Buddhism A religion that traces its history back to the BUDDHA, Siddhartha Gautama (c. 560–c. 480 B.C.E.). Buddhism is widely practiced throughout southeast and east Asia. It also has strong traditional ties to Tibet (see TIBETAN RELIGION). In the 20th century small but vigorous Buddhist communities were established in North America and Europe.


Siddhartha Gautama is said to have discerned the path that leads to release from suffering and rebirth (SAMSARA) at the age of 35. He lived almost to the age of 80. During his last 45 years he traveled widely in India, teaching and organizing the community of wandering ascetics (see SANGHA). By the time of his death or, as Buddhists prefer to say, his parinirvana (see NIRVANA), Buddhism was firmly established. During the next 1,200 years, Buddhism spread beyond India in three major waves. The first wave, associated with the famed emperor of India, ASOKA, began in the third century B.C.E. The dominant form of Buddhism at that time was Theravada, “The Teachings of the Elders.” This school adheres to the letter of Siddhartha’s teaching. Carried along the oceanic trade routes southeast of India, Theravada became the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia (also known as Kampuchea). The second major wave of Buddhist expansion began roughly in the second century C.E. By this time Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” Buddhism had become dominant. Mahayana does not adhere strictly to the Buddha’s words. It strives instead to recover the Buddha’s experience of enlightenment. Carried along the land trade routes from northwest India, Mahayana became the dominant form of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The third wave of expansion began in the seventh century and carried Buddhism to Tibet and surrounding areas. The form of Buddhism that became dominant in these regions is Vajrayana, “Diamond Vehicle.” It emphasizes the special powers of Rituals, diagrams, and objects. In India itself Buddhism virtually died out. First it succumbed to a Hindu revival movement centered on devotion to various gods that began about the eighth century C.E. This movement, known as BHAKTI, took lay supporters away from Buddhism. Then, starting in the 12th century Muslim invaders pillaged monasteries and convents and forced MONKS AND NUNS to abandon the order. Indian Buddhism began to revive, however, toward the end of the 19th century. During the 20th century some North Americans and Europeans became very interested in Buddhism (see BUDDHISM IN AMERICA).


Although one sometimes hears that Buddhists are atheists, this is not quite correct. Buddhism does not generally deny the truth of other religions; instead, it tries to supplement another truth with a truth of its own. As a result, Buddhists often WORSHIP the gods that their non-Buddhist neighbors worship. But in Buddhism it is ultimately more important to follow the Buddhist path than to worship gods. One follows the Buddhist path to redress the root problem that all sentient or conscious beings face: suffering (see FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS). Buddhism blames suffering, along with bondage to the world of ordinary existence and rebirth (samsara), on ignorance. Two kinds of ignorance are most important. The first kind leads people to think and act as if they are eternal, unchanging selves or souls. The second leads people to think and act as if things persist, when in fact, Buddhism teaches, absolutely nothing at all is eternal and unchanging. Ignorance of the truths of “no self” and “impermanence” leads to attachment and craving, and they in turn lead to suffering. To obtain release from suffering (nirvana), a person must overcome ignorance. That requires an intellectual acknowledgment of Buddhist truths, but it also requires much more. It requires a total transformation of one’s thought, action, and experience. There are paradoxes hidden in these basic truths of Buddhism, and Mahayana thinkers explored them. If one practices Buddhism to achieve nirvana, is one not craving nirvana? Again, if one practices Buddhism to achieve nirvana, is one not acting as if one had a self that could achieve release? Moreover, if one accepts Buddhist teachings as true, are they not eternal and unchanging? Questions such as these led Mahayana thinkers to formulate views that are subtle and diffi cult to understand. One such teaching, the “three body doctrine,” suggests that the buddha who appeared in our world, Siddhartha Gautama, was only a manifestation in a world defi ned by names and forms of what is beyond all names and forms. Another very important teaching holds that everything is empty, including the content of Buddhist teaching. However, in order to attain this ultimate, nirvanic realization, one may first follow the pains of “relative” truths, such as worshipping the manifested forms of the Buddha or seeing enlightenment as something to be gained. In the end, one will understand that nirvana is here and now yet beyond name and form. But MAHAYANA BUDDHISM did not limit itself to such subtle thinking. It also developed elaborate mythologies of celestial Buddhas and BODHISATTVAS. These beings practiced Buddhism not to benefi t themselves but to make it possible for all beings to achieve enlightenment.


Just as Buddhism has not required its adherents to reject other religious beliefs, so it has not required them to refrain from other religious practices. As a result, Buddhist practice varies widely. Japanese Buddhists participate in SHINTO rituals. Buddhists in parts of southeast Asia engage in spirit-cults. Some specifi cally Buddhist practices aim at achieving nirvana. THERAVADA BUDDHISM emphasizes following the Buddha’s Eightfold Path: right views, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Most forms of Buddhism have well developed traditions of MEDITATION. In Theravada, samadhi meditation focuses one’s concentration in turn on a series of exercises in order to correct certain vices; vipassana or insight meditation aims at a complete awareness of one’s surroundings. Practitioners of ZEN BUDDHISM sit and walk in meditation (ZAZEN and kinhin) and at times experience moments of satori, enlightenment. Such moments may come during ordinary activities, too, so that Zen has developed many arts, from swordsmanship to fl ower arranging. Other forms, such as PURE LAND BUDDHISM, teach their followers to rely on the assistance of a Buddha. Not all specifi cally Buddhist practices aim at enlightenment. Lay supporters within Theravada give charity, visit STUPAS, and perform other activities in the hope of acquiring merit. This merit will result in a better rebirth in the next life and take them one step closer to release. Instead of acquiring merit for oneself, Mahayana emphasizes acts of compassion to benefi t all beings.


During the 45 years of his wandering as the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama organized his community into two groups, the Sangha, that is, the community of monks and nuns, and the lay supporters. This organization has been typical of Theravada Buddhism. Monks and nuns beg for their food and devote their lives to following the Buddha’s path. Political authorities such as kings and queens have always been important lay supporters. In Mahayana the distinction between the Sangha and lay supporters tends to be much less rigid. The monastic life is not unknown, but Mahayana makes ultimate release available to those who are not religious professionals. Furthermore, in certain Mahayana traditions priests may marry, eat meat, and drink wine. Such behavior violates Theravada guidelines for monks and nuns. Although the Buddha made provision for an order of nuns, the number of nuns has traditionally been small. As Buddhism has begun to grow in Europe and North America, women are starting to assume more active leadership roles.


Buddhism is one of the world’s most important religions. At the end of the 20th century it had more than 300,000,000 adherents. Buddhism has profoundly infl uenced philosophy, literature, and the arts in Asia for over 2,000 years. In recent decades it has also been extremely popular in some segments of American society.


  • Kenneth Ch’en, Buddhism: the Light of Asia (New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 1968);
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (New York: Broadway Books, 1999);
  • Richard H. Robinson, and Willard L. Johnson, The Buddhist Religion (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1982);
  • Huston Smith and Philip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (HarperSan Francisco, 2003).


The Encyclopedia of World Religions – Revised Edition – written by DWJ BOOKS LLC.
General Editor: Robert S. Ellwood – Associate Editor: Gregory D. Alles – Copyright © 2007, 1998 by DWJ BOOKS LLC