Eamon Adams is a Columban priest who has specialized in Korean Buddhism. In this brief introduction he not only introduces key terms like Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community) and the two major Buddhist traditions Theravada and Mahayana but he also includes very interesting observations about modern Buddhism and what he calls Neo-Buddhism. These pieces describe how Buddhism changes fundamentally in order to adapt to modern Western expectations.
A Brief Introduction to Buddhism
By Eamon Adams SSC
At the present time it would seem that two types of Buddhism are prevalent in our world: Buddhism and neo-Buddhism. Although an oversimplification, on a geographical basis it is possible to attribute neo-Buddhism to Western and traditionally non-Buddhist countries and Buddhism to traditionally Buddhist countries. At the beginning of this introduction to Buddhism, it is important, I think, to highlight some of the differences between these very different forms of religious traditions. It seems as though many non-Buddhists and Westerners carry a mental image of Buddhism more in keeping with the neo-Buddhist reality than the older more traditional form of Buddhism as practiced in many Asian countries. To help clarify this gap in understanding let us turn to the concept of neo-Buddhism.
Neo-Buddhism or Buddhist rationalism tries to place Buddhism squarely within rationalist, scientific and atheistic settings. Practically, what this means is a form of Buddhism which has been cut-off from its historical roots and its natural constituency of Asian Buddhists. It rejects concepts such as faith, hell, the supernatural and good old-fashioned piety in favour of a much more ‘modern’ and sanitized form of Buddhism which emphasizes meditation, psychological concepts and compatibility with scientific theory. This form of neo-Buddhism can be observed in such popular works as Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism without Beliefs and Jean-Francois Revel’s The Monk and the Philosopher. Many, including the above mentioned, interpret Buddhism as standing in opposition to what they understand as ‘traditional religion’. In other words, from this perspective Buddhism is understood as a form of spirituality or thought which opposes concepts such as metaphysics, revelation and faith.
In a similar vein, many Christian observers and students of Buddhism have failed to comprehend the sheer breadth and diversity of the Buddhist tradition by imposing their own theological and religious categories upon the phenomenon of Buddhism. As a result, there has been a tendency in certain circles to view the more conservative forms of Buddhism as being the ‘truest’ or ‘purest’ manifestations of the tradition. This form of ‘Protestant Buddhist’ interpretation has prioritized the Buddhism found in Southeast Asia particularly Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. Two factors have been important in this approach: one, the existence of a scriptural collection which is comparable in form to the Christian bible; two, a supposed absence of piety and popular religiosity.
One of the best examples of what I have outlined as neo-Buddhism can be seen in the western portrayal of Tibetan Buddhism and the Dalai Lama. More often than not, in Western popular culture and the media Tibetan Buddhism is presented as a type of Buddhism that possesses powerful meditation techniques, deeply philosophical texts and an affinity with scientific theory. And similarly, the Dalai Lama has been idealized as a type of ‘Buddhist Pope’ who preaches the messages of humanitarianism and non-violence. Although both of the above characterizations can, to a certain extent, be made they are far from the reality of Tibetan Buddhism and would seem to have more in common with Western followers of the Dalai Lama and Tibetans in exile than with the living tradition in Tibet. In reality, amulets, talismans, deities and mandalas play important roles in Tibetan Buddhism and they, contrary to much neo-Buddhist opinion, are not simply symbolic and artistic accessories. Likewise, the Dalai Lama, although respected by the vast majority of Buddhists worldwide is not seen as being the spiritual leader of a supposedly universal style Buddhism.
We need to be aware of the danger of applying a ‘one-size-fits-all’ Western/ neo-Buddhist hermeneutic to the study of Buddhism. The Buddhist tradition is wide and varied, indeed, to such an extent that it makes more sense to speak of Buddhisms rather than simply Buddhism. With a religion so foreign to the traditional Western/Christian mindset it is essential that we try to rid ourselves off as many preconceptions and Christian biases as possible so as to at least glean what Buddhism means to Buddhists. Wilfred Cantwell Smith describes the challenge facing us (1997, p.132f):
… to understand the faith of Buddhists, one must not look at something called ‘Buddhism’. Rather, one must look at the world – so far as possible, through Buddhist eyes. In order to do that, one must know the data of what I have called Buddhist tradition …
Becoming a Buddhist
A concrete issue for any religious tradition is how one becomes a member: what does one have to do so as to be called a Christian, a Hindu or a Muslim? In the case of Buddhism this is quite a simple undertaking. This is probably the case because in Buddhism publicly professing membership is only the beginning of a journey and demonstrates nothing more than willingness to seriously investigate the path to liberation for oneself.
In-line with our conversation thus far, in reality there is no such person as a Buddhist in a general sense. One becomes a Buddhist in one sort of Buddhism or the other, in one Buddhist community or school as opposed to others. Therefore, to say that one is a Buddhist does not clarify the situation very much. For a Buddhist, to describe clearly his or her religious affiliations mention ought to be made of the Buddhist tradition in which they practice – of which there are many.
On a concrete level, the most basic and universal demand made of anyone intending to become a Buddhist is to verbally state one’s intention to ‘take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha’. With this simple declaration a man or woman demonstrates both their openness to the wisdom contained in the Buddhist tradition and their willingness to further investigate that wisdom so as to help them move closer to enlightenment. Collectively these three refuges are known as the ‘Three Jewels of Buddhism’. Let us look in more detail at each, in turn.
Siddhartha Gautama was born into a royal family in the 5th century BCE in the foothills of the Himalayas, now modern Nepal. Siddhartha lived the life of a wealthy young prince, marrying and having a son. Led by curiosity, Siddhartha made journeys outside of his palace to see what the wider world had to offer. During these ventures he came upon what are called the ‘Four Sights’: old age, sickness, death and a wandering ascetic. On seeing these realities of life Siddhartha began to wonder what caused suffering and death and, importantly, how these painful realities could be overcome. Thus began his search for liberation from the suffering of life.
At the age of twenty-nine, Siddhartha left the palace and took up the life of a wandering ascetic. For six years he exerted himself in an effort to discover the path to liberation, but without success. Eventually, Siddhartha decided on a new method of practice, that of the ‘Middle Way’. This new path was, as the name implies, the middle road between a life of luxury and that of harsh ascetic practice – a moderate way. In a village called Bodh Gaya while sitting in meditation under a tree, Siddhartha reached enlightenment and in so doing not only became aware of the ‘Truth’ but also inherited the title of ‘Buddha’ which means ‘the Awakened One’. From this time onwards disciples gathered round the Buddha, he shared his wisdom with them through preaching and began to form a community of searchers. The Buddha died at the age of eighty having spent forty-five years travelling round Indian teaching and preaching.
In Indian religious and philosophical traditions the concept of dharma has a long and complex history. For our purposes, however, we can simplify this concept and interpret it as the ‘way’ or ‘teachings’ as passed down by the Buddha and later expanded on in the Buddhist scriptures. At its most basic, Dharma can be understood to mean the teachings of Buddhism.
At the core of the Buddhist Dharma lies the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. These four truths are: 1) Life is suffering. 2) Suffering is caused be craving. 3) Cravings can be eliminated. 4) There is a path which leads to an end to cravings.
The path mentioned in the fourth of the Noble Truths is called the Eightfold Path and it outlines how people ought to live in order to move beyond cravings and as a consequence bring an end to suffering. In Buddhism this cessation of craving, which leads to liberation from the ongoing cycle of death and rebirth is known as Nirvana.
Although the Eightfold Path is straightforward and easily memorized, in reality it is a challenging and life changing set of rules which demands earnest commitment. These eight rules for life are: 1) Right Understanding 2) Right Resolve 3) Right Speech 4) Right Action 5) Right Livelihood 6) Right effort 7) Right Mindfulness 8) Right Meditation. This Eightfold Path is a way of self-transformation leading to an emotional, intellectual and moral re-orientation which affects the direction of one’s life.
Here, a final word on an important repository of the Dharma in Buddhism: Buddhist scriptures. Like many religious traditions the texts of Buddhism were not written until after the death of its founder. The oldest intact collection of these scriptures is the Pali Canon, so called because it was written in Pali in the first century BCE. There are however, many different versions of the Buddhist scriptures and there exists no common agreement as to a definitive edition – the different traditions, schools and national traditions all differ in their stances towards the Buddhist canon.
While content may differ, one aspect which the majority of Buddhist traditions have in common is the actual structure of the canon. Commonly known as the Tripitaka or Three Baskets the scriptures are divided into three collections or baskets: a) the Discourses – teachings and sermons b) the Monastic Rules – rules of discipline for the monastic community c) the Scholastic Treatises – philosophical works. It is within these three collections of the Tripitaka that the majority of Buddhist teachings can be found and in the case of Mahayana Buddhism or East Asian Buddhism the version most consulted by scripture scholars is the Japanese produced Taisho Edition. This collection was produced in the 1930s and is made up of one hundred bound volumes (each volume about one thousand pages in length) containing a total of 2,920 texts, twelve volumes of iconography, three volumes of bibliography and scriptural catalogues.
The third of the ‘Jewels’ in which Buddhists take refuge is the Sangha. Put simply, the Sangha is the whole of the Buddhist community, which is made up of four groupings: a) monks b) nuns c) lay men d) lay women. Such a community will obviously differ greatly depending upon the country and culture in which it is found. For example, a modern Sangha as might be found in a Western country such as France or Australia will differ greatly to one found in a country such as Thailand or China. Again, pointing to the danger inherent in making sweeping generalizations about Buddhism.
Though in principle the community or Sangha is made up of these four equal groupings; in reality however, most communities give more respect and power to the ordained sections of the Sangha. It is often the understanding that monks and nuns are, due to their stations in life, further down the road of enlightenment and are therefore due more respect. Traditionally, it was also an important duty of the lay sections of the community to provide for the monks and nuns material wellbeing. Again, this practice varies greatly from one country to another.
An interesting topic is the second of the mentioned Sangha groupings, that of nuns. Although the ordination of Buddhist nuns dates back to the time of the Buddha it was only after much debate and encouragement from his disciples that the Buddha eventually granted permission for women to receive ordination. And even then some special rules were enacted for them which essentially made them subordinate to their male counterparts. An example of one such rule is that instructing senior nuns to treat junior monks as their seniors.
Some of the historical records are sketchy on tracing the development of the nuns’ Sangha, but it seems to have become very weak in certain countries from about the twelfth century CE onwards. This was particularly the case in the countries of Southeast Asia where today the nuns’ Sangha is particularly weak, if existent at all. In contemporary East Asia, on the other hand, the number of vocations to the monastic life among women is high, with countries such as Taiwan and Korea boasting both high numbers and high academic standards among its nuns.
The Theravada Tradition and the Mahayana Tradition
After the Buddha’s death, leadership and decision making within the Buddhist tradition became much more of an issue. Roughly a century after Buddha’s death one of the most serious disagreements in the history of Buddhism occurred. This disagreement was between two main groupings who we can call the Elders (Sthaviras) and the Universal Assembly (Mahasanghikas). Although not completely certain, it seems that the crux of the disagreement was over the status of the Buddha compared to that of an Arhat, with the Universal Assembly placing the Arhat in a lower bracket than the Buddha. There were many other issues involved in this dispute, too many to deal with here, and the eventual outcome was a schism, which would eventually, after much time, separate Buddhism into two distinct traditions: The Theravada Tradition and the Mahayana Tradition.
Finding its roots in the above dispute, the greatest single difference between these two traditions is a matter of emphasis. The Mahayana tradition, or the Great Vehicle, instead of placing a premium on individual liberation highlighted the importance of working to save others. This tendency developed until it grew into the very complex and important doctrine of the Bodhisattva ideal. And it is this distinction more than any other which drew a dividing line between the Theravada tradition and the Mahayana tradition.
The Bodhisattva Ideal
The title Bodhisattva means an ‘enlightened being’, a being who postpones their personal liberation in favour of trying to help other sentient beings obtain liberation. Traditionally, the term bodhisattva had been used, also in the Theravada school, to refer to the manifestations of the historic Buddha in his previous lives as described in the Jataka stories of Buddha’s different incarnations. However, in the Mahayana tradition this concept was developed in a radical fashion which emphasized the necessity of exercising compassion in the way one lives life. This goal of living a compassionate life became central to Mahayana Buddhism, eventually becoming known as the bodhisattva path. In short, this path demands that believers who have the opportunity to obtain liberation/nirvana forgo this and instead use the merit accrued to share with all other sentient beings. When compared to the Theravada way of thinking, the Mahayana tradition places a much greater degree of importance on universal salvation and the believers duty to play an active role in bringing about this salvation.
The Modern Buddhist World
We will conclude our discussion with a brief overview of Buddhism in the modern world. Although certain aspects and tendencies are common to all forms of Buddhism to different and varying degrees, there are others which are unique to particular traditions, schools and national forms of Buddhism. Probably the most uniformed type of Buddhism is the Theravada tradition found in Southeast Asia: Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand. However, these similar manifestations of Buddhism also contain many unique and cultural bound aspects found in only one area or region.
When we turn to the Mahayana tradition the picture becomes much more complex and, indeed, colourful. When we speak of Mahayana Buddhism we are predominately referring to East Asia, Central Asia and to a much lesser extent countries found in the West. The degrees of variation found in forms of Buddhism within these areas are so wide that we can only mention some of the schools in question and nothing more. To name only a few, in China we have Pure Land, Huayan, Chan; in Korea Seon, Yeolban, Haedong; in Japan Shingon, Nichiren, Jodo Shinshu. Add to this the many schools of Buddhism found in Tibet, Taiwan and Vietnam and one gets an idea of the variety of Buddhisms in the modern world.
Finally, when examining Buddhism as found in its various settings it is important to remember that far from being a uniformed tradition it is, in fact, one of huge diversity. Buddhism, over the years, has spread to many countries and cultures and in so doing adapted very well to those local cultures and traditions. Buddhism’s flexibility in adapting to changing realities has led to its having become an extremely complex, diverse and rooted tradition. With this in mind we ought to remember that as a religious tradition Buddhism is well deserving of our attentions and efforts so as to understand it as best we can.
Batchelor, S., (1998) Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening, New York: Riverhead Books
Revel, J. F., (2000) The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life, New York: Schocken Books
Smith, W.C., (1997) Modern Culture from a Comparative Perspective, ed. By J.W. Burbridge, Albany: SUNY
SHORT LIST OF SUGGESTED GENERAL READING
Conze, E., (1980) A Short History of Buddhism, London: Allen and Unwin
Conze, E., (2001) Buddhism: Its Essence and Development, Birmingham: Windhorse
Gombrich, R., (1988) Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo, London: Routledge and Kegan
Harvey, P., (1998) An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Klostermaier, K., (2002) Buddhism: A Short Introduction, Oxford: Oneworld
Pye, M., (1979) The Buddha, London: Duckworth
Schmidt-Leukel, P., (2006) Understanding Buddhism, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press
Williams, P., (1989) Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, London: Routledge
Williams, P. and Tribe, A., (2000) Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition, London: Routledge
Glossary of Buddhist Terms
One aspect of engaging with a religion for the first time is understanding the special terminology it uses. In the case of Buddhism, one will encounter Sanskrit, Pali and Tibetan terms. The two websites links below – one from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and one from the Worldwide Buddhism Information and Education Network – provide an excellent Buddhist glossary and deal with variant spellings in a format that makes for easy searching. Both also provide succinct explanations for special terms which are usually encountered in English, terms like “four noble truths,” “pure land” and “emptiness.”
Buddhism—General Surveys: Online
Patheos is a good online website devoted to engaging in the global dialogue about religion and spirituality. It aims to provide accurate, balanced information about the world’s religions. The section on Buddhism provides readable and accessible materials under the headings of: origins, history of development, ritual, beliefs and philosophy, and ethics and community.
The Buddhanet website on Buddhism comes from within the Buddhist community –Buddha Dharma Education Association– rather than from an academic institute. It does not have a critical approach in its presentation but the material presented is succinct. For example, the piece on Korean Buddhism is about 1000 words in length. It is most suitable as an educational tool for people thinking of becoming Buddhists.
Although this BBC website on Buddhism has been archived and is no longer maintained, nevertheless it provides interesting readable pieces on many aspects of world Buddhism with little technical jargon. It does not aim to be academic or systematic but rather provide short background context for current news items. It could be useful for a person approaching Buddhism for the first time and interested in its contemporary relevance.
The Wikipedia article on Buddhism is more academic than the other websites mentioned here. It contains hundreds of other links embedded in the text but, though very informative, this has an adverse effect on its readability and narrative style. It provides useful photographic clips which other websites and books do not.
The Teaching Company
The Teaching Company (The Great Courses) provides university level introductions to Buddhism and other topics in the format of 30-minute lectures which can be downloaded either in audio format or video format. Every course is typically on sale several times a year so it is rarely necessary to pay the full price. Each course comes with a detailed outline of each lecture, and an optional extra is the full text of all the lectures.
The course “Buddhism” consists of 24 lectures and gives a very good account of the fundamental differences between the different kinds of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, as well as important geographical variations such as Tibet and Japan. The second Teaching Company course, entitled “Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad,” consists of 36 lectures and it compares the founding figures and early doctrines of Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. This course displays the advantages of the comparative religion approach.
The interesting way to learn about Buddhist items that are making the news is to create a Google alert. To do this, visit Google alerts at https://www.google.com/alerts
In the “Create an alert about” box, enter the word “Buddhism.” You may add extra words, for example, “China” in order to narrow down the search. You can then arrange to receive emails about the topic, daily or weekly.
Buddhism—General Surveys: Books
Keown, Damien. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
This is one of the popular Very Short Introduction series. Keown’s book is very lucid and surprisingly comprehensive for 186 pages—short and sweet and particularly suitable for beginning students. It is quite insightful on ethical issues.
Robinson, Richard H., and Johnson, Willard L. The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction. 4th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1997.
This standard introduction to the history of Buddhism is more sophisticated and demanding than Keown’s Introduction. While conveying the complexity of the different traditions it manages to give a clear and readable overview not only of the institutional history of Buddhism but also of its doctrine, ritual and devotions. The fact that it has gone to a fourth edition indicates its popularity as a university undergraduate level textbook.
Masao Abe, “Buddhism.”
This 70 page lucid description of Buddhism is one chapter of the book Our Religions, edited by Arvind Sharma, in 1995. The book is divided into seven chapters with one chapter for each of the major world religions. The author of each article is not only a scholar but also an adherent of that particular religion. Masao Abe is a Japanese Buddhist and professor in religious studies, a Buddhist insider who can speak to outsiders in the language of Western academic culture. The article also displays Abe’s experience of Buddhist-Christian interfaith dialogue and dialogue with Judaism
Buddhism: Scriptural Sources
Strong, John S. The Experience of Buddhism: Sources and Interpretations. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1995, 3rd edition, 2007.
Although the study the scriptural sources may not appeal to beginning students of Buddhism, nevertheless they can provide surprising insights into the doctrines and history of Buddhism. Not only does Strong’s book have a historical sweep with selections from classical India and Sri Lanka right through to 20th century Buddhism, giving a good representative sample of Theravada, Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhist texts, but each selection is introduced by an excellent commentary from Strong.
Conze, Edward. Buddhist Scriptures. London: Penguin Books, 1959.
One of the earliest efforts to translate Buddhist scriptures into English was done by Edward Conze. It is considered a classic and aims to capture what Conze deemed to be the central doctrines of Buddhism. Though a Trojan effort for the time, Conze confines his choices to the early period of Buddhism (to about 500 CE). By contemporary printing standards, its presentation is much less attractive and readable than Strong’s anthology.
Buddhist Christian Dialogue
Instead of the Comparative Religions (or History of Religions) approach to Buddhism, there is also the Dialogical approach, doing faith-to-faith engagement on common themes, for example on forgiving one’s enemies or on environmental responsibility. This approach is sometimes called the Comparative Theology approach.
Buddhist-Christian Studies, a journal published by the University of Hawaii, carries a wide range of such articles, for example “Buddhist Insights on Christian Marriage,” and “Is Buddhism Indispensable in the Cross-Cultural Appropriation of Christianity in Burma?” However, the online site does not always provide the full article but only a summary.
A special issue of the journal Current Dialogue, published in 2011, provides several short examples of the engagement between Buddhism and Christianity. The geographic focus for the articles is Sri Lanka. One of them is by the famous Jesuit Aloysius Pieris.
The most sophisticated source materials on the comparative theological approach to interreligious dialogue comes from the Journal of Comparative Theology published by Harvard Divinity School. In this approach, there is a committed stance in which the Christian theologian/philosopher’s own tradition and assumptions are critically related to another religious tradition. The leading light here is Francis X. Clooney so there is a strong emphasis on interreligious dialogue with Hinduism. The articles provide guideposts about how this approach might be used in relation to Buddhism. The journal is academically challenging, aiming at graduate level.
Kung, Hans. Christianity and the World Religions. New York, Doubleday, 1986. (Paperback Orbis Books, 1993)
The subtitle of this book is: “Paths to Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism” and is a very good example of how university experts in four traditions engage in interreligious dialogue, and gives a sense of the level of knowledge that is necessary to do so competently. This book is the transcript of actual dialogues that took place at the University of Tübingen and so it carries the freshness of actual engagement. Kung’s dialogue partner for Buddhism was Heinz Bechert. Their dialogue gives a sense of the structure of Buddhism and does not get bogged down in minute details or popular images. However, given the academic setting for these dialogues, the encounters may seem overly sedate with little of the highly emotional conflicts which often characterize interreligious dialogue encounters.
Ciin Sian Khai, “Buddhist-Christian Dialogue: A Way Towards Peaceful Co-Existence in Myanmar”. Hamburg: Missionshilfe-Verlag, 2015. [Reviewed by Pat Colgan]
“Buddhist-Christian Dialogue: A Way towards Peaceful Coexistence in Myanmar” is the doctoral dissertation of Professor Ciin Sian Khai at the Academy of Mission at the University of Hamburg (‘Missionshilfeverlag’, 8).
As Myanmar reengages the wider world, with much current interest in the outcome of the National Election there on the 8th of November 2015, this study is both timely and significant. Professor Khai situates dialogue in the context of the history, often tumultuous, occasionally harmonious, of interfaith relations in Burma/Myanmar; in particular the colonial introduction of Christianity through Portuguese traders in the 17th and the British Raj in the 19th centuries, leading to the oft-heard slogan “Mission, Merchants and Military”.
Buddhism made its Burmese appearance in the Theravada form from Southern India and Sri Lanka in the early 7th Century CE; and the Mahayana variety simultaneously came down from China – depending on which local dynasty held sway. 88% of the population professing Buddhism leads to the second again oft-quoted mantra of Myanmar, “To be a good Bamar is to be Buddhist” (Christianity is stronger among the ethnic tribes, Shan, Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin etc).
A weakness, perhaps, of this study, is that Professor Khai bases his empirical data on interviews with only 8 people, 4 Buddhist and 4 Christian – this alone is an indication of the sensitivity of the subject. He points a way forward in the examination of 2 concepts, Metta (‘Loving Kindness”) and Karuna (‘Compassion’, its Christian cognate being Agape ), which were clear hallmarks of the founders of both religions.
Borrowing from insights from Nostra Aetate and the authors Knitter, Swidler and Panikkar (examined in Chapter 4), Khai contends that dialogue in Myanmar must be:
- “integral” i.e. concerned with liberating people in the cultural-political-ecological context of rampant poverty and racism
- about building relationships rather than scoring theological points, and
- ‘dialogically dialogic’ i.e. leading adherents to a more self-critical and ultimately deeper appreciation of their own, and their partners’, religious faith.
PDF available for download from this link: http://www.missionsakademie.de/de/pdf/SITMA-8-web.pdf.