Photograph:Buddhist monks wear simple robes and often live in communities called monasteries.
* Buddhist monks wear simple robes and often live in communities called monasteries.
Buddhism is a religion based on the teachings of a man called the Buddha, who lived sometime between about 500 and 300 BC. The Buddha started life as a rich prince named Siddhartha Gautama, but he later gave up his wealth to become a monk. Buddhism began in India and spread to central and south-eastern Asia, China, Korea and Japan. Today some people in the West also follow Buddhism. At the beginning of the 21st century Buddhism was the fourth-largest religion in the world, with about 380 million followers.
Beliefs and Practices
Photograph:A Buddhist monk beats a drum while other monks pray.
* A Buddhist monk beats a drum while other monks pray.
Buddhism is based on the Buddha's teachings, which are called the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is that life is made up of pain and suffering. The Second Noble Truth is that all suffering is caused by one's desires. The Third Noble Truth is that one can be free of these selfish desires. The freedom from desire is called nirvana. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path, which explains eight ways to achieve nirvana.
The Eightfold Path is also called the Middle Path. It teaches that people should not indulge in too much luxury and pleasure, but they should also not harshly deny themselves all worldly comforts. Instead, people should take a middle, or balanced, course in their behaviour.
Buddhism has three main parts. These parts are called the Triratna, or ‘the three jewels'. They are: the Buddha, or the teacher; the dharma, or the teaching; and sangha, or the community of believers. Buddhist monks believe that the three jewels protect them. This is expressed in the Buddhist prayer, ‘I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the dharma. I take refuge in the sangha.'
All Buddhist countries celebrate holidays to remember the life and teachings of the Buddha. They celebrate the three major points of the Buddha's life – his birth, his enlightenment (freedom from the cycle of desire and suffering) and his death, or final enlightenment.
Many years after the Buddha's death two major groups appeared among his followers. The first group followed the Way of the Elders, also called Hinayana. This form of Buddhism is also known as Theravada Buddhism. Many people in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia belong to this group.
The other group is called Mahayana. This form of Buddhism is popular in Mongolia, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Nepal. Zen Buddhism comes from Mahayana Buddhism.
The Theravada Buddhists concentrate on freeing themselves through improving their own lives. Mahayana Buddhists believe they can achieve enlightenment through a life of good work for others.
The Buddha began teaching his philosophy after receiving enlightenment. According to tradition, one day he sat down under a tree in Bodh Gaya, in the state of Bihar in India, and began meditating. On the 49th day, he achieved enlightenment and was free from suffering. He became known as the Buddha, which means ‘enlightened one'.
The Buddha lived and taught for 45 years after his enlightenment. However, he did not write down a single word of his teaching. The Buddha's followers shared his teachings with other people by word of mouth. These teachings were not put in writing until many years after the Buddha's death.
The Buddha preached in a language called Pali. This was the language of the common people. He believed that his teachings were for everyone and not just scholars. The other major religion of the time was Hinduism. Hindu religious texts used Sanskrit, a language very few people knew. Later, Buddhist teachings were also compiled in Pali. These are known as the Tripitaka, or the Three Baskets.
After the Buddha's death, monks helped spread Buddhism through northern India. In the 200s BC Buddhism gained a powerful sponsor. Asoka, the ruler of an empire that spanned most of South Asia, embraced and promoted the religion. He built many Buddhist monuments and monasteries. Buddhism later declined somewhat in India. But from India, Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka and south-eastern Asia as well as through central Asia and Tibet, and into China, Korea and Japan.
There are still many Buddhists in Asia. However, in Tibet Chinese rulers almost wiped out Buddhism. A man called the Dalai Lama, who was the leader of Buddhists in Tibet, escaped to India with tens of thousands of followers in 1959. After he left, thousands of Buddhist temples were destroyed and monks were treated badly. Many monks went to Europe or the United States. In 1989 the Dalai Lama was given the Nobel Peace Prize for working to end Chinese rule in Tibet without using violence.