Gautama, or Shakyamuni Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, appears to have lived in India sometime around the sixth or fifth century bce. Though it is difficult to describe his doctrines in detail, Buddhologists customarily accept several formulas as representative of his teachings. Most famous of these are the so-called four noble truths, which are referred to several times in the Lotus Sutra. These teach that (1) all existence in the saha world, the
world in which we live at present, is marked by suffering; (2) that suffering is caused by craving; (3) that by doing away with craving one can gain release from suffering and reach a state of peace and enlightenment, often called nirvana; (4) that there is a method for achieving this goal, namely, the
discipline known as the eightfold path. This is a set of moral principles enjoining one to cultivate right views, right thinking, right speech, right action, right way of life, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right meditation.
Another doctrine, also touched on in the Lotus Sutra, is that of the twelve-linked chain of causation, or dependent origination, which illustrates step by step the causal relationship between ignorance and suffering. The purpose of the doctrine, like that of the four noble truths, is to wake one to the true nature of reality and help one to achieve emancipation from ignorance and suffering.
In order to pursue the kind of strenuous discipline needed to gain such release, it was thought all but imperative that one leave secular life and become a member of the Buddhist Order, which consisted of both monks and nuns. There, free from family entanglements and worldly concerns, one could devote oneself
to a life of poverty, celibacy, and religious study and discipline, supported by the alms of the lay community. Lay believers could acquire religious merit by assisting the Order, observing the appropriate rules of moral conduct, and carrying out devotional practices such as paying obeisance at the stupas, or memorial towers, that housed the relics of the Buddha. But it was thought that they would have to wait until future existences before they could hope to gain full release from suffering.
Buddhism, it should be noted, took over from earlier Indian thought the belief in karma. According to this belief, all a one’s moral actions, whether good or bad, produce definite effects in one’s life, though such effects may take some time before manifesting themselves. According to the Indian view, living beings pass through an endless cycle of death and rebirth, and the ill effects of an evil action in one’s life may not become evident until some future existence; but that they will appear eventually is inescapable. Hence only by striving to do good in one’s present existence can one hope to escape even greater suffering in a future life.
Buddhism vehemently denied that there is any individual soul or personal identity that passes over from one existence to the next—to suppose there is is simply to open the way for further craving—but it did accept the idea of rebirth or transmigration, and taught that the circumstances or realm into which a
being is reborn is determined by the good or bad acts done by that being in previous existences. This meant, among other things, that one did not necessarily have to struggle for release from suffering within a single lifetime, but could work at the goal of salvation step by step, performing good moral and devotional acts that would insure one of rebirth in more favorable circumstances in the future, and in this way gradually raising one’s level of spiritual attainment.
The tenets and practices of the religion I have described above are often referred to as Hinayana Buddhism. But Hinayana, which means “lesser vehicle,” is a derogatory term, applied to early Buddhism by a group within the religion that called itself Mahayana, or the “great vehicle,” and represented its doctrines as superior to and superseding those of earlier Buddhism. In keeping with the spirit of religious tolerance and mutual understanding that
prevails in most quarters today, writers usually try to avoid use of the term “Hinayana,” instead referring to the earlier form of Buddhism as “Theravada,” or “Teachings of the Elders,” which is the name used by the branch of it that continues in existence today. This is the form of Buddhism that prevails at present in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.
The Mahayana movement appears to have begun in India around the first or second century of the Common Era. In part it was probably a reaction against the great emphasis upon monastic life that marked earlier Buddhism and against the arid psychological and metaphysical speculations that characterize much of
early Buddhist philosophy. It aimed to open up the religious life to a wider proportion of the population, to accord a more important role to lay believers, to give more appealing expression to the teachings and make them more readily accessible.
In earlier Buddhism the goal of religious striving had been to achieve the state of arhat, or “worthy,” one who has “nothing more to learn” and has escaped rebirth in the lower realms of existence. Even to reach this state, however, it was believed, required many lifetimes of strenuous exertion. But Mahayana
urged men and women to aim for nothing less than the achievement of the highest level of enlightenment, that of buddhahood. Enormous help in reaching this exalted goal, it was stressed, would come to them through figures known as bodhisattvas, beings who are dedicated not only to attaining enlightenment for themselves but, out of their immense compassion, to helping others to do likewise. Earlier Buddhism often described Shakyamuni Buddha as a bodhisattva in
his previous existences, when he was still advancing toward enlightenment. But in Mahayana texts such as the Lotus Sutra the bodhisattvas are pictured as unlimited in number, all-seeing and all-caring, capable of extending boundless aid and succor to those who call upon them in sincere faith. Indeed, this great emphasis upon the role of the bodhisattva is one of the main characteristics that distinguish Mahayana thought from that of earlier Buddhism.
As first the proponents of these new Mahayana beliefs seem in many cases to have lived side by side in the same monasteries as the adherents of the earlier teachings. But doctrinal clashes arose from time to time and the two groups eventually drew apart. The Mahayana doctrines appear to have dominated in
northwestern India, where they spread into the lands of Central Asia and thence into China. As a result, Chinese Buddhism was from the first overwhelmingly Mahayana in character, and it was this Mahayana version of the faith that in time was introduced to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, where it continues in existence today.