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