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Buddhism is a religion and philosophy based on the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama, who lived between approximately 563 and 483 BCE. Originating in India, Buddhism gradually spread throughout Asia to Central Asia, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, as well as the East Asian countries of China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan.
Buddhism teaches followers to perform good and wholesome actions, to avoid bad and harmful actions, and to purify and train the mind. The aim of these practices is to awaken the practitioner to the realization of anatta (the absence of a permanent or substantial self) and achieve enlightenment. Enlightenment leads to Nirvana (Sanskrit: "extinguishment").
Some Mahayana Buddhist scriptures aim at encouraging the Buddhist practitioner to perceive the indwelling Buddha-Principle ("Buddha-nature"), the "True Self" (as opposed to the impermanent, suffering-generating "worldly self") of the Buddha inherent in all sentient beings. Such a vision is said to usher in the realisation of Great Nirvana.
Buddhist morality is underpinned by the principles of harmlessness and moderation. Mental training focuses on moral discipline (sila), meditative concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (prajņā).
While Buddhism does not deny the existence of supernatural beings (indeed, many are discussed in Buddhist scripture), it does not ascribe power for creation, salvation or judgement to them. Like humans, they are regarded as having the power to affect worldly events, and so some Buddhist schools associate with them via ritual.
What does the word "Buddha" mean?
Buddha is a word in the ancient Indian languages Pāli and Sanskrit which means "one who has become awake". It is derived from the verbal root "√budh", meaning "to awaken or be enlightened".
The word "Buddha" denotes not just a single religious teacher who lived in a particular epoch, but a type of person, of which there have been many throughout the course of cosmic time. (As an analogy, the term "American President" refers not just to one person, but to everyone who has ever held the office of American presidency.) The Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, then, is simply one member in the spiritual lineage of Buddhas, which stretches back into the dim recesses of the past and forward into the distant horizons of the future.
Gautama did not claim any divine status for himself, nor did he assert that he was inspired by a god or gods. He claimed not to be a personal saviour, but a teacher to guide those who choose to listen. A Buddha is any human being who has fully awakened to the true nature of existence, whose insight has totally transformed him or her beyond birth, death, and subsequent rebirth, and who has the ability to help others achieve enlightenment as well.
The principles by which a person can be led to enlightenment are known as the Buddhadharma, or simply the Dharma. Dharma in this sense of the rather complex term means, "law, doctrine, or truth". Anyone can free themselves from suffering as the Buddha had done, regardless of age, sex, or caste.
Buddhists believe there have been many solitary buddhas (Pāli pacceka-buddha; Sanskrit: pratyekabuddha) who achieved Enlightenment on their own but did not have the ability to teach others.
According to one of the stories in the Sutta Nipāta , right after his Enlightenment the Buddha was wondering whether or not he should teach the Dharma because he initially thought that as human beings were overpowered by greed, hatred and delusion, they wouldn't be able to see the true Dharma which was subtle, deep and hard to understand. Brahma Sahampati, however, interceded, and asked that he teach the Dharma to the world, as there are beings with little dust in their eyes that would be able to understand. With his great compassion, the Buddha agreed to teach the Dharma to the world, and at Isipatana he set in motion the Wheel of Dharma when he delivered his first sermon to the group of five monks.
Legend has it that the Buddha to be, Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit; in Pāli, Siddhattha Gotama), was born around the 6th century BCE. His birthplace is said to be Lumbini in the kingdom of Magadha, in what is now Nepal. His father was a king, and Siddhārtha lived in luxury, being spared all hardship.
The legends say that a seer predicted that Siddhartha would become either a great king or a great holy man; because of this, the king tried to make sure that Siddhartha never had any cause for dissatisfaction with his life, as that might drive him toward a spiritual path. Nevertheless, at the age of 29, while being escorted by his attendant Channa, he came across what has become known as the Four Passing Sights: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. These four sights, as they are called, led him to the realization that birth, old age, sickness and death came to everyone, not only once but repeated for life after life in succession for uncounted aeons. He decided to abandon his worldly life, leaving behind his wife and child, his rank, etc. to take up the life of a wandering holy man in search of the answer to the problem of birth, old age, sickness, and death.
Indian holy men (sādhus), in those days just as today, engaged in a variety of ascetic practices designed to "mortify" the flesh. It was thought that by enduring pain and suffering, the ātman (Sanskrit; Pāli: atta) or "soul" became free from the round of rebirth into pain and sorrow. Siddhārtha proved adept at these practices, and was able to surpass his teachers. However, he found no answer to his problem and, leaving behind his teachers, he and a small group of companions set out to take their austerities even further. After nearly starving himself to death with no success (some sources claim that he nearly drowned), Siddhārtha began to reconsider his path. Then he remembered a moment in childhood in which he had been watching his father start the season's plowing, and he had fallen into a naturally concentrated and focused state in which time seemed to stand still, and which was blissful and refreshing.
Taking a little buttermilk from a passing goatherd, he found a large tree (now called the Bodhi tree) and set to meditating. This new way of practicing began to bear fruit. His mind became concentrated and pure, and then, six years after he began his quest, he attained Enlightenment, and became a Buddha.
Historically speaking, there are questions about this story. First, there are other narrative versions of his life that do not exactly match - one has it that the Buddha leaves home in the "prime of his youth", his parents weeping and wailing all the while. Second, we know from other sources that the country of Magadha, where he was born, was an oligarchic republic at that time, so there was no royal family of which to speak. However, regardless of the details of his early life, the evidence strongly indicates that the Buddha was indeed a historical person living in approximately the same time and place in which he is traditionally placed.
It has also been advanced that the influence of Jain culture and philosophy in ancient Bihar gave rise to Buddhism.
Principles of Buddhism
The Three Jewels
Buddhists seek refuge in what are often referred to as the Three Jewels, Triple Gem or Triple Jewel. These are the Buddha, the Dharma (or Dhamma), and the "noble" (Sanskrit: arya) Sangha or community of monks and nuns who have become enlightened. While it is impossible to escape one's karma or the effects caused by previous thoughts, words and deeds, it is possible to avoid the suffering that comes from it by becoming enlightened. In this way, dharma offers a refuge. Dharma, used in the sense of the Buddha's teachings, provides a raft and is thus a temporary refuge while entering and crossing the river. However, the real refuge is on the other side of the river.
To one who is seeking to become enlightened, taking refuge constitutes a continuing commitment to pursuing enlightenment and following in the footsteps of the people who have followed the path to enlightenment before. It contains an element of confidence that enlightenment is in fact a refuge, a supreme resort. Many Buddhists take the refuges each day, sometimes more than once in order to remind themselves of what they are doing and to direct their resolve inwardly towards liberation.
In most— if not all— forms of Buddhism, the Three Jewels are taken before the Sangha for the first time, as a part of the conversion ritual.
Although Buddhists concur that taking refuge should be undertaken with proper motivation (complete liberation) and an understanding of the objects of refuge, the Indian scholar Atisha identified that in practice there are many different motives found for taking refuge. His idea was to use these differing motivations as a key to resolving any apparent conflicts between all the Buddha's teachings without depending upon some form of syncresis that would cause as much confusion as it attempted to alleviate.
It is extremely important to note that in Buddhism, the word "refuge" should not be taken in the English sense of "hiding" or "escape"; instead, many scholars have said, it ought be thought of as a homecoming, or place of healing, much as a parent's home might be a refuge for someone. This simple misunderstanding has led some Western scholars to conclude that Buddhism is "a religion for sticking one's head in the sand", when most Buddhists would assert quite the opposite.
In the 11th century, Lamp for the Path by Atisha, and in the subsequent Lamrim tradition as elaborated by Tsongkhapa, the several motives for refuge are enumerated as follows, typically introduced using the concept of the "scope" (level of motivation) of a practitioner:
- Worldly scope is taking refuge to improve the lot of this life
- Low scope is taking refuge to gain high rebirth and avoid the low realms
- Middle scope is taking refuge to achieve Nirvana
- High scope is taking refuge to achieve Buddhahood
- Highest scope is also sometimes included, which is taking refuge to achieve Buddhahood in this life.
See also: Three Jewels
The Four Noble Truths
The Buddha taught that life was dissatisfactory because of craving, but that this condition was curable by following the eightfold path. This teaching is called the four noble truths:
- Dukkha: All worldly life is unsatisfactory, disjointed, containing suffering.
- Samudaya: There is a cause of suffering, which is attachment or desire (tanha) rooted in ignorance.
- Nirodha: There is an end of suffering, which is Nirvana.
Marga: There is a path that leads out of suffering, known as the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path
Main article: Noble Eightfold Path
In order to fully understand the noble truths and investigate whether they were in fact true, Buddha recommended that a certain lifestyle or path be followed which consists of:
- Right Understanding
- Right Thought
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
Sometimes in the Pāli Canon the Eightfold Path is spoken of as being a progressive series of stages which the practitioner moves through, the culmination of one leading to the beginning of another, but it is more usual to view the stages of the 'Path' as requiring simultaneous development.
The Eightfold Path essentially consists of meditation, following the precepts, and cultivating the positive converse of the precepts (e.g. benefiting living beings is the converse of the first precept of harmlessness). The Path may also be thought of as a way of developing śīla, meaning mental and moral discipline.
The Five Precepts
Buddhists undertake certain precepts as aids on the path to coming into contact with ultimate reality. Laypeople generally undertake five precepts. The five precepts are:
- I undertake the precept to refrain from harming living creatures (killing).
- I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not freely given (stealing).
- I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.
- I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech (lying, harsh language, slander, idle chit-chat).
- I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness.
In some schools of Buddhism, serious lay people or aspiring monks take an additional three to five ethical precepts, and some of the five precepts are strengthened. For example, the precept pertaining to sexual misconduct becomes a precept of celibacy; the fourth precept, which pertains to incorrect speech, is expanded to four: lying, harsh language, slander, and idle chit-chat. Monks and nuns in most countries also vow to follow the 227 patimokkha rules.
See also: Pancasila and Buddha Statues of Bamiyan
The three marks of conditioned existence
According to the Buddhist tradition, all phenomena (dharmas) are marked by three characteristics, sometimes referred to as the Dharma Seals:
Anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: anātman): In Indian philosophy, the concept of a self is called ātman (that is, "soul" or metaphysical self), which refers to an unchanging, permanent essence conceived by virtue of existence. This concept and the related concept of Brahman, the Vedantic monistic ideal, which was regarded as an ultimate ātman for all beings, were indispensable for mainstream Indian metaphysics, logic, and science; for all apparent things there had to be an underlying and persistent reality, akin to a Platonic form. The Buddha rejected all concepts of ātman, emphasizing not permanence but changeability. He taught that all concepts of a substantial self were incorrect and formed in the realm of ignorance. However, in a number of major Mahayana sutras (e.g. the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, the Srimala Sutra, amongst others), the Buddha is presented as modifying this teaching and saying that there does truly exist an eternal, unchanging, blissful Buddhic essence (svabhava) in all sentient beings, which is the uncreated and deathless Buddha-nature or "True Self" of the Buddha himself. This immaculate Buddhic Self (Atman) is in no way to be construed as a mundane, impermanent, suffering-prone "ego", of which it is the diametrical opposite.
According to some thinkers both in the East and the West, the doctrine of "non-Self", when understood in a certain way, may imply that Buddhism is a form of nihilism or something similar. However, as thinkers like Nagarjuna have pointed out, Buddhism is not simply a rejection of the concept of existence (or of meaning, etc.) but of the hard and fast distinction between existence and nonexistence, or rather between being and nothingness. Buddhism thus has more in common with Western empiricism, pragmatism, and anti-foundationalism than it does with nihilism per se.
Anicca (Pāli; Sanskrit: anitya): All things and experiences are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent. Everything is made up of parts, and is dependent on the right conditions for its existence. Everything is in flux, and so conditions are constantly changing. Things are constantly coming into being, and ceasing to be. Nothing lasts.
Dukkha (Pāli; Sanskrit: duḥkha): Because we fail to truly grasp the first two conditions, we suffer. We desire a lasting satisfaction, but look for it amongst constantly changing phenomena. We perceive a self, and act to enhance that self by pursuing pleasure, and seek to prolong pleasure when it too is fleeting.
It is by realizing (not merely understanding intellectually, but making real in one's experience) the three marks of conditioned existence that one develops Prajņā, which is the antidote to the ignorance that lies at the root of all suffering.
See also: three marks of existence
Other principles and practices
Meditation or dhyāna of some form is a common practice in most if not all schools of Buddhism, for the clergy if not the laity.
- Central to Buddhist doctrine and practice is the law of karma and vipaka; action and its fruition, which happens within the dynamic of dependent origination (pratītya-samutpāda). Actions which result in positive retribution (happiness) are defined as skillful or good, while actions that produce negative results (suffering) are called unskillful or bad actions. These actions are expressed by the way of mind, body or speech. Some actions bring instant retribution while the results of other actions may not appear until a future lifetime. Most teachers are, however, quick to point out that though it may be a result of someone's past-life karma that they suffer, this should not be used as an excuse to treat them poorly; indeed, all should help them and help to alleviate their suffering, leading to them working to alleviate their own suffering.
Rebirth, which is closely related to the law of karma. An action in this life may not give fruit or reaction until the next life time. This being said, action in a past life takes effect in this one, making a chain of existence. The full realization of the absence of an eternal self or soul (the doctrine of anatta (Pāli; Sanskrit: anātman)) breaks this cycle of birth and death (samsara).
The first lay precept in Buddhism prohibits killing. Many see this as implying that Buddhists should not eat the meat of animals. However, this is not necessarily the case. The Buddha made distinction between killing an animal and consumption of meat, stressing that it is immoral conduct that makes one impure, not the food one eats. Monks in ancient India were expected to receive all of their food by begging and to have little or no control over their diet. During the Buddha's time, there was no general rule requiring monks to refrain from eating meat. In fact, at one point the Buddha specifically refused to institute vegetarianism and the Pali Canon records the Buddha himself eating meat on several occasions. There were, however, rules prohibiting certain types of meat, such as human, leopard or elephant meat. Monks are also prohibited from consuming meat if the monk witnessed the animal's death or knows that it was killed specifically for him. This rule was not applied to commercial purchase of meat in the case of a general who sent a servant to purchase meat specifically to feed the Buddha. Therefore, eating commercially purchased meat is not prohibited.
On the other hand, certain Mahayana sutras make a stronger argument against eating meat. In the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Buddha states that "the eating of meat extinguishes the seed of great compassion", adding that all and every kind of meat and fish consumption (even of animals already found dead) is prohibited by him. The Buddha also predicts in this sutra that later monks will "hold spurious writings to be the authentic Dharma" and will concoct their own sutras and mendaciously claim that the Buddha allows the eating of meat, whereas in fact (he says) he does not. A long passage in the Lankavatara Sutra shows the Buddha weighing strongly in favor of vegetarianism, since the eating of the flesh of fellow sentient beings is said by him to be incompatible with the compassion which a Bodhisattva should strive to cultivate. Several other Mahayana sutras also emphatically prohibit the consumption of meat.
In the modern world, attitudes toward vegetarianism vary by location. In the Theravada countries of Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, monks are bound by the vinaya to accept almost any food that is offered to them, often including meat, while in China and Vietnam, monks are expected to eat no meat. In Japan and Korea, some monks practice vegetarianism, and most will do so at least when training at a monastery, but otherwise they typically do eat meat. In Tibet, where vegetable nutrition was historically very scarce, and the adopted vinaya was the Nikaya Sarvāstivāda, vegetarianism is very rare, although the Dalai Lama has recently made several comments encouraging its adoption. In the West, of course, a wide variety of practices are followed. Lay Buddhists generally follow dietary rules less rigorously than monks.
The three main branches of Buddhism
Buddhism has evolved into myriad schools that can be roughly grouped into three types: Nikaya, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Of the Nikaya schools, only the Theravada survives. Each branch sees itself as representing the true, original teachings of the Buddha, and some schools believe that the dialectic nature of Buddhism allows its format, terminology, and techniques to adapt over time in response to changing circumstances, thus validating dharmic approaches different from their own.
The Theravada school, whose name means "Doctrine of the Elders", bases its practice and doctrine exclusively on the Pali Canon. This is considered to be the oldest of the surviving Buddhist canons, and its sutras are accepted as authentic in every branch of Buddhism. Theravada is the only surviving representative of the historical Nikaya branch. Nikaya Buddhism and consequently Theravada are sometimes referred to as Hinayana or "lesser vehicle", although this is considered by some to be impolite. Native Theravada is practiced today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and portions of Vietnam and Malaysia.
The Mahāyāna, or exoteric branch, literally means "Great Vehicle" and emphasizes universal compassion and the selfless ideal of the bodhisattva. In addition to the Nikaya scriptures, Mahāyāna schools recognize all or part of a genre of scriptures that were first put in writing around 1 CE. These later scriptures were written in Sanskrit and are concerned with the purpose of achieving Buddhahood by following the path of the bodhisattva over the course of what is often described as countless eons of time. Because of this immense timeframe, many Mahāyāna schools accept the idea of working towards rebirth in a Pure Land, which is not enlightenment in itself but which is a highly conducive environment for working toward enlightenment. Native Mahāyāna Buddhism is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, and most of Vietnam.
The Vajrayāna or "Diamond Vehicle" (also referred to as Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Tantric or esoteric Buddhism) shares many of the basic concepts of Mahāyāna, but also includes a vast array of spiritual techniques designed to enhance Buddhist practice. One component of the Vajrayāna is harnessing psycho-physical energy as a means of developing profoundly powerful states of concentration and awareness. These profound states are in turn to be used as an efficient path to Buddhahood. Using these techniques, it is claimed that a practitioner can achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime, or as little as three years. In addition to the Theravada and Mahāyāna scriptures, Vajrayāna Buddhists recognise a large body of texts that include the Buddhist Tantras. Native Vajrayana is practiced today mainly in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kalmykia, areas of India, and, to a limited extent, in China and Japan.
At the present time the teachings of all three branches of Buddhism have spread throughout the world and are now easily available in the developed countries, and increasingly translated into the local language.
Buddhism after the Buddha
Buddhism spread slowly in India until the powerful Mauryan emperor Asoka converted to it and actively supported it. His promotion led to construction of Buddhist religious sites and missionary efforts that spread the faith into the countries listed at the beginning of the article.
After about 500 CE, Buddhism showed signs of waning in India, becoming nearly extinct after about 1200 CE. This was partially due to Muslim invasions and partially due to Hinduism's revival movements such as Advaita and the rise of the bhakti movement.
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 tantric and philosophic concepts. Other areas of India have never parted from Buddhism, including Ladakh and other areas bordering the Tibetan, Nepali and Bhutanese borders.
Buddhism also remained in the rest of the world although in Central Asia and later Indonesia it was mostly replaced by Islam. In China and Japan, it adopted aspects of the native beliefs of Confucianism, Taoism and Shinto respectively. In Tibet, the Tantric Vajrayana lineage was preserved after it disappeared in India.
History of the schools
Three months after the passing of Gautama Buddha, The First Council was held at Rajagaha by his immediate disciples who had attained Arahantship (Enlightenment). Maha Kassapa, the most respected and elderly monk, presided at the Council. Only two sections the Dhamma and the Vinaya were recited at the First Council. All Arahants unanimously agree that no disciplinary rule laid down by the Buddha should be changed, and no new ones should be introduced. At this point, no conflict about what the Buddha taught is known to have occurred, so the teachings were divided into various parts and each was assigned to an elder and his pupils to commit to memory. These groups of people often cross-checked with each other to ensure that no omissions or additions were made.
At the Second Council, one hundred years later, it was not the dharma that was called into question but the monks' code of rules or vinaya. This resulted in the formation of the Sthaviravādin and Mahāsanghika schools. Opinions differ on the cause of the split: the Sthaviravādins described their opponents as lax monks who had ceased to follow all the vinaya rules, while the Mahāsanghikas argued that the Buddha had never intended a rigid adherence to all the minor rules. After this initial division, more were to follow. Schism in early Buddhism was typically not on points of doctrine (orthodoxy), but in the area of practice (orthopraxy). So if two schools shared a vinaya, but were in dispute over doctrinal matters, it was likely that they would continue to practice together. However, if one group disputed the vinaya of another, this would often prevent common practice.
In the 3rd century BCE the Third Council was convened under the patronage of Emperor Ashoka, primarily for the purpose of establishing an official orthodoxy. At the council, small groups raised questions about the specifics of the vinaya and the interpretation of doctrine. The chairman of the council, Moggaliputta Tissa, compiled a book called the Kathavatthu, which was meant to refute these arguments. The council sided with Moggaliputta and his version of Buddhism as orthodox; it was then adopted by Emperor Ashoka as his empire's official religion. This school of thought was termed Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally "Teaching of Analysis". The version of the scriptures that had been established at the Third Council, including the vinaya, sutta and the abhidhamma commentaries (collectively known as Tripitaka), was taken to Sri Lanka by Emperor Ashoka's son, the Venerable Mahinda. There it was eventually committed to writing in the Pali language. The Pali Canon remains the only complete set of Nikaya scriptures to survive, although fragments of other versions exist.
Between the 1st century BCE and the 1st century CE, the terms Mahayana and Hinayana were first used in writing, in, for example, the Lotus Sutra.
The Fourth Council was convened by the Kushan emperor Kanishka, around 100 CE at Jalandhar or in Kashmir, and is usually associated with the formal rise of Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism does not recognize the authenticity of this council, and it is sometimes called the “council of heretical monks”.
It is said that Kanishka gathered 500 Bhikkhus, headed by Vasumitra, to edit the Tripitaka and make references and remarks. A set of new scriptures were approved, as well as fundamental principles of Mahayana doctrine. The new scriptures, usually in the Gandhari vernacular and the Kharosthi script, were rewritten in the classical language of Sanskrit, to many scholars a turning point in the propagation of Buddhist thought.
During and after the 2nd century, versions of the Mahayana vision became clearly defined in the works of Nagarjuna, Asanga, Shantideva, Ashvagosha , and Vasubandhu.
Around the 1st century, Buddhism spread from India through successive waves of merchants and pilgrims. It reached as far as Arabia to the west, and eastward to southeast Asia, where the first records of Buddhism date from around 400. Mahayana Buddhism established a major regional center in what is today Afghanistan, and from there it spread to China, Korea, Mongolia, and Japan. In 475, the Indian monk Bodhidharma travelled to China and established the Chan (Chinese; Japanese: Zen), school. During the first millennium, monks from China such as Yijing and Xuanzang made pilgrimages to India.
At one time, different Turkic and Tocharian groups along the northern fringe of East Turkestan (modern Xinjiang in western China) adhered to Nikaya Buddhism. However, Buddhism there was supplanted by the introduction of Islam around 1000.
Vajrayana also evolved at this stage carried from India to Tibet around 800 by teachers such as Padmasambhava and Atisha. There it initially coexisted with native belief systems such as Bön, but later came to largely supplant or absorb them. An early form of esoteric Vajrayana known as Shingon was also transmitted by the priest Kūkai to Japan, where it continues to be practiced.
There is still an active debate as to whether or not Tantrism was initially developed within Buddhism or Hinduism. Buddhist literature tends to predate the later puranic Tantras, and there is some evidence to suggest that the basic structure of tantra depends upon the Mahayana Buddhist philosophical schools. However, it is thought by others that meditative Shiva sects seem to have existed from pre-Vedic times; also, from scriptural citations and study of the Vedas, some say Tantra saw its philosophical basis in the mystical rites and mantras of the Atharva Veda (and later the Hindu Upanishads and Mahayana school of Buddhism).
See also: History of Buddhism and Timeline of Buddhism
The Buddhist canon of scripture is known in Sanskrit as the Tripiṭaka and in Pāli as the Tipiṭaka. These terms literally mean "three baskets" and refers to the three main divisions of the canon, which are:
- The Vināya Piṭaka, containing disciplinary rules for the Sāṅgha of Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as a range of other texts which explain why and how rules were instituted, supporting material, and doctrinal clarification.
- The Sutta Piṭaka (Pāli; Sanskrit: Sutra Piṭaka), containing discourses of the Buddha.
- The Abhidhamma or commentary Piṭaka, containing a philosophical systematization of the Buddha's teaching, including a detailed analysis of Buddhist psychology.
During the first few centuries after Gautama Buddha, his teachings were transmitted orally, but around the 1st Century CE they began to be written down. A given school of Buddhism will generally have its own distinctive canon of texts, which will partially overlap with those of other schools. The most notable set of texts from the early period is the Pali Canon, which was preserved in Sri Lanka by the Theravāda school. The sutras it contains are also part of the canon of every other Buddhist sect. Full versions of the original text and partial English translations are now readily available on the internet.
The appearance of the Mahāyāna tradition brought with it a collection of new texts, composed in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, many of which were also described as actual sermons of the Buddha. These include the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, the Avataṃsaka, the Lotus Sutra, the Vimalakīrti Sutra, and the Nirvana Sutra. Many of the Mahayana sutras were translated into Tibetan and classical Chinese and are also now read in the West.
The Mahāyāna canon further expanded after Buddhism was transmitted to China, where the existing texts were translated, and new texts were composed for the purpose of adapting the Indian tradition to the East Asian philosophical mindset. Many of these works are considered by modern scholars to be spurious. Other new texts, such as the Platform Sutra and the Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment did not pretend to be of Indian origin, but were widely accepted as valid scriptures on their own merits. Later writings include the Linji Lu of Chan master Linji. In the course of the development of Korean Buddhism and Japanese Buddhism, further important texts were composed. These included, for example, in Korea, some of the writings of Jinul, and in Japan, works such as Dogen's Shobogenzo.
Arguably the most thorough compilation of Mahayana sutras is found in the Tibetan canon. This is split into those texts attributed to be authored by the Buddha (Kanjur), and those texts which are understood to be commentaries by Indian practitioners (Tenjur). Vajrayāna practitioners also study distinctive texts such as the Buddhist tantras.
Recently an important archaeological discovery was made, consisting of the earliest known Buddhist manuscripts, recovered from somewhere near ancient Gandhara in northwest Pakistan. These fragments, written on birch bark, are dated to the 1st century and have been compared to the Dead Sea scrolls in importance. Donated to the British Library in 1994, they are now are being studied in a joint project at the University of Washington.
Relations with other faiths
Some Hindus (primarily in the northern regions of India) believe that Gautama is the 9th incarnation (see avatar) of Vishnu; there are accounts of the Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu that are pro- and anti-Buddhist (i.e., either Vishnu "really meant" what he said while incarnated as Buddha or he was just messing with the Nastikas ). This is not a majority view, however.
Traditionally, there has been a sharp distinction between Buddhism and what is today called "Hinduism"; this distinction is more accurately between Astika and Nastika philosophies, that is, philosophies in India which either affirmed the Vedas as divinely revealed scriptures or else regarded them as fallible human inventions. Thus Buddhism is essentially a heresy vis ā vis orthodox Indian philosophy, though there are many syncretic or ecumenical tendencies within either group which are accepting of the beliefs and practices of the other.
In the Japanese religion of Shintoism Buddha is seen as a Kami (god). The Bahá'í Faith states he was an independent Manifestation of God. Siddhartha Gautama is thought to have been sanctified by the Roman Catholic Church as Saint Josaphat based on a mistaken account of his conversion to Christianity. Some Muslims believe that Gautama Buddha is Dhul-Kifl, one of the prophets mentioned in the Qur'an.
Jainism is an ancient religion and school of thought that predates Buddhism. One of its two most recent teachers, Mahāvīra (599 - 527 BC), was a senior contemporary of the Buddha whose philosophy, sometimes described as dynamism or vitalism, was a blend of the earlier Jain teacher Pārśvanātha 's order and the reforms instituted by Mahavira himself. Dialogues between the Buddha's disciples and Mahāvīra are recorded in Jain texts, and dialogues between Mahāvīra's disciples and the Buddha are included in Buddhist texts.
Buddhism in the modern world
Estimates of the number of Buddhists vary between 230 and 500 million, with 350 million as the most commonly cited figure. 
In northern Asia, Mahāyāna remains the most common form of Buddhism in China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Singapore. Theravāda predominates in most of Southeast Asia, including Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, as well as Sri Lanka. Vajrayāna is predominant in Tibet, Mongolia, portions of Siberia and portions of India, especially those areas bordering Tibet. Kalmykia, while geographically located in Europe, is culturally closely related to Mongolia and thus its Buddhism is more properly grouped with Asian than with Western Buddhism.
While in the West Buddhism is often seen as exotic and progressive, in the East Buddhism is regarded as familiar and part of the establishment. Buddhist organizations in Asia frequently are well-funded and enjoy support from the wealthy and influential. In some cases, this has led critics to charge that certain monks and organizations are too closely associated with the powerful and are neglecting their duties to the poor.
Buddhism and the West
In the latter half of the 19th century, Buddhism (along with many other of the world's religions and philosophies) came to the attention of Western intellectuals. These included the pessimistic German philosopher Schopenhauer and the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who translated a Buddhist sutra from French into English. German writer Hermann Hesse also showed great interest in the eastern religion, even writing a book entitled Siddhartha. Spiritual enthusiasts enjoyed what they saw as the exotic and mystical tone of the Asian traditions. At first Western Buddhology was hampered by poor translations (often translations of translations), but soon Western scholars began to learn Asian languages and translate Asian texts. In 1880 J.R. de Silva and Henry Steel Olcott designed the International Buddhist flag to celebrate the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Its stripes symbolise universal compassion, the middle path, blessings, purity and liberation, wisdom, and the conglomeration of these. The flag was accepted as the International Buddhist Flag by the 1952 World Buddhist Congress .
In 1899 Gordon Douglas became the first Westerner to be ordained as a Buddhist monk.
The first Buddhists to arrive in the United States were Chinese. Hired as cheap labor for the railroads and other expanding industries, they established temples in their settlements along the rail lines. See the article on Buddhism in America for further information.
The Buddhist Society, London was founded by Christmas Humphreys in 1924.
The cultural re-evaluations of the hippie generation in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to a re-discovery of Buddhism, which seemed to promise a natural path to awareness and enlightenment. Many people, including celebrities, traveled to Asia in pursuit of gurus and ancient wisdom. Buddhism had become the fastest-growing religion in Australia and many other Western nations by the 1990s, in contrast to the steady decline of traditional western beliefs (see Christianity).
A distinctive feature of Buddhism has been the continuous evolution of the practice as it was transmitted from one country to another. This dynamic aspect is particularly evident today in the West. Chögyam Trungpa, the founder of the Shambhala meditiaton movement, claimed in his teachings that his intention was to strip the ethnic baggage away form traditional methods of working with the mind and to deliver the essence of those teachings to his western students. Another example of a school evolving new idioms for the transmission of the dharma is the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, founded by Sangharakshita.