Cultures that Practiced It
Eastern civilizations, most notably in India, China, and Southeast Asia, as well as Japan, practiced Buddhism.
Nuts and Bolts
Buddhism was founded by a young Hindu prince named Siddhartha Gautama, who was born and lived in Nepal from 563 through 483 B.C.E. He rejected his wealth to search for the meaning of human suffering. After meditating under a sacred bodhi tree, he became the Buddha, or Enlightened One.
There is no supreme being in Buddhism. Rather, Buddhists follow the Four Noble Truths.
· All life is suffering.
· Suffering is caused by desire.
· One can be freed of this desire.
· One is freed of desire by following what’s called the Eightfold Path.
The Eightfold Path is made up of right views, right aspirations, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right endeavor, right mindfulness, and right meditation. Following this path enables you to move toward nirvana, the state of perfect peace and harmony. The goal in one’s life is to reach nirvana, which may or may not take several lifetimes, meaning that Buddhists also believe in reincarnation. Buddhism holds that anyone can achieve nirvana; it is not dependent on an underlying social structure, such as the caste system.
After the death of Buddha in 483 B.C.E., Buddhism split into two large movements, Theravada, also known as Hinayana, Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism.
Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism emphasizes meditation, simplicity, and an interpretation of nirvana as the renunciation of human consciousness and of the self. In Theravada Buddhism, Buddha himself is not considered a god, and other gods and goddesses have very little significance. (Theravada means “the Way of the Elders”; Hinayana means “the Lesser Vehicle.”)
Mahayana Buddhism (“The Greater Vehicle”) is a more complicated form of Buddhism, involving greater ritual than Buddha specified. Mahayana Buddhism appealed to people who believed that the original teachings of Buddha did not offer enough spiritual comfort; therefore, they began to hypothesize that other forms of salvation were possible. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha himself became a godlike deity. Moreover, other deities appear, including bodhisattvas, those who have achieved nirvana but choose to remain on Earth. Mahayana Buddhists also relied more on priests and scriptures. Detractors of this form of Buddhism view these additions as being too similar to the Hinduism that Buddha disapproved of.
You probably won’t have to know the details of the two Buddhist movements, but you should know that they exist.
Because it did rejected social hierarchies of castes, Buddhism appealed strongly to members of lower rank. And because Buddhism isn’t attached to an underlying social structure, it can apply to almost anyone, anywhere. As a consequence, it spread rapidly to other cultures throughout Asia.
When Ashoka, the Mauryan Emperor who became appalled by one too many bloody battles, was moved to convert to Buddhism, the religion really took off as a major force in Asia. Eventually, however, in India, Buddhism was reabsorbed into Hinduism, which remained the dominant belief system there. In China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, Buddhism continued to thrive. And as it spread via the trade routes, the cultures of Asia intertwined.