Buddhist Religion: Beliefs, Practices, Symbols, More

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Buddhism, founded in India 2,500 years ago, remains the dominant world religion in the East and is becoming increasingly popular in the West. Over its long history, starting with Buddha himself, the religion 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.

When it comes to Buddhism, many people have questions like: What does Buddhism teach about people and the universe? Do Buddhists believe in God? Are they atheists? What of a spiritual realm and an afterlife? What are Buddhism's values, traditions, and ethics? Who are its leaders and what are its followers like? What is Buddhism's history? And what are the symbols of Buddhism and what do they mean?

The overview below will direct you to various topics on the Buddhist religion, from beliefs to practices to important literature to symbols.

Buddhism facts, sects, deities, and more

Buddhism 101

Today, there are over 360 million followers of Buddhism. Although virtually extinct in its birthplace of India, it is prevalent throughout China, Japan and Southeast Asia. In the 20th century, Buddhism expanded its influence to the West and even to western religions.

Buddhism Fast Facts

While its true that there are many different expressions of Buddhism today, sometimes involving a variety of beliefs, that doesn't mean that there aren't "facts" about the religion. Information regarding its history, size, and location act as an important foundation in understanding their beliefs and practices.

Buddhist Beliefs

What are the basic beliefs of Buddhism? As a starting place, it is helpful to overview the statement communicated by The World Buddhist Sangha Council when it unanimously approved the "Basic Points Unifying the Theravada and Mahayana."

Is Buddhism really atheistic? This is an important question many people have asked. A doctrine agreed upon in present-day Buddhism is that "this world is not created and ruled by a God." The Buddha himself rejected metaphysical speculation as a matter of principle, and his teachings focused entirely on the practical ways to end suffering. On the other hand, the Buddha did not explicitly rule out the existence of a God or gods, and very shortly after his death a devotional element formed within Buddhism.

What do Buddhists believe about the afterlife? Like other major world religions, Buddhism has convictions about what happens after a person dies physically. According to the Buddhist faith, after death one is either reborn into another body (reincarnated) or enters nirvana. Only Buddhas - those who have attained enlightenment - will achieve the latter destination.

Buddhist Practices

Rituals such as mantras and meditation are foundational to understanding Buddhist practices. In Buddhism, mantras are sacred sounds that are believed to possess supernatural powers. The word "mantra" is a Sanskrit word, which probably means "that which protects (tra) the mind (man)." Buddhist meditation is a form of mental concentration that leads ultimately to enlightenment and spiritual freedom. Meditation occupies a central place in all forms of Buddhism, but has developed characteristic variations in different Buddhist traditions.

Also see: The Buddhist View on Homosexuality

Buddhist Sects and Schools

Buddhism today is made up of many different branches. Engaged Buddhism, also known as Socially Engaged Buddhism, is not a sect, but a specific movement within the Buddhist religion. Founded by Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh in the 20th century, Engaged Buddhism seeks to apply Buddhist teachings in a more activist and social manner than has been traditional. Zen Buddhism is comprised of about 9.6 million people in Japan today, and numerous Zen groups have developed in North America and Europe within the last century. It is a religion that is becoming more visible in the West.

Mahayana Buddhism emerged in the first century CE as a more liberal, accessible interpretation of Buddhism. As the "Greater Vehicle" (literally, the "Greater Ox-Cart"), Mahayana is a path available to people from all walks of life - not just monks and ascetics. Theravada Buddhism is dominant in southern Asia, especially in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. For this reason it is sometimes known as "Southern Buddhism." Theravada means "The Way of the Elders" in Pali, reflecting the Theravadins' belief that they most closely follow the original beliefs and practices of the Buddha and the early monastic Elders.

Also see: Comparison chart of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhist Symbols

As Buddhism spread, Buddhist symbolism was enriched by the cultures with which it came into contact. This is especially true of Buddhism in Tibet, which has developed a rich symbolic tradition. The central symbols of Tibetan Buddhism are the Eight Auspicious Symbols, known in Sanskrit as Ashtamangala (ashta meaning eight and mangala meaning auspicious). Common symbols include: The Lotus, The Wheel, Buddha Eyes, Zen circle, Hand Gestures, and Buddhism colors.

Buddhist History

The details of the lief of Buddha are not known for certain, but most scholars are in agreement that he was an actual historical figure who lived in northern India around the 5th century BCE. The events of the Buddha's life are recorded in Buddhist tradition and are a favorite subject of Buddhist art. Buddhist tradition divides the life of its founder into 12 glorious events. These defining incidents of the Buddha's life are given visual form in densely packed sequences narrated in a special genre of paintings known as the "Twelve Great Deeds of the Buddha's Life" (Tib. Dzad pa chu nyi). These artworks not only delineate Buddha's gradual progress towards spiritual enlightenment, but also present a visual depiction of a vast number of abstract philosophical notions underlying esoteric Buddhism.

When Mahakasyapa died shortly after the First Council, Ananda became head of the sangha (Buddhist monastic community). During the 40 years he led the sangha, Buddhism spread throughout India. The Buddha had directed his disciples to teach "for the welfare of the many, out of compassion for the world," and this his disciples did. Never using violence or coercion, they simply taught others the way to enlightenment.

The interaction between Hellenistic Greece and Buddhism started when Alexander the Great conquered Asia Minor and Central Asia in 334 BCE, going as far as the Indus, thus establishing direct contact with India, the birthplace of Buddhism.

Buddhist Sacred Texts

The Tripitaka (Tipitaka in Pali) is the earliest collection of Buddhist teachings and the only text recognized as canonical by Theravada Buddhists. Mahayana Buddhism reveres the Tripitaka as a sacred text, but adds to it the Sutras, which reflect distinctively Mahayana concepts and are used more often by Mahayana Buddhists. In addition, the Tibetan Book of the Dead is the Tibetan text that is most well known to the West. Written by a Tibetan monk, the Book of the Dead describes in detail the stages of death from the Tibetan point of view.

Buddhist Things

In Buddhism, the begging bowl, or alms bowl, is one of the simplest but most important objects in the daily lives of Buddhist monks. It is primarily a practical object, used as a bowl in which to collect alms (either money or food) from lay supporters.

The first centuries of Buddhism saw very few visual representations of the Buddha, with Buddhist art consisting mainly of symbols. But beginning the 1st century AD, the Buddha image emerged and went on to become one of the most important ritual items in Buddhism.

A prayer wheel is of a hollow metal cylinder, often beautifully embossed, mounted on a rod handle and containing a tightly wound scroll printed with a mantra.

A japa mala or mala is an eastern rosary with 108 beads. The mala is used both in Hinduism and Buddhism for counting mantras, chants or prayers. Buddhist rosaries were likely adapted from Hinduism.

Buddhist Deities

In both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Buddhas are those who have attained full enlightenment. Siddharta Guatama became "the Buddha" after his Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree.

The celestial Buddha named Hotei or Pu-Tai is best known as the jolly Laughing Buddha. In China, he is known as the Loving or Friendly One. He is based on an eccentric Chinese Ch'an (Zen) monk who lived over 1,000 years ago and has become a significant part of Buddhist and Shinto culture.

In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvas are those who are on the path to Enlightenment, but have not yet attained it and become buddhas. Any living person who has embarked on the Bodhisattva path can thus be considered a bodhisattva. Kuan Yin (also spelled Guan Yin, Kwan Yin) is the bodhisattva of compassion venerated by East Asian Buddhists. Commonly known as the Goddess of Mercy, Kuan Yin is also revered by Chinese Taoists as an Immortal. The name Kuan Yin is short for Kuan Shih Yin (Guan Shi Yin) which means "Observing the Sounds of the World".

An enigmatic aspect of Tibetan Buddhism iconography is the presence of ferocious, terrifying forms known as the wrathful deities. Though these hideous, hair-raising images seem contradictory to Buddhist ideals, they are not personifications of evil or demonic forces.

Buddhism Timeline

See a detailed chronology of important events in the history of Buddhism.

Buddhism Features

Feature articles on Buddhism and contemporary life, provided by the University of Chicago's Department of Religion.

Buddhism Glossary

What's the difference between dharma and karma?

Find out on this page and learn more about other important terms in Buddhism.

Buddhism Bookstore

Learn more about Buddhism with books in several categories hand-selected by ReligionFacts.

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