Difference between revisions of "Buddhism"

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===What is the difference between a philosophical school and a living tradition?===
===What is the difference between a philosophical school and a living tradition?===
What is the difference between a philosophical school and a living tradition?
What is the difference between a philosophical school and a living tradition?
* A ''philosophical school'' is a philosophy based on a set of texts. It provides the philosophical underpinnings for the living traditions. The three major philosophical schools identified here are each defined by a specific set of texts, or ''canons''. Specifically, these texts are:
* A ''philosophical school'' is a philosophy based on a set of texts. It provides the philosophical underpinnings for the living traditions. The three major philosophical schools identified here are each defined by a specific set of texts. Specifically, these texts are:
** The Pali canon of the Theravada school (written in the Pali language)
** The Pali canon of the Theravada school (written in the Pali language)
** The Mahayana sutras of the Mahayana school (written in the Sanskrit language)
** The Mahayana sutras of the Mahayana school (written in the Sanskrit language)

Revision as of 07:36, 14 February 2018

File:Gandhara Buddha (tnm).jpeg
Standing Buddha statue at the Tokyo National Museum. One of the earliest known representations of the Buddha, 1st–2nd century CE.

EDITORS NOTE: this page is a work in progress

Buddhism refers to a collection of traditions, beliefs, and practices based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, the Sage of the Shakyas, commonly known as the Buddha (the awakened one). The Buddha lived and taught in northern India approximately 2,500 years ago, and since his passing, his teachings have spread throughout the world.

The name Buddhism was first introduced by Western scholars about 150 years ago--as they attempted to understand and transmit the teachings of the Buddha to the West. In the Buddha's own days, and as his teachings spread throughout Asia beginning around the 6th century B.C.E., the Buddha's teachings were known as Dhamma (Sanskrit Dharma), what is right and as it ought to be, also as Buddha-vacana, the word or speech of the Buddha, and also as Buddha-sāsana, the message, teaching, instruction or dispensation of the Buddha.[note 1]

Buddhism is generally categorized among the major world religions, and it is now commonly studied in the religion departments of the great universities in the Western world. However, many contemporary Buddhists and scholars note that Buddhism does not fit the common Western notion of a religion. For example, contemporary scholar Rupert Gethin writes:

...is [Buddhism] a religion? Obviously it depends on how one defines 'a religion'. What is certain, however, is that Buddhism does not involve belief in a creator God who has control over human destiny, nor does it seek to define itself by reference to a creed; as Edward Conze has pointed out, it took over 2,000 years and a couple of Western converts to Buddhism to provide it with a creed. On the other hand, Buddhism views activities that would be generally understood as religious—such as devotional practices and rituals—as a legitimate, useful, and even essential part of the practice and training that leads to the cessation of suffering.[1]

The Buddhist tradition emphasizes understanding the teachings of the Buddha, and putting them into practice. Contemporary scholar Peter Harvey notes:

In its long history, Buddhism has used a variety of teachings and means to help people first develop a calmer, more integrated and compassionate personality, and then ‘wake up’ from restricting delusions: delusions which cause attachment and thus suffering for an individual and those he or she interacts with... Buddhism thus essentially consists of understanding, practising and realizing Dhamma.[2]

In a similar vien, contemporary scholar Carol Anderson notes:

Buddhism is a tradition that focuses on personal spiritual development. The Buddha-dharma is simply a starting point; concepts that if practiced and applied will bring peace, acceptance and freedom from pain. The basic tenets of Buddhist teaching are straightforward and practical: nothing is fixed or permanent, all actions have consequences, and all life is interdependent. It enables people to realize and use its teachings to transform their life experience, to be fully responsible for their lives and to find relief from suffering.
To do no evil
To cultivate good;
To purify one's mind:
This is the teaching of the Buddha.[3]

Life of the Buddha

Traditional account

File:Ascetic Bodhisatta Gotama with the Group of Five.jpg
Ascetic Gautama with his five companions, who later comprised the first Sangha. (Painting in Laotian temple)

According to the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha was born in northern India approximately 2,500 years ago to King Śuddhodana of the Shakya clan and given the name Siddhartha Gautama. After his birth, the sages of the kingdom visited the King and prophesied that Siddhartha would either become a great king and military conqueror or he would renounce the material world and become a great spiritual teacher.

Śuddhodana was determined to see his son follow in his own footsteps and become a great king and conqueror, so he attempted to insulate his son from all outside influences.

In an effort to assure that his son's spiritual nature was never awakened, the King insulated Siddhartha from all pain and suffering. He was surrounded by wealth and pleasure, his every wish granted. Orders were given that no unpleasantness would intrude upon Siddhartha’s life of courtly pleasures and so all signs of illness, aging, and mortality were hidden from him.[4]

But at age 29, despite his father's efforts, Gautama ventured beyond the palace several times. In a series of encounters—known in Buddhist literature as the four sights—he learned of the suffering of ordinary people, encountering an old man, a sick man, a corpse and, finally, an ascetic holy man, apparently content and at peace with the world. These experiences prompted Gautama to abandon royal life and take up a spiritual quest.

Gautama first went to study with famous religious teachers of the day, and mastered the meditative attainments they taught. But he found that they did not provide a permanent end to suffering, so he continued his quest. He next attempted an extreme asceticism, which was a religious pursuit common among the Shramanas, a religious culture distinct from the Vedic one. Gautama underwent prolonged fasting, breath-holding, and exposure to pain. He almost starved himself to death in the process. He realized that he had taken this kind of practice to its limit, and had not put an end to suffering. So in a pivotal moment he accepted milk and rice from a village girl and changed his approach. He devoted himself to anapanasati meditation, through which he discovered what Buddhists call the Middle Way (Skt. madhyamā-pratipad[5]): a path of moderation between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.[web 1][web 2]

Buddha statue depicting Parinirvana. (Mahaparinirvana Temple, Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India)

Gautama was now determined to complete his spiritual quest. At the age of 35, he famously sat in meditation under a sacred fig tree — known as the Bodhi tree — in the town of Bodh Gaya, India, and vowed not to rise before achieving enlightenment. After many days, he finally destroyed the fetters of his mind, thereby liberating himself from the cycle of suffering and rebirth, and arose as a fully enlightened being (Skt. samyaksaṃbuddha). Soon thereafter, he attracted a band of followers and instituted a monastic order. Now, as the Buddha, he spent the rest of his life teaching the path of awakening he had discovered, traveling throughout the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent,[6][7] and died at the age of 80 (483 BCE) in Kushinagar, India. The south branch of the original fig tree available only in Anuradhapura Sri Lanka is known as Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.

Historical account

Scholars are hesitant to make unqualified claims about the historical facts of the Buddha's life. Most accept that he lived, taught and founded a monastic order, but do not consistently accept all of the details contained in his biographies.[8][9]

According to author Michael Carrithers, while there are good reasons to doubt the traditional account, "the outline of the life must be true: birth, maturity, renunciation, search, awakening and liberation, teaching, death."[10] In writing her biography of the Buddha, Karen Armstrong noted,

It is obviously difficult, therefore, to write a biography of the Buddha that meets modern criteria, because we have very little information that can be considered historically sound... [but] we can be reasonably confident Siddhatta Gotama did indeed exist and that his disciples preserved the memory of his life and teachings as well as they could.[11]

The evidence of the early texts suggests that Siddhārtha Gautama was born in a community that was on the periphery, both geographically and culturally, of the northeastern Indian subcontinent in the 5th century BCE.[12] It was either a small republic, in which case his father was an elected chieftain, or an oligarchy, in which case his father was an oligarch.[12]

Buddhist concepts

Suffering's causes and solution

The Four Noble Truths

File:Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Dharmacakra Discourse.jpeg
The Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths. Sanskrit manuscript. Nālandā, Bihar, India.

The teachings on the Four Noble Truths are regarded as central to the teachings of Buddhism, and are said to provide a conceptual framework for Buddhist thought. These four truths explain the nature of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, unsatisfactoriness), its causes, and how it can be overcome. The four truths are:[note 2]

  1. The truth of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, unsatisfactoriness[note 3])
  2. The truth of the origin of dukkha
  3. The truth of the cessation of dukkha
  4. The truth of the path leading to the cessation of dukkha

The first truth explains the nature of dukkha. Dukkha is commonly translated as "suffering", "anxiety", "unsatisfactoriness", "unease", etc., and it is said to have the following three aspects:

  • The obvious suffering of physical and mental illness, growing old, and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A subtle dissatisfaction pervading all forms of life due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.[note 4]

The second truth is that the origin of dukkha can be known. Within the context of the four noble truths, the origin of dukkha is commonly explained as craving (Pali: tanha) conditioned by ignorance (Pali: avijja). On a deeper level, the root cause of dukkha is identified as ignorance (Pali: avijja) of the true nature of things. The third noble truth is that the complete cessation of dukkha is possible, and the fourth noble truth identifies a path to this cessation.[note 5]

Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path—the fourth of the Buddha's Noble Truths—consists of a set of eight interconnected factors or conditions, that when developed together, lead to the cessation of dukkha.[13] These eight factors are: Right View (or Right Understanding), Right Intention (or Right Thought), Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.

Ajahn Sucitto describes the path as "a mandala of interconnected factors that support and moderate each other."[13] The eight factors of the path are not to be understood as stages, in which each stage is completed before moving on to the next. Rather, they are understood as eight significant dimensions of one's behaviour—mental, spoken, and bodily—that operate in dependence on one another; taken together, they define a complete path, or way of living.[14]

The eight factors of the path are commonly presented within three divisions (or higher trainings) as shown below:

Division Eightfold factor Description
(Sanskrit: prajñā,
Pāli: paññā)
1. Right view Viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be
2. Right intention Intention of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness
Ethical conduct
(Sanskrit: śīla,
Pāli: sīla)
3. Right speech Speaking in a truthful and non-hurtful way
4. Right action Acting in a non-harmful way
5. Right livelihood A non-harmful livelihood
(Sanskrit and Pāli: samādhi)
6. Right effort Making an effort to improve
7. Right mindfulness Awareness to see things for what they are with clear consciousness;
being aware of the present reality within oneself, without any craving or aversion
8. Right concentration Correct meditation or concentration, explained as the first four jhānas

Middle Way

An important guiding principle of Buddhist practice is the Middle Way (or Middle Path), which is said to have been discovered by Gautama Buddha prior to his enlightenment. The Middle Way has several definitions:

  1. The practice of non-extremism: a path of moderation away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification;
  2. The middle ground between certain metaphysical views (for example, that things ultimately either do or do not exist);[15]
  3. An explanation of Nirvana (perfect enlightenment), a state wherein it becomes clear that all dualities apparent in the world are delusory;
  4. Another term for emptiness, the ultimate nature of all phenomena (in the Mahayana branch), a lack of inherent existence, which avoids the extremes of permanence and nihilism or inherent existence and nothingness.

Nature of existence

Three Marks of Existence

The Three Marks of Existence are impermanence, suffering, and not-self.

  • Impermanence (Pāli: anicca) expresses the Buddhist notion that all compounded or conditioned phenomena (all things and experiences) are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent. Everything we can experience through our senses is made up of parts, and its existence is dependent on external conditions. Everything is in constant flux, and so conditions and the thing itself are constantly changing. Things are constantly coming into being, and ceasing to be. Since nothing lasts, there is no inherent or fixed nature to any object or experience. According to the doctrine of impermanence, life embodies this flux in the aging process, the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra), and in any experience of loss. The doctrine asserts that because things are impermanent, attachment to them is futile and leads to suffering (dukkha).
  • Suffering (Pāli: दुक्ख dukkha; Sanskrit दुःख duḥkha) is also a central concept in Buddhism. The word roughly corresponds to a number of terms in English including suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration. Although the term is often translated as "suffering", its philosophical meaning is more analogous to "disquietude" as in the condition of being disturbed. As such, "suffering" is too narrow a translation with "negative emotional connotations"[16] that can give the impression that the Buddhist view is pessimistic, but Buddhism seeks to be neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic. In English-language Buddhist literature translated from Pāli, "dukkha" is often left untranslated, so as to encompass its full range of meaning.[17][18][19]
  • Not-self (Pāli: anatta; Sanskrit: anātman) is the third mark of existence. Upon careful examination, one finds that no phenomenon is really "I" or "mine"; these concepts are in fact constructed by the mind. In the Nikayas anatta is not meant as a metaphysical assertion, but as an approach for gaining release from suffering. In fact, the Buddha rejected both of the metaphysical assertions "I have a Self" and "I have no Self" as ontological views that bind one to suffering.[20] When asked if the self was identical with the body, the Buddha refused to answer. By analyzing the constantly changing physical and mental constituents (skandhas) of a person or object, the practitioner comes to the conclusion that neither the respective parts nor the person as a whole comprise a self.

Dependent arising

The general or universal definition of pratityasamutpada (or "dependent origination" or "dependent arising" or "interdependent co-arising") is that everything arises in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions; nothing exists as a singular, independent entity.[note 6][note 7] A traditional example used in Buddhist texts is of three sticks standing upright and leaning against each other and supporting each other. If one stick is taken away, the other two will fall to the ground. Thich Nhat Hanh explains:[21]

Pratitya samutpada is sometimes called the teaching of cause and effect, but that can be misleading, because we usually think of cause and effect as separate entities, with cause always preceding effect, and one cause leading to one effect. According to the teaching of Interdependent Co-Arising, cause and effect co-arise (samutpada) and everything is a result of multiple causes and conditions... In the sutras, this image is given: "Three cut reeds can stand only by leaning on one another. If you take one away, the other two will fall." For a table to exist, we need wood, a carpenter, time, skillfulness, and many other causes. And each of these causes needs other causes to be. The wood needs the forest, the sunshine, the rain, and so on. The carpenter needs his parents, breakfast, fresh air, and so on. And each of those things, in turn, has to be brought about by other causes and conditions. If we continue to look in this way, we'll see that nothing has been left out. Everything in the cosmos has come together to bring us this table. Looking deeply at the sunshine, the leaves of the tree, and the clouds, we can see the table. The one can be seen in the all, and the all can be seen in the one. One cause is never enough to bring about an effect. A cause must, at the same time, be an effect, and every effect must also be the cause of something else. Cause and effect inter-are. The idea of first and only cause, something that does not itself need a cause, cannot be applied.[note 8]


In the Mahayana tradition, the principle of pratītyasamutpāda is said to complement the concept of emptiness (sunyata). It is said that because all things arise in dependence upon causes and conditions, they are empty of inherent existence.[note 9]

A classic expression of this relationship was provided by the renowned Indian scholar Nagarjuna in the twenty-fourth chapter of his Treatise on the Middle Way; Nagarjuna stated:[26]

Whatever arises dependently
Is explained as empty.
Thus dependent attribution
Is the middle way.

Since there is nothing whatever
That is not dependently existent,
For that reason there is nothing
Whatsoever that is not empty.

Geshe Sonam Rinchen explains the above quote as follows: "Here Nagarjuna states the Madhyamika or middle way position. Everything that exists does so dependently and everything that is dependently existent necessarily lacks independent objective existence."[26]

Life and the world


Within Buddhism, samsara is defined as the continual repetitive cycle of birth and death that arises from ordinary beings' grasping and fixating on a self and experiences. Specifically, samsara refers to the process of cycling through one rebirth after another within the six realms of existence,[note 10] where each realm can be understood as physical realm or a psychological state characterized by a particular type of suffering. Samsara arises out of avidya (ignorance) and is characterized by dukkha (suffering, anxiety, dissatisfaction). In the Buddhist view, liberation from samsara is possible by following the Buddhist path.[note 11]


Within the Buddhist system of belief, the term karma is used in two senses:

  • On the specific level, karma refers to those actions which spring from the intention (cetanā) of a sentient being. Karmic actions are traditionally likened to a seed that will inevitably ripen into a result or fruition (referred to as vipāka or phala in Sanskrit and Pali).
  • On the general level, contemporary Buddhist teachers frequently use the term karma when referring to the entire process of karmic action and result.

Within Buddhism, developing a genuine, experiential understanding of karmic action and result — i.e., how one's actions will have a consequential outcome — is an essential aspect of the Buddhist path. Karmic actions are considered to be the engine that drives the naturally occurring cycle of rebirth (samsara) for sentient beings. Correspondingly, a complete understanding of the process of karmic action and result enables beings to free themselves from samsara and attain liberation.[27]

Within Buddhism, the theory of karmic action and result is identified as part of the broader doctrine of dependent origination (pratityasamutpada), which states that all phenomena arise as the result of multiple causes and conditions. The theory of karmic action and result is a specific instance of this broader doctrine that applies to sentient beings. Specifically, when there is a conscious intention (cetanā) behind an action, whether positive, neutral, or negative, then that action is karma, and the corresponding results are karmic results. Thus, every deed of body, speech, or mind is considered to be a karmic action, and the determining factor in the quality of one's actions is one's intentions or motivations.[27]

In the Buddhist view, karmic results are not considered to be a "judgement" enforced by a God, Deity or other supernatural being that controls the affairs of the Cosmos. Rather, karmic results are considered to be the outcome of a natural process of cause and effect. Contemporary Buddhist teacher Khandro Rinpoche explains:[28]

Buddhism is a nontheistic philosophy. We do not believe in a creator but in the causes and conditions that create certain circumstances that then come to fruition. This is called karma. It has nothing to do with judgement; there is no one keeping track of our karma and sending us up above or down below. Karma is simply the wholeness of a cause, or first action, and its effect, or fruition, which then becomes another cause. In fact, one karmic cause can have many fruitions, all of which can cause thousands more creations. Just as a handful of seed can ripen into a full field of grain, a small amount of karma can generate limitless effects.


In the Buddhist tradition, nirvana is described as the extinguishing of the fires that cause suffering. These fires are typically identified as the fires of attachment (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha or avidya).[note 12]

For example, Rupert Gethin states:[29]

Literally nirvāṇa means ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ [...] What the Pali and Sanskrit expression primarily indicates is the event or process of the extinction of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and delusion. At the moment the Buddha understood suffering, its arising, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation, these fires were extinguished. This process is the same for all who reach awakening, and the early texts term it either nirvāṇa or parinirvāṇa, the complete ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and delusion. This is not a ‘thing’ but an event or experience.

Contemporary Buddhist scholar Ajahn Sucitto emphasizes that when these fires are extinguished, the mind is freed. Ajahn Sucitto states:[31]

The metaphors associated with nibbāna often liken it to the blowing out of a fire. When it is no longer burning, the fire has “nibbāna’d”—the elements on which it was based are no longer in a state of combustion. This may seem like sterility and lifelessness from the viewpoint of the fire, but from the perspective of the elements it means life and potential. That is, when the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion are extinguished, the mind is free to operate in terms of its fullest capacity.

Living traditions

Three broad traditions

Contemporary Buddhist scholars generally classify living Buddhism into three broad traditions: southern (Theravada), eastern, and northern.[34] [note 13] For example, Rupert Gethin identifies the three "broad traditions" as follows:[35]

  • The Theravada tradition of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, also sometimes referred to as 'southern' Buddhism. Its canonical scriptures are preserved in Pali, an ancient Indian language closely related to Sanskrit.
  • The East Asian tradition of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, also sometimes referred to as ‘eastern’ Buddhism. Its scriptures are preserved in Chinese and its general outlook is that of the Mahayana...
  • The Tibetan tradition, also sometimes referred to as 'northern' Buddhism. Its scriptures are preserved in Tibetan and once more its outlook is broadly that of the Mahayana, but its more specific orientation is that of the [Vajrayana].

Within these major traditions, there are a variety of smaller traditions and sects.

What all traditions share in common

Contemporary scholar Rupert Gethin identifies the following areas of Buddhist thought and practice that are common to all major traditions of Buddhism:[36]

  • the story of the Buddha
  • a textual and scriptural tradition
  • the framework of the four noble truths
  • the monastic and lay ways of life
  • a cosmology based around karma and rebirth
  • the teaching of no self and dependent arising
  • a progressive path of practice leading on from good conduct and devotions through stages of meditation to a higher understanding
  • the theoretical systems of either the Abhidharma or the Madyamaka and Yogācāra
  • the path of the bodhisattva

Theravada (as a living tradition)

Alexander Berzin explains:[37]

Theravada, practiced in Southeast Asia, emphasizes the practice of mindfulness meditation. This is done by focusing on the breath and the sensations in the body while sitting, and on the movements and intentions to move while walking extremely slowly. With mindfulness of the arising and falling of each moment, one gains an experiential realization of impermanence. When this understanding is applied to analyzing all one's experience, one realizes that there is no permanent, unchanging self that exists independently of everything and everyone else. All is momentary changes. In this way, one gains an understanding of reality that will liberate oneself from self-centered concern and the unhappiness it brings.
Theravada also teaches meditations on immeasurable love, compassion, equanimity and joy, but only in the last decades has it had a movement of what is called "Engaged Buddhism," starting in Thailand, for engaging Buddhists in programs of social and environmental help.
Theravada monks study and chant the Buddhist scriptures and perform ritual ceremonies for the lay public. The monks go on daily rounds of silent begging for alms, and the householders practice generosity by offering them food.

East Asian Mahayana (as a living tradition)


Tibetan Mahayana (as a living tradition)

Alexander Berzin explains:[37]

The Tibetan form of Mahayana Buddhism found throughout Central Asia preserves the full historical development of Indian Buddhism, particularly the traditions of the great monastic universities such as Nalanda. Thus, it emphasizes study, particularly about the nature of the mind, the emotions and reality, through the medium of logic and debate, carried out in conjunction with intense meditation on these topics.
This approach is combined, in Tibet, with the Indian Buddhist tradition of tantra practice, in which one uses the powers of the imagination and works with the subtle energies of the body to transform oneself into a Buddha. This is done by concentrating on voidness (emptiness) and compassion, and within that context, imagining oneself to have become a specific Buddha-form. Although such forms are sometimes called "meditation deities," they are not the equivalent of God in meaning or function, and Buddhism is not in any way a polytheistic religion. Each Buddha-form is a symbolic representation of one aspect of a Buddha's enlightenment, such as wisdom or compassion. Visualizing oneself in such a form and reciting the sacred syllables (mantras) associated with it helps one to overcome one's deluded, negative self-image and to develop the qualities embodied by that figure. Such practices are very advanced and require close supervision by a fully qualified teacher.
Tibetan Buddhism also has a great deal of chanting and ritual, often designed to eliminate negative forces and interference visualized in the form of demons. While performing such rituals, one imagines oneself in an extremely forceful form as a meditational aid for gaining the energy and confidence to overcome difficulties. There is also great emphasis on meditational techniques for cultivating love and compassion, also involving the use of visualization.

Philosophical Schools


Contemporary Buddhist practitioners and scholars identify either two or three major philosophical schools within Buddhism. When grouped into two schools, they are:[38][39]

  • Theravada (the tradition of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia)
  • Mahayana (broadly speaking, the tradition of East Asia, Tibet, Mongolia and the Himalayan region)

In addition to these two categories, many Buddhists and scholars also identify the Vajrayana tradition as a third major philosophical school. In this case, the three traditions are identified as:

  • Theravada
  • Mahayana
  • Vajrayana (the philosophical basis of Tibetan Buddhism and small schools within Japan; this school or tradition can also be classified as part of the broader Mahayana philosophical school)

What is the difference between a philosophical school and a living tradition?

What is the difference between a philosophical school and a living tradition?

  • A philosophical school is a philosophy based on a set of texts. It provides the philosophical underpinnings for the living traditions. The three major philosophical schools identified here are each defined by a specific set of texts. Specifically, these texts are:
    • The Pali canon of the Theravada school (written in the Pali language)
    • The Mahayana sutras of the Mahayana school (written in the Sanskrit language)
    • The tantric texts of the Vajrayana school (originally written in Sanskrit, and translated to Tibetan)
  • A living tradition is tradition and set of beliefs and practices derived from or based upon one or more philosophical systems. A living tradition (or individual practitioner) may draw inspiration from one or more traditions.

Both in ancient India and in modern times, it has been possible for groups or individuals to be exposed to more than one philosophical school.

  • In ancient India, pilgrims reported seeing Mahayana and non-Mahayana monks both co-existing in the same monasteries. This seems to have been a process of self-identification, where those monks who were attracted to the Mahayana sutras identified themselves as Mahayana.
  • In modern times, many Buddhist practitioners, especially those in the west, are exposed to more than one Buddhist tradition or philosophy

Theravada school

Theravada ("Doctrine of the Elders", or "Ancient Doctrine") is the oldest surviving Buddhist school. It is relatively conservative, and generally closest to early Buddhism.[40] This school is derived from the Vibhajjavāda grouping that emerged amongst the older Sthavira group at the time of the Third Buddhist Council (c. 250 BCE). This school gradually declined on the Indian subcontinent, but its branch in Sri Lanka and South East Asia continues to survive.

The Theravada school bases its practice and doctrine exclusively on the Pāli Canon and its commentaries. After being orally transmitted for a few centuries, its scriptures, the Pali Canon, were finally committed to writing in the 1st century BCE, in Sri Lanka, at what the Theravada usually reckon as the fourth council. It is also one of the first Buddhist schools to commit the complete set of its canon into writing.[citation needed]

Theravāda is primarily practiced today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia as well as small portions of China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Bangladesh. It has a growing presence in the west.

Mahayana school

Mahayana Buddhism flourished in India from the 5th century CE onwards, during the dynasty of the Guptas. Mahāyāna centres of learning were established, the most important one being the Nālandā University in north-eastern India.

Mahayana schools recognize all or part of the Mahayana Sutras. Some of these sutras became for Mahayanists a manifestation of the Buddha himself, and faith in and veneration of those texts are stated in some sutras (e.g. the Lotus Sutra and the Mahaparinirvana Sutra) to lay the foundations for the later attainment of Buddhahood itself.

Native Mahayana Buddhism is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, parts of Russia and most of Vietnam (also commonly referred to as "Eastern Buddhism"). The Buddhism practiced in Tibet, the Himalayan regions, and Mongolia is also Mahayana in origin, but is discussed below under the heading of Vajrayana (also commonly referred to as "Northern Buddhism"). There are a variety of different schools within "Eastern Buddhism", based on geography and philosophical outlook.

Vajrayana school

The Vajrayana school of Buddhism developed in Northern India and spread to China, Mongolia, and Tibet. In Tibet, Vajrayana is the primary component of Tibetan Buddhism. In China, Vajrayana formed a separate sect. However, Vajrayana Buddhism became extinct in China but survived in elements of Japan's Shingon and Tendai sects.

In addition to the Mahāyāna scriptures, Vajrayāna Buddhists recognise a large body of Buddhist Tantras, some of which are also included in Chinese and Japanese collections of Buddhist literature, and versions of a few even in the Pali Canon.


This is a rough timeline of the development of the different schools/traditions:

Timeline: Development and propagation of Buddhist traditions (ca. 450 BCE – ca. 1300 CE)

  450 BCE[note 14] 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE[note 15]







Early Buddhist schools Mahāyāna Vajrayāna






Sri Lanka &
Southeast Asia










Tibetan Buddhism








East Asia


Early Buddhist schools
and Mahāyāna
(via the silk road
to China, and ocean
contact from India to Vietnam)


Nara (Rokushū)




Thiền, Seon
Tiantai / Jìngtǔ









Central Asia & Tarim Basin





Silk Road Buddhism


  450 BCE 250 BCE 100 CE 500 CE 700 CE 800 CE 1200 CE
  Legend:   = Theravada   = Mahayana   = Vajrayana   = Various / syncretic

Buddhist texts


Buddhist monk Geshe Konchog Wangdu reads Mahayana sutras from an old woodblock copy of the Tibetan Kanjur.

Buddhist scriptures and other texts exist in great variety. Different schools of Buddhism place varying levels of value on learning the various texts. Some schools venerate certain texts as religious objects in themselves, while others take a more scholastic approach. Buddhist scriptures are mainly written in Pāli, Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese. Some texts still exist in Sanskrit and Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit.

Unlike many religions, Buddhism has no single central text that is universally referred to by all traditions. However, some scholars have referred to the Vinaya Pitaka and the first four Nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka as the common core of all Buddhist traditions.[42] This could be considered misleading, as Mahāyāna considers these merely a preliminary, and not a core, teaching. The Tibetan Buddhists have not even translated most of the āgamas (though theoretically they recognize them) and they play no part in the religious life of either clergy or laity in China and Japan.[43] Other scholars say there is no universally accepted common core.[44] The size and complexity of the Buddhist canons have been seen by some (including Buddhist social reformer Babasaheb Ambedkar) as presenting barriers to the wider understanding of Buddhist philosophy.

The followers of Theravāda Buddhism take the scriptures known as the Pāli Canon as definitive and authoritative, while the followers of Mahāyāna Buddhism base their faith and philosophy primarily on the Mahāyāna sūtras and their own vinaya. The Pāli sutras, along with other, closely related scriptures, are known to the other schools as the āgamas.

Over the years, various attempts have been made to synthesize a single Buddhist text that can encompass all of the major principles of Buddhism. In the Theravada tradition, condensed 'study texts' were created that combined popular or influential scriptures into single volumes that could be studied by novice monks. Later in Sri Lanka, the Dhammapada was championed as a unifying scripture.

Dwight Goddard collected a sample of Buddhist scriptures, with the emphasis on Zen, along with other classics of Eastern philosophy, such as the Tao Te Ching, into his 'Buddhist Bible' in the 1920s. More recently, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar attempted to create a single, combined document of Buddhist principles in "The Buddha and His Dhamma". Other such efforts have persisted to present day, but currently there is no single text that represents all Buddhist traditions.

Pāli Tipitaka

The Pāli Tipitaka, which means "three baskets", refers to the Vinaya Pitaka, the Sutta Pitaka, and the Abhidhamma Pitaka. The Vinaya Pitaka contains disciplinary rules for the Buddhist monks and nuns, as well as explanations of why and how these rules were instituted, supporting material, and doctrinal clarification. The Sutta Pitaka contains discourses ascribed to Gautama Buddha. The Abhidhamma Pitaka contains material often described as systematic expositions of the Gautama Buddha's teachings.

The Pāli Tipitaka is the only early Tipitaka (Sanskrit: Tripiṭaka) to survive intact in its original language, but a number of early schools had their own recensions of the Tipitaka featuring much of the same material. We have portions of the Tipitakas of the Sārvāstivāda, Dharmaguptaka, Sammitya, Mahāsaṅghika, Kāśyapīya, and Mahīśāsaka schools, most of which survive in Chinese translation only. According to some sources, some early schools of Buddhism had five or seven pitakas.[45]

According to the scriptures, soon after the death of the Buddha, the first Buddhist council was held; a monk named Mahākāśyapa (Pāli: Mahākassapa) presided. The goal of the council was to record the Buddha's teachings. Upāli recited the vinaya. Ānanda, the Buddha's personal attendant, was called upon to recite the dhamma. These became the basis of the Tripitaka. However, this record was initially transmitted orally in form of chanting, and was committed to text in the last century BCE. Both the sūtras and the vinaya of every Buddhist school contain a wide variety of elements including discourses on the Dharma, commentaries on other teachings, cosmological and cosmogonical texts, stories of the Gautama Buddha's previous lives, and various other subjects.

Much of the material in the Canon is not specifically "Theravadin", but is instead the collection of teachings that this school preserved from the early, non-sectarian body of teachings. According to Peter Harvey, it contains material at odds with later Theravadin orthodoxy. He states: "The Theravadins, then, may have added texts to the Canon for some time, but they do not appear to have tampered with what they already had from an earlier period."[46]

Mahayana sutras

File:Korea-Haeinsa-Tripitaka Koreana-01.jpg
The Tripiṭaka Koreana in South Korea, an edition of the Chinese Buddhist canon carved and preserved in over 81,000 wood printing blocks.

The Mahayana sutras are a very broad genre of Buddhist scriptures that the Mahayana Buddhist tradition holds are original teachings of the Buddha. Some adherents of Mahayana accept both the early teachings (including in this the Sarvastivada Abhidharma, which was criticized by Nagarjuna and is in fact opposed to early Buddhist thought[47]) and the Mahayana sutras as authentic teachings of Gautama Buddha, and claim they were designed for different types of persons and different levels of spiritual understanding.

The Mahayana sutras often claim to articulate the Buddha's deeper, more advanced doctrines, reserved for those who follow the bodhisattva path. That path is explained as being built upon the motivation to liberate all living beings from unhappiness. Hence the name Mahāyāna (lit., the Great Vehicle).

According to Mahayana tradition, the Mahayana sutras were transmitted in secret, came from other Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, or were preserved in non-human worlds because human beings at the time could not understand them:[48]

Some of our sources maintain the authenticity of certain other texts not found in the canons of these schools (the early schools). These texts are those held genuine by the later school, not one of the eighteen, which arrogated to itself the title of Mahayana, 'Great Vehicle'. According to the Mahayana historians these texts were admittedly unknown to the early schools of Buddhists. However, they had all been promulgated by the Buddha. [The Buddha's] followers on earth, the sravakas ('pupils'), had not been sufficiently advanced to understand them, and hence were not given them to remember, but they were taught to various supernatural beings and then preserved in such places as the Dragon World.

Approximately six hundred Mahayana sutras have survived in Sanskrit or in Chinese or Tibetan translations. In addition, East Asian Buddhism recognizes some sutras regarded by scholars as of Chinese rather than Indian origin.

Generally, scholars conclude that the Mahayana scriptures were composed from the 1st century CE onwards: "Large numbers of Mahayana sutras were being composed in the period between the beginning of the common era and the fifth century",[49] five centuries after the historical Gautama Buddha. Some of these had their roots in other scriptures composed in the 1st century BCE. It was not until after the 5th century CE that the Mahayana sutras started to influence the behavior of mainstream Buddhists in India: "But outside of texts, at least in India, at exactly the same period, very different—in fact seemingly older—ideas and aspirations appear to be motivating actual behavior, and old and established Hinnayana groups appear to be the only ones that are patronized and supported."[49] These texts were apparently not universally accepted among Indian Buddhists when they appeared; the pejorative label hinayana was applied by Mahayana supporters to those who rejected the Mahayana sutras.

Only the Theravada school does not include the Mahayana scriptures in its canon. As the modern Theravada school is descended from a branch of Buddhism that diverged and established itself in Sri Lanka prior to the emergence of the Mahayana texts, debate exists as to whether the Theravada were historically included in the hinayana designation; in the modern era, this label is seen as derogatory, and is generally avoided.

Scholar Isabelle Onians asserts that although "the Mahāyāna ... very occasionally referred contemptuously to earlier Buddhism as the Hinayāna, the Inferior Way," "the preponderance of this name in the secondary literature is far out of proportion to occurrences in the Indian texts." She notes that the term Śrāvakayāna was "the more politically correct and much more usual" term used by Mahāyānists.[50] Jonathan Silk has argued that the term "Hinayana" was used to refer to whomever one wanted to criticize on any given occasion, and did not refer to any definite grouping of Buddhists.[51]


Among the various Buddhist traditions, a variety of methods are used to achieve the goals of the Buddhist path.

++This section is in progress++

See also


  1. This paragraph is paraphrasing an old reference book (most likely an encyclopedia of world religions); need to clarify source.
  2. See the article Four Noble Truths for further details and citations. In particular, the section "The four truths" within that article provides a footnote showing variety of translations of these four statements.
  3. For clarification of translations, see Dukkha#Translating the term dukkha.
  4. See the article Dukkha for further details and citations.
  5. See the article Four Noble Truths for further details and citations.
  6. See the article Pratītyasamutpāda for further details and citations.
  7. Pratityasamutpada can also be described as follows: that all phenomena are arising together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. When one cause changes or disappears, the resulting object or phenomenon will also change or disappear, as will the objects or phenomena depending on the changing object or phenomenon.
  8. Thich Nhat Hanh also refers to this reality of mutual interdependence as 'Interbeing'.
  9. In the Mahayana tradition, the principle of pratītyasamutpāda is said to complement the concept of emptiness (sunyata):
    • The Dalai Lama states: "...the meaning of pratityasamutpada is that which arises in dependence upon conditions, in reliance upon conditions, through the force of conditions. On a subtle level, it is explained as the main reason why phenomena are empty of inherent existence."[22]
    • Sogyal Rinpoche states: "...all things, when seen and understood in their true relation, are not independent but interdependent with all other things... Think of a tree. When you think of a tree, you tend to think of a distinctly defined object; and on a certain level...it is. But when you look more closely at the tree, you will see that ultimately it has no independent existence... As you begin to think about the tree more and more, you will discover that everything in the universe helps to make the tree what it is; that it cannot at any moment be isolated from anything else; and that at every moment its nature is subtly changing. This is what we mean when we say things are empty, that they have no independent existence."[23]
    • Nan Huai-Chin states: "Buddhist ontology points out that all relative phenomena arise and disappear through processes of cause and effect: this is called "interdependent origination" (Sanskrit: pratityasamutpada; in Chinese yuan ch'i). Accordingly, all such phenomena are dependent on the (temporary) linking of causal factors that bring them into existence and maintain them, and thus they have no stable, absolute identities independent of the web of causation. Lacking absolute independent entities they are said to be inherently empty".[24]
    • Jay Garfield states: "That all phenomena are dependently originated is the heart of the Buddhist ontological theory."[25]
  10. Earlier Buddhist texts refer to five realms rather than six realms; when described as five realms, the god realm and demi-god realm constitute a single realm.
  11. See the article Saṃsāra (Buddhism) for further details and citations.
  12. Nirvana is described as extinguishing the fires of attachment (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha or avidya).
    • Rupert Gethin states: "Literally nirvāṇa means ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ [...] What the Pali and Sanskrit expression primarily indicates is the event or process of the extinction of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and delusion. At the moment the Buddha understood suffering, its arising, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation, these fires were extinguished. This process is the same for all who reach awakening, and the early texts term it either nirvāṇa or parinirvāṇa, the complete ‘blowing out’ or ‘extinguishing’ of the ‘fires’ of greed, aversion, and delusion. This is not a ‘thing’ but an event or experience."[29]
    • Paul Williams states: "[Nirvana] means 'extinguishing', as in 'the extinguishing of a flame', and it signifies soteriologically the complete extinguishing of greed, hatred, and fundamentally delusion (i.e. ignorance), the forces which power samsara."[30]
    • Ajahn Sucitto states: "By the extinguishing of the “three fires” of greed, hatred, and delusion, nibbāna gives tangible results in terms of other people’s welfare."[31]
    • Smith and Novak state: "Nirvana is the highest destiny of the human spirit and its literal meaning is “extinction,” but what is to be extinguished are the boundaries of the finite self and the three poisons that feed that self: “The extinction of greed, the extinction of hate, the extinction of delusion: this indeed is called Nirvana.”"[32]
    • Bhikkhu Bodhi states: "The state of perfect peace that comes when craving is eliminated is Nibbāna (nirvāṇa), the unconditioned state experienced while alive with the extinguishing of the flames of greed, aversion, and delusion."[33]
    • Donald Lopez states: "[Nirvana] is used to refer to the extinction of desire, hatred, and ignorance and, ultimately, of suffering and rebirth."[web 3]
    • See also Gombrich Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benāres to Modern Colombo. Routledge
  13. Robinson & Johnson (1982) divide their book into two parts: Part One is entitled "The Buddhism of South Asia" (which pertains to Early Buddhism in India); and, Part Two is entitled "The Development of Buddhism Outside of India" with chapters on "The Buddhism of Southeast Asia", "Buddhism in the Tibetan Culture Area", "East Asian Buddhism" and "Buddhism Comes West; Penguin handbook of Living Religions, 1984, page 279; Prebish & Keown, Introducing Buddhism, ebook, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2005, printed ed, Harper, 2006
  14. Cousins, L.S. (1996); Buswell (2003), Vol. I, p. 82; and, Keown & Prebish (2004), p. 107. See also, Gombrich (1988/2002), p. 32: “…[T]he best we can say is that [the Buddha] was probably Enlightened between 550 and 450, more likely later rather than earlier."
  15. Williams (2000, pp. 6-7) writes: "As a matter of fact Buddhism in mainland India itself had all but ceased to exist by the thirteenth century CE, although by that time it had spread to Tibet, China, Japan, and Southeast Asia." [41] (Originally 1958), "Chronology," p. xxix: "c. 1000-1200: Buddhism disappears as [an] organized religious force in India." See also, Robinson & Johnson (1970/1982), pp. 100-1, 108 Fig. 1; and, Harvey (1990/2007), pp. 139-40.


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  2. Harvey, Peter (2012-11-30). An Introduction to Buddhism (Introduction to Religion) (p. 2). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. Anderson, Carol (2013-08-26). BASIC BUDDHISM: A Beginner's Guide: Volume 1 - Origins, Concepts and Beliefs (Kindle Locations 286-294). Carol Anderson. Kindle Edition.
  4. (Anderson, Carol (2013-08-26). BASIC BUDDHISM: A Beginner's Guide: Volume 1 - Origins, Concepts and Beliefs (Kindle Locations 364-367). Carol Anderson. Kindle Edition.)
  5. Kohn, Michael (1991). The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Shambhala. p. 143. ISBN 0-87773-520-4. 
  6. Keown, Dictionary of Buddhism, p. 267
  7. Skilton, Concise, p. 25
  8. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism Vol. 1, p. 352
  9. Lopez (1995). Buddhism in Practice. Princeton University Press. p. 16. ISBN 0-691-04442-2. 
  10. Carrithers, Michael. "The Buddha", in the Oxford University paperback Founders of Faith, 1986, p. 10.
  11. Armstrong, Karen (September 28, 2004). Buddha. Penguin Press. p. xii. ISBN 0-14-303436-7. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988, page 49.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 87-88.
  14. Gethin 1998, p. 82.
  15. Kohn, Shambhala, pp. 131, 143
  16. Jeffrey Po, "Is Buddhism a Pessimistic Way of Life?"[dead link]
  17. Rahula, Walpola (1959). "Chapter 2". What the Buddha Taught. Grove Press. ISBN 0-8021-3031-3. 
  18. Prebish, Charles (1993). Historical Dictionary of Buddhism. The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 0-8108-2698-4. 
  19. Keown, Damien (2003). Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-860560-9. 
  20. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, The Not-Self Strategy, See Point 3 – The Canon quote Thanissaro Bhikkhu draws attention to is the Sabbasava Sutta.
  21. Thich Nhat Hanh 1999, p. 221-222.
  22. Dalai Lama 1992, p. 35.
  23. Sogyal Rinpoche 2009, Kindle Locations 849-863.
  24. Nan Huai-Chin 1994.
  25. Edelglass 2009, p. 26.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Geshe Sonam Rinchen 2006, p. 21.
  27. 27.0 27.1 See the article Karma in Buddhism for further details and citations.
  28. Khandro Rinpoche 2003, p. 95.
  29. 29.0 29.1 Gethin 1998, p. 75.
  30. Williams 2002, pp. 47-48.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 163.
  32. Smith & Novak 2009, pp. 51-52.
  33. Bhikkhu Bodhi 2011, p. 25.
  34. (Harvey, 1990); (Gombrich,1984)
  35. Gethin, Rupert (1998-07-16). The Foundations of Buddhism (p. 2). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  36. Gethin, Rupert (1998-07-16). The Foundations of Buddhism (p. 3). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition
  37. 37.0 37.1 Alexander Berzin. Types of Buddhism
  38. Keown, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1996, page 12
  39. Smith, Buddhism; Juergensmeyer, Oxford Handbook.
  40. Gethin, Foundations, page 1
  41. Embree 1988.
  42. A.K. Warder, Indian Buddhism, 3rd edition (2000)
  43. Eliot, Japanese Buddhism, Edward Arnold, London, 1935, page 16
  44. Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha, Oxford University Press, 2008, page xiv
  45. Journal of the Pali Text Society, volume XVI, page 114
  46. Peter Harvey, The Selfless Mind. Curzon Press, 1995, page 9.
  47. David Kalupahana, "Sarvastivada and its theory of sarvam asti." University of Ceylon Review 24 1966, 94-105.
  48. Indian Buddhism, 3rd edition, page 4
  49. 49.0 49.1 MacMillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004, page 494
  50. Isabelle Onians, "Tantric Buddhist Apologetics, or Antinomianism as a Norm," D.Phil. dissertation, Oxford, Trinity Term 2001 pg 72
  51. Jonathan A Silk. What, if anything, is Mahayana Buddhism? Numen 49:4 (2002):335-405. Article reprinted in Williams, Buddhism, Vol III, Routledge, 2005


  1. "The Middle Way of the Buddha". Buddhamind.info. Retrieved 2011-10-24. 
  2. "Buddhism - The Middle Path". Buddhanet.net. Retrieved 2011-10-24. 
  3. Donald S. Lopez Jr., Nirvana, Encyclopedia Britannica


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