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7.11: Buddhism

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    Learning Objective

    • Understand the development of Buddhism as a major world religion

    Key Points

    • Sramanas were those who practiced an ascetic, or strict and self-denying, lifestyle in pursuit of spiritual liberation. They are commonly known as monks.
    • The Sramana movement gave rise to Buddhism, a non-theistic religion that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices, and arose when Siddhartha Gautama began following Sramana traditions in the 5th century BCE.
    • Following his “Enlightenment,” Siddhartha became known as Buddha, or “Awakened One.” He began teaching a Middle Way to spiritual Nirvana, a release from all earthly burdens.
    • Buddhism has spread to become one of the world’s great religions, with an estimated 488 million followers.


    Noble Eightfold Path

    The eight concepts taught by Buddha as the means to achieving Nirvana.

    Siddhartha Gautama

    An aristocratic young man who gave up worldly comforts to follow Sramana, then attained Enlightenment and became known as the Buddha, teaching a Middle Way toward spiritual Nirvana.


    A sublime state that marks the release from the cycle of rebirths, known in the Sramana tradition as samsara.


    An offshoot of the Vedic religion that promoted an ascetic lifestyle; Sramana gave rise to Buddhism and other similar traditions.

    Buddhism arose between 500-300 BCE, when Siddhartha Gautama, a young man from an aristocratic family, left behind his worldly comforts to seek spiritual enlightenment. He became a teacher commonly known as the Buddha, meaning “the awakened one,” and Buddhism spread to become a non-theistic religion that encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs, and practices largely based on his teachings.

    Sramana Origins

    Buddhism is based on an ancient Indian religious philosophy called Sramana, which began as an offshoot of the Vedic religion. Several Sramana movements are known to have existed in India before the 6th century BCE. Sramana existed in parallel to, but separate from, Vedic Hinduism, which followed the teachings and rituals found in the Vedas, the most ancient texts of the Vedic religion. Sramana, meaning “seeker,” was a tradition that began when new philosophical groups who believed in a more austere path to spiritual freedom rejected the authority of the Vedas and the Brahmins, the priests of Vedic Hinduism, around 800-600 BCE.

    Sramana promoted spiritual concepts that became popular in all major Indian religions, such as saṃsāra, the cycle of birth and death, and moksha, liberation from that cycle. The Sramanas renounced married and domestic life, and adopted an ascetic path— one of severe self-discipline and abstention from all indulgence—in order to achieve spiritual liberation. Sramaṇa traditions (or its religious and moral practices) later gave rise to varying schools of Hinduism, as well as Yoga, Jainism, and Buddhism.

    Origins of Buddhism

    Early texts suggest Siddhartha Gautama was born into the Shakya Clan, a community on the eastern edge of the Indian subcontinent in the 5th century BCE. His father was an elected chieftain, or oligarch, of the small republic. Gautama is thought to have been born in modern-day Nepal, and raised in the Shakya capital of Kapilvastu, which may have been in Nepal or India. Most scholars agree that he taught and founded a monastic order during the reign of the Magadha Empire. In addition to the Vedic Brahmins, the Buddha’s lifetime coincided with the flourishing of influential Sramana schools of thought, including Jainism.

    Buddhist teachings explain that Siddhartha was a young man from a respected family, who renounced his family and left his father’s palace at age 29 in search of truth and enlightenment through Sramana. Siddhartha began this quest through a period of starvation and, according to legend, grew so thin he could feel his hands if he placed one on his back and the other on his stomach. This explains statues that depict Buddha as thin and withered, rather than the better known depiction of him seated with a large belly.

    Emaciated Fasting Buddha. This statue in Chiang Mai, Thailand, depicts the Buddha practicing severe asceticism before his Enlightenment.

    Buddha lived as a Sramana ascetic for approximately six years until he had an “awakening” in a place called Bodh Gaya, in the Gaya district of the modern Indian state of Bihar. Sitting under what became known as the Bodhi Tree, Siddhartha discovered what Buddhists call the Noble Eightfold Path, and attained Buddhatva, or Enlightenment, which is said to be a state of being completely free of lust (raga), hatred (dosa), and delusion (moha).

    Siddhartha, thereafter known as Buddha, or “awakened one,” was recognized by his followers, called Buddhists, as an enlightened teacher. He taught what he called the Middle Way or Middle Path, the character of the Noble Eightfold Path. This includes eight concepts to be sought after: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (the state of intense concentration brought on through meditation).

    His insights were intended to help sentient beings end their suffering through the elimination of ignorance and craving. This could be achieved through understanding the noble path, which is the way to achieve the sublime state of Nirvana. The literal meaning of Nirvana in the Sanskrit language is “blowing out” or “quenching,” and is the ultimate spiritual goal of Buddhism. It marks the release from the cycle of rebirths, known in the Sramana tradition as samsara.

    Another important Buddhist concept is Bodhisattva, a Sanskrit word for anyone who has been motivated by great compassion and a wish to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings —those who have a conscious awareness of the self but are in contrast with buddhahood. Sentient beings are characteristically not yet enlightened and are thus confined to the death, rebirth and dukkha (suffering) found in the cycle of samsara. Bodhisattvas, therefore, are those who have set themselves on the path toward enlightenment and hope to benefit others through their journey. Depictions of the bodhisattva path are a popular subject in Buddhist art.

    Bodhisattva. Clay sculpture of a bodhisattva, Afghanistan, 7th century.

    Rise of Buddhism

    Buddha is thought to have died around 483 BCE, after 45 years of travel and teaching. Buddhists believe he passed into a state of Nirvana. Small communities of monks and nuns, known as bhikkus, sprung up along the routes Buddha traveled. Buddhism was overshadowed by the more dominant Hindu religion, but this began to change in the 3rd century BCE; this was when one of the Indian subcontinent’s great rulers, Ashoka I of the Maurya Empire, renounced wars, despite having waged war to build his own kingdom. In a major break from others rulers of the time, he converted to Buddhism.

    Ashoka promoted the religion’s expansion by deploying monks to spread Buddha’s teaching. This began a wave of conversion throughout India as well as in surrounding nations, such as Nepal, Tibet, and Burma, but also further afield in Asia, including in China and Japan. Over time Buddhism grew, as greater numbers of people became aware of its teachings, including those in western nations, eventually becoming one of the major religions practiced around the world.

    Today, Buddhism is practiced by an estimated 488 million people. China is the nation with the largest number of Buddhists, approximately 244 million followers, or more than 18% of its total population. Other countries that have a large number of Buddhists among their populations include Myanmar with 48.4 million, Japan with 45.8 million, Sri Lanka with 14.2 million, Cambodia with 13.7 million, South Korea with 11 million, Thailand, Laos, Singapore, Taiwan, and Nepal. The United States is home to an estimated 1.2 million Buddhists, or 1.2% of the American population.


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