The History of Buddhism
Based on a talk by Dr. C. George Boeree
After his enlightenment at the age of 30, around 563 BC, the Buddha taught in
the Ganges (Gangha) valley for the remaining 45 years of his life.
1st Buddhist Council
Soon after Buddha's death (or parinirvana), five hundred monks met at the
first council. Ananda, Buddha's cousin, friend, and favorite disciple -- and a
man of prodigious memory! -- recited Buddha's lessons (the Sutras) and Upali
recited the monastic code (Vinaya) as he remembered it. The monks debated
details and voted on final versions. These were then committed to memory by
other monks, to be translated into the many languages of the Indian plains. It
should be noted that Buddhism remained an oral tradition for over 200 years.
2nd Buddhist Council
In the next few centuries, the original unity of Buddhism began to fragment.
The most significant split occurred after the second council, held at Vaishali
100 years after the first.
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 Theravada or "way of the elders”
developed a complex set of philosophical ideas beyond those elucidated by
Buddha. These were collected into the Abhidharma or "higher teachings."
But this, too, encouraged disagreements, so that one splinter group after
another left the fold 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
encounter of the monk Nigrodha and the emperor Ashoka Maurya. Ashoka,
succeeding his father after a bloody power struggle in 268 BC, found himself
deeply disturbed by the carnage he caused while suppressing a revolt in the
land of the Kalingas (Orissa in eastern India). Meeting Nigrodha convinced
Emperor Ashoka to devote himself to peace. On his orders, thousands of
rock pillars were erected, bearing the words of the Buddha (the first written
evidence of Buddhism.)
Third Buddhist Council 250BC
The third council of monks was held at Pataliputra, the capital of Ashoka's
empire. The objective of the council was to purify the Sangha, particularly
from non-Buddhist ascetics who had been attracted by the royal patronage.
Following the council, Buddhist missionaries were dispatched throughout the
known world. 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 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.
It is interesting to note that there is a saint in Orthodox Christianity named
Josaphat, who was supposedly an Indian king whose story is essentially that
of the Buddha. Josaphat is thought to be a distortion of the word bodhisattva.
Sri Lanka and Theravada
Emperor Ashoka 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. One of the gifts they brought with them was a branch of the
bodhi tree, which was successfully transplanted. The descendants of this
branch can still be found on the island.
The fourth council was held in Sri Lanka, in the Aloka Cave, in the first century
BC. During this time as well, 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
In a very real sense, Sri Lanka's monks may be credited with saving the
Theravada tradition: Although it had spread once from India all over
southeast Asia, it had nearly died out due to competition from Hinduism and
Islam, as well as war and colonialism. Theravada monks spread their
tradition from Sri Lanka to Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos,
and from these lands to Europe and the west generally.
Mahayana began in the first century BC. Their more liberal attitudes toward
monastic tradition allowed the lay community to have a greater voice in the
nature of Buddhism. For better or worse, the simpler needs of the common
folk were easier for the Mahayanists to meet. For example, the people were
used to gods and heroes. So, the Trikaya (three bodies) doctrine came into
Not only was Buddha a man who became enlightened, he was also
represented by various god-like Buddhas in various appealing heavens, as
well as by the Dharma itself, or Shunyata (emptiness), or Buddha-Mind,
depending on which interpretation we look at -- sort of a Buddhist Father, Son,
and Holy Ghost!
More important, however, was the increased importance of the Bodhisattva.
A Bodhisattva is someone who has attained enlightenment, but who chooses
to remain in this world of Samsara in order to bring others to enlightenment.
He is a lot like a saint, a spiritual hero, for the people to admire and appeal to.
Along with new ideas came new scriptures. Also called Sutras, they are often
attributed to Buddha himself, sometimes as special transmissions that
Buddha supposedly felt were too difficult for his original listeners and
therefore were hidden until the times were ripe. The most significant of these
new Sutras are these:
Prajñaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom, an enormous collection of often
esoteric texts, including the famous Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra. The
earliest known piece of printing in the world is, in fact, a copy of the Diamond
Sutra, printed in China in 868 ad.
Hero's Sutra, provides a guide to meditation, shunyata (emptiness), and the
bodhisattva. It is most popular among Zen Buddhists
Pure Land Sutra, is the most important Sutra for the Pure Land Schools of
Buddhism. The Buddha tells Ananda about Amitabha and his Pure Land or
heaven, and how one can be reborn there.
There are many, many others. Finally, Mahayana is founded on two new
philosophical interpretations of Buddhism: Madhyamaka and Yogachara.
Madhyamaka means "the middle way." You may recall that Buddha himself
called his way the middle way in his very first sermon. He meant, at that time,
the middle way 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. Or between materialism and nihilism.... An
Indian monk by the name of Nagarjuna took this idea and expanded on it to
create the philosophy that would be known as Madhyamaka, in a book called
the Mulamadhyamaka-karika, written about 150 ad.
Basically a treatise on logical argument, it concludes that nothing is absolute,
everything is relative, nothing exists on its own, everything is interdependent.
All systems, beginning with the idea that each thing is what it is and not
something else (Aristotle's law of the excluded middle), end up contradicting
themselves. Rigorous logic, in other words, leads one away from all systems,
and to the concept of shunyata (void or emptiness).
Shunyata means emptiness. This doesn't mean that nothing exists. It means
that nothing exists in and of itself, but only as a part of a universal web of
being. This would become a central concept in all branches of Mahayana.
Legend has it that the Chinese Emperor Ming Ti had a dream which led him to
send his agents down the Silk Road -- the ancient trade route between China
and the west -- to discover its meaning. The agents returned with a picture of
the Buddha and a copy of the Sutra in 42 Sections. This Sutra would, in 67
AD, be 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 emerges a native Chinese Sangha. Over time, the
Mahayana of India became the Mahayana of China and, later, of Korea,
Japan, and Vietnam.
Another school that was to be particularly strongly influenced by Chinese
thought was the Meditation School -- Ch'an or Zen. Tradition has the Indian
monk Bodhidharma coming from the west to China around 520 AD. It was
Bodhidharma, it is said, who became the First Patriarch of the Ch'an School in
From the very beginning, Buddha had had reservations about his ability to
communicate his message to the people. Words simply could not carry such
a sublime message. So, on one occasion, while the monks around him
waited for a sermon, he said absolutely nothing. He simply held up a flower.
the monks, of course, were confused, except for Kashyapa, who understood
and smiled. The Buddha smiled back, and thus the Silent Transmission
Zen Buddhism focuses on developing the immediate awareness of Buddha-
mind through meditation on emptiness. It is notorious for its dismissal of the
written and spoken word and occasionally for his rough-house antics. It
should be understood, however, that there is great reverence for the Buddha,
the Dharma, and the Sangha, even when they are ostensibly ignoring, poking
fun, or even turning them upside-down.
Zen has contributed its own literature to the Buddhist melting-pot, including
The Platform Sutra, written by Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch, around 700 ad.,
The Blue Cliff Record, written about 1000 ad., and The Gateless Gate, written
about 1200 ad. And we shouldn't forget the famous Ten Ox-Herding Pictures
that many see as containing the very essence of Zen's message.
Again, we begin with the legendary: A delegation arrived from Korea with
gifts for the Emperor of Japan in 538 AD., including a bronze Buddha and
various Sutras. Unfortunately a plague led the Emperor to believe that the
traditional gods of Japan were annoyed, so he had the gifts thrown into a
canal! But the imperial court on the 600's, in their constant effort to be as
sophisticated as the courts of their distinguished neighbors, the Chinese,
continued to be drawn to Buddhism.
By the 1200's, Ch'an, relabeled Zen, came into Japan, where it was
enthusiastically adopted by, among others, the warrior class or Samurai.
Finally, let's turn out attention to the most mysterious site of Buddhism's
history, Tibet. Its first encounter with Buddhism occurred in the 700's AD,
when a Tantric master, Guru Rinpoché, came from India to battle the demons
of Tibet for control. The demons submitted, but they remained forever a part
of Tibetan Buddhism -- as its protectors!
During the 800's and 900's, Tibet went through a "dark age," during which
Buddhism suffered something of a setback. But, in the 1000's, it returned in
force. And in 1578, the Mongol overlords named the head of the Gelug
School the Dalai Lama, meaning "guru as great as the ocean." The title was
made retroactive to two earlier heads of the school. The fifth Dalai Lama is
noted for bringing all of Tibet under his religious and political control.
The lineage continues down to the present 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso,
born 1935. .
It was in the latter half of the 1800's that Buddhism first came to be known in
the west. The great European colonial empires brought the ancient cultures
of India and China back to the attention of the intellectuals of Europe.
Scholars began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts.
Adventurers explored previously shut-off places and recorded the cultures.
Religious enthusiasts enjoyed the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian
In England, for example, societies sprang up for devotees of the orient such
as The Pali Text Society and The Buddhist Society. Books were
published, such as Sir Edwin Arnold's epic poem The Light of Asia (1879).
And the first western monks began to make themselves known, such as Allan
Bennett, perhaps the very first, who took the name Ananda Metteya.
Published by the Buddhist Chaplaincy at the University of Essex,
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