5: Buddhism

Buddhist Monk



  • Major populations: China, Korea, Japan, SE Asia, and the Pacific Rim
  • Designated as a world “religion” in 1801
  • Adherents: 376 million (6th largest religion)

  • Key texts: the Sutras (sayings of Buddha), the Dhammapada
  • Places of worship: Buddhist temples, stupas, holy sites in India

  • Do They Proselytize? Historically yes, but generally not today
  • Dogmatic? Yes.
  • Theistic? No.

  • Totems: Buddha statue, bodhi tree, lotus flower, wheel of dharma, enso, prayer beads
  • Taboos: unnecessary attachment or external restraint, meat–eating (most paths), garlic, onion, and pepper (China), alcohol, monks: contact with opposite gender

The Wheel of Dharma
A wheel with 8 spokes, representing the  Eight–Fold Path.
A similar “wheel” adorns the flag of India.

Key Terms

  • Bodhisattva
  • Theravada
  • Mahayana
  • Tibetan Buddhism
  • Sutra
  • The Pure Land
  • The Four Noble Truths
  • The 8-fold Path
  • The Three Jewels
  • Nirvana

Little Buddha (1993)

Discovery of the Middle Way

Video Clip


I. Buddhism in Historical Context

II. Major Paths of Buddhism

  • Map of Buddhism in Asia

  • A. Theravada Buddhism (300s BCE)
    • Southeast Asia: especially Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka
    • “Way of the Elders”
    • Oldest form of Buddhism
    • Popularized by King Ashoka, emperor of India

  • B. Mahayana Buddhism (1st century CE)
    • East Asia: especially eastern China, North and South Korea, and Japan
    • “Greater Vehicle” - most populous

  • C. Tibetan Buddhism (sometimes lumped in with Mahayana)
    • Developed in Tibet in 8th century CE
    • Northern Asia: especially northwest China, Tibet, and Mongolia
    • “Diamond Vehicle”
    • Merged with Tibetan folk and magic traditions

Cultural Encounters
Tina Turner/Peace Mantra
Beastie Boys/Bodhisattva Vow

III. Buddhism as a World “Religion” 

  • Buddhism considered a “religion” by 1801

  • Buddhists in History: A Worldwide Religion
    Cultural Influences: Asia, Australia
    • Today 7% of the world’s population are Buddhists
    • Buddhism in America
      • 1.2 million practicing Buddhists, esp. on the West Coast
      • 4th largest religion in America
      • Famous American Buddhists: Lisa Simpson, Adam Yauch, Tiger Woods, Tina Turner, Richard Gere
    • Buddhism in Australia
      • 2.5% of Australians are practicing Buddhists
      • Second largest religion after Christianity
      • Attributed to its proximity to Asia and increasing numbers of Asian immigrants


I. Buddhist Texts

  • Historical Buddha & Oral Traditions
  • The Sutras - based on the words of the Buddha
    • Vary in importance based on tradition
    • Includes Buddha’s conversations with others, and commentary on those texts

  • The Dhammapada
    • One of the most well known Buddhist texts
    • Aphorisms and sayings

II. Key Teachings and Concepts in Buddhist Texts

  • The Middle Way
    • All things in moderation
    • A turning away from extremism
    • A turning away from dualism

  • The Four Noble Truths: release from suffering (Crash Course video: 6:27-7:00)
    • Dukkha: Existence is filled with suffering
    • Samudaya: Suffering is caused by desire
    • Nirodha: Liberation from suffering is possible
    • The Eightfold Path is the way to achieve enlightenment

  • Desire in Buddhism: the Three Fires one must extinguish
    • Passion: attachment (e.g. lust, greed, covetousness)
    • Aversion: hatred of others
    • Ignorance: delusion,  (video) and dullness of mind

  • The Eightfold Path for extinguishing the Three Fires
    • Right view or understanding
    • Right thought
    • Right speech
    • Right conduct
    • Right livelihood
    • Right effort
    • Right Mindfulness
    • Right meditation (jnana)

  • On the Buddhist path, one takes refuge in the Three Jewels
    • The Buddha: an exemplar of lifestyle, wisdom, ethics, and mental discipline
    • The Dharma: the teachings which lead to an end of suffering
    • The Sangha: The worldwide community of fellow Buddhists

  • The ultimate goal (soteriology) of Buddhism is nirvana
    • For all Buddhists, nirvana (“extinguish”) is the end of suffering
      • Theravadans claim nirvana is liberation from the self — and therefore of rebirth
      • Mahayanans claim that beyond nirvana is the attainment of Buddhahood
        • Buddhahood is the realization of one’s inate Buddha-nature (i.e. the pure mind)
        • Those with Buddhahood reincarnate out of compassion to free all sentient beings
        • The ultimate goal is the liberation/awakening of all sentient beings

III. Exegesis: Traditions of Buddhist Interpretation

Buddhism and Philosophy

  • Theravada Buddhism (Conservative: “Elder Monks”)
    • About 40% of Buddhists worldwide
    • Conservative – claims to preserve the original form of Buddhism
    • Claim enlightenment is achieved through monastic discipline
      • You must be a monk (male) to achieve nirvana
    • Monastic sangas are supported through charitable donations
    • Laypeople receive merit through donations but will not achieve nirvana
    • Primary text is the Pali Canon - reported to contain the words of the Buddha

  • Mahayana Buddhism (Most Popular: Greater Wheel)
    • About 55% of Buddhists worldwide
    • Believe enlightenment can be achieved by anyone, not just monks
    • Focus on universal salvation — nirvana for everyone!
    • The Buddha was just one manifestation of Buddha-hood or the Buddha-nature that anyone can attain
    • Bodhisattvas - Buddhist saints who are enlightened beings that help people achieve salvation
    • Laypeople receive merit through devotion and can achieve nirvana
    • Wide variety of Sutras

  • Popular Variations of Mahayanan Buddhism
    • Pure Land Buddhism
      • Veneration of a heavenly buddha named Amida
      • This world is so evil that one cannot gain enough karma to enter paradise
        • So, PL Buddhists reincarnate in the “Pure Land,” a place without temptation
        • From the Pure Land (to the West), one can eventually achieve enlightenment
      • Pure Land Sutras include the 48 vows made by Amida on which adherents meditate
    • Zen Buddhism
      • Originated in China (as Chan), but grows more popular in Japan
      • Emphasis on meditation, koans, and spiritual insight
      • Koan collections - The Gateless Gate and the Blue Cliff record
    • Imperial-Way Buddhism
      • Originated in Japan in the early 20th century
      • Asserts the emperor, not the Buddha, should be the principal image of adoration
      • Focus on national piety. Buddhism as a national ideology.

  • Vajrayana Buddhism (Tibetan: Diamond)
    • About 5% of Buddhists worldwide, but gets most media attention in the U.S.
    • Merged with Tibetan folk and magic traditions
    • Dalai Lama - spiritual leader of Tibet (in exile in India)
    • Sutras and Tantras: best analogy is textbook and workbook


I. Buddhism and Empire

Tibetan Concert - 1998

Radiohead interview

Video Clip

  • Spread from India
    Cultural Influences: India, Asia
    • Buddhism began in Ancient India in the 5th c. BCE
    • During the time of the Buddha, Buddhism was a wandering practice
      • Because of this it easily spread throughout Asia and the Middle East
    • One of the reasons for Buddhism’s popularity: the power of narrative
    • Emperor Ashoka constructs monuments and sends missionaries out
    • Buddhism in India declined by the 1200s because of
      the popularity of Bhakti Hinduism and the spread of Islam
      • By this point, however, Buddhism had spread throughout Asia

  • 500s CE: The Buddhist & Chinese Philosophy exchange
    • Chinese Daoism shapes Buddhism into Chan Buddhism
      • The Japanese will call this Zen Buddhism
      • Unlike the textual/high minded Buddhism of India (c.f. Vedas),
        Chinese Buddhists sought enlightenment in everyday life (c.f. the Dao)
    • Buddhism adds meditation to Daoist practice

  • Buddhist Protests in Vietnam
    Cultural Influences: Vietnam and United States
    • 1963: Then President Ngo Dinh Diem was oppressing the Buddhist majority of Vietnam
    • Buddhists led hunger strikes, demonstrations and public protests
    • 11 June: Buddhist monk, Quang Duc, burned himself to death in protest (pic)
    • August 1963: 1000+ Buddhists are arrested, many are killed or disappear.
      • President Kennedy contacts the U.S. embassy in Saigon instructing
        Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. to seek Diem’s removal
    • November 1963: President Diem was assassinated in a military coup

  • The Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism under Chinese authority
    Cultural Influences: China, Britain, United States
    • Buddhism introduced to Tibet through marriage and wandering monks
    • Tibetan Buddhism develops over 1000 years of integrating folkways and various Buddhist sects
      • Buddhism becomes the official doctrine of Mongolia around 1400 CE
    • 1587: Emperor of China recognizes the Dalai Lama as the sole ruler of Tibet
    • Late 1800s: British invade Tibet due to increasing Russian influence
    • 1950: Communist Chinese army invades Tibet.
    • Ongoing demonstrations protesting Chinese rule in Tibet
      • Tibetan Freedom Concerts (1996-1999, 2001, 2003, 2012)
      • Over 100 self-immolations in Tibet have taken place since 2009
      • Tibetan protest over Olympics in China – 2008 (2m video)
    • Taking of the Panchen Lama (2nd most important Tibetan Buddhist leader)
      • In 1995, 5-year-old Gedhun Nyima was kidnapped by China
        • It is his task to identify the next Dalai Lama
        • He remains the world’s youngest political prisoner
      • China has chosen their own Panchen Lama for Tibet
  • Buddhism & War
    Cultural Influences: Japan, United States
    • Promotion of Imperial-Way Buddhism
    • Veneration of the state and existing social hierarchy
    • Took the concept of ancestor veneration and applied it to the emperor as head of the Japanese “family”
    • Kamikaze - “divine wind”


I. Enacting Buddhism

  • Buddhist Veneration
    • Meditation applies to only certain interpretations of Buddhism
    • Visits to temples and shrines where Bodhisattvas are honored
  • Engaged Buddhism
    • Concerned with enacting Buddhist values politically and socially
    • Popular in America among new converts

Buddhist Temple

II. Becoming a Buddhist

  • Varies by sect and region. One adopts the key teachings of Buddhism
  • Practice meditation and acting compassionately
  • You are a Buddhist if you follow the Buddha’s teachings, take refuge in
    the Four Noble Truths, and walk the Eightfold Path
  • The Mahayanan Creed: I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sanga

III. General Guidelines for visiting a Buddhist Temple

  • Q. How should I be dressed?
    • Dress casually but well-covered. Legs should be covered below the knee.
      No head covering required.
  • Q. What are the totems used in the service?
    • Incense is lit as an offering to the Buddha
    • Malas (“prayer beads”) are used to keep focus during meditation
    • A gong or bell is used to indicate the start and end of a meditation
  • Q. Will contributions to the temple be collected?
    • Yes, usually in a box at the front of the temple. 
    • $5 is considered polite.
  • Q. How should I behave in a Buddhist service?
    • Remove your shoes before entering the sanctuary
    • Never point at statues or people (with feet or hands)
    • Do not touch statues or people. The polite gesture is to bow with hands together.
    • Remain silent and seated unless chanting with congregants
  • Q. What are the death and mourning customs of Buddhists?
    • Considered impolite to communicate with the bereaved before the funeral
    • The funeral is an open casket ceremony, as a reminder of the impermanence of life
    • At the funeral, sit and stand when others do so
    • 90 days after death, there is usually a memorial service
    • One year after death, there is a “merit transference ceremony” for the reborn