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Author: Ted Fairchild

This lesson discusses Buddhism from a historical and broadly speaking "religious" standpoint, with particular emphasis on the ways in which Buddhism differs from other religions in its various modes of practice.

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Source: Music by Edie Murphy, Public Domain, Jeremiah Jones; Debussy, "The Sunken Cathedral," Public Domain,

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Hello. Welcome to this tutorial on Buddhism. Unlike some of the other Eastern religions like Hinduism, for example, Buddhism does have a founder. His name is the Buddha. It's a Sanskrit word that means enlightened one or awakened. He was also given the name Shakyamuni Buddha or Sakyamuni Buddha. But his birth name was Siddhartha Gautama, and he was born in the fifth century before the Common Era into relative comfort and protection from the world around him.

His father made sure that he didn't go outside the palace gates. However, when he did when he was a bit older, he discovered that there was great suffering and injustice in the world. And he was committed to understanding why. When he finally attained enlightenment and understanding, he developed a following. And followers along the way of the Buddha are called Buddhists.

And one reflects on the Four Noble Truths, the teachings of the Four Noble Truths. The first one-- life is suffering, dukkha. Suffering is caused by various attachments and cravings, which are guided by ignorance. Release from suffering is possible, and the truth out of the way of suffering

So the Buddha was a teacher who taught that enlightenment was possible to attain in this life. He taught through his actions, his words, his silence, and his presence. The principal commitments of a Buddhist are known as the three jewels-- Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, meaning community. These commitments along with the Four Noble Truths help keep one on the path toward ultimate release from suffering a state or a condition of being, a state of consciousness that is known as nirvana.

The other central element of the Buddhist teaching are called the Five Precepts. Do not take life, do not steal, do not over indulge in sensual or sexual pleasure, do not lie, and do not abuse the mind with intoxicating substances.

So Buddhism originated on the Indian subcontinent with the life and the wisdom teachings of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. However, Buddhism quickly spread in all directions, and in the process it took on different forms. There are two major schools of Buddhism-- Theravada and Mahayana. The Mahayana school emerged in the second century of the Common Era and is generally referred to as the greater vehicle. Theravada is often called Hinayana by Mahayana Buddhists and means lesser vehicle.

This can sometimes be a derogatory reference, but it's also a way of distinguishing the two in terms of how the teachings of the Buddha might be more or less broadly applied toward the goal of maximum enlightenment for the greatest number of people.

There was a concern at the time that Buddhism was becoming too academic and scholarly and therefore, inaccessible to the common folk. So many of the Theravada Buddhist scriptures were rewritten to reflect the teachings in a different light, in the light that many felt would shine more broadly, making Buddhism more accessible.

Among other changes, five precepts were added to the list you saw earlier, and one of the major innovations had to do with the doctrine of what is called dependent origination, which is the idea that everything is in some way dependent upon something else and therefore is essentially empty of self.

Well, Mahayanas applied greater emphasis to this aspect of emptiness, or Sunyata. And the practical effect of this was to apply the concept of emptiness, itself also empty, as a tool to free oneself from the habit of attaching ultimacy, fixity, or truth even to all other aspects of reality, including most concepts, fears, desires, et cetera.

So emptiness, or Sunyata, is a central feature of many of the Mahayana schools, including Chan Buddhism, which emerged in China in the sixth century of the Common Era and later spread south and east reaching Japan, where it was called Zen. And Zen is a term that means meditation or meditative state, an essential element that supports the Buddhist along his path.

The devotional aspects of Buddhism are also more emphasized in the Mahayana tradition. For example, while most Mahayana schools, like their Theravada predecessors, use the term "Buddha" to refer to the historical man who became enlightened, they also understood Buddha in a cosmic sense as a divine being, receptive and responsive to devotional activities like prayer and worship.

So in connection with this, many Mahayanas believe all beings to possess Buddha nature, a state of pure being and perfection that is merely clouded in illusion. However, this Buddhahood and the devotional elements are more of a cosmic principle and archetype of being, you might say, and not a deity as it is sometimes understood more generally under the concept of supernatural.

So this is the general orientation among all Buddhist schools, Theravada and Mahayana combined. It, therefore, is not a theistic religion. It has no single god in the way of the monotheistic god, deities of the West. But before we do a review, let's look at the distribution of the major schools of Buddhism in Asia.

This map gives us a look at the strongest concentrations of Buddhist practitioners in the East and Asia. You see that Theravada Buddhism is dominant in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma. And the scriptures, the language of the scriptures that are used in Theravada Buddhism is generally Sanskrit or Pali.

And then the Mahayana Buddhism is concentrated mostly in China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam. And then the Vajrayana Buddhism is a school of Buddhism that includes Tibetan Buddhism and tantric Buddhism. And that's predominant in Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan.

There are approximately 124 million adherents of Theravada Buddhism and between-- hard to estimate but between 500 million and one billion Mahayana Buddhists. And then followers of Vajrayana Buddhism, approximately 20 million adherents.

And of course, Buddhism has spread around the globe. If you live in a major city, there's a good chance that there's some school of Buddhism that has a temple or meditation center in your town or city. And here's a Zen temple in Brazil and some happy Buddhists in Poland.

So now we can review. Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. He attained enlightenment and gathered a following, and the teachings of the Buddha have spread across the globe. We looked at the schools of Mahayana and Theravada and Vajrayana that are distributed in high concentrations in Asia. We also noted that the teachings of Buddhism have reached every part of the globe.

Some of the principal ideas and doctrines that we pointed out were the Five Precepts, the Doctrine of Dependent Origination, and the Doctrine of Emptiness, which became adapted by the Mahayana school, which further developed into Zen in Japan and Chan in China.

Notes on “Buddhism”



Image of Gandhara Buddha, Public Domain,

Image of Buddhism Map, Creative Commons,

Image of Polish Buddhists, Creative Commons,

Image of Buddhist Temple in Brazil, Public Domain,


Terms to Know

Wise; deeply insightful; divinely inspired.


Generally, the belief either that God does not exist or that the question of existence of God or gods is not relevant to human existence, including religion.