Buddhism is a pan-Asian religion and philosophy, founded by Siddhartha Gautama in India in the 6th century B.C.
Spreading from India to Central Asia, South-East Asia, China, Korea and Japan, Buddhism has played an influential role in the spiritual, cultural and social life of much of the Eastern World.
During the last century, it has also attracted some adherents in the West.
Buddha, a designation, which means the “enlightened one”, lived in North-East India from c. 563 to 483 B.C. His family name was Gautama while his given name Siddhartha. He was reared in a royal family of the Kshatriya, a warrior caste.
Shocked as a young man by the inevitability of sickness, old age and death, he renounced his family life in order to wander as a Saramana, or ascetic, in search of religious understanding and a way of release from the human condition.
Discarding the teachings of his contemporaries, he was said to have achieved in meditative trance Enlightenment or ultimate understanding. Thereafter, Buddha instructed his followers (the Sangha) in the Dharma (true law) and the “middle way”—a path between a worldly life and extremes of self-denial.
The essence of Buddha’s early preaching was said to be four noble truths:
1. Life is fundamentally disappointment and suffering.
2. Suffering is a result of one’s desires for pleasure, power and continued existence.
3. To stop disappointment and suffering one must stop desiring.
4. The way to stop desiring and thus suffering is the noble eightfold path: (i) right views, (ii) right intention, (iii) right speech, (iv) right conduct, (v) right livelihood, (vi) right effort, (vii) right mindfulness, and (viii) concentration.
By following these eight noble principles of life, one may achieve Nirvana—the state of release from the sufferings of the world.
In China, from the 1st century A.D. onwards, Buddhism became mingled with the already established religions of Confucianism and Taoism.
Confucius’s philosophy, which was of little influence in his own lifetime (551-479 B.C.), had been elaborated by subsequent generations of scholars both to provide a moral basis for the political structure of Imperial China and to embrace the hallowed forms of ancestor worship which have always been practiced in China.
Taoism, based on teachings attributed to Lao Tse in the 6th century B.C., taught a quietest religion of living in the way (Tao) of nature.
In Japan, from the 6th century A.D. onwards, Buddhism became mingled with the ancient religion of Shinto, a nature worship of a multiplicity of deities honoured at shrines like that of Amaterasu, the Sun goddess, at Ise, and many Japanese still attend the places of worship of both faiths.
According to an estimate made by Britannica Book of the Year (1987), the total population of Buddhists was 307.6 million, out of which 306 million were in Asia, about half a million each in Europe, North and South America.
The sacred structure of Buddhists is known as pagoda. The pagoda is a prominent and visually attractive feature of the Buddhist and Shintoist landscapes.
Many pagodas have an extremely elaborate and delicate appearance, with tall, many-sided towers arranged is a series of tiers, balconies, and slanting roofs.
Pagodas are not designed for congregational worship. Individual prayer may be undertaken in the pagoda but is more likely to take place in an adjacent temple or remote monastery, if not at home.
In China, families bury dead members on their land, thus removing as much as 10 per cent of the land from productive agriculture.
The Communist government in China has discontinued the practice and has encouraged plowing of old burial grounds. The Tibetan Buddhists practice exposure for some dead, with cremation reserved for the most exalted priests.
Buddhism has suffered greatly in Asian lands that have come under Communist control. It has suffered in Mongolia, Tibet, North Korea, China, South Asia and parts of South-East Asia.
The Communist governments have abolished the traditional rights and privileges of the monasteries; religious buildings have been taken over and converted by the government into museums and other secular uses, abandoned or destroyed.
Anti-religious campaigns have reduced open expression of religious observances, and the number of adherents of Buddhism can now be only roughly and uncertainly estimated.