Essay, Research Paper: Buddhism


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Buddhism is a religion and philosophy founded by Siddhartha Gautama in northeast
India during the period from the late 6th century to the early 4th century BC.
Spreading from India to Central and Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Japan,
Buddhism has played an influential role in the spiritual, cultural, and social
life of much of the Eastern world. The Buddha, which means the "Enlightened
One," died in northeastern India between 500 and 350 BC. According to
tradition, his family name was Gautama; later sources call him Siddhartha, which
means "He Who Has Reached His Goal." He was reared in a minor royal
family of the ruling Kshatriya, or warrior, caste. Shocked as a young man after
wittness by pure accident sickness, old age, and death, he renounced his family
life in order to wander as a shramana, or ascetic, in search of religious
understanding and a way of release from the human condition. Discarding the
teachings of his contemporaries, through meditation he achieved enlightenment,
or ultimate understanding. Thereafter, the Buddha instructed his followers (the
sangha) in the dharma (Pali dhamma, "truth") and the "Middle
Way," a path between a worldly life and extremes of self-denial. The
essence of the Buddha's early preaching was said to be the Four Noble Truths:
(1) life is fundamentally disappointment and suffering; (2) suffering is a
result of one's desires for pleasure, power, and continued existence; (3) in
order to stop disappointment and suffering one must stop desiring; and (4) the
way to stop desiring and thus suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path--right
views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right
effort, right awareness, and right concentration. The realization of the truth
of anatman (no eternal self) and pratitya-samutpada (the law of dependent
origination) was taught as essential for the indescribable state of release
called nirvana ("blowing out"). After the death of the Buddha (at
which time he passed into final nirvana) efforts were made to consolidate the
teachings and structures of the Buddhist community. Several important Buddhist
councils were held to decide questions of faith and order, leading finally to
the distinction between those who believed they held to the most ancient
traditions (the Theravadins) and those who claimed their understandings
represented the highest and most complete account of Buddha's message (the
Mahayanists). Scholars think that by the 3rd century BC, Theravada doctrine and
practice were fairly formalized. The Theravada canon of sacred scriptures, the
Tipitaka (Sanskrit Tripitaka, "The Three Baskets"), all written in the
Pali language, include the Vinaya Pitaka ("Basket of Discipline"), the
Sutta Pitaka ("Basket of Discourses"), and Abhidhamma Pitaka
("Basket of Scholasticism"). Theravada doctrine emphasizes the
composite nature of all things. The Theravada tradition explicated necessary
regulations for the community, meditative techniques and rituals, and the stages
leading to arhatship (the pinnacle of spiritual attainment). Moral instruction
for both monastic and lay followers was elaborated by reference to specific
rules and to paradigms available in the Jataka tales of the Buddha's
incarnations. The great Indian king Ashoka (reigned mid-3rd century BC)
patronized Buddhism, supporting a missionary enterprise that carried the
Theravada tradition into Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, where it remains the
predominant form of Buddhism. Between the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD,
there appeared new Buddhist scriptures that implied to represent the Buddha's
most advanced and complete teaching. The communities for which these new
Sanskrit texts were important called themselves followers of the "Greater
Vehicle" (Mahayana), in contradistinction to followers of what they
regarded as the "Lesser Vehicle" (Hinayana). Their ideal was that of
the bodhisattva ("enlightenment being"; one who has taken the vow to
become a buddha), whose compassionate vow to save all sentient beings was
contrasted with the aloof self-preoccupation of the Theravada arhat. The
Mahayana schools developed an expanded vision of the universe and a new
understanding of the Buddha. The human manifestation of the True Law in the
figure of Gautama Buddha was identified with the many celestial forms
experienced in meditation and with the dharma-kaya, the ineffable absolute.
Certain Mahayana schools (Madhyamika in India, T'ien-t'ai and Hua-yen in China,
etc.) developed sophisticated philosophical arguments concerning the two levels
of truth (the relative and absolute) and the identification of samsara (this
world of life and death) with nirvana. The Pure Land schools of Mahayana
emphasized simple faith over logic and were more concerned with salvific rebirth
in Buddha's "pure lands" than with the achievement of enlightenment in
this world. The influential Dhyana (Chinese: Ch'an; Japanese: Zen) tradition
stressed meditation and a sudden enlightenment experience. Mahayana became the
predominant form of Buddhism throughout East Asia and has had an immeasurable
impact on the civilizations of China, Korea, and Japan. Known also as Vajrayana
(the "Diamond Vehicle"), or Mantrayana (the "Vehicle of the
Mantra"), Tantric Buddhism became prominent in India in the 7th century AD.
An esoteric path requiring strict guidance under an accomplished master, Tantric
ritual involved both the identification of the initiate with a visualized deity
and action intended to demonstrate the adept's transcendence of all dualistic
categories such as good and evil, male and female, samsara and nirvana. Tantric
masters developed elaborate ritual usage of mudras (sacred gestures), mantras
(sacred sounds), and mandalas (maps of the spiritual cosmos). Tantrism became
the predominant influence on the development of a special form of Buddhism in
Mongolia and Tibet. Wherever Buddhist doctrine and philosophy have spread in
Asia, they have given rise to a remarkable flowering of material culture.
Architectural and iconographic features naturally vary from country to country,
but basic functions remain the same. The temple is the main sanctuary, in which
services, both public and private, are performed. The monastery is a complex of
buildings, located usually in a spot chosen for its beauty and seclusion. Its
function is to house the activities of the monks. Images are important features
of temples, monasteries, and shrines in both Theravada and Mahayana. Throughout
Southeast Asia these generally represent the historic Buddha in postures of
meditating, teaching, or reclining. For the devout these call to mind his
enlightenment, years of teaching, and passing to nirvana. In countries of
central Asia, the treatment of images is more complex. In Mahayana sanctuaries,
the representations are of different buddhas, bodhisattvas, saints, and guardian
deities derived from India. In China and Tibet these constitute a pantheon, the
worship of which is practically polytheistic. In addition to temple design and
decoration, Buddhism historically has stimulated creativity in other artistic
areas; the traditions of poetry and painting associated with Zen Buddhism are
notable examples.
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