Buddhism, one of the major religions of the world, was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who lived in northern India from 560 to 480 B.C. The time of the Buddha was one of social and religious change, marked by the further advance of Aryan Civilization into the Ganges Plain, the development of trade and cities, the breakdown of old tribal structures, and the rise of a whole spectrum of new religious movements that responded to the demands of the times (Conze 10). These movements were derived from the Brahmanic tradition of Hinduism but were also reactions against it. Of the new sects, Buddhism was the most successful and eventually spread throughout India and most of
Today it is common to divide Buddhism into two main branches. The Theravada, or "Way of the Elders," is the more conservative of the two; it is dominant in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand (Berry 23). The Mahayana, or "Great Vehicle," is more diverse and liberal; it is found mainly in Taiwan, Korea, and Japan, and among Tibetan peoples, where it is distinguished by its emphasis on the Buddhist Tantras (Berry 24). In recent times both branches, as well as Tibetan Buddhism, have gained followers in the West.
It is virtually impossible to tell what the Buddhist population of the world is today; statistics are difficult to obtain because persons might have Buddhist beliefs and engage in Buddhist rites while maintaining folk or other religions such as Shinto, Confucian, Taoist, and Hindu (Corless 41). Such persons might or might not call themselves or be counted as Buddhists. Nevertheless, the number of Buddhists worldwide is frequently estimated at more than 300 million (Berry 32).
Just what the original teaching of the Buddha was is a matter of some debate. Nonetheless, it may be said to have centered on certain basic doctrines. The first of the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha held, is suffering, or duhkha. By this, he meant not only that human existence is occasionally painful but that all beings; humans, animals, ghosts, hell- beings, even the gods in the heavens; are caught up in samsara, a cycle of rebirth, a maze of suffering in which their actions, or karma, keep them wandering (Coomaraswamy 53).
Samsara and karma are not doctrines specific to Buddhism. The Buddha, however, specified that samsara is characterized by three marks: suffering, impermanence, and no- self, or anatman. Individuals not only suffer in a constantly changing world, but what appears to be the self, the soul, has no independent reality apart from its many separable elements (Davids 17).
The second Noble Truth is that suffering itself has a cause. At the simplest level, this may be said to be desire; but the theory was fully worked out in the complex doctrine of "dependent...