Advent of Buddhism

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Buddhism is a heterodox philosophy that came as a challenge to Vedism. Its founder was Siddhartha Gotama Buddha born around 566 BC. When he was twenty-nine, he left the comforts of his home to seek the meaning of the suffering he saw around him. He adopted the means of self-mortification and then sat immersed in meditation beneath a bodhi tree to attain nirvana. On the full moon of May, with the rising of the morning star, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, the enlightened one. Around him developed a community or Sangha of monks and, later, nuns, drawn from every tribe and caste, devoted to practicing this path. In approximately 486 BC, at the age of 80, the Buddha died. His last words are said to be:

Impermanent are all created things; Strive on with awareness.

He and his followers devoted their lives to Madhyamaka (The Middle Way), a lifestyle that is midway between the extremes of hedonistic pleasure and extreme asceticism. But he may also have referred to the middle way between the competing philosophies of eternalism and annihilationism — the belief that the soul exists forever and that the soul is annihilated at death. Middle way consists of the Noble Eight-fold Path — “Right Views, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Recollection and Right Meditation.” It also entails the elimination of thirst or desire, which causes rebirth and consequent suffering (philosophy of sarvam dukkham meaning everything is sorrowful). Desire attaches a person to his self which is transient — this is the Buddhist concept of sarvam anityam (everything is transient).

Soon after Buddha’s death, five hundred monks met at the first council at Rajagrha, under the leadership of Kashyapa. They debated details and approved final versions, which were then committed to memory by other monks and translated into many Indian languages. Buddhism remained an oral tradition for over 200 years. In the next few centuries, the unity of Buddhism began to fragment and split occurred after the second council, held at Vaishali 100 years. After debates between a more liberal group and traditionalists, the liberal group left and labeled themselves the Mahasangha — “the great sangha”. They would eventually evolve into the Mahayana tradition of northern Asia. The traditionalists, now referred to as Sthaviravada or “way of the elders” (or, in Pali, Theravada), developed a complex set of philosophical ideas beyond those elucidated by Buddha. These were collected into the Abhidharma or “higher teachings”. But due to their own interpretations of various issues, ultimately 18 schools developed and spread all over India and Southeast Asia. Today, only the school stemming from the Sri Lankan Theravadan survives.

One of the most significant events in the history of Buddhism is the chance meeting of the monk Nigrodha and the emperor Ashoka. That meeting convinced Ashoka to devote himself to peace after he found himself deeply perturbed by the carnage he caused while suppressing a revolt in the land of the Kalingas. On his orders, thousands of rock pillars were erected, bearing the words of the Buddha, in the Brahmi script — the first written evidence of Buddhism. The third council of monks was held at Pataliputra, the capital of Ashoka’s empire. There is a story that tells about a poor young boy who, having nothing to give the Buddha as a gift, collected a handful of dust and innocently presented it. The Buddha smiled and accepted it with the same graciousness he accepted the gifts of wealthy admirers. That boy, it is said, was reborn in the form of the Emperor Ashoka.

Ashoka sent missionaries all over India and beyond. Some went as far as Egypt, Palestine, and Greece. St. Origen even mentions them as having reached Britain. The Greeks of one of the Alexandrian kingdoms of northern India adopted Buddhism, after their King Menandros (Pali: Milinda) was convinced by a monk named Nagasena. A Kushan king of north India named Kanishka was also converted, and a council was held in Kashmir in about 100 AD. Greek Buddhists there recorded the Sutras on copper sheets which, unfortunately, were never recovered. Emperor Ashoka also sent one of his sons, Mahinda, and one of his daughters, Sanghamitta, a monk and a nun, to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) around the year 240 BC. The king of Sri Lanka, King Devanampiyatissa, welcomed them and was converted.

The fourth council was held in Sri Lanka, in the Aloka Cave, in the first century BC, and for the first time, the entire set of Sutras were recorded in the Pali language on palm leaves. This became Theravada’s Pali Canon, from which so much of our knowledge of Buddhism stems. It is also called the Tripitaka (Pali: Tipitaka), or three baskets: The three sections of the canon are the Vinaya Pitaka (the monastic law), the Sutta Pitaka (words of the Buddha), and the Abhidamma Pitaka (the philosophical commentaries). Theravada monks spread their tradition from Sri Lanka to Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos, and from these lands to Europe and the west as well.

Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Ming Ti had a dream. To discover its meaning, he sent his agents down the Silk Road — the ancient trade route between China and the west. The agents returned with a picture of the Buddha and a copy of the Sutra in 42 Sections. This Sutra was, in 67 AD, the first of many to be translated into Chinese. The first Buddhist community in China is thought to be one in Loyang, established by “foreigners” around 150 AD, in the Han dynasty. Only 100 years later, there emerged a native Chinese Sangha. And during the Period of Disunity (or Era of the Warring States, 220 to 589 ad), the number of Buddhist monks and nuns increased to as many as two million!

After about 500 CE, Buddhism showed signs of waning in India, becoming nearly extinct after about 1200 CE. This was partly due to Hinduism’s revival movements such as Advaita and the rise of the bhakti movement. With the passage of time, the local Buddhist population gradually assimilated into Islam, hence the concentration of South Asian Islam in the far west and east of the Subcontinent. In Chachnamah, there are references of Buddhists in Sind who were seeking support from outside, in 10 A.D when Ibn Nadim wrote his al- Fihrist the Buddhist had lost ground, and when al-Biruni came to sub-continent (now areas in Pakistan) he only met Hindus but could not meet any sermon to learn about Buddhism. Nevertheless, elements of Buddhism have remained within India to the current day: the Bauls of Bengal have a syncretic set of practices with strong emphasis on many Buddhist concepts. Other areas of India have never parted from Buddhism, including Ladakh and other areas bordering the Tibetan, Nepali and Bhutanese borders.

This article was last updated on Monday, Jan 03, 2005