Buddhism, one of the major religions of the world, was founded by Siddhartha
Gautama, the Buddha, who lived in northern India from 560 to 480 B.C. The time of the
Buddha was one of social and religious change, marked by the further advance of Aryan
civilization into the Ganges Plain, the development of trade and cities, the breakdown of
old tribal structures, and the rise of a whole spectrum of new religious movements that
responded to the demands of the times (Conze 10). These movements were derived from
the Brahmanic tradition of Hinduism but were also reactions against it. Of the new sects,
Buddhism was the most successful and eventually spread throughout India and most of
Today it is common to divide Buddhism into two main branches. The Theravada, or
"Way of the Elders," is the more conservative of the two; it is dominant in Sri Lanka,
Burma, and Thailand (Berry 23). The Mahayana, or "Great Vehicle," is more diverse and
liberal; it is found mainly in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, and among Tibetan peoples, where
it is distinguished by its emphasis on the Buddhist Tantras (Berry 24). In recent times both
branches, as well as Tibetan Buddhism, have gained followers in the West.
It is virtually impossible to tell what the Buddhist population of the world is today;
statistics are difficult to obtain because persons might have Buddhist beliefs and engage in
Buddhist rites while maintaining folk or other religions such as Shinto, Confucian, Taoist,
and Hindu (Corless 41). Such persons might or might not call themselves or be counted as
Buddhists. Nevertheless, the number of Buddhists worldwide is frequently estimated at
- more than 300 million (Berry 32).
Just what the original teaching of the Buddha was is a matter of some debate.
Nonetheless, it may be said to have centered on certain basic doctrines. The first of the
Four Noble Truths, the Buddha held, is suffering, or duhkha. By this, he meant not only that
human existence is occasionally painful but that all beings; humans, animals, ghosts, hell-
beings, even the gods in the heavens; are caught up in samsara, a cycle of rebirth, a maze of
suffering in which their actions, or karma, keep them wandering (Coomaraswamy 53).
Samsara and karma are not doctrines specific to Buddhism. The Buddha, however,
specified that samsara is characterized by three marks: suffering, impermanence, and no-
self, or anatman. Individuals not only suffer in a constantly changing world, but what
appears to be the self, the soul, has no independent reality apart from its many separable
elements (Davids 17).
The second Noble Truth is that suffering itself has a cause. At the simplest level,
this may be said to be desire; but the theory was fully worked out in the complex doctrine
of "dependent origination," or pratityasamutpada, which explains the interrelationship of
all reality in terms of an unbroken chain of causation (Conze 48).
The third Noble Truth, however, is that this chain can be broken, that suffering can
cease. The Buddhists called this end of suffering nirvana and conceived of it as a
cessation of rebirth, an escape from samsara.
Finally, the fourth Noble Truth is that a way exists through which this cessation can
be brought about: the practice of the noble Eightfold Path. This combines ethical and
disciplinary practices, training in concentration and meditation, and the development of
- enlightened wisdom, all thought to be necessary.
For the monks, the notion of offering extends also to the giving of the dharma in the
form of sermons, to the chanting of scriptures in rituals (which may also be thought of as
magically protective and salutary), and to the recitation of sutras for the dead (Corless 57).
All of these acts of offering are intimately involved in the concept of merit-making.
By performing them, individuals, through the working of karma, can seek to assure
themselves rebirth in one of the heavens or a better station in life, from which they may be
able to attain the goal of enlightenment.
Zen or Chan Buddhism represents a movement within the Buddhist religion that
stresses the practice of meditation as the means to enlightenment. Zen and Chan are,
respectively, Japanese and Chinese attempts to render the Sanskrit word for meditation,
dhyana (Coomaraswamy 94).
Zen's roots may be traced to India, but it was in East Asia that the movement
became distinct and flourished. Like other Chinese Buddhist sects, Chan first established
itself as a lineage of masters emphasizing the teachings of a particular text, in this case the
Lankavatara Sutra (Coomaraswamy 96). Bodhidharma, the first Chan patriarch in China,
who is said to have arrived there from India in 470 A.D., was a master of this text. He
also emphasized the practice of contemplative sitting, and legend has it that he himself
spent nine years in meditation facing a wall (Davids 101).
With the importance of lineages, Chan stressed the master-disciple relationship,