The History and Teachings of Buddhism

Nov 2016
574
Germany
#1
The following is a translation from a German article of mine in a German history forum.

Prehistory and context:

The predominant religion in 5 century BCE India (when Buddha lived) was Brahmanism, based on the Upanishads (= late vedic texts from the 6th century BCE), which had a theistic and an a-theistic variant. On the theistic level, the stay in heaven of creator god Brahma was regarded as highest goal; to achieve it, the aspirants practised, depending on mentality and social status, expensive animal sacrifices or sexual asceticism or devoted reading of the ´sacred´ texts (= Veda). The latter variant was the most widespread. Their priesthood propagated a four-caste hierarchy prescribed by gods with the priests at the top, followed by the warriors (ksatriyas), the ranchers and farmers (vaisiyas) and the servants (sudras). The first three stages were reserved for the Aryans, the fourth and lowest for the pre-Aryan population.

The a-theistic practice of Yoga meditation, applied by ascetics in combination with fasting, abstinence and complete seclusion in the woods, was more demanding and rarer than the mentioned theistic methods. The aim was the spiritual unification with the non-personal ´world soul´ or ´world substance´, the Brahman, through meditative realization of the identity of Atman (= core of the human soul) with the Brahman. The Yoga technique possibly goes back to the pre-Aryan population of the Indus Valley and was originally intended to prepare the animal sacrifice, but was then used by the Aryan Brahman ascetics as an independent means of becoming one with the Brahman.

The dominance of the two Brahmanist currents was shaken in the 5th century BCE in the wake of a far-reaching social upheaval. The system of the clan-based community was superimposed and displaced by the expansion of some kingdoms. New urban centres developed into hubs of a widely networked trade. They developed a more critical awareness of the traditional doctrines of the Upanishads. Added to this was a high urban mortality rate due to the disease-promoting population density, which for many people intensified the rejection of the theistic sacrificial cults and the desire for a more authentic way of life.

Protest against the formally ossified theistic Brahmanism (with its god Brahma), whose priesthood claimed the ruling position in the caste system, was most strongly expressed by the emergence of ´Shramanas´ (religious wandering groups), to which also early Buddhism belongs. Information about the non-Buddhist Shramanas, especially the Jainists, the Ajivikas, the Materialists and the Skeptics, can be found in the Samannaphala Sutra from the Early Buddhist Dialogue Collection ´Digha Nikaya´.

The Jainists were convinced of the individual soulfulness of all forms of matter and rejected the a-theistic Brahmanic doctrine of the identity of ´world soul´ (Brahman) and the human soul-steering core (Atman), rather each human soul was a separate entity (similar to Leibniz´ monad) and could be liberated from the karmically driven chain of rebirth by Yoga, asceticism and vegetarianism, and remain eternally in bliss. The Ajivikas formed the most radical group: they rejected the karma doctrine and postulated a predeterministic rebirth chain driven by a principle called ´Niyati´, the highest level of which was an Ajivika with the determination to end its chain by strict asceticism, constant nudity and final starvation. The attitude of the Materialists was similar to that of many of today's average Western people: they led a moderately hedonistic and sociable life within their groups and denied both a universal ´world soul´ and rebirth, since in their view the soul goes extinct with death. This completely ´worldly´ position was so unusual in India at the time that its followers left the cities and formed wandering groups. Finally, the Skeptics were agnostics and consequently refrained from describing the views of other groups as false. Their only goal was to cultivate a (quasi stoic) peace of mind. Two important disciples of Buddha, Shariputta and Moggallana, had previously been skeptics.

Early Buddhism:

No non-Buddhist sources are available for the life data of the Buddhism founder Siddharta Gautama (called ´Buddha´ = the Awakened One), which is why one can speak only conditionally of a historicity of his biographical data. In expert circles, however, there is no serious doubt about the authenticity of the most important key data.

The origin of Gautama from the Sakhya people in today's border region of Nepal is not controversial in research. Among the Sakhya, a council formed from clan heads determined the politics. Gautama is regarded as a son of one of these councils, which is why the legend of his royal sonship later formed. A historically reliable complete biography can only be compiled to a limited extent, since the first ´full biographies´, i.e. summaries of written and oral individual reports about his life, were only written from about 200 BCE onwards. The agreement of these sources (including ´Mahavastu´, ´Lalitavistara´ and ´Buddhacarita´, all from the 1st century CE) goes a long way, but many details are uncertain as to whether they are historical or legendary.

After all, it is credible that Gautama grew up in a wealthy family, got married at the age of 16, led a luxurious life and at the age of 29 underwent an inner change, left his family and started to apprentice to Brahmanic ascetics. The sources diverge in the question of motif: the early Sutras in the dialogue collection ´Anguttara Nikaya´ report on a longer phase of doubt about the meaning of earthly existence; in a later biography from the 2nd century CE, ´Nidanakatha´, there is talk of a sudden change shortly after the birth of his son Rahula, when Gautama saw an old man, a sick man and a corpse on the street from his carriage. At night, after a long look at his son lying in the arms of his sleeping mother, he is said to have left the house and joined the Brahmins outside the city.

Seven years of spiritual search followed, without producing a satisfactory result for Gautama. First, he joined the Brahmin Arada Kalama, who taught him a Yoga meditation that lingers in object negation ("nothingness"). With another teacher, Udakra Ramaputra, he reached the even higher level of double negation ("neither perception nor non-perception"). He rejected the offers of both teachers to take over the leadership of their group, but integrated the acquired methods into his practice (which later led to the ´formless Dhyanas´ no. 3 and 4) and, after he had also left Ramaputra, additionally - according to some ´biographies´ - practiced extreme asceticism to kill the desire for sexual pleasure, for example through meditation in the case of breathing arrest, which leads to violent physical reactions, and by reducing his diet to a few drops of bean soup per day. According to the already mentioned biography ´Nidanakatha´ (2nd century CE), Gautama is said to have achieved great mental clarity, but at the same time has recognized that the price - the physical ruin - was too high.

According to ´Majjhima Nikaya´, which as part of the Pali Canon contains some of the oldest oral traditions, he remembered a self-induced meditative experience from his youth, which included both detachment from sexual desire and deep inner peace. The then purely intuitively applied method, later systematized as the first ´dhyana´ (Pali ´jnana´, literally: ´glowing´, the first meditative immersion stage) - supplemented by a resumed normal diet - bore, after weeks of meditation and several waking nights, finally the desired fruits: the experience of ´awakening´ of the 35 year old Gautama under the ´Bodhi-tree´ (a fig tree). He presented himself to his first followers as ´Tathagata´ (e.g.: ´one who has thus come´), who realized the deathlessness and is able to teach it to others.
 
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Nov 2016
574
Germany
#2
In the next 45 years, according to the sources, Gautama spread his teachings in the Ganges Valley in northeast India and founded a well-organized monastic order as well as a constantly growing lay congregation. The order (Pali ´sangha´, Skt. ´samgha´) is today the oldest still existing institution at all. At that time the sangha, led by Gautama and depending on alms and larger donations, wandered for nine months of the year through the north-eastern Indian region and during the three months of the rainy season stayed in permanent places, mostly in gardens, which had been given to him by rich lay followers. Gradually, separate local Sanghas developed as well.

Initially, Gautama refused to accept women into the sangha because they were generally considered untalented for the path of spiritual liberation in that era. He was probably also deterred by the debacle of nun admission among competing Jainist groups, which had led many monks there to attach more importance to sex than to breathing meditation. From Brahmanism the Buddhism of those days had at any rate adopted the view that to be reborn as a woman was - due to the supposedly lesser talent - the clearly worse option than to be reborn as a man. According to the ´Vinaja Pitaka´ (a text focused on the order's rules and history), Gautama only agreed to admit nuns when his widowed stepmother Mahapajapati, who wanted to join the Sangha, persistently urged him to do so. The spiritual potential that he granted the women extends to the ´Arhatship´ as it does to men, i.e. the seeing through of the samsaric cycle and the realization of the perfection of Nirvana.

Three months after Gautama's death (Buddhist: ´Parinirvana´, around 404 BCE), according to Vinaya Pitaka, several hundred Arhats gathered in the city of Rajagaha for the First Buddhist Council to agree on the authentic content of Gautama's teachings (dhamma) and order rules (vinaya) - but without written fixation. That according to Vinaya Pitaka the content of the teachings of Gautama or the content of Vinaya Pitaka, as they were presented at the meeting of Gautama's decades-long personal assistant Ananda or Vinaya Pitaka, are completely identical with the texts which were fixed in writing after the Fourth Buddhist Council in the year 29 BCE, is of course an exaggeration, since almost four centuries lie between both events and the tradition in this time was oral and certainly not free of changes and additions. Also in written texts interventions were made, as is recognizable for example in Mahayana sutras from the 2nd and 3rd century CE, which are available in different Chinese translations, which points to several processing stages of the originals.

About 300 BCE at the Second Council in Pataliputta there was the first split of the until then uniform order into the reformist group of the Mahasanghikas and the conservative group of the Sthaviras. The reason for the division is controversial in research, but presumably consists in the dissent about the extension of the order rules demanded by the Mahasanghikas concerning the appearance of monks in public. Of importance is this small schism in so far as it prepares the large schism, which in the 1st century CE splits Buddhism into ´Mahayana´ (= large vehicle) and ´Hinayana´ (= small vehicle), whereby ´Hinayana´ is not a self-designation, but a derogatory designation by the Mahayanists. The self designation of the traditional Buddhists is Theravada (= ´Teaching of the Elders´, today predominantly in southeast Asia and Sri Lanka present). To avoid misunderstandings: the Mahayana sees itself as a necessary extension of the Theravada, whose teachings it does not deny but complement.

Of course, not the dissent about the rules of the order but the ´Five theses of Mahadeva´ form the seed of the later schism. They were put forward by the Mahasanghikas in their book ´Kathavatthu´ (around 250 BCE), in which the level of enlightenment of Arhatship is problematized, above all (so thesis 1) because many monks recognized as Arhats had sperm ejaculations through erotic dreams. Thesis 2 questioned whether the knowledge, motivation and empathy of many Arhats were sufficient to spiritually guide other people. According to these and other criteria, a distinction was made between Arhats who had attained enlightenment but were unable (1) to permanently give up their attachment to the worldly and (2) to communicate the teaching (dhamma) to other people in a sustainable way, and Arhats who had completely detached themselves from sensual desire and had sufficient altruistic motivation and competence.

Both criteria, the perfection of enlightenment and the desire to lead other people to the same goal, eventually became the core characteristics of the ´Bodhisattva´, which replaced the Arhat ideal in the Mahayana schools. A Bodhisattva is defined as a perfectly enlightened person who could remain in Nirvana after his death, but who voluntarily (i.e. not driven by desire) reincarnates himself again and again in order to help other people to achieve the Nirvana.

The Mahayana teaching was probably initiated in the 1st century CE by forest ascetics in southeast India, from where it spread to the Indian northwest and to Tibet and China and from there to Japan. Its basic components are (1) the aforementioned Bodhisattva ideal, (2) a glorification of the Buddha in the context of a visionary cosmology, which can be regarded as the most impressive of all religious and philosophical cosmologies, especially in ´Avatamsaka-Sutra´ (1500 pages), which is also unsurpassed in beauty in world literature, and (3) the teaching of ´emptiness´ (shunyata) of all dharmas, which were still regarded as real in the older schools.

Characteristic of the Mahayana school is the coincidence of rational philosophy and hyperbolic mythology, the latter in the form of a multitude of transcendental Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, which can be interpreted allegorically, but for many Buddhists have become the object of religious worship, as was foreign to older a-theistic Buddhism. The visionary bombasticism of Mahayana cosmology owes only in part to the poetic talent of its authors but is essentially based on meditation experiences on the basis of highly elaborated visualization techniques.

The five most important schools of Mahayana are the Madhyamika School, the Yogacara School (both India), the Vajrajana School (Tibet), the Ch´an or Zen School (China or Japan) and the Amithaba School (China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, among others).

The Madhyamika School was founded around 200 CE by the South Indian monk Nagarjuna. In Buddhism Nagarjuna is considered the most important Buddhist thinker after Gautama Siddharta. His main work is the ´Madhyamaka Karika´ (= ´Verse over the middle way´), in which he places Gautama's doctrine of the middle way on a broad philosophical basis.

The ´Middle Way´ of Gautama (e.g. in the Sutra collection ´Itivuttaka´) means the avoidance of the extremes of (a) substantialism (a thing has existence) and nihilism (a thing has no existence) as well as (b) eternalism (the soul is imperishable) and annihilationism (the soul passes away after death). Gautama negates both pairs of opposites through his doctrine of the elements of existence, the so-called ´Dharmas´. According to it, beings and things are a conglomerate of constantly evolving and passing Dharmas. In this sense, a material thing is non-existent as a unit, since it is composed only of material Dharmas, but also non-existent, since the Dharmas exist, albeit only ephemerally. The same applies to the ´soul´, which has no unity and substantial identity, but consists of mental Dharmas (= four of the five ´Skandhas´, the fifth is the body), which after death connect with new material Dharmas (of which the body consists).

Nagarjuna goes one step further and also problematizes the existence of the Dharmas, although not nihilistic (there are no Dharmas), but dialectical (they are neither existent nor non-existent).
For the Yogacara School, created around 300 CE, the world only consists of ´mind´ (citta) according to the formula ´citta-matra´ (Only Mind). As a synonym for ´mind´, ´consciousness´ (vijnana) is used, which is why the school is also called ´Vijnanavada´ (theory of consciousness). Its main thinkers and authors are the brothers Asanga and Vasubandhu (4th century CE). All phenomena, according to the teaching, are unreal constructions of the universal ´spirit´, which is in the same relationship to individual consciousness as the ocean is to its waves.

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´Samsara´ (= to wander on) is in Buddhist view the cycle of birth, death and rebirth in which all non-enlightened beings are trapped as long as they hold on to their desires and (with higher developed beings) to the illusion of egoism. ´Nirvana´ (= calm wind) is the detachment from desire and ego illusion, thus a mode of existence in absolute freedom (and not, as often misunderstood, the extinction of existence).
 
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Aupmanyav

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
5,298
New Delhi, India
#3
The following is a translation from a German article of mine in a German history forum.

Prehistory and context:

The predominant religion in 5 century BCE India (when Buddha lived) was Brahmanism, based on the Upanishads (= late vedic texts from the 6th century BCE), which had a theistic and an a-theistic variant. On the theistic level, the stay in heaven of creator god Brahma was regarded as highest goal; to achieve it, the aspirants practised, depending on mentality and social status, expensive animal sacrifices or sexual asceticism or devoted reading of the ´sacred´ texts (= Veda). The latter variant was the most widespread. Their priesthood propagated a four-caste hierarchy prescribed by gods with the priests at the top, followed by the warriors (ksatriyas), the ranchers and farmers (vaisiyas) and the servants (sudras). The first three stages were reserved for the Aryans, the fourth and lowest for the pre-Aryan population.

The a-theistic practice of Yoga meditation, applied by ascetics in combination with fasting, abstinence and complete seclusion in the woods, was more demanding and rarer than the mentioned theistic methods. The aim was the spiritual unification with the non-personal ´world soul´ or ´world substance´, the Brahman, through meditative realization of the identity of Atman (= core of the human soul) with the Brahman. The Yoga technique possibly goes back to the pre-Aryan population of the Indus Valley and was originally intended to prepare the animal sacrifice, but was then used by the Aryan Brahman ascetics as an independent means of becoming one with the Brahman.
Tammuz, there are a few points that you should take in account. They are generally missed.

There was no predominant religion in India in Buddha's time. People worshiped their own deities in their region or villages whose numbers went into thousands. We still have them and continue to worship them. This all later came to be known under the umbrella term of Hinduism.

Vedic religion was a migrant to India. The Aryan brahmins were trying to impose that on India. This resulted into a religious conflict (mind you, not wars). That is the time when stories like that of Shiva destroying Daksha's yajna, Krishna lifting Govardhan mountain to save the people of Vraja against Indra's ire or the story of Indra violating Ahilya came up which led to banning Indra's worship among Hindus (there are hardly any temples dedicated to Indra in India). 'Dharma' (ethical behavior), subject to local traditions was mainstay of Hinduism. Jainism, Buddhism, Charvak, Lokayat and Ajivakas were part of the resistance to brahmanism. For long, Jainism and Buddhism remained a part of Hinduism as sects. Words 'Dharma', Pantha or Marg were never used in India in the sense of religion.

When the imposition of Vedic religion failed (but not completely), the brahmins had no option for livelihood other than to follow the thoughts and practices prevalent in India. That brought about the assimilation. The thousands of jatis, the local priests and shaman, warriors, traders and manual workers were adjusted in the four-fold division of Aryans. At the same time, Vedic practices also continued but with modifications, the most important of them was the concept of 'ahimsa', though animal sacrifice remained a part of Hinduism in villages.
 
Mar 2012
4,324
#4
The five most important schools of Mahayana are the Madhyamika School, the Yogacara School (both India), the Vajrajana School (Tibet), the Ch´an or Zen School (China or Japan) and the Amithaba School (China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, among others).
The Madhyamaka and Yogacara are only philosophical doctrines, not schools. There are schools which revolved around one of these particular doctrines, but just about every school revolves around these two philosophies, and also the Tathagatagharba doctrine, which became a separate philosophical doctrine in East Asia.
Early Yogacara might have been an offshoot of Sarvastivadin but was eventually picked up by Mahayana Buddhism and became associated with it.
Vajrayana (esoteric Buddhism) is not a philosophical doctrine or a school, but a method of practice that focuses on engaging in desires rather than avoiding them. Most Vajrayana schools also follow the Madhyamaka doctrine. The Gelukpa for example, are followers of Prasangika Madhyamaka. Zen, like most other Chinese Buddhist schools, are followers of the Tathagatagharba docrtine, which combined elements of Madhyamaka and Yogacara. Amithaba school is similar, but its more religion focused in worshipping Amithaba and how he will bring you to the pureland after you die to teach you there.
 
Mar 2012
4,324
#5
The ´Middle Way´ of Gautama (e.g. in the Sutra collection ´Itivuttaka´) means the avoidance of the extremes of (a) substantialism (a thing has existence) and nihilism (a thing has no existence) as well as (b) eternalism (the soul is imperishable) and annihilationism (the soul passes away after death). Gautama negates both pairs of opposites through his doctrine of the elements of existence, the so-called ´Dharmas´. According to it, beings and things are a conglomerate of constantly evolving and passing Dharmas. In this sense, a material thing is non-existent as a unit, since it is composed only of material Dharmas, but also non-existent, since the Dharmas exist, albeit only ephemerally. The same applies to the ´soul´, which has no unity and substantial identity, but consists of mental Dharmas (= four of the five ´Skandhas´, the fifth is the body), which after death connect with new material Dharmas (of which the body consists).
Note that claiming Dharmas existing is only an early sectarian Buddhist view which is carried on only in Theravada. Different sectarian Buddhist schools also held different views of what Dharma is (building blocks of experience, including the material world). All Mahayana schools of thought considers dharma as empty and not real. Xuanzang's Cheng Weishilun had an entire section refuting the existence of infinitesimal dharmas. As far as both Madhyamaka and Yogacara is concerned, there is no component building blocks of the world, the material world doesn't self exist at all. The early Madhyamaka differs from Yogacara on the issue of positing a base consciousness. For Madhyamaka, refuting and negating self existence of all things alone was enough to establish reality, for Yogacara, such a negation can carry nihilistic tendencies and hence they posited an affirmation of existence; the Alaya consciousness, which isn't really a tangible being that can be subject to conceptual grasping, but a convenient label of true experience devoid of conditions.
 

Devdas

Ad Honorem
Apr 2015
4,324
India
#6
The first Buddhist council happened in the city of Rajagriha, earlier capital of Magadha before Patliputra became capital of Magadha. Also, Shakya said to have ancestry from Ikshvaku, the royal lineage to which Hindu god Rama belonged to.
 

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