Discover Buddhism, a major world religion with almost 500 million adherents, especially in southeast Asia, China, and Japan. From its spread through India into China, Japan, and the rest of Asia, notably including World War II, Buddhism has shaped the world.
By Mark D. Harris
The sixth century BC was pivotal in the history of the world. Babylon conquered Jerusalem (597 and 586 BC), thus ending the Israelite monarchy. Mahavira (599-527), also known as Vardhamāna the 24th fordmaker, founded the Jain religion. In India, the Brahminic Vedas began to be replaced by the Upanishads, thus signaling a transition from a ritualist Brahmanism to a philosophical Hinduism. In China, Lao Tzu (604-521 BC) wrote the seminal tome, Tao te Ching (Book of the Way), combining earlier influences into a recognizable Taoism. Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 BC) founded Buddhism, one of the most prevalent religions in the world.
Buddhism today boasts almost 500 million adherents worldwide. Many who would not consider themselves Buddhists per se practice Buddhist meditation and hold Buddhist beliefs without self-identifying with the religion. Gautama is variously known as the Sakyamuni (sage of the Sakyas), the Tathagata (enlightened One), and the Buddha (one who is awake). Any student of world religions should know something about the work of the Buddha. Christians should have an idea of what Buddhism is, and how to best minister to the followers of Gautama.
The Life of the Buddha
Very little is known about Siddhartha Gautama, the man who was later revered as the Buddha. Legend suggests that he was born a prince in the Republic (or oligarchy) of Sakya, located in northeast India. His biological mother Maya dreamed that he would be a great man but died within a week of his birth. Gautama grew up in wealth and luxury. Gautama married a local princess, Yasodhara, and the couple had one son, Rahula.
Still according to legend, Gautama traveled through the countryside at age 30 and for the first time encountered aging, disease, death, and an ascetic. These “four sights” disturbed and inspired him. After pondering such sights, Siddhartha decided to leave his royal prerogative and seek enlightenment as an ascetic, abandoning his wife, son, inheritance, and position. Having experienced worldly wealth and power as a prince, Gautama tried asceticism to find enlightenment. After nearly dying several times, he abandoned self-denial just as he had done self-indulgence. Meditating under a Bodhi (enlightenment) tree, Gautama found enlightenment and became a Buddha. For the next 40 years, the Buddha traveled about, accumulating disciples, and spreading his ideas about enlightenment to anyone who would listen. Having been a prince and understanding political power, the Buddha cultivated friendships with Bimbisara (558-491 BC), king of Magadha, and Pasenadi (c. 534 BC), king of Kosala. His wife Yashodhara became a Buddhist nun (bhikkhuni) and his son a Buddhist monk (bhikkhu). The Buddha gained power and influence, accumulating hundreds of monks and lay disciples by the time of his death. Shortly after his passing, the Buddha’s followers had the First Buddhist Council to codify his words into the primary scriptures of Buddhism, the Tipitaka.
History of Buddhism
The earliest Buddhists were the Theravada Buddhists, who followed the teachings in the Tipitaka. These canonical scriptures included the Vinaya Pitaka (regulations for monks), Sutta Pitaka (discourses of the Buddha), and Abhidhamma Pitaka (summary of Sutta Pitaka). Around 350 BC, a Second Buddhist Council met to discuss doctrinal issues and ended up giving birth to numerous schools of interpretation. The Mauryan Empire (322-180 BC) adopted Buddhism and gained suzerainty over much of the Indian subcontinent. Mauryan money and power helped Buddhism spread throughout India.
The first major split in Buddhism came with the development of Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) Buddhism in the first century BC. Mahayana Buddhists added sutras such as the Lotus Sutra, Diamond Sutra, and Heart Sutra to their list of holy books. Mahayana spread to Central Asia, China, Korea, and Japan over the next 800 years, while Theraveda expanded into Southeast Asia during the same time. Vajarayana-Tantric Buddhism, which arose in Tibet, appeared in the 7th century. The invasions of the Huns (AD 458 and 470) weakened Buddhism in northwest India, and the Muslim invasions from the 700s to the 1200s did the same. Combined with a Hindu resurgence, Buddhism was nearly eliminated from India.
Core Beliefs of Buddhism
The Buddha taught that Four Noble Truths characterized existence.
- Dukkha (Suffering) – Life is full of suffering, sickness, unhappiness, and death.
- Samudaya (Cause of Suffering) – People suffer for one simple reason: they desire things (physical items, people, and even personal existence).
- Nirodha (End of Suffering) – To extinguish desire is to extinguish suffering. If a person wants nothing, neither fame, wealth, power, lack of physical pain, other people, or even personal existence, they cannot suffer. To want nothing, truly nothing, is to remove the possibility of anything being taken away (like sickness taking away health or death taking away life).
- Magga (The Path) – The way to extinguish desire is to follow the eightfold path.
Noble Eightfold Path
- Right understanding (Samma ditthi) – Buddhists must reject falsehoods in all varieties. The teachings of the Buddha are a sure guide.
- Right thought (Samma sankappa) – Buddhists must rid themselves of improper thoughts, whether they be evil, false, or both.
- Right speech (Samma vaca) – Buddhists must speak clearly and truthfully, advancing the true doctrines in all circumstances.
- Right action (Samma kammanta) – Buddhists must be virtuous in action.
- Right livelihood (Samma ajiva) – Buddhists must not be butchers, arms dealers, alcohol salesmen, or poison producers.
- Right effort (Samma vayama) – Buddhists must focus on detachment from the world.
- Right mindfulness (Samma sati) – Buddhists must be aware of the nature of reality. For example, maya is illusion, and those hoping to advance in Buddhism must eliminate all illusion from their thoughts.
- Right concentration (Samma samadhi) – Buddhists must put aside all distractions.
In addition to the core precepts as given the noble truths and eightfold path, Buddhism has other concepts to help adherents succeed in their quests for moksha, release from the cycle of lives (samsara).
- Five precepts – don’t injure living, don’t steal, no sexual immorality, don’t lie, no intoxicants
- Triple refuge – Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha
- Three cardinal virtues – non-attachment, benevolence, understanding
- Three poisons – ignorance, hatred, delusion
- Four heavenly abodes – compassion, kindness, joy, peace
Buddhism and Hinduism
The Tathagata grew up in a land soaked in Hindu philosophy and ritual. Thus he adopted many of the concepts of Hinduism as he developed his own religion. Part of this was from the Buddha’s own background and part from questions that he was inevitably asked by others. Buddhism’s Hindu foundation gave credibility to Buddhism as a new religion, but also hindered Buddhism’s flexibility in developing new ways to explain old problems.
For example, Buddhism jettisoned the caste system of Hinduism. As a result, low caste Hindus often rejected Hinduism because it limited their potential to be king or high military or governmental officials. Rejecting caste attracted those disenfranchised by Hinduism. However, Buddhism adopted the Hindu belief in the cycle of lives (samsara) from which a person had to escape (achieve moksha) to enter Nirvana (similar to paradise). Adopting reincarnation turned away those who believed in one life followed by death and judgment.
Buddhist dhamma (truth, duty) is similar to Hindu dharmma. Buddhist karma, like Hindu karma, teaches that what you reap, you shall sow (primarily in subsequent lives). Cultural practices, especially dietary, are similar. Politically, Buddhists and Hindus respect Kautilya’s Arthashastra (c. 321–296 BC), a tome of statecraft that predated Machiavelli’s The Prince by 800 years.
The Monastic Community (Sangha) in Buddhism
Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are focused on their members. Their holy books provide teachings, stories, and other content for the average Joe and Jane who follow their respective faiths. Little is written about church, mosque, or synagogue leadership. By contrast, Buddhism is focused on its monks. The majority of the Tipitaka addresses what the monastic community, the Sangha (male – bhikkhu, female – bhikkhuni), should and should not do. The Vinaya Pitaka is exclusively about monks and nuns, and the teachings in the Sutta Pitaka apply first and foremost to them. In addition to strictly adhering to the Eightfold path, monks must abstain from violence, meat, sex, and intoxicants. They raise their livelihood by collecting alms from lay Buddhists. Lay Buddhists are called upon to be vegetarian and avoid intoxicants, but they live normal lives and pursue secular occupations. Lay members earn spiritual merit by commissioning idols and supporting monks and nuns. However, lay men usually must be reborn as a bhikkhu before earning moksha.
By number of adherents, Buddhism is one of the great religions of the world. Buddhism is not a missionary religion like Christianity and not a political religion like Islam and Hinduism. Buddhists have the lowest fertility rate (births per woman) of any major religion. Since they don’t reproduce physically or spiritually, Buddhists are expected to decline in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the world population in the next 50 years.
Christians can be reminded of Bible truths from the teachings of Buddhism. Believers in Christ must discipline our minds to think right thoughts (Romans 12:2, Philippians 4:4-9) and our tongues to make right speech (Ephesians 4:11-16). In fact, the idea behind the eightfold path, though not the content, is common throughout all human religions. God gave elements of truth to every religion, just like He causes the sun and rain to bless the evil and the good (Matthew 5:45). God puts His knowledge in the hearts of all men (Romans 1:18-23) and holds us all responsible for what we know.
 The Tipitaka or Tripitaka is also known as the Pali Canon because it was written in the Pali language.
 H Wayne House, Charts of World Religions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006).
 Benjamin Wormald, “Buddhists,” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, April 2, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2015/04/02/buddhists/.