Buddhism is a religion that can be traced to India between the 4th and 6th centuries. It includes various traditions, spiritual practices and customs that come from the teachings of Buddha. Although found in many early Buddhist books, the details of the life of the founder, Siddhārtha Gautama, are however inconsistent, with his origins difficult to prove and precise dates uncertain.
Spread of the religion in Asia
The religion of Buddhism spread from India to the rest of Asia but started to decline in that country during the Middle Ages. Religious scholars recognize two main branches of Buddhism, mainly Theravada (The School of Elders) and Mahayana (Sanskrit for “The Great Vehicle”). With over 500 million adherents or 7 per cent of the global population, Buddhism is recognized as the fourth-largest religion in the world.
Buddhist schools vary on the precise nature of the path to liberation, the substance and principles of the different teachings and their practice. The methods of Buddhism include seeking shelter in the Buddha, the Sangha and the Dharma, study of the teachings, following of moral rules, abandonment of needs and attachment, methods of meditation (that includes calmness and insight), search for wisdom and compassion and loving-kindness There are also differences in the observance of the general and completion stages of the bodhicita and Vajrayana teachings from the Mahayana practice.
In Theravada the goal is the ending of kleshas (the mental states that befuddle the mind and bring about objectionable actions), and the accomplishment of the transcendent state of Nirvana, attained by following the Noble Eightfold Path (also called the Middle Way), which facilitates escape from the cycle of suffering and rebirth. Theravada has many followers in Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka.
Mahayana which includes the teachings of Zen, Pure Land and Nichiren Buddhism among others is found throughout East Asia. It seeks to achieve Buddhahood through the bodhisattva way that seeks a state where one stays within the cycle of rebirth to help awaken other beings, rather than seeking Nirvana.
Vajrayana, which comprises teachings from Indian Siddhas, is the third branch or part of Mahayana. Tibetan Buddhism is practiced in regions surrounding Mongolia, the Himalayas, and Kalmykia. It maintains the Vajrayana teachings of 8th century India that seek Buddhahood or rainbow body.
Buddhist teachings comprise five basic behavioral and ritual guidelines for normal followers and those living in monasteries. These are:
- Abstinence from killing
- Abstinence from stealing
- Abstinence from sensual misbehaviour
- Abstinence from lying
- Abstinence from intoxicants
Although the guidelines are not commandments and contraventions do not invite religious punishment, their power lies is in the Buddhist belief in karmic outcomes and their impact in afterlife during rebirth.
Buddhists who live in monasteries cut all social links to family and community. The monks live in a fraternity known as Sangha, with each such community having its own rules. The guidelines are not merely the means but are almost the end itself. Punishment for disobeying the rules may invite temporary or permanent expulsion from the Sangha.