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A BRIEF HISTORY OF BUDDHISM

Updated: May 1



Statue of buddha raising right hand mudra
Statue of Shakyamuni Buddha

BEGINNING OF BUDDHISM: A BRIEF HISTORY


Buddhism consists of the teachings of Shakyamuni. He was born the son of the ruler of a small state in northeastern India about twenty-five hundred years ago. As a youth, he pondered about life, such as the unavoidable problems of human beings, such as aging, illness, and life and death. He renounced his worldly life at the age of nineteen. He sought to liberate all human beings, including himself, from suffering. 

 

He was open but critical of philosophies popular at that time. He studied them, sometimes practicing them, adopting or rejecting them. His search for truth continued for more than ten years. Finally, he attained supreme awakening, or perfect wisdom, meditating under a Bodhi Tree. At thirty years old, he awoke to the Dharma permeating all things and all phenomena in the universe. 

 

 Shakyamuni first preached the Dharma at Sarnath to the five ascetics. His first sermon was the Four Noble Truths. Thus began his fifty-year teaching ministry. Throughout north-central India, he brought many people to awakening. His death was at the age of eighty.   

 

Shakyamuni trusted his disciples to govern their groups for themselves. In the same way, he never dictated a standard set of doctrines for his followers. He did not intend his teachings to be the subject of scholarship. He wanted them to save people from suffering. He preached the Dharma in various ways. According to their abilities, levels of understanding, and the occasion and place. Thus, his teachings were not recorded during his lifetime.



 

TWO BRANCHES OF BUDDHISM AND THE LOTUS SUTRA: A BRIEF HISTORY


After Shakyamuni's death, different interpretations of the teachings arose among his disciples. Disciples separated into two groups—the conservatives and the liberals. Over several centuries, they divided further into about twenty sects.

 

In the mid-third century B.C., conservative Buddhism spread to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). This Theravada Buddhism spread to Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Southeast Asia. It still flourishes, having long served as a significant basis of life and culture of the people there.  

 

During the first and second centuries A.D., disputes became heated. The liberal branch criticized the conservative branch's unyielding insistence on individual release. They viewed this attitude as departing from the essential pragmatism of Shakyamuni's teachings. The liberal Buddhists initiated a movement that called for the release of all ordinary people. They compiled many of the sutras that constitute the sacred books of Mahayana Buddhism.   

 

Under this circumstance, the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wondrous Dharma, or Lotus Sutra (Saddharma-pundarīka-sūtra), was born. It was an effort to unite the two types of Buddhism in a single vehicle (One Vehicle). Its content represents the essence of Shakyamuni's teaching of wisdom, compassion, and liberation. The Lotus Sutra contains a profound message and is a superb work of literature. Thus, as time passed, people found the sutra challenging to understand. 

 

Quote: "This Mahayana movement to reevaluate the Buddha's teachings has been spreading worldwide, not only in Japan. In Western countries, many people are unsatisfied with monotheism, atheism, or materialism and finally seek the solution to their problems in Buddhism."


 

A map showing the spread of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism in Asia.
Spread of Buddhism

 

MAHAYANA DEVELOPMENT AND THE LOTUS SUTRA:

 

Mahayana Buddhism's transmission was in two streams.

 

  1. One stream went through central Asia to China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.

  2. The other stream went to Tibet and Mongolia. Today, Dalai Lama is well known for Tibetan Buddhism, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism. The Lotus Sutra made its way through the other stream into China.   

 

Kumarajiva (344-413) and other priests translated the Lotus Sutra into Chinese. Chih'i (538-597), the founder of the T'ien-t'ai sect, proclaimed that this sutra contained the Buddha's true intent. 

 

Buddhism arrived in Japan by way of the Korean Peninsula. The teaching of the Lotus Sutra has been a significant influence on Japanese culture. For example, the first law code in Japan followed the spirit of the Lotus Sutra. The priest Saicho (767-822) founded the Japanese Tendai (T'ien-t'ai) sect with the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Under this sect, many founded new sects—even Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes seated meditation as a significant religious practice. And Dogen (1200-1253) established the Soto sect. We find the spirit of the Lotus Sutra as a strong undercurrent in their thought and writings.  

 

The thirteenth-century priest Nichiren (1222-82) infused new life into the Lotus Sutra. He asserted that the only way to protect society, the nation, and the individual was to practice its teachings.

 

It has been twenty-five hundred years since the Lotus Sutra was preached. The time has come when the true spirit of the Lotus Sutra is wholly understood and shared. Let's build a better tomorrow for ourselves, our families, and everyone. Aspire toward peace for the entire world.


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