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Buddhism: A General Outline
Dr. Sunthorn Plamintr

Historical perspective of Buddhism

The word Buddhism is derived from Buddha, meaning the Enlightened One or the Awakened One. Buddha is not a proper name, but a generic term or appellative, referring to a founder of a religion, one who has attained supreme enlightenment and who is regarded as superior to all other beings, human or divine, by virtue of his knowledge of the Truth (Dhamma). Buddhism is therefore not just a faith, but a religion based on supreme enlightenment; it is a system of teachings and practice with enlightenment as its ultimate goal.

From its origins in India, Buddhism spread far and wide to various parts of the world. At one time it was the largest world religion, commanding one fifth of the total world population. As such it was one of the greatest civilizing forces the world has known. As H. G. Wells puts it, "Buddhism has done more for the advance of world civilization than any other influence in the chronicles of mankind." Today, it has become increasingly popular in the United States and other countries in the West. Its current following is reported to be over 300 millions.

Buddhism arose within the cultural milieus of Brahmanism, which came to be known in its present form as Hinduism. But Buddhism was a separate religion, never an offshoot of the older faith, as sometimes claimed by historians. Buddhism deeply influenced Hinduism, which later incorporated much of the Buddhist thought into its own philosophical system. It succeeded, through centuries of relentless persecution and assimilation, in replacing Buddhism as India's major religion. It is also believed by some Christian scholars that Buddhism may have exerted an influence on early Christianity, when it spread westward from India during the reign of Ashoka, some two centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, and flourished in the regions where Christ grew up, till the early days of Christianity. There is a strong belief among some scholars that in his early years Christ may have even studied and trained under Buddhist masters of the time. There are, of course, many who refute this idea.

Institutional makeup

An institutional religion is normally characterized by certain elements that go to make up the whole. Generally, these include the founder, the teachings, the congregation of followers, the system of worship (including rites and ceremonies), the religious sanctuaries, and the sacred objects within the framework of that particular religion. The Buddhist institution, with its own distinct character and culture, fits this description, being a complete system of thought and training.

The Buddha was the founder of Buddhism. Some religions, such as Hinduism, cannot ascribe their establishment to any one personality, owing their existence to an ancient tradition, the origin of which has long been lost in antiquity. Of those which are founded on a historical personality, their founders mostly claim affinity to, and connection with, a divine power, and are therefore compelled to demand unquestioning faith from their followers. The Buddha was a historical personality who made no such claims and who taught his followers without subscribing to any divine grace or supernatural powers.

The Buddha's teachings are known as the Dhamma. In fact, this is the most important ingredient in the Buddhist religious system. As Buddhism is a religion based on knowledge and enlightenment, the validity and value of the Dhamma naturally assume prime significance in the whole system as opposed to belief and faith, as in theistic religions.

The followers or believers form another important component of a religion, for without them the religion would prove of little benefit. In Buddhism, the congregation is broadly divided into two groups, the religious (monks and nuns) and the laity. Each of these two is clearly defined by rules and responsibilities and by the manner of their mutual interaction which, in turn, serves as a spiritual bond and a traditional basis for close cooperation. The responsibility for preserving and promoting the Buddha's teachings lies in the hands of these two groups of Buddhist followers.

Basic Buddhist systems of worship, including rites and ceremonies, date back to the time of the Buddha. There are, however, later developments which evolved over the centuries in response to the cultural and spiritual needs of the followers in particular geographical regions. Thus, there are differences in the form of worship practiced, for instance, in Thailand and Japan. But we may consider this phenomenon a natural cultural manifestation common in all religious systems.

Buddhist sanctuaries are places of worship and residences for the religious. These include monasteries, shrines, Dhamma halls, stupas, pagodas, and sacred reliquaries. Often Thai monasteries, which also serve as centers for communal activities, occasionally do accommodate secular functions such as community meetings and cultural gatherings. In general, these places are built and maintained solely through support freely given by the lay community.

Sacred objects in Buddhism include Buddha images, relics of the Buddha, symbolic representations such as the lotus, the wheel (of Dhamma), Buddha's footprints, and many more. These in fact serve as objects for contemplative reflection and as reminders of higher values or ideals. They can be used to strengthen faith and confidence in the Triple Gem, or to give encouragement and hope in time of distress. On a higher level they may serve as a means for the attainment of Dhamma and that, indeed, is the primary purpose for which they were introduced into the Buddhist institution in the first place.

The above are religious components that constitute Buddhism as an institution. Although the most important factor is the Dhamma, which is man's true refuge, some people may also feel the need for objects of psychological support to strengthen their faith and devotion in the religion. Thus, each component has its own place and value and we should learn how to best benefit from it.

Philosophy or religion?

Strictly speaking, this matter depends largely on how one defines the terms "philosophy" and "religion." Webster's dictionary defines philosophy as "love of wisdom," as "a search for a general understanding of values and reality by chiefly speculative rather than observational means," and religion simply as "the service and worship of God or the supernatural."

One can see that neither of these definitions satisfactorily reflects the nature and character of Buddhism. For many people religion is nothing more than a system of beliefs and worship centered around God. These people would consider any system devoid of such a concept unworthy of inclusion into the category of religions, no matter how exalted a teaching it may contain. This is a rather limited view, no longer accepted by world religions. There are great religious systems that do not subscribe to such a way of thinking.

When the Buddha embarked upon his teaching mission, there was never an issue whether he would establish a religion or found a school of philosophy. Such anticipation was simply out of the question. He had realized the Dhamma, overcome Samsara, and achieved Supreme Enlightenment. Foremost in the functions of a Buddha is the exposition of the Dhamma, pointing out the way to lasting peace and happiness for the world. After his enlightenment, he began to share with mankind the supreme knowledge he had attained. There were those willing to listen and who could understand his message. These people benefited from the Buddha's teachings and some of them volunteered to further spread the Dhamma. Others volunteered to provide material support. Those who renounced worldly life became known as bhikkhus, collectively referred to as the Sangha, and took to the mendicant, homeless life. Householders continued to practice the teachings as laymen or laywomen and took on the responsibility of supporting the Sangha. This was how Buddhism evolved and developed. The core factor of all this is the Buddha's teachings, the Dhamma. How people referred to his teachings and the organization that subsequently took shape was never his concern, but he himself referred to the whole structure simply as Dhamma-Vinaya or the Doctrine and Discipline. Clearly, he wanted his teachings to be something that should be properly understood and practiced. He wanted the Dhamma-Vinaya to be a way of life.

A way of life -- that is exactly what Buddhism is. It is not simply a system of beliefs, or a speculation about values and reality, neither is it the service and worship of God or the supernatural. It is a system of noble principles for man to understand and practice; it is Truth.

Of course, Buddhism has all the necessary components to qualify as a religion, and there should be no argument on that point, but one should never lose sight of the fact that the Buddhist religion is fundamentally a way of life -- something that has to do with life itself and the very heart of existence, not simply "the service and worship of God or the supernatural." In fact, this can be said of other religions as well.

Not unlike other great religions, Buddhism also contains many different facets to its system. It is possible to view the same Truth from different perspectives, and our opinions about the Truth may vary according to how we look at it. In the same vein, the names that people attach to the system may also differ in accordance with their opinions about it. Thus one may approach Buddhism through its religious or philosophical aspect, or academically attempt to evaluate its ethical relevance in today's social context, according to one's preference. There are also the psychological, literary, cultural, historical, and other aspects of Buddhism that evolved as an outcome of many interacting conditions in the course of history. But valuable as they may seem, these are of secondary significance compared to its express role as a way of life.

The Buddha's successor

The question of succession was brought up with the Buddha by his personal attendant, Venerable Ananda, just moments prior to the Great Demise. The Blessed One, however, did not appoint anyone in his place. Instead he advised his followers to regard the doctrine and discipline that he had taught as their teacher. The Dhamma-Vinaya was to succeed him as the highest authority, one from which Buddhists may derive guidance and instruction. This was, indeed, a farsighted proclamation. The Buddha knew that placing absolute powers and responsibility in the hands of any individual could in the long run jeopardize the institution. Even during his lifetime he had made regulatory provisions for the Sangha administration to be carried out through collective deliberation and action of its members without vesting any special privileges or prerogatives on any individual. This method remains the model for all ecclesiastical rites and actions within the Sangha institution down to the present day.

The fact that the Buddha did not appoint any individual to succeed him is worthy of careful consideration. At the time of his passing away, the Sangha had already been firmly established and there were quite a few disciples who were highly accomplished and endowed with superior spiritual attainments. The Buddha would have had no difficulty whatsoever, if he so desired, in naming a suitable successor. But he wisely foresaw that such appointment would set a precedent and, sooner or later, in course of time, some unworthy elements not befitting the lofty position would find their way to the hierarchy. Power, fame, and wealth have, in some intriguing way, a tendency to corrupt otherwise decent people, as is evident in the history of some religions, whose internal power struggles and dirty politics are a matter of astonishment and shame. Buddhist history is relatively free from this kind of pitfall, thanks to the farsightedness of the Buddha.

Secondly, the steps taken by the Buddha at once demonstrate both the philosophy of non-attachment to individuals, which he took pains to emphasize during his mission years, and his explicit trust in the Dhamma as the true refuge in life. At one time the Blessed One admonished a certain monk by the name of Vakkali, who had grown so attached to him that he constantly followed the Buddha wherever he went. The Buddha's words bear the most vivid testimony of his great compassion, utter selflessness, and his desire for the disciple to truly benefit from the Dhamma: "Vakkali, the sight of my person is of no real benefit; whoever sees the Dhamma sees me." It was in this spirit that the Buddha advised his disciples to look up to the Dhamma-Vinaya as his successor. History has more than proved his foresight.

Composition of the Buddhist following

During the time of the Buddha, Buddhist assemblies were divided into four main groups: monks (bhikkhu), nuns (bhikkhuni), male lay followers (upasaka), and female lay followers (upasika). In the Theravada tradition the lineage of the Order of Nuns is believed to have terminated about a thousand years after the passing away of the Buddha, so that bhikkhunis in the original sense of the word no longer exist. With an atmosphere of fresh interest and enthusiasm in the religion among Westerners, attempts are being made by certain groups and organizations to revive the Bhikkhuni Order in its earlier, pristine form. However, so far the efforts have resulted only in generating some general awareness but still fall short of a complete restoration. Thus, at present we may speak of the Buddhist following in terms of monastic members, which include monks and novices, and the community of laity (both men and women) who profess a belief in the Buddha and his teachings. These are the two major classifications of Buddhists in the Theravada system today.

The Mahayana tradition, however, still maintains the Bhikkhuni Order. In those countries where Mahayana Buddhism prevails, such as Vietnam, Korea, and Taiwan, nuns are very much in the forefront where religious affairs and social welfare activities are concerned. They assume strong leadership and contribute greatly to the growth and development of the religion in those lands.

In Theravada tradition monastic members are under strict disciplinary training and are more or less restricted in their social interaction and participation. Nevertheless, they do command faith and respect of the lay community and are well supported in their spiritual endeavor. Monks take upon themselves the express duties of preserving the Dhamma, through study and practice, and teaching it to others. Because of the trust and confidence that people place in them by virtue of their moral integrity and exemplary conduct, they may also provide community leadership where and when their specific services are required. They also give counsel, especially in matters related to religion and spirituality, to the lay community and help maintain peace and harmony in society. But these may be considered natural ramifications of their foremost duties to study and practice the Dhamma, and to attain the highest liberation, which is Nibbana.

Monks and novices lead a different life-style from that of laymen. They live in monasteries in an environment especially structured for scriptural studies and religious training. They follow strict rules of conduct, much more numerous and detailed than those of lay devotees. They sacrifice the life of comfort and pleasure of a layman for the life of austerity and service of a monastic order. Such a sacrifice calls for a deep sense of self-negation, altruism, and compassion. It is a life dedicated to personal enlightenment as well as social well-being.

Despite their different way of life, however, monastic members do not cut themselves off entirely from the mainstream of society. Although social interaction and participation is limited, there is enough to maintain a certain level of cooperation between them and the laity. In Thailand, a strong Buddhist country, the Department of Religious Affairs within the Ministry of Education provides a regular channel of communications between the Sangha and the state. His Majesty the King, himself a devout Buddhist, and the Royal Family take a strong interest in religious affairs. They are an important factor for the growth and prosperity of the religion in the country.

Buddhism and God

The concept of God is not common to all religions. Even in theistic religions, ideas about God and his attributes differ from one religious tradition to another, giving rise to conflicts as to whose God is the one and true God. Of course, each claims its God to be the only one, but that has hardly solved the problem.

Buddhism has been defined as a non-theistic religion. Some scholars do not agree with this definition, pointing to Dhamma, the eternally universal principle, as an impersonal God. This is rather a matter of interpretation. But all Buddhists unanimously agree that the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, collectively called the Triple Gem, are the objects of supreme veneration.

The Buddha, the historical personality who lived almost 2,600 years ago, is the founder of the religion; the Dhamma, as the objective manifestation of Truth, is his teachings; and the Sangha is the Holy Order of noble disciples who realized the Truth after the Buddha.

As a person, the Buddha is the embodiment of all virtues, having discovered the Dhamma or Truth. One can attain to the same state of enlightenment by walking the path of Dhamma. The Sangha are those who have traveled the path of spiritual practice by following the Buddha's teachings, have realized the Dhamma, and are therefore in a position to help others along the same spiritual path.

In essence the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha are one and the same. The sole element that constitutes the quality of being the Buddha and the Sangha is none other than the Dhamma itself. Just as a person is not a physician simply on account of his being a person, but rather by virtue of having certain qualities, such as knowledge in medicine and the ability to cure diseases, even so one is not a Buddha because of one's birth into a certain royal family, but rather on the condition of having attained the quality of Buddhahood, which is the Dhamma. The same is true with regard to the Sangha, the difference being that the Buddha was the first to discover the Dhamma, while the Sangha became enlightened by walking the spiritual path after him.

It was the Buddha who first realized the Dhamma and taught it to the world. But without the Dhamma, Buddhahood could not be attained. Again there would not be the Sangha without the Buddha and the Dhamma. But without the Sangha, the Buddha and the Dhamma would be of little value to the world and the religion would not have been established; even if it were, it would have died out with the death of the Buddha. The three are thus interrelated and interdependent.

Worship in Buddhism

Like the term 'religion,' the meaning of the word 'worship' as generally understood is rather limited and should be redefined. According to Webster's dictionary, worship is "reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power" or "an act of expressing such reverence." All religious traditions have a system of worship in some form or another, and it is generally accepted as constituting an act of faith, or an expression thereof, toward the so-called divine being or supernatural power. This is not worship in Buddhism.

In Buddhism, worship is an expression of respect and gratitude to the Triple Gem. It is an act of veneration offered to that which is worthy, not a prayer or a gesture of submission to a supernatural being. Thus, although Buddha images are used in worship, idolatry is a practice not encouraged in Buddhism. The Buddhist concept of worship is totally different from that of idol worship. Its nature is more of a spiritual practice rather than a mere exercise in faith and devotion, although such elements are also present in the practice.

Fundamentally, there are three advantages derived from an act of Buddhist worship, in addition to the obvious benefit of fortifying faith in the Triple Gem. First, the practice helps to inspire virtues and inculcates the noble qualities associated with the Triple Gem into the mind. Wholesome qualities such as wisdom, compassion, and purity are essential in all spiritual efforts. Secondly, the act of worship has a deep purifying effect on the devotees' consciousness and the power to remove impurities from their minds. Often, a sense of serenity and peace is produced. Thirdly, Buddhist worship can be performed as a meditative exercise for developing concentration and wisdom. Prayer for material gains and success is, therefore, never part of true Buddhist worship, as it would prove an obstacle to the development of these two important qualities of mind. Undue desire for material objectives is based on greed and selfishness and is likely to cause mental disturbance, frustration, and restlessness, which are impurities of the mind. Worship performed with the right attitude can be of great benefit; like all other actions, it should be based on wisdom and understanding.

Cultural adaptations

Just as in other ancient religions, Buddhism has been subject to various forces and developments through the centuries of its existence. Because it spread to countries far beyond the boundaries of its birthplace, Buddhism has come into contact with varying cultural elements and geographical conditions. In response to those influences, the religion has developed into different denominations, with their own distinct characteristics. Some of these seemingly different traditions continue to prosper and are more widely accepted in some countries or regions than others. Theravada Buddhism, for instance, is chiefly practiced in Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, and certain parts of India and Bangladesh, while Mahayana Buddhism is followed in such countries as Japan, Korea, China, Tibet, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Singapore.

However, if one takes a closer look at the many different Buddhist traditions that exist today, one will immediately see that most of those apparent differences come within two categories. First, there are the external modifications, like dress, ways of worship, and mannerisms, necessitated by the different elements and cultures that Buddhism had been exposed to. Second, there are the differences in emphasis given by each tradition to certain aspects of the teaching. For example, the Theravada tradition is characterized by the stress it places on monastic discipline, while Mahayana Buddhism upholds the Bodhisattva ideal. Some Mahayana traditions also greatly emphasize the importance of vegetarianism. All this may create the impression that Buddhist traditions are in opposition to each other, but such an understanding is not well grounded.

As far as the essence and spirit of the teachings are concerned, there are persistent and uniform characteristics among the many Buddhist traditions that are far more significant and enduring than the superficial differences. Despite the outward diversity, underneath it lies the eternal unity of all Buddhist denominations, based on the Buddha's message of wisdom and compassion.

Buddhism and material development

It is often thought that to lead the life of Dhamma is one thing and to be materially successful is quite another. According to this view, to progress materially one must relentlessly pursue the worldly course without any consideration whatsoever of the Dhamma, and to lead a life of Dhamma one must be ready to renounce the world and retire to a forest or a cave. The image of the Dhamma practitioner never quite seems to fit into a worldly context and he is often viewed as something of an anachronism. This kind of misunderstanding exists not only among the unlettered; even the educated are led to such conclusions. It is an unfortunate misconception based on a lack of knowledge on the Dhamma.

To avoid this pitfall, students of the Dhamma should learn to perceive the relationship between the Dhamma and the world. In fact, there is no Dhamma apart from the world, and no world apart from the Dhamma. The dualistic view separating one from the other may lead to confusion and deleterious results, while a correct attitude will lead to true happiness and progress. For instance, if nuclear energy is developed without cultivating a sense of moral responsibility to direct the use of that technology, it is likely that more harm than benefit will result from it. Power and wealth without Dhamma create fear and insecurity. Greed may motivate the acquisition of more wealth, but it will also cause pain and misery, thus rendering the whole process of acquisition meaningless.

Those who uphold the dualistic view often perceive the Dhamma as an obstacle to material development and progress. A businessman with such a philosophy will do anything to make more profits for himself and his company; a politician with the same outlook will strive to gain more and more power, through means fair and foul; a teenager with this misconception would go out of his way to pursue carnal pleasure and excitement just to gratify his senses. In all these cases, there is no place for the Dhamma; such people would see practicing the Dhamma as an obstacle to achieving their desired objectives.

However, with right understanding, we will see that the Dhamma is truly the basis for real progress, even in material concerns. Perseverance, energy, dedication to work, to name a few, are important qualities that are essential for success even in the pursuit of material ambitions. With kindness and compassion, those ambitions can be transformed from tools for selfish satisfaction to actions which benefit fellow beings in society and bear a lasting testimony of one's virtue. A politician who practices Dhamma will turn his power and energy and the people's trust into an instrument for peace, social justice, and further progress, rather than using them for his own selfish gains. A scientist with a heart of Dhamma will endeavor to make sure that his discoveries or inventions enhance well-being and happiness for the world rather than destruction and suffering. A Dhamma practitioner who perceives the unity of the world and the Dhamma will not be content merely to cultivate passive love and compassion, but will ensure that such noble qualities of heart are translated into action that will benefit the world. He does not run away from the world simply to practice Dhamma for its own sake, but will try to make Dhamma grow in the world, and the world in the Dhamma. Thus Dhamma and the world are perceived in a balanced way as the Buddha intended.

External progress, according to Buddhism, must therefore be coupled with internal development. In other words, material progress must be accompanied by spiritual development; the practice of Dhamma should be directed toward active service to society. Other than the necessary requisites, we also need moral values, good ethics and a sense of responsibility.

Becoming a Buddhist

Technically speaking, to take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha constitutes being a Buddhist. This can be done either by making a conscious, non-ceremonial commitment to the Triple Gem, or by going through a ceremony officiated by a Buddhist monk. During the time of the Buddha we hear of people, sometimes as many as hundreds or thousands, who, having been inspired by a discourse from the Buddha, made declarations of faith in the Triple Gem, becoming followers of the Buddha without any special ceremony. In any case, the most important factor is a willingness to practice according to the Buddha's teachings and to lead the life of a Buddhist. In the Anguttara Nikaya [a part of the Buddhist Pali Canon], the Buddha talks about five qualities of a good Buddhist: confidence and faith in the Triple Gem; being well-trained in moral conduct; faith in kamma (one's actions), never in superstition; not seeking a 'field of merits' outside the Buddha's teachings; and paying constant attention to the prosperity of Buddhism.

Fundamental to all Buddhists is the observance of the five precepts, which enjoin against killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, falsehood, and intoxicants. Breaking a precept negatively affects the quality of one's status as a Buddhist. The transgressed precepts may be renewed by making a fresh commitment to the moral practice or by formally renewing one's commitment to them in the presence of a monk. The precepts are intended to be a course of training in morality and a support for the practice of Dhamma.

There are a large number of men and women in the West today who are appreciative of Buddhism, but are not yet ready to call themselves Buddhists. Most of these people are interested in finding a religious alternative and a more meaningful way of life. They discover in Buddhist teachings something that can answer their intellectual curiosity and satisfy their spiritual needs, and so they are willing to practice the religion in their daily life. One such person was Professor Rhys Davids, a renowned British scholar, who openly admitted: "I have examined every one of the great religions of the world, and in none of them have I found anything to surpass the beauty and comprehensiveness of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. I am content to shape my life according to them."

Of course, Davids was a Buddhist, but there are many Westerners like him who practice the religion without formally identifying themselves with it. They also benefit from the Buddha's teachings. The Dhamma is universal; it transcends all limitations of time and space. It makes no distinction in terms of sex, nationality, the color of the skin, social status, or belief. It is open to all. Its validity does not depend on names, titles, or professions, neither is it restricted by temporal or spatial conditions.

The Dhamma can, therefore, be practiced by all people with sufficient intellectual and spiritual maturity to understand it. However, taking refuge in the Triple Gem and consciously cultivating the identity of being a Buddhist can provide a tremendous moral support, helping to sustain one's confidence and effort through the ups and downs of the practice and providing a religious inspiration for walking in the steps of the Buddha with stronger faith and commitment.


[Taken from Sunthorn Plamintr's Getting to Know Buddhism (Bangkok: Buddhadhamma Foundation, 1994), pp. 23-39.]


Sincere thanks to Phramaha Somnuek Saksree for retyping this article.


Updated: 1-3-2000

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