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."
Buddhism is generally categorized among the major world religions,[note 1] and it is now commonly studied in the religion departments of the great universities in the Western world. However, many contemporary Buddhists and scholars have suggested that Buddhism does not fit the common Western notion of a religion.[note 2] 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... 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.
The Buddhist tradition emphasizes understanding the teachings of the Buddha, and putting them into practice. Contemporary scholar Peter Harvey writes:
- 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.
In a similar vien, contemporary scholar Carol Anderson writes:
- 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.
- 1 Life of the Buddha
- 2 Basic concepts
- 3 Textual traditions
- 4 Living traditions
- 4.1 About living traditions
- 4.2 Three major traditions
- 4.3 Southeast Asian (Theravada) Buddhism
- 4.4 East Asian Buddhism
- 4.5 Tibetan Buddhism
- 5 Timeline of early development of Buddhist traditions
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Sources cited in this article
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Life of the Buddha
There are multiple accounts of the life of the Buddha within Buddhist literature. These accounts generally agree on the broad outlines of his life story, though there are differences in detail and interpretation. The account below follows the broad outline of Buddha's life, according to traditional sources.
Birth and life in the palace
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.
King 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.
Thus, as a young man, Siddhartha wore robes of the finest silk, ate the best food and was surrounded by beautiful dancing girls. He was extremely handsome and he excelled at his studies and at every type of sporting contest. His father arranged for him to marry a young woman of exceptional grace and beauty, Yasodhara. Siddhartha and Yasodhara lived together in peace and harmony for many years.
Yet despite all of this, Siddhartha still had not yet been outside the palace walls. His curiosity grew stronger and stronger and he pleaded with his father to allow him to venture beyond the palace gates. Finally, when Siddhartha reached the age of 29, his father relented and allowed him to visit the world outside.
The four sights
Siddhartha ventured beyond the gates with his faithful charioteer Channa and they had a series of encounters known as the four sights. In these encounters, Siddhartha and Channa first encountered an old man, then a sick man, and then a corpse. From these three encounters Siddhartha began to understand the nature of suffering in the world. Finally, they met an ascetic holy man, apparently content and at peace with the world.
These encounters had a profound impact on Siddhartha. Through the first three sights, Siddhartha came to understand that despite the luxury of his surroundings, and despite the immense wealth and power of his family, both he himself and everyone he loved would eventually have to face the sufferings of old age, sickness and death. And he was powerless to stop this. Siddhartha was also inspired by the holy man who was seeking a path beyond suffering, and Siddhartha resolved that he too would seek that path in order that he could lead his family beyond suffering.
The spiritual quest
Late one night, Siddhartha ordered Channa the charioteer to drive him outside the palace gates to the edge of the forest. Once there, Siddhartha informed Channa that he was renouncing his royal life to become a seeker of truth. As a sign of his renunciation, Siddhartha cut off his long, beautiful hair and discarded his royal robes. Siddhartha instructed Channa to return to the palace and inform his father of his decision, and he walked off into the forest.
Siddhartha sought out the great spiritual teachers of his day. He studied with several teachers, and in each case, he mastered the meditative attainments they taught. But he found that the meditation techniques that he learn from these teachers did not provide a permanent end to suffering, so he continued his quest. He next joined a group of five other ascetics, led by a holy man named Kondañña. For the next several years, Siddhartha practiced extreme austerities along with his five companions. These austerities included prolonged fasting, breath-holding, and exposure to pain. He almost starved himself to death in the process.
Eventually Siddhartha realized that he had taken this kind of practice to its limit, and had not put an end to suffering. In a pivotal moment, as he was near death, Siddhartha accepted milk and rice from a village girl and began to regain his strength. He then devoted himself to meditation, taking in the nourishment that he needed, but not more than that. He would later describe his new approach as the Middle Way: a path of moderation between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-denial.
Enlightenment and teaching
At the age of 35, Siddhartha sat in meditation under a fig tree — known as the Bodhi tree — and he 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.
After a period of deep reflection, the Buddha sought out his five former companions (with whom he had practiced austerities). He gave his first teaching to this group of ascetics, in which he explained to them his middle way approach and the four noble truths.
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.
According to author Michael Carrithers, while there are good reasons to doubt some of the traditional accounts of his life story, "the outline of the life must be true: birth, maturity, renunciation, search, awakening and liberation, teaching, death." In her biography of the Buddha, Karen Armstrong writes,
- 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.
The evidence of the early texts suggests that Siddhārtha was born in a community that was on the periphery, both geographically and culturally, of the northeastern Indian subcontinent in the 5th century BCE.
The Buddha was born into the "Shakya" clan, which historians believe to have been organized into either an oligarchy or a republic. Historians suggest that Siddhartha's father was likely an important figure in the republic or oligarchy, rather than a "king" as described in the traditional biographies.
As told in the traditional life story of the Buddha, before his awakening, Siddhartha Guatama had experienced two extremes in life. As a child and young man, Siddhartha had lived a life of great luxury, and all of his earthly desires were fulfilled. Then as a spiritual seeker, Siddhartha had practiced extreme asceticism, denying his body food and comfort. Siddhartha came to realize that neither of these extremes led to a path beyond suffering. It was only when he sought a middle way between these extremes, and focused one-pointedly on meditation, that Siddhartha was able to fully awaken.
- The Middle Way is a life lived between the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence and lies at the heart of Buddhism even today. The Buddha wanted his companions to understand that austerity would destroy their health and undermine their ability to realize enlightenment for themselves. To cultivate a moral lifestyle hand in hand with a mindful meditative practice is to walk the Middle Way. Despite the current diversity of Buddhist belief, the Middle Way remains a commonality shared by all.
The Four Noble Truths
In the Buddha's first teaching, after presenting the concept of the Middle Way, the Buddha introduced the Four Noble Truths. The Four Noble Truths are said to provide a conceptual framework for all of 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 4]
- The truth of dukkha (suffering, anxiety, unsatisfactoriness[note 5])
- The truth of the origin of dukkha
- The truth of the cessation of dukkha
- 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 6]
The central importance of dukkha in Buddhist teachings has caused some observers to consider Buddhism to be a pessimistic philosophy. However, the emphasis on dukkha is not intended to present a pessimistic view of life, but rather to present a realistic practical assessment of the human condition—that all beings must experience suffering and pain at some point in their lives, including the inevitable sufferings of illness, aging, and death. Contemporary Buddhist teachers and translators emphasize that while the central message of Buddhism is optimistic, the Buddhist view of our situation in life (the conditions that we live in) is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic.[note 7]
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. From the Buddhist point of view, once we have developed a genuine understanding of the causes of suffering, then we can completely eradicate these causes and thus be free from suffering.
The Noble Eightfold Path
In the Buddha's first teaching on the four noble truths, he described a path to the cessation of suffering that he called the noble eightfold path. This path consists of a set of eight interconnected factors or conditions, that when developed together, lead to the cessation of dukkha.
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 this path as "a mandala of interconnected factors that support and moderate each other." 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.
The eight factors of the path are commonly presented within threefold categories of: wisdom, ethical conduct, and concentration. The table below shows how these three categories are used to help understand the eight factors of the path.
|Right view||Viewing reality as it is, not just as it appears to be||Wisdom (Skt. prajñā)|
|Right intention||Intention of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness|
|Right speech||Speaking in a truthful and non-hurtful way||Ethical conduct (Skt. śīla)|
|Right action||Acting in a non-harmful way|
|Right livelihood||A non-harmful livelihood|
|Right effort||Making an effort to improve||Concentration (Skt. samādhi)|
|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
|Right concentration||Correct meditation or concentration|
Nature of existence
Three marks of existence
The three marks of existence (impermanence, suffering and no-self) are accepted as core beliefs by all Buddhist traditions. Carol Anderson explains:
- In the 26 centuries since the life of Shakyamuni Buddha, Buddhism has developed into a diverse religion rich with culture, beliefs and practices that can vary between the different traditions. As Buddhism spread into new regions, it became enmeshed in the regional religious beliefs. New religions sprang up that were Buddhist in appearance but which retained little of the Buddha's teachings. As well, new schools of Buddhism arose that approached the original teachings in fresh new ways. With these changes, questions arose as to the true nature of Buddhism. Regardless of the title, the Three Dharma Seals, the Three Marks of Existence...and the Three Universal Characteristics refer to the same concepts. All schools of Buddhism based on Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings accept these concepts as the core of their beliefs thus distinguishing true Buddhism from other religions that might look like Buddhism. It follows then that any teaching that contradicts theses concepts is not a true Buddhist teaching.
In brief, the three marks of existence are:
- Impermanence (Pāli: anicca; Sanskrit: anitya) expresses the Buddhist notion that all compounded phenomena (all things and experiences) are inconstant, unsteady, and impermanent. In the Buddhist view:
- Nothing in nature is identical with what it was the moment before; in this the Buddha was close to modern science, which has discovered that the relatively stable objects of the macro world derive from particles that are so ephemeral that they barely exist. To underscore life’s fleetingness the Buddha called the components of the human self skandhas—skeins that hang together as loosely as yarn—and the body a “heap,” its elements no more solidly assembled than grains in a sandpile. But why did the Buddha belabor a point that may seem obvious? Because, he believed, we are freed from the pain of clutching for permanence only if the acceptance of continual change is driven into our very marrow.
- Suffering (Pāli: dukkha; Sanskrit duḥkha) -- because all conditioned things are impermanent, and because we fail to recognize this and instead cling to things as if they are permanent, there is suffering, pain, unsatisfactoriness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, frustration, and so on.
- No-self (Pāli: anatta; Sanskrit: anātman) -- upon careful examination, one finds that no phenomenon is really "I" or "mine"; these concepts are in fact constructed by the mind. By analyzing the constantly changing physical and mental constituents (skandhas) of an individual, the practitioner comes to the conclusion that neither the respective parts nor the person as a whole comprise a self.
A fourth concept, nirvana is often added to this list, particularly in the Mahayana tradition. Thus, in the Mahayana tradition, the list of four concepts (the three marks + nirvana) is referred to as the four seals.
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 8][note 9] 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:
- 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 10]
In the Mahayana textual 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 11]
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."
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 12] 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 13]
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 volition (cetanā; also "intention" or "urge") 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.[note 14]
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 volition (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.[note 14]
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:
- 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 15]
For example, 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.
Contemporary Buddhist scholar Ajahn Sucitto emphasizes that when these fires are extinguished, the mind is freed. Ajahn Sucitto states:
- 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.
The core texts of the Buddhist tradition called sutras. A sutra (Sanskrit; Pali: sutta) is a discourse attributed to the Buddha himself or one of his close disciples speaking under the Buddha's authority. All of the sutras are considered to be Buddhavacana, the "word of the Buddha".
The written sutras developed out of an oral tradition that was passed down for generations. Geshe Tashi Tsering explains:
- The sutras we have now in the Buddhist canon come from actual discourses of the Buddha that were memorized by the Buddha’s disciples and passed down in an oral lineage. Only centuries later were they written down, retaining much of the convention of the oral tradition. The repetition of phrases and even paragraphs was designed for easy memorization, and the whole style was developed to facilitate ritual recitation. As such sutras can be difficult reading, but their content, the actual words of the Buddha, are an infallible map out of the suffering that currently traps us.
Rupert Gethin writes:
- Dharma as textual tradition goes back to the teachings heard directly from the Buddha. These teachings were, it seems, memorized by the immediate followers of the Buddha. For several generations perhaps, the teachings of the Buddha were preserved and handed down directly from master to pupil orally without ever being committed to writing. It is tempting for us in the modern world to be sceptical about the reliability of this method of transmission, but it was the norm in ancient India; the use of mnemonic techniques such as the numbered list and frequent repetition of certain portions of the material within a given text aided reliable transmission. Indeed the evidence of the transmission of the Vedic texts, for example, is that oral transmission can be more reliable than a tradition of written texts involving the copying of manuscripts.
First Buddhist council: agreement on content of the teachings
Rupert Gethin writes:
- According to a generally accepted ancient tradition, the first attempt to agree the form of the Buddhist textual tradition, what was remembered as the authoritative ‘word of the Buddha’, took place some three months after the Buddha’s death at the town of Rājagṛha (Pali Rājagaha) in northern India when 500 arhats took part in a ‘communal recitation’ (saṃgīti). This event is commonly referred to in modern writings as ‘the first Buddhist council’. Significantly the earliest Buddhist tradition attempts to resolve any tension between theory and practice by insisting that the first communal recitation of scriptures was carried out by 500 individuals who had each realized direct and perfect knowledge of Dharma.
At this stage, the agreed upon teachings were propagated through a system of oral recitation and memorization. These early agreed-upon teachings were generally classified into two categories:
- Sutra (P. sutta): general discourses
- Vinaya ("discipline"): the Buddha's instructions on right conduct for Buddhist monks
A third category of teachings, known as the Abhidharma, was later added to the first two categories. Over time, these categories of teaching came to be knowns as the three pitakas.
Each of the early schools of Buddhism developed their own versions of the three pitakas.
First written texts
According to tradition, the texs of the Pali versions of the three pitakas were written down for the first time in the first century BCE.
Presumably, the Sanskrit recensions of the Early Buddhist Texts were written down in the same time period. (This needs to be verified.)
After the passing away of the Buddha, a variety of different "schools" of Buddhism developed in India, each with it's own version of the three pitakas:
- Sutra Pitika (general sutras)
- Vinaya Pitaka (sutras regarding the rules of conduct for monastics and lay persons)
- Abhidharma Pitaka (texts that classify and explain concepts in the other sutras; these texts are not technically the word of the buddha; but they are accorded that status in the early schools)
Editions of these early sutras are found today within the three major Buddhist Canons:
The editions of these early sutras that are included in the three canons are often referred to as parallel texts, due to their striking similarity. These early sutras define a set of shared tenets that are accepted by all Buddhist traditions.[note 16]
Mahayana sutras began to appear in Northern India beginning in the first or second century CE and they had a great influence on the Sanskrit traditions of that area.
The Mahayana sutras differ from the early sutras as follows:
- The Mahayana sutras are based on the early sutras, but they did not appear until several hudred years after the early sutras were recorded
- The Mahayana sutras accept the validity of the early sutras, but they assert that the earlier texts present a limited point of view, and that the Mahayana sutras present the higher point of view for beings of superior capacity.
- The Mahayana sutras emphasize training in bodhicitta (limitless wisdom and compassion)
The Mahayana texts were originally written in Sanskrit and then translated into the Chinese and Tibetan languages. They are accepted as the word of the Buddha by:
- the East Asian Buddhist tradition which follows the Chinese Canon
- the Tibetan Buddhist tradition which follows the Tibetan Canon
In the late seventh or early eigth centuries CE, another set of texts, now referred as Buddhist tantras, appeared in northern India. These texts were heavily influenced by the Mahayana sutras, but they placed special emphasis on various skillful practice methods, such as mantra, visualizations and empowerments. According to the tantric texts, these practice methods (Sanskrit: upaya) enable a practitioner to progress more quickly on the path to Buddhahood, when compared to the methods of other traditions.
The tantras are regarded as the word of the Buddha by those who adhere to these texts (namely Tibetan Buddhists and small groups of East Asian Buddhists). These texts are not recognized within the Theravada tradition.
In addition to the sutras and tantras, which are regarded as the word of the Buddha by their respective followers,[note 17] the many commentaries written by great teachers who followed after the Buddha are also highly revered. The commentaries provide context and explanation of the sutras (and tantras), and are commonly studied in monastic study programs.
About living traditions
What is the difference between a textual tradition and a living tradition?
What is the difference between a textual tradition and a living tradition?
- A textual tradition refers to a set of texts. It provides the theoretical underpinnings for the living traditions.
- A living tradition is a tradition (set of beliefs and practices) based upon one or more textual traditions. It is common for living traditions to draw on multiple textual traditions, or to have different interpretations of the underlying texts.
Idealized religion vs. practiced religion
This distinction between the textual traditions and the living traditions is expressed by contemporary scholar James C. Dobbins, as the distinction between an idealized religion (of the doctrines) and the practiced religion (the way people live).
- This distinction between idealized religion and practiced religion is important because there is a widespread tendency to mistake the religious ideal presented in the great doctrinal treatises for the historical reality of how religion was actually practiced. This is not the case. Throughout history there has been a disjunction between idealized and practiced religion. Needless to say, idealized religion informs and shapes practiced religion, and practiced religion likewise modifies and redefines idealized religion. At any particular moment, however, there tends to be a discrepancy between the two. In such circumstances, the ideal should not be mistaken for practiced reality. Hence, when looking at religious documents one needs to be mindful of whether they are prescriptive or descriptive in nature—that is, whether they project an idealized view of religious life or present observations of its actual practice.
People can follow more than one tradition
Since ancient India until modern times, it has been common for traditions, groups and individuals to be influenced by more than one textual and/or living tradition. For example:
- Chinese pilgrims to India around 400 CE reported seeing Mahayana and non-Mahayana monks both co-existing in the same monasteries.[note 18] This seems to have been a process of self-identification, where those monks who were attracted to the Mahayana sutras identified themselves as Mahayana.
- The East Asian Buddhist tradition was influenced by the native Chinese philosophies of Taoism and Confucianism.
- The Tibetan Buddhist tradition was influenced by Buddhist tantras, as well as Mahayana and non-Mahayana textual traditions.
- In many countries of Southeast Asia, local indigenous traditions influence the practice of Buddhism in those countries
- In Western countries today, many contemporary Buddhist practitioners are influenced by more than one living Buddhist tradition and/or textual tradition.
Contemporary scholar Damian Keown writes:
- When Buddhism spreads it tends not to eradicate existing beliefs but to incorporate them, along with local gods and spirits, into its own cosmology. It is quite common to find Buddhists at the village level [in Southeast Asia] turning to the local gods for solutions to everyday problems – such as curing an illness or finding a marriage partner – and to Buddhism for answers to the larger questions about human destiny.
Three major traditions
- The Southeast Asian tradition of Sri Lanka and South-East Asia, also referred to as 'southern' or 'Theravada' Buddhism. Its canonical scriptures are preserved in the Pali language.
- The East Asian tradition of China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, also sometimes referred to as ‘eastern’ or 'Chinese' Buddhism. Its scriptures are preserved in Chinese and its general outlook is that of the Mahayana...
- The Tibetan tradition of Tibet, Mongolia and the Himalayan region, also sometimes referred to as 'northern' or 'Tibetan cultural' Buddhism. Its scriptures are preserved in the Tibetan language. Its outlook is broadly that of the Mahayana, but its more specific orientation is that of the Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism).
Within these major traditions, there are a variety of smaller traditions and sects.
Contemporary scholar Rupert Gethin identifies the following areas of Buddhist thought and practice that are common to all major traditions of Buddhism:
- 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
A key difference between the Buddhist traditions is in the methods used to progress along the path (the fourth noble truth). As contemporary Tibetan Buddhist scholar Namkhai Norbu stated: “All the various traditions are agreed that this basic problem of suffering exists, but they have different methods of dealing with it to bring the individual back to the experience of primordial unity.”
Southeast Asian (Theravada) Buddhism
Southeast Asian Buddhism, or Theravada, refers to the Buddhist traditions of Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
- While the Theravāda [Southeast Asian] Buddhism of the Sri Lanka and South-East Asia should not be viewed as a uniform and monolithic whole, it does have a certain unity exemplified by the persistence of one main monastic Vinaya lineage and the authority of the Pali canon and its commentaries, inherited from the Mahāvihāra of ancient Anurādhapura. But this is no simple orthodoxy; a variety of interpretations and practices have probably always existed and persist down to modern times.
Thus, while each country or region within the Souteast Asian (Theravada) Buddhist world relies on the same core texts, the outer expression of the tradition varies from country to country. In many cases, the practice of Buddhism is intertwined with local religious beliefs. In addition, with the exception of Thailand, the other countries of South-East Asia were colonized by Western powers during the Western colonial era. Thus, modern day Buddhism in these countries is influenced by its response to Western Christian missionaries. For example, in Sri Lanka the response to Christian missionary activity included a reformation movement that encouraged lay Buddhist practitioners (non-monastics) to study the dharma and practice meditation.
Regarding dharma practice, Alexander Berzin explains:
- 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.[web 2]
East Asian Buddhism
The East Asian Buddhism (aka 'Eastern Buddhism') refers to the shared tradition of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. While there are a variety of sub-tradtions within the East Asian countries, they all share a common basis of the Chinese Buddhist canon, which is heavily influenced by the Mahayana textual tradition. For the most part, the sub-traditions within Korea, Japan, and Vietnam derive directly from corresponding sub-traditions within Chinese Buddhism, although they eventually developed distinctive local traditions.
Buddhism first entered China via the "Silk Road" routes through central Asia sometime during the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). From China, Buddhism entered the Korean peninsula in the fourth century, and then Japan in the sixth century. Buddhism also entered north Vietnam from China during the third century.
There are a variety of traditions within East Asian Buddhism, such as:
- Chinese Chan (Japanese Zen): which emphasizes sitting meditation
- Pure Land Buddhism: which emphasizes mantra recitation
Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Buddhism that is practiced in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan and the Himalayan regions of Nepal and India. This form of Buddhism is based on the Tibetan Buddhist Canon. Its outlook is broadly that of the Mahayana, but its more specific orientation is that of the Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism). The Tibetan form of Buddhism is unique in that it incorporates the tantric practices that developed in Northern India.
Alexander Berzin writes:
- 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...[web 2]
Buddhism was transmitted to Tibet from North India in the 7th to 13th centuries CE. The Tibetan form of Buddhism later spread to Mongolia and the Himalayan regions.
Timeline of early development of Buddhist traditions
The following chart provides a rough timeline of the development of the different schools/traditions:[note 20]
Timeline: Development and propagation of Buddhist traditions (ca. 450 BCE – ca. 1300 CE)
|450 BCE||250 BCE||100 CE||500 CE||700 CE||800 CE||1200 CE|
Oral and textual traditions of India
|Oral tradition||Early Buddhist Texts||Mahayana sutras||Tantras
|Tiantai / Pure Land||
|450 BCE||250 BCE||100 CE||500 CE||700 CE||800 CE||1200 CE|
- The term world religion is used here to refer to religions that are not limited to a specific location, tradition, or ethnic group.
- Many sources note that Buddhism does not conform to the traditional Western concept of a religion. For example:
- Surya Das states: "For Buddhism is less a theology or religion than a promise that certain meditative practices and mind trainings can effectively show us how to awaken our Buddha-nature and liberate us from suffering and confusion."
- Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse states: "Although essentially very simple, Buddhism cannot be easily explained. It is almost inconceivably complex, vast, and deep. Although it is nonreligious and nontheistic, it’s difficult to present Buddhism without sounding theoretical and religious."
- B. Allan Wallace states: "When we in the West first engage with Buddhism, it is almost inevitable that we bring out one of our familiar stereotypes and apply it to Buddhism, calling it simply a ‘religion.’... But Buddhism has never been simply a religion as we define it in the West. From the very beginning it has also had philosophical elements, as well as empirical and rational elements that may invite the term ‘science.’"
- Rupert Gethin states: "I am not concerned here to pronounce on a question that is sometimes asked of Buddhism: is it 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.12 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.
- Damien Keown states: "Problems [...] confront us as soon as we try to define what Buddhism is. Is it a religion? A philosophy? A way of life? A code of ethics? It is not easy to classify Buddhism as any of these things, and it challenges us to rethink some of these categories. What, for example, do we mean by ‘religion’? Most people would say that religion has something to do with belief in God. [...] If belief in God in this sense is the essence of religion, then Buddhism cannot be a religion. [...] Some have suggested that a new category – that of the ‘non-theistic’ religion – is needed to encompass Buddhism. Another possibility is that our original definition is simply too narrow.
- Walpola Rahula states: "The question has often been asked: Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? It does not matter what you call it. Buddhism remains what it is whatever label you may put on it. The label is immaterial. Even the label ‘Buddhism’ which we give to the teaching of the Buddha is of little importance. The name one gives it is inessential.
- What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
- By any other name would smell as sweet.
- What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
- In the same way Truth needs no label: it is neither Buddhist, Christian, Hindu nor Moslem. It is not the monopoly of anybody. Sectarian labels are a hindrance to the independent understanding of Truth, and they produce harmful prejudices in men’s minds."
- Note that the term middle way is also used to indicate the middle ground between certain metaphysical views (for example, that things ultimately either do or do not exist).
- See the article Four Noble Truths for further details and citations.
- For clarification of translations, see Dukkha#Translating the term dukkha.
- See the article Dukkha for further details and citations.
- For citations and further clarification, see Dukkha#Neither pessimistic nor optimistic, but realistic; in particular, see the footnotes in this section for detailed information on sources.
- See the article Pratītyasamutpāda for further details and citations.
- 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.
- Thich Nhat Hanh also refers to this reality of mutual interdependence as 'Interbeing'.
- 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."
- 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".
- Jay Garfield states: "That all phenomena are dependently originated is the heart of the Buddhist ontological theory."
- 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.
- See the article Samsara for further details and citations.
- See the article Karma in Buddhism for further details and citations.
- 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."
- 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."
- 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."
- 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.”"
- 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."
- Donald Lopez states: "[Nirvana] is used to refer to the extinction of desire, hatred, and ignorance and, ultimately, of suffering and rebirth."[web 1]
- See also Gombrich Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benāres to Modern Colombo. Routledge
- The term shared tenents is used by Thubten Chodron in the preface to One Teacher, Manny Traditions.
- The Theravada tradition does not recognize Mahayana sutras or Buddhist tantras as the authentic word of the Buddha.
- See account of pilgrim Faxian, for example.
- Different scholars may classify the main Buddhist traditions differently. For example,
- Robinson & Johnson (1982) categorize "Buddhism Outside of India" as: "The Buddhism of Southeast Asia", "Buddhism in the Tibetan Culture Area", "East Asian Buddhism" and "Buddhism Comes West".
- Rupert Gethin (1998) identifies: Theravada (southern), East Asain, and Tibetan (northern) traditions
- Southern (Theravada), eastern, and northern.
- See also: Prebish & Keown, Introducing Buddhism, ebook, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2005, printed ed, Harper, 2006
- See the article Timeline of Buddhism for further details and citations.
- Horn 1997, p. 263.
- Lama Surya Das 1997, p. 16.
- Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse 2011, p. 2.
- Goleman 2008, Kindle Locations 1301-1305.
- Gethin 1998, p. 65-66.
- Keown 2000, Kindle Locations 361-372.
- Walpola Rahula 2007, Kindle Locations 316-323.
- Harvey 2012, p. 2.
- Anderson 2013, Kindle Locations 286-294.
- Corless 1989, p. 4.
- Anderson 2013, Kindle Locations 364-367.
- Skilton 1997, p. 25.
- Lopez 1995, p. 6.
- Carrithers 1986, p. 10.
- Armstrong 2004, p. xii.
- Gombrich 2002, p. 49.
- Ajahn Sucitto 2010, pp. 21-22.
- Kohn 1991, pp. 131, 143.
- Anderson 2013, Kindle Locations 563-567.
- Gethin 1998, p. 61.
- Ringu Tulku 2005, p. 32.
- Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 87-88.
- Gethin 1998, p. 82.
- Anderson 2013, Kindle Locations 972-984.
- Smith & Novak 2009, p. 57.
- Thich Nhat Hanh 1999, p. 221-222.
- Dalai Lama 1992, p. 35.
- Nan Huai-Chin 1994.
- Edelglass 2009, p. 26.
- Geshe Sonam Rinchen 2006, p. 21.
- Khandro Rinpoche 2003, p. 95.
- Gethin 1998, p. 75.
- Williams 2002, pp. 47-48.
- Ajahn Sucitto 2010, p. 163.
- Smith & Novak 2009, pp. 51-52.
- Bhikkhu Bodhi 2011, p. 25.
- Geshe Tashi Tsering 2005, Kindle Locations 170-174.
- Gethin 1998, Chapter 2.
- Gethin 1998, Introduction.
- Tenzin Gyatso & Thubten Chodron 2014, Preface
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, tantra
- Dobbins 1991, p. 109.
- Keown 2000, Kindle Locations 1311-1315.
- Gethin 1998, p. 2.
- (Harvey, 1990); (Gombrich,1984)
- Gethin 1998, p. 3.
- Gethin 1998, p. 253.
- Gethin, Rupert (1998-07-16). The Foundations of Buddhism (p. 257). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Donald S. Lopez Jr., Nirvana, Encyclopedia Britannica
- Alexander Berzin. Types of Buddhism
Sources cited in this article
- Ajahn Sucitto (2010), Turning the Wheel of Truth: Commentary on the Buddha's First Teaching, Shambhala
- Anderson, Carol (2013), BASIC BUDDHISM: A Beginner's Guide: Volume 1 - Origins, Concepts and Beliefs, Carol Anderson (Kindle edition)
- Armstrong, Karen (2004), Buddha, Penguin Books
- Bhikkhu Bodhi (2011), The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering (Kindle ed.), Independent Publishers Group
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Carrithers, Michael (1986), "The Buddha", Founders of Faith, Oxford University
- Corless, Roger J. (1989), The Vision of Buddhism, Paragon House
- Dalai Lama (1992), The Meaning of Life, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, Wisdom
- Dobbins, James C. (1991), "Women's Birth in Pure Land as Women: Intimations From the Letters of Eshinni", Biennial Conference of the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies (Berkeley, California, August, 1991), ATLAS
- Edelglass, William (2009), Buddhist Philosophy: Essential Readings, Oxford University Press
- Geshe Sonam Rinchen (2006), How Karma Works: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, Snow Lion
- Geshe Tashi Tsering (2005), The Four Noble Truths: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume I (Kindle ed.), Wisdom Publications
- Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press
- Gombrich, Richard F. (2002), Theravāda Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo, London: Routledge
- Harvey, Peter (2012), An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press (Kindle edition)
- Horn, I. B. (1997), "Buddhism: The Theravada", in Zaehner, R. C., Encyclopedia of the World's Religions, New York: Barnes and Noble, pp. 263–292
- Keown, Damien (2000), Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition
- Keown, Damien; Prebish, Charles S., eds. (2004), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, London: Routledge
- Khandro Rinpoche (2003), This Precious Life, Shambhala
- Kohn, Michael H. (trans.) (1991), The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen, Shambhala, ISBN 0-87773-520-4
- Nan Huai-Chin, J.C. Cleary (trans.) (1994), To Realize Enlightenment: Practice of the Cultivation Path, Weiser Books
- Ringu Tulku (2005), Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness: The Three Vehicles of Tibetan Buddhism, Snow Lion
- Robinson, R.H.; Johnson, W.L.; Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2005), Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction (fifth edition), Belmont, California: Wadsworth
- Smith, Huston; Novak, Philip (2009), Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (Kindle ed.), HarperOne
- Thich Nhat Hanh (1999), The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching, Three River Press
- Walpola Rahula (2007), What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press. Kindle Edition
- Williams, Paul (2002), Buddhist Thought (Kindle ed.), Taylor & Francis
These are general sources that are not cited in the article. This list is by nature arbitrary.
- Bechert, Heinz & Richard Gombrich (ed.) (1984). The World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson.
- Donath, Dorothy C. (1971), Buddhism for the West: Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna; a comprehensive review of Buddhist history, philosophy, and teachings from the time of the Buddha to the present day, Julian Press, ISBN 0-07-017533-0
- Goldstein, Joseph (2002), One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism, HarperCollins
- Gombrich, Richard F. (1997), How Buddhism Began, Munshiram Manoharlal
- Jong, J.W. de (1993), "The Beginnings of Buddhism", The Eastern Buddhist, vol. 26, no. 2
- Juergensmeyer, Mark (2006), The Oxford Handbook of Global Religions, Oxford Handbooks in Religion and Theology, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-513798-9
- Lopez, Donald S. (2001), The Story of Buddhism, HarperCollins
- Morgan, Kenneth W. (ed), The Path of the Buddha: Buddhism Interpreted by Buddhists, Ronald Press, New York, 1956; reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi; distributed by Wisdom Books
- Robinson, Richard H. and Willard L. Johnson (1970; 3rd ed., 1982). The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction (Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing). ISBN 0-534-01027-X.
- Walpola Rahula (2007), What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press. Kindle Edition
- Williams, Paul (1989), Mahayana Buddhism: the doctrinal foundations, London: Routledge, ISBN 0-415-02537-0
- Williams, Paul (ed.) (2005). Buddhism: Critical Concepts in Religious Studies, 8 volumes, Routledge, London & New York.
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