An Introduction to
To do no evil;
To cultivate good;
To purify one's mind:
This is the teaching of the Buddhas.
The Buddha's World
Buddhism and China
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. And during the Period of Disunity (or Era of the Warring
States, 220 to 589 ad), the number of Buddhist monks and nuns
increase to as many as two million! Apparently, the uncertain times
and the misery of the lower classes were fertile ground for the
monastic traditions of Buddhism.
Buddhism and China cont.
Buddhism did not come to a land innocent of religion and
philosophy, of course. China, in fact, had three main competing
streams of thought: Confucianism, Taoism, and folk
religion. Confucianisim is essentially a moral-political philosophy,
involving a complex guide to human relationships. Taoism is a life-
philosophy involving a return to simpler and more "natural" ways of
being. And the folk religion -- or, should we say, religions --
consisted of rich mythologies, superstitions, astrology, reading of
entrails, magic, folk medicine, and so on. (Please understand that I
am simplifying here: Certainly Confucianism and Taoism are as
sophisticated as Buddhism!)
Although these various streams sometimes competed with each
other and with Buddhism, they also fed each other, enriched each
other, and intertwined with each other. Over time, the Mahayana of
India became the Mahayana of China and, later, of Korea, Japan,
Buddhism & Japan
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
Although starting as a religion of the upper classes, in the 900's, Pure
Land entered the picture as the favorite of the peasant and working
classes. And in the 1200's, Ch'an, relabeled Zen, came into Japan,
where it was enthusiastically adopted by, among others, the warrior
class or Samurai.
Zen was introduced into Japan by two particularly talented monks
who had gone to China for their educations: Eisai (1141-1215)
brought Lin-chi (J: Rinzai) Ch'an, with its koans and occasionally
outrageous antics; Dogen (1200-1253) brought the more sedate
Ts'ao-tung (J: Soto) Ch'an. In addition, Dogen is particularly admired
for his massive treatise, the Shobogenzo.
Buddhism & Japan cont.
Ch'an has always had an artistic side to it. In China and elsewhere,
a certain simple, elegant style of writing and drawing developed
among the monks. In Japan, this became an even more influential
aspect of Zen. We have, for example, the poetry, calligraphy, and
paintings of various monks -- Bankei (1622-1698), Basho (1644-
1694), Hakuin (1685-1768), and Ryokan (1758-1831) -- which have
become internationally beloved.
One last Japanese innovation is usually attributed to a somewhat
unorthodox monk named Nichiren (1222-1282). Having been
trained in the Tendai or White Lotus tradition, he came to believe
that the Lotus Sutra carried all that was necessary for Buddhist
life. More than that, he believed that even the name of the Sutra
was enough! So he encouraged his students to chant this
mantra: Namu-myoho-renge-kyo, which means "homage to the
Lotus Sutra." This practice alone would ensure enlightenment in
this life. In fact, he insisted, all other forms of Buddhism were of little
worth. Needless to say, this was not appreciated by the Buddhist
powers of the day. He spent the rest of his life in relative
isolation. The Nichiren School nevertheless proved to be one of the
most successful forms of Buddhism on the planet!
Buddhism & The West
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 traditions.
In England, for example, societies sprang up for devotees of "orientalia,"
such as T. W. Rhys Davids' Pali Text Society and T. Christmas
Humphreys' 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 know, such as Allan Bennett,
perhaps the very first, who took the name Ananda Metteya. In Germany
and France as well, Buddhism was the rage.
In the United States, there was a similar flurry of interest. First of all,
thousands of Chinese immigrants were coming to the west coast in the
late 1800's, many to provide cheap labor for the railroads and other
expanding industries. Also, on the east coast, intellectuals were reading
about Buddhism in books by Europeans. One example was Henry
Thoreau, who, among other things, translated a French translation of a
Buddhist Sutra into English.
Buddhism & The West cont.
A renewal of interest came during World War II, during which many
Asian Buddhists -- such as the Zen author D. T. Suzuki -- came to
England and the U.S., and many European Buddhists -- such as the
Zen author Alan Watts -- came to the U.S. As these examples suggest,
Zen Buddhism was particularly popular, especially in the U.S., where it
became enmeshed in the Beatnik artistic and literary movement as
One by one, European and Americans who studied in Asia returned
with their knowledge and founded monasteries and societies, Asian
masters came to Europe and America to found monasteries, and the
Asian immigrant populations from China, Japan, Vietnam and
elsewhere, quietly continued their Buddhist practices.
Today, it is believed that there are more than 300 million Buddhists in
the world, including at least a quarter million in Europe, and a half
million each in North and South America. I say "at least" because other
estimates go as high as three million in the U.S. alone! Whatever the
numbers may be, Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world,
after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. And, although it has suffered
considerable setbacks over the centuries, it seems to be attracting
more and more people, as a religion or a philosophy of life.
The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom
The Four Noble Truths
1. Life is suffering;
2. Suffering is due to attachment;
3. Attachment can be overcome;
4. There is a path for accomplishing this.
The Eightfold Path
1. Right view is the true understanding of the four noble truths.
2. Right aspiration is the true desire to free oneself from attachment,
ignorance, and hatefulness.
These two are referred to as prajña, or wisdom.
3. Right speech involves abstaining from lying, gossiping, or hurtful talk.
4. Right action involves abstaining from hurtful behaviors, such as killing,
stealing, and careless sex.
5. Right livelihood means making your living in such a way as to avoid
dishonesty and hurting others, including animals.
These three are refered to as shila, or morality.
6. Right effort is a matter of exerting oneself in regards to the content of one's
mind: Bad qualities should be abandoned and prevented from arising again;
Good qualities should be enacted and nurtured.
7. Right mindfulness is the focusing of one's attention on one's body,
feelings, thoughts, and consciousness in such a way as to overcome craving,
hatred, and ignorance.
8. Right concentration is meditating in such a way as to progressively realize
a true understanding of imperfection, impermanence, and non-separateness.
The last three are known as samadhi, or meditation.
Some simple instructions for living a happy
life, courtesy of the Buddha
Here are three brief sutras, which I have edited even further, that show how the idea of
rebirth contributes to our compassion for others, as well as giving us a little comfort for
Duggata Sutta -- The hard-times sutra
When you see someone who has fallen on hard times,
overwhelmed with hard times, you should conclude: 'We, too, have experienced just
this sort of thing in the course of that long, long time.'
Sukhita Sutta -- The happy sutra
When you see someone who is happy & well-provided in life, you
should conclude: 'We, too, have experienced just this sort of thing in the course of that
long, long time.'
Mata Sutta -- The mother sutra
A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find... A
being who has not been your father... your brother... your sister... your son... your
daughter at one time in the past is not easy to
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
-- The Metta Sutta
Snelling, John (1991). The Buddhist Handbook. Rochester, VT: Inner
The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion (1994). Boston:
The Encyclopaedia Britannica CD (1998). Chicago:
The History of Buddhism. 1999. Dr. C. George Boeree. Shippensburg
University. October 22, 2007.