibet these translations, along with many original texts, form two collections of many volumes known as the Kanjur and the Tanjur.

One characteristic of Buddhist dogma is its pragmatic direction. From its very beginning Buddhism turned away not only from an overemphasis of external forms of religious life, especially ritualism, but also from the abstract speculation characteristic of Brahmanism, and made the existence of the individual its central focus. The basic content of the Buddhist books is the practical doctrine of “salvation” or “deliverance.” It is explained in the doctrine of the “four noble truths”: the existence of suffering, the cause of suffering, the state of deliverance from suffering, and the path leading to this deliverance—in short, the existence of suffering and deliverance. On one hand, suffering and deliverance from it represent exclusively subjective states, and on the other hand—especially in the systems of developed schools of Buddhism—they represent a certain “reality” that has an objective cosmic foundation.

Stressing as its foundation the thesis that all life is suffering, Buddhism defines suffering not as primarily an experience of some concrete condition but rather as the expectation of that condition, the expectation of actual suffering, and even more, the expectation of the effects of that expectation—feelings of fear, insecurity, and so forth. According to Buddhism this suffering means a condition of endless anxiety, general uneasiness, tension, and dissatisfaction. In this sense, suffering is the equivalent of desire, which Buddhism considers the psychological cause of suffering. The Buddhist concept of life as suffering is deepened by the fact that Buddhism accepts the doctrine of endless rebirth (samsara). According to Buddhism, death is thus not a punishment, or a tragedy, or deliverance, but a transition to a new life and new suffering.

The interpretation of suffering as a cosmic reality is based on the idea of the connection of the individual’s life activity, especially the psychophysic elements of this life activity, called dharmas, with the external world. The dharmas flare up, are extinguished, and flare up again; they are in permanent agitation, producing by their impermanency the feeling of suffering. In the Buddhist literature this eternal flaring up and extinguishing is frequently compared with the burning flame of a lamp; this metaphor is characteristically Buddhist in its emphasis on becoming instead of being—on process instead of substance. A consequence of the belief in dharmas is the denial of the soul as an unchangeable spiritual substance and the identification of the human self with the totality of the functions of five classes of dharmas, the so-called skandhas: the sensual life of the organism as a whole, the emotions, the ideas, the karmic will impulses, and the consciousness.

Buddhism is founded on the idea that the goal is inseparable from the means of its realization. Therefore, deliverance in Buddhism is expressed primarily in the categories of the path to deliverance, which consists of the “right conduct” and the “right knowledge.” There is no rigid code of conduct in Buddhism and the significance of any external form of conduct is essentially denied. This principle is especially stressed in early Buddhism, for example in Zen. In terms of morality it means recognition of the diversity and relativity of ethical norms, the equal valuation of ethically contradictory actions, and the absence of the concepts of responsibility and guilt as absolutes. The main traits of Buddhist ethics in its external expression are patience and “fluidity.” It is a morality equally helpful to everyone and at the same time aloof from everyone. At the basis of the Buddhist concept of conduct lies a sense of inner aloofness of the subject from everything around him. Buddhism regards pleasure and goodness as equally necessary and unnecessary; this idea is partially expressed in the doctrine of the so-called middle way, which equally rejects immersion in pleasure and mortification of the flesh. Its ideal is a person who is intensely occupied with changing his inner psychological state but also is not estranged from his customary everyday pursuits. The Buddhist ideal of conduct is organically connected with the concept of true knowledge, whose main trait is the absence of direction toward the external world (although it is responsive to everything), and contemplation of the inner being. One of the main ways of shaping the psychology and psychophysiology of the personality on its way to self-immersion is to practice Buddhist yoga, or dhyana. The state of complete detachment from the outside world and self-immersion is deliverance, or nirvana.

In the texts of developed Buddhism this state marks the cessation of the life activity of the individual and the agitation of the dharmas and the transition of the dharmas from a state of manifestation to a state of nonmanifestation, or true being. By asserting that nirvana is a definite psychic condition of the individual, Buddhism denies the supernaturalness of deliverance from “this world,” unlike many other Indian religions and philosophic systems. Nirvana appears along with a kind of absolute; thus, this absolute is in its philosophical aspect described as sunyata (which means “the void”) and in its religious aspect as dharmakaya, or the organic unity of everything existing, understood as the cosmic body of the Buddha.

Essentially Buddhism affirms only the existence of a psychological process. Since the world appears to be incorporated in the self (there is no opposition between the self and the world), there does not exist for Buddhism an opposition of subject and object, of mind and matter, in the strict sense. A voluntary act by the self, understood as a spiritual-corporeal entity, represents the creative principle, the fundamental cause of existence. (Even Vajrayana is based on the general principle of Buddhism—the assumption of special potential forces hidden in the wholeness of the spiritual-corporeal existence of man. Vajrayana, however, is rather distant from the basic position of Buddhism and represents a particular system of the yoga practice of meditation, the most important part of which is an esoteric ritual that serves as a means of concentration of the “spiritual forces.”) The philosophical position of Buddhism may be characterized as subjective-idealistic; however, it considers the external world to be contained in the subject, not only as a fact of consciousness but also as something really existing, although unseparated from the subject.

From the nonabsolute quality (according to Buddhism) of everything that exists without relation to a subject follows the concept of a nonabsolute deity. For Buddhism there is no necessity for a god who is the creator, savior, and so forth—that is, the absolute supreme being. On the contrary, there is the possibility of recognizing “nonsupreme” deities. There is no dualism of the divine and the nondivine, of god and creation, or of god and the world. God as a superior being is immanent and dwells within the person who has attained deliverance, which is essentially the identity of man and god.

The various movements and schools of Buddhism each emphasize one of its different tendencies. In Hinayana the doctrine of personal salvation takes the form of preaching individual perfection and the ideal of the arhat, the person who has attained deliverance. Mahayana rejects the isolated tendency of individual deliverance. Instead of the ideal of the arhat it looks to the ideal of the Bodhisattva (literally, “he whose essence is enlightenment”) as a being who renounces transition to nirvana so that he may save all other beings.

In the course of its development Buddhism arrived at a recognition of the necessity of external forms of religious life. Gradually there developed a complex cult of worshipping the Buddha and the various bodhisattvas, the direct helpers to salvation. The pantheon of Buddhist godheads grew because of the introduction of gods of primordial Indian origin and those borrowed from the religions of peoples who had accepted Buddhism. The buddhas Gautama, Amitabha, and Vairochana are regarded as the principal deities. They are viewed as reincarnations of a supposedly unique primordial Buddha. Yet none of the Buddhist gods, including the Buddha himself, became supreme gods. The cult quickly embraced all aspects of the believer’s life, beginning with everyday family events and ending with community holidays, which occupied a prominent place in social life. Ceremonial processions around the stupas (memorial and sepulchral dome-shaped structures), prostrations before the statues of the Buddha and other deities and before sacred trees and so forth, offerings on the altars of the temples and burning of aromatic candles, and other rituals gained great importance. Pilgrimages to sacred places, which are connected mostly with relics and vestiges of the Buddha and his disciples but also with legends of their exploits, became common. The cult acquired especially complicated forms with some branches of Mahayana, particularly Lamaism. At the same time the doctrine of religious retribution, including notions of hell and paradise, evolved in Mahayana.

Shortly after the birth of Buddhism, the sanghas appeared. These were monastic communities that ordered and specifically regimented the anarchic way of life of the first followers of Buddhism. A specific religious organization gradually developed from the sanghas. Its role grew in importance with the appearance of monasteries as permanent residences of the monks. The monk became a religious teacher; in the eyes of believers, he was actually on the way to salvation and for that reason alone was surrounded by an aura of superiority; thus his role became extremely important. In the countries where Hinayana exists, monasticism plays an enormous role in social life even today. Advice from a monk is law to believers. The monasteries became big landowners and important political centers, often possessing more authority over the population than government institutions, especially in the villages. However, entrance into and withdrawal from a monastic community are voluntary. The monk, even in his role as a religious functionary and teacher, has no power to forgive or punish a person for his actions.

Buddhism had an essential influence on all aspects of life and civilization in the countries that accepted it. The diffusion of Buddhism gave rise to those syncretistic cultural forms which make up the so-called Buddhist civilization in architecture, sculpture, painting, literature, science, and scholastic education; these reached their greatest importance in the early Middle Ages. The monasteries played a major role in the development of Buddhist civilization in the Middle Ages. Monks were frequently artists, writers, and physicians.

The social role of Buddhism is determined by the basic principles of its dogmatics. Whatever forms it may have taken in its development, its central principle is the religious idea of the need for deliverance from the way of profane “earthly” existence. Every bond, including social bonds, is viewed by Buddhism as evil. Its detachment from all surroundings and its individualism also determine its profound asocial character. This explains the withdrawal of Buddhists from the struggle for social and political reforms and from the class war. Yet in many Asian countries a certain sector of the Buddhists and the Buddhist clergy participates in social and political life. Thus, for example, in South Vietnam the Buddhists join the national liberation struggle. At the same time, there are countries where the Buddhists are opposed to the national liberation movement and social reforms.

The structure, administration, and degree of centralization of the Buddhist community differ from country to country. In Burma and Ceylon there is neither strict centralization nor direct dependence of the community on the national authority. In Thailand, Buddhism is the state religion and the king is the head of the Buddhist community. In Laos, too, the king is regarded as the head of the Buddhist community.

The followers of Hinayana Buddhism represented in the 1960’s about 90 percent of the population in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand and about 60 percent in Ceylon; Mahayana has followers in China (about 17 percent of the population), Japan (about 50 percent), Korea, Nepal, and other countries. There are a number of Buddhists in Pakistan and India (not more than 1 percent of the population) and also among Chinese and Japanese immigrants in North America (about 170,000) and South America (about 140,000). In addition, there are small numbers of new converts to Buddhism in the USA (about 16,000) and Europe (about 8,000). The Lamaist variety of Mahayana has a number of adherents in the Mongolian People’s Republic and also on the territory of the USSR, in the Buriat, Kalmyk, and Tuva ASSR’s, and in the Ust’-Orda Buriat and the Aga-Buriat national okrugs of the Irkutsk and Chita oblasts. The Buddhist community of the USSR is headed by the Theological Administration of the Buddhists of the USSR, which is elected by an ecclesiastic council. The president of the administration has the ecclesiastical title of Bandido-Khambolama and resides in the datsan (monastery) of Ivolginsk, 40 km south of Ulan-Ude.

There are several international organizations of modern Buddhism: the most influential is the World Fellowship of Buddhists, founded in 1950 by the International Congress of Buddhists in Colombo, Ceylon. The Theological Administration of Buddhists in the USSR is a member of the World Fellowship of Buddhists.


Buddhism and art. A wide range of various artistic monuments connected with the Buddhist cult developed in the course of ancient and medieval times. Buddhist iconographic images and subjects were influenced by the traditions of local civilizations everywhere. In India, the homeland of Buddhism, the oldest monuments of Buddhist art originated; there the iconographiec traditions and a number of symbolic ideas and images evolved. The principal types of Buddhist buildings—the cave temples, where a characteristic synthesis of architecture, sculpture, and painting developed, and the stupas, erected in honor of legendary events in the life of the Buddha and as repositories of sacred relics—also evolved in India. Cave temples and monuments resembling the stupas (pagodas, dagobas, subragas, chortens, and thats) are widely found in other countries. In China, Japan, and Korea various types of wooden temples were constructed, and easel painting developed, as well as monumental painting on Buddhist subjects. Magnificent stone shrines and temple quarters are found in Indonesia, Cambodia, and other countries; monastery complexes in India, Burma, and Nepal; and the structures of Lamaist monasteries in Tibet, Mongolia, and Buriatia.

In early Buddhism many symbols were used instead of the likeness of the Buddha himself—the wheel, the deer, the lion, and the sacred tree, which are all connected with ancient Indian cosmology. Representations of the Buddha as a man appeared only at the beginning of the Common Era in the art of Gandhara and Mathura in India and later underwent various kinds of transformations in the sculpture and painting of many countries. With the spread of Mahayana, Buddhist pictorial arts were enriched by representations of local pre-Buddhist deities.



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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Dreams are very important in Buddhism, which views dreams as very often having to do with prophecy or as resulting from the influence of a deity. (Buddhist statues at the Wat Yai Chai-mongkol, Ayutthaya, Thailand.)



Buddhism is one of the great religions of the world, third in size (in terms of number of adherents) after Christianity and Islam. Originating as a splinter sect from Hinduism (much as Christianity began as an outgrowth of Judaism), Buddhism spread throughout Asia, all but disappearing in India, the land of its birth. Buddhism shares many of its basic notions, such as the doctrine of reincarnation, with Hinduism.

As in other areas of the world, Asians have speculated extensively about the significance of dreams, often coming to much the same conclusion as other cultures. Certain dreams, for instance, have often been regarded as messages from the gods. In Buddhism, which claims no supreme divinity as such, dreams can nevertheless represent messages from divine agencies.

The earliest Buddhist scriptures, for example, tell the story of how the future Buddha’s mother had a dream in which four kings carried her bed to a mountain peak where four queens greeted her with jewels and escorted her to a palace of gold: “A white elephant with six shining ivory tusks appeared and painlessly pierced her side with a thrust of its tusk. She awoke to the song of a blue bird and realized that she had immaculately conceived” (Van de Castle, p. 39—see Sources). This dream was interpreted as signifying that she was pregnant with someone who would become either a world ruler or a world teacher.

Where India outstrips other cultural traditions is in the development of the theme of this life or this world as a kind of dream. According to the mainstream of Hindu religious thought—which was adopted wholesale by Buddhism—the individual soul is trapped in the sufferings involved with life in this world. And because of reincarnation, even death does not release one from this world. In most of the religious traditions of southern Asia, including Buddhism, release or liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth is the ultimate goal of the spiritual life. A metaphor often used to describe the insight that leads directly to liberation is awakening from a dream. However, while certain schools of philosophical Hinduism have argued that this world is literally as insubstantial as a dream, most schools of Buddhist thought have emphasized that this world is as unimportant as a dream.

In the Questions of King Milinda (an early Indian Buddhist work), it is said that the persons who dream are (1) those under the influence of a deity, (2) those who dream under the influence of their experiences, and (3) those with prophetic dreams. This relative sophistication did not carry into the Theravadin tradition, in which dreams generally came to be regarded as the resulting from worldly attachments, and thus as distracting. There was, nevertheless, a distinction drawn between two forms of prophetic dreams: auspicious and inauspicious. The former result from the direct influence of a Buddha, and the latter from the unrefined tendencies of human nature. Some of Buddhism’s most interesting contributions to dreams and dream lore have been carried out by Tibetan Buddhists (see Yoga and Tibet).

The Dream Encyclopedia, Second Edition © 2009 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


a religious teaching propagated by the Buddha and his followers, which declares that by destroying greed, hatred, and delusion, which are the causes of all suffering, man can attain perfect enlightenment
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005