Buddhism began in India 2,500 years ago and, although virtually extinct in India, it remains the dominant world religion in the East. There are over 360 million followers of Buddhism worldwide and over one million American Buddhists. There even a significant number of "Jewish Buddhists." Buddhist concepts have also been influential on western society in general, primarily in the areas of meditation and nonviolence.
Buddhist beliefs and practices are based on the teachings of the Buddha ("Enlightened One"), an Indian prince named Siddharta Gautama who lived around 500 BCE. According to Buddhist tradition, the young prince lived an affluent and sheltered life until a journey during which he saw an old man, a sick man, a poor man, and a corpse. Shocked and distressed at the suffering in the world, Gautama left his family to seek enlightenment through asceticism. But even the most extreme asceticism failed to bring enlightenment. Finally, Gautama sat beneath a tree and vowed not to move until he had attained enlightenment. Days later, he arose as the Buddha - the "enlightened one." He spent the remaining 45 years of his life teaching the path to liberation from suffering (the dharma) and establishing a community of monks (the sangha).
Over its long history, Buddhism has grown into a variety of forms ranging from an emphasis on religious rituals and the worship of deities, to a complete rejection of both rituals and deities in favor of pure meditation. Yet all forms of Buddhism share respect for the teachings of the Buddha and the goal of ending suffering and the cycle of rebirth. Theravada Buddhism, prominent in Southeast Asia, is atheistic and philosophical in nature and focuses on the monastic life and meditation as means to liberation.
Mahayana Buddhism, prominent in China and Japan, incorporates several deities, celestial beings, and other traditional religious elements. In Mahayana, the path to liberation may include religious ritual, devotion, meditation, or a combination of these elements. Zen, Nichiren, Tendai, and Pure Land are the major forms of Mahayana Buddhism.