BUDDHISM: A PORTRAIT
by Dr. Geshe Sopa and Ven. Elvin W. Jones
Ven. Geshe Sopa, born in Tsang Province, Tibet, is Professor in the
Department of South Asian Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Elvin W. Jones is co-founder and associate director of Deer Buddhist Center,
near Madison, Wisconsin
Buddhism as we know it commenced in Northeast India about 500 BC through the teaching
of Prince Siddartha Gautama, often known subsequent to his experience of "enlightenment"
as Sakyamuni. Sakyamuni traveled around and taught in the Ganges basin until his
death at the age of 84. From there Buddhism spread through much of India until
its total disappearance from the land of its origin by the end of the 13th century.
This disappearance occurred as a consequence of several centuries of foreign invasions
leading ultimately to the conquest of India by successive waves of conquerors
who had been unified under Islam.
By the time of its disappearance in India, Buddhism had spread through much of
Asia where it has been a dominant faith in Southeast Asia in Sri Lanka, Thailand,
Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Laos; in Central and East Asia in China, Korea, Japan,
Tibet and Mongolia; and in numerous Himalayan areas such as Nepal, Sikkim, Butan
and Ladak. It is estimated that today there are a little over 250 million Buddhists
in the world. In the USA alone there are about five million, the majority of whom
are Asian immigrants or their descendents. However, in recent years, numerous
Americans of English and European descent have also adopted Buddhism.
From the start, the teaching of the Buddha was a middle way. In ethics it taught
a middle way avoiding the two extremities of asceticism and hedonism. In philosophy
it taught a middle way avoiding the two extremities of eternalism and of annihilation.
The single most important and fundamental notion underpinning Buddhist thought
was the idea of "contingent genesis" or "dependent origination"
(pratitya-amutpada). Here the thought is that every birth or origination occurs
in dependence on necessary causes and conditions; however, not everything so asserted
can function as a cause -- in particular, any kind of eternal or permanent whole.
Consequently, the Buddhist idea of "contingent genesis" came to be characterized
by three salient features, i.e., unpropelledness, impermanence and consistency.
"Unpropelledness" signifies that origination or genesis is not propelled
by an universal design such as the thought or will of a creator. "Impermanence"
means that the cause of an effect is always something impermanent and never permanent.
Finally, "consistency" requires that the genesis or effect will be consistent
with and not exceed the creative power of the cause. For example, it is on the
basis of the quality of consistency that the Buddhist denies that any kind of
material body can provide a sufficient material cause for the production of a
Thus, on account of this primary philosophical underpinning of contingent genesis,
Buddhism has produced a quite large etiological rather than theological literature.
Taking as his basis the idea of contingent genesis in general, Sakyamuni taught
a specific theory of a twelvefold dependent genesis accounting for the particularized
birth of a person or personality which naturally occurs in some kind of existence
which is not free of various forms of suffering or ill. The spectrum of naturally
occurring births which are characterized by ill is called the "round of transmigration"
(samsara), and the force impelling this transmigration and unsatisfactory condition
of attendant births was taught by Sakyamuni to be action under the sway of afflictors
or afflicting elements such as nescience, attraction, aversion and so forth. In
the language of Buddhism, this action is called karma; the afflictors are called
klesa; and the resultant ills are called dukha. The Buddha called the reality
of suffering (dukha) the truth of suffering, and called this action -- conjoined
with afflicting elements (karma and klesa) -- the truth of the cause of suffering.
These two truths constitute the first of the Four Noble Truths which were the
principal teaching of Sakyamuni and the principle object of understanding of the
Buddhist saint. Sakyamuni also taught the possibility of freedom or emancipation
from suffering or ill through its cessation.
Likewise, he taught a path leading to this cessation. These two, cessation and
path, constitute the third and fourth of the Four Noble Truths. Thus, we have
suffering and its causes and the cessation of suffering and its causes; these
are the Four Noble Truths of suffering, its causes, cessation and path. Through
the cessation of suffering and its causes one obtains nirvana which is simply
peace or quiescence, and the cause of the attainment of this peace is the path
of purification eliminating action under the sway of the afflictors. The Buddha
taught that of all the afflictors contaminating action, the chief is a perverse
kind of nescience which apprehends a real or independent self existing in or outside
of the various identifiable corporeal and mental elements which constitute a person
or personality. Thus, the cultivation of the path of purification hinges on the
reversal of this mistaken apprehension of a real soul or ego or selfhood. This
Buddhist view that there is no real or enduring substratum to the personality
is called anatma. Sakyamuni's most precise and important articulation of the Four
Noble Truths was his formulation of a twelvefold causal linkage generating each
and every particular instance of birth of a person. This twelvefold causal nexus
begins with nescience and ends with old age and death. This nescience is in particular
the perverse ignorance which grasps a real selfhood. Conditioned by this kind
of nescience, actions are performed which deposit inclinations and proclivities
upon the unconscious mind. These proclivities are later ripened by other factors
such as grasping and misappropriation and thereby bring about unsatisfactory results
through birth and death. With, however, the correct seeing of the reality of no-self,
this nescience may be stopped, and thereby the whole chain of causation leading
to unsatisfactory birth is brought to an end. In this way the twelvefold causal
linkage is not only a theory of the genesis of a personality but also a theory
of its potential for deliverance from every kind of ill.
Thus it is said in Buddhist scripture:
"Gather up and cast away.
Enter to the Buddha's teaching.
Like a great elephant in a house of mud,
conquer the lord of death's battalions.
Whoever with great circumspection,
practices this discipline of the Law,
abandoning the wheel of births,
will make an end to suffering."
"Gather up and cast away" refers to the gathering together of virtuous
or wholesome qualities and the abandonment of non-virtuous or unwholesome qualities
in the personality. Thus the same scripture says:
"Not to do evil, to bring about the excellence of virtue, completely
to subdue the mind, this is the teaching of the Buddha."
On his deathbed, the Buddha had exhorted his disciples to work on their own salvation
with diligence; hence these teachings are sometimes characterized as a doctrine
of individual emancipation.
About five to six hundred years after the passing away of the teacher Sakyamuni,
another formulation of the Buddhist doctrine and practice gained a wide circulation
in India. This later propagation is associated with the great Buddhist teacher
Nagarjuna. Taking his stand on the fundamental Buddhist idea of contingent genesis,
Nagarjuna argued that if every instance of genesis is a contingent genesis, then
continued analysis will show that every kind of permanent and even impermanent
cause proposed either by Buddhists or others will be non-absolute and non-ultimate;
consequently, causality itself is in some sense illusory. In this sense even true
phenomena like causality are just empty of any kind of ultimate nature. Nagarjuna
carried his analysis to cover permanent non-originating phenomena like space as
well. The nonexistence of all phenomena as ultimates or absolutes is the Buddhist
idea of emptiness (sunyata), which provided a great impetus to another kind of
religious aspiration aiming at the emancipation not only of one's own individual
life-stream but that of all sentient life from the round of unsatisfactory birth
and rebirth. He especially demonstrated the absence of any final or absolute difference
between samsara and nirvana, even though phenomenally they are and will always
remain opposites. Thereby, Nagarjuna opened wide the way for the pursuit of the
non-attached nirvana taught to be achieved by the Buddhas along with numerous
other sublime qualities of knowledge belonging to perfect enlightenment. From
earliest times the Buddhist had already distinguished between the path of purification
trodden by Sakyamuni himself, already known as the Bodhisattva path, and that
taught and followed by numerous of his disciples. Now the Buddha's own path was
encouraged for all. By its followers this later path was called Mahayana, or greater
vehicle, whereas the former came to be called the Hinayana, or smaller vehicle.
The Mahayana was synonymous with the path of a Bodhisattva or one who, moved by
great compassion, developed the aspiration to perfect enlightenment for the sake
of others. This aspiration was called Bodhicitta, or the mind to enlightenment,
and provided the motivation for the cultivation of the Mahayana path. This Mahayana
path was also taught extensively in the Prajnaparamita-sutras or Perfection of
Wisdom Scriptures which also gained wide circulation in India through the efforts
About 500 years later still another very important development occurred in Indian
Buddhism. This development is associated with the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu.
This led to a great systematization of the Mahayana and in particular to another
less radical interpretation of the meaning of the Prajnaparamita- sutras than
that associated with Nagarjuna, whose school continued on and is generally called
the Madhyamika or Middleist School; Asanga's is called the Cittamatra or Mind-only
School. Also around this time, a special kind of Buddhist esoteric scripture and
practice gained wide currency. They constituted four classes or levels which moved
from outer ritual action through inner meditative action to a full fledged esoteric
path of spiritual attainment. These scriptures were known as the tantras, and
their practice was called the diamond vehicle or the secret mantra vehicle. Espousing
the practice of the Mahayana, they added many ritual methods together with numerous
profound and difficult yoga or meditation practices and techniques. The tantras
saw themselves as fulfilling the practice of the Mahayana as well as providing
an accelerated path to its realization. The vehicle of the tantras is often called
the vehicle of the effect because straightaway it envisages the final result of
the path and imaginatively dwells upon and rehearses that until it becomes not
an imagined but an accomplished result. The Mahayana being wisdom and method,
the tantras add to the general wisdom and method of the Mahayana their own very
Thus in India along with four classes of tantras, four main philosophical schools
developed, each with a number of subschools, i.e. the Vaibhasika, Sautrantika,
Madhyamika and the Yogacara. The former two are schools of the Hinayana, and the
latter two are schools of the Mahayana. The Vaibhasika early developed 18 subschools,
two of which are of particular importance -- the Sthaviravada, which is the immediate
ancestor of the Theravada, the principal Buddhism of Southeast Asia, and the Sarvastivada,
which is the basis of monasticism in Tibet and the Tibetan community today. The
Madhyamika provides the chief viewpoint of Tibetan Buddhism today, and the Yogacara
has had profound and far reaching influences on the Buddhism of China, and through
China on Korea and Japan. Some secret mantra practices were transmitted into China
and from there to Japan where they survive today, and the practices of all four
levels of tantra are still alive in the Tibetan community. From India by way of
Central Asia, Buddhism began its penetration into China around the first century
CE. There it encountered the already developed systems of Confucianism and Taoism.
The latter in particular provided the terminology and numerous seemingly analogous
concepts for subsequent centuries of effort devoted to the translation of Buddhist
scriptures into Chinese and the establishment of Buddhist practice in China.
By the eighth century, Chinese Buddhism reached its mature form with its two main
theoretical schools of Tien-tai and Hua-yen, together with its two popular schools
of Pure Land and Ch'an (Japanese: Zen). These sinicized forms of Buddhism began
their spread to Korea mainly from the fourth century on and commenced spreading
from Korea to Japan from the middle of the sixth century. Although some important
Buddhist development occurred a century earlier, Buddhism began to be strongly
cultivated in Tibet in the eighth century. In this century Indian and various
Sinitic Buddhist developments collided in a debate held by the Tibetan king at
Samyas, the first Buddhist monastery founded in Tibet. Tibetan history records
that the Indian faction won this debate, and it is clear that afterwards Tibet
looked to India throughout its prolonged subsequent period of importation of Buddhism.
As a consequence, Tibet remains a great repository of a vast body of important
literature which later perished in India itself. From Tibet, Buddhism was afterward
spread into Mongolia and throughout the Himalayan region.
Now, in the aftermath of World War II and the collapse of Western colonial establishments
in Asia, the modern efforts of numerous Asian countries to make a transition from
agrarian to industrial societies has led and still leads often to the establishment
of military dictatorships or to socialist totalitarian regimes. Buddhism has generally
fallen upon difficult times particularly at the hands of Marxist-Leninist regimes,
for whereas Buddhism does not see any natural conflict between itself and modern
science, its middle way philosophy is staunchly opposed to dialectical materialism.
In fact, two of the worst atrocities of nearly genocidal proportions to be perpetrated
in modern times have taken place in two such countries, Cambodia and Tibet, the
latter continuing -- and this is hard to believe -- for over 30 years.
Buddhist leadership nonetheless has continued to press for freedom and democracy,
for peace and non-violence, as these will be the best safeguard for the natural
human wish to avoid suffering. Here, it is particularly indicative to note that
two recent Nobel Peace Prize winners have been Buddhists -- His Holiness the 14th
Dalai Lama of Tibet, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, of Burma.
Taken from A SourceBook for Earth's Community of Religions