Buddhism is one of the world's most prolific religions, dominating in much of mainland South East Asia, and influential as well in South Asia and East Asia. There is also a Buddhist diaspora spread across most of the world and a renaissance of interest in the West since the late 60s and 70s.
History and philosophy
|“||Form is emptiness and emptiness is form||”|
Buddhism is a religion founded around 400-500 BC by Sakyamuni Buddha. According to tradition, Prince Siddharta Gautama (the Buddha's former name) was born in Lumbini as heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Sakya (in present day Nepal, near the Indian border). He was raised in the palace with the best luxuries money can buy, but shut off from the outside world by his father, the king. One night, he sneaked out of the palace and saw four sights that had a profound impact on the rest of his life; an old man, a sick man, a dead man and an ascetic. As a result, he discovered that a life of luxury did not lead to peace of mind, and that the rich, like the poor, still suffer the torments of old age, sickness and death. He therefore renounced his title and abandoned his wealth in order to seek a way that could lead all beings, without discrimination, to freedom from suffering. He spent six years experimenting with the various common methods of the day, but to no avail. Finally, at the age of thirty-five and while meditating under the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, he awoke to the insights he had been seeking. The essence of the Buddha's discovery are categorized in his first teaching that was delivered to a group of five ascetics at the Deer Park in Sarnath and is called the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha devoted the rest of his life to spreading his teachings, and finally passed away in a copse of sal trees at Kushinagar. He was believed to be over 80 years old at the time.
On the other hand, while historians generally agree that the Buddha himself was an actual historical figure, there has to date been no evidence on his actual date of birth and death, or of any of the events associated with the traditional accounts of his life story.
For many centuries, Buddhism was the major religion in India, and was supported by many great kings. Asoka the Great (273–232 BCE), the third Mauryan emperor, was probably the most famous. He ruled most of the Indian subctontinent from his capital city of Pataliputra, modern day Patna. Some sources portray him as a wicked, fierce, and extremely violent monarch in the years before his conversion. Asoka embraced Buddhism and became a follower of the cause of Dharma (right behaviour, translated in Ancient Greek as ευσεβεία- respect for human sufferings) after he repented, following his victory over the neighboring empire of Kalinga (modern Odisha), which was so costly in lives that it caused him to turn his back on imperialism and concentrate on bettering the world. Asoka left a large number of inscriptions on rocks and pillars, as Achaemenid rulers previously did in Iran. Asoka’s inscriptions witness his change of heart. Almost all of the emperor's edicts deal with the Buddhist concept of Dharma/Ευσεβεία. He abolished the death penalty and showed respect towards all living beings, saying that rearing and killing animals for food violates the Dharma cosmic law.
Ashoka's inscription in Delhi-Topra Pillar summarize his efforts for the promotion of the Dharma and the dispatch of missions which established Buddhism within his kingdom and beyond. He was responsible for the spread of Buddhism in a major way, as he is known to have sent Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey. He also had stone-carved Buddhist pillars with inscriptions or animal figures erected, apparently throughout his realm — 19 of these, including those at Sarnath and Allahabad, survive to this day. Buddhism's influence in India waxed and waned over the next millennium, and during the 6th and 7th century support was mostly confined to Southern India. However, perhaps the single most significant blow to Buddhism in India occurred in 1193 when Turkic Islamic raiders burnt the great Buddhist center of learning in Nalanda (in current-day Bihar), and by the end of the 12th century it had all but disappeared from the lowlands, though it continued to thrive in the Himalayan regions. However, the Buddha himself was incorporated into the Hindu pantheon: Many Hindus consider the Buddha to be an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu.
Buddhism as a philosophy and religion can roughly be divided into two schools: Theravada and Mahayana. The Theravada school which spread to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka promotes personal liberation from suffering, whereas the Mahayana, which is prevalent in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Bhutan and Tibet, emphasizes the liberation of all beings. The Vajrayana school, which is often called Tibetan Buddhism, is an offshoot of Mahayana and differs from it only in method, not philosophy. A common thread throughout all Buddhist schools is the cultivation of wisdom, compassion for all living creatures and the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) as a basis of interacting with the world, and the total rejection of religious conversion. All schools of Buddhism recognize karma (the law of cause and effect) as the creator of our illusory universe, which Buddhists refer to as samsara, and reject the notion of a creator God. Buddhism generally aims to follow the "middle path", in which one does not go out of the way to inflict suffering on himself, but at the same time does not indulge in material pleasures. The ultimate goal in all schools of Buddhism is to attain enlightenment as the Buddha did, which is believed to be reached when one is successfully purged of all emotional attachments and selfish desires.
For the most part, relations between the different schools are peaceful, with no history of major armed conflict between them. It is also not uncommon for followers, or even monks of one school to visit temples belonging to other schools to offer prayers.
Unlike many other religions, Buddhism does not have a holy book with the authority of the Bible in Christianity, the Koran in Islam or even the Vedas in Hinduism. The Tripitaka, also known as the Pali Canon, is generally regarded as the oldest surviving Buddhist text, and is considered canon by all schools of Buddhism. The Mahayana school also regards some additional texts, known as sutras to be canonical.
Common images and symbols
- Buddha Sakyamuni. Obviously the most common image at Buddhist monasteries, and statues show the Buddha in a various number of postures, though the most common of these depicts the Buddha sitting in lotus posture with the finger tips of his right hand touching the ground.
- Tara (only in Vajrayana monasteries). This female deity can be depicted in a variety of colors, though green or white are the most common. Green Tara represents the Buddha's enlightened activity. White Tara represents compassion.
- Padmasambhava also known as Guru Rinpoche (only in Vajrayana monasteries, especially those of the Nyingma school). An eighth century sage credited as the founder of Vajrayana Buddhism. The most common images portray him in a sitting posture, wearing an elaborate hat and with his right leg lowered slightly. His eyes are wide open and appear to be gazing into the distance.
- Prayer wheels (Tib: mani) (only in Vajrayana monasteries). There are several types of prayer wheels, and the following are some of the most common: copper wheels mounted in walls surrounding monasteries and stupas, and large wooden wheels standing alone near the gates of monasteries. In addition, there are small hand-held wheels that are carried by devotees. All prayer wheels are rotated in a clockwise direction and with a sincere motivation to benefit all beings. In this way, they are considered an effective means of developing a generous and pure mind.
- Swastikas. Commonly seen at temples, they are used in Buddhism to represent peace and the dharma. While the swastika is associated with Nazism in much of the Western world, its use in Buddhism predates Nazism by thousands of years, and does not represent anything close to Nazi ideals. They continue to be used in much of Asia as a symbol of good luck.
Cities and other destinations
Below are listed some of the most notable Buddhist sites in the sub-continent:
- Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka — the first capital of Sri Lanka, now a UNESCO World Heritage, was longtime a center of Theravada Buddhism. A few miles away the village of Mihintale marks the site where Thera Mahinda, the eldest son of Emperor Ashoka, met the Sinhalese king Devanampiya Tissa and converted him to Buddhism.
- Bodh Gaya, Bihar, India — the place where the Buddha Sakyamuni attained enlightenment.
- Boudhanath Stupa, Boudhanath, Nepal — a large stupa with relics of a past Buddha..
- Bumthang Valley, Bhutan — the valley is considered the spiritual heart of Bhutan and contains many sacred sites, including the famous Kurjey Lhakhang in Jakar.
- Ellora and Ajanta, Maharashtra, India — spectacular rock-cut cave monasteries and temples, holy place for the Buddhists, Jains and Hindus.
- Kathmandu Valley, Nepal — Boudhanath town is home to one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. Swayambhunath, also known as the Monkey Temple, is the most sacred among Buddhist pilgrimage sites.
- Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India — the site where Buddha reached Mahaparinirvana and was cremated
- Lumbini, Nepal — the birth place of Sakyamuni Buddha.
- Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka — An ancient city, capital of a powerful Sinhalese kingdom from 1070 to 1284 CE. Its ruined palaces and temples, declared a World Heritage Site, testify to the glory of Buddhism during the Medieval period.
- Pharping, Kathmandu Valley, one of the most sacred sites associated with Guru Rinpoche
- Rewalsar, Himachal Pradesh, India — a sacred lake associated with the Buddhist sage Padmasambhava. A popular pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists.
- Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh — the place where the Buddha first taught the Dharma.
- Taktshang Monastery, (Tiger's Nest), Paro, Bhutan — a monastery associated with Guru Rinpoche. It is one of Bhutan's most sacred places.
- The Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka — a temple housing a tooth that came from the mouth of Lord Buddha and is considered Sri Lanka's most sacred site.
- Sitagarha Hill, Marwateri Basin, Sitagarha Hill, Jharkhand, India — The site of a major Buddhist shrine and stone carved stupa dating from the Mauryan Period.
- Taxila, Panjab, Pakistan — a major site with relics of the Buddha, including teeth and bone fragments, and many stupas and monasteries
- Trongsa, Bhutan — home to the largest "dzong", monastery-fortress classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
See also: Sacred sites of the Indian sub-continent
- Ayutthaya, Thailand
- Bagan, Myanmar
- Bago, Myanmar
- Bangkok, Thailand - Features the reclining Buddha of Wat Pho (วัดโพธิ์), possibly the largest reclining Buddha in the world. Also features the Emerald Buddha in the royal temple Wat Phra Kaew (วัดพระแก้ว), which is regarded by Thais as the holiest Buddhist temple in their country, and a popular destination for pilgrims.
- Borobudur, Indonesia — site of a very impressive ancient temple complex
- Chiang Mai, Thailand
- Hanoi, Vietnam - Home to the architecturally unique One Pillar Pagoda (Chùa Một Cột). The nearby countryside is home to the Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương), widely regarded as the holiest Buddhist site in Vietnam and a popular destination for Vietnamese pilgrims.
- Hoi An, Vietnam
- Hue, Vietnam
- Luang Prabang, Laos
- Mandalay, Myanmar - Features many prominent Buddhist temples, including the impressive Shwenandaw Monastery (ရွှေနန်းတော်ကျောင်း), which was formerly part of the royal palace before being moved to its current location and converted into a Buddhist monastery, and known for its intricate teak wood carvings. Also features the Kuthodaw Pagoda (ကုသိုလ်တော်ဘုရား), the site of the world's largest book, and the Mahamuni Temple (မဟာမုနိဘုရားကြီး), Mandalay's holiest temple and home to a gold-leaf covered Buddha statue that is the most highly-revered statue in the country.
- Besides Mandalay, the nearby towns of Sagaing, Amarapura, Innwa and Mingun also have several prominent temples.
- Mrauk U, Myanmar
- Phra Pathommachedi, Thailand - the oldest stupa in Thailand. The name meaning is "the first sanctuary of this land". According to prominent archaeologists, the temple, had been built around the year 193 BCE, twenty years after emperor Ashoka, sent a mission in Suvarnabhumi (modern days Thailand) to expand Buddhism in South East Asia
- Phnom Penh, Cambodia
- Sukhothai, Thailand
- Vientiane, Laos
- Yangon, Myanmar - Home to the impressive Shwedagon Pagoda (ရွှေတိဂုံဘုရား), widely regarded as the holiest Buddhist temple in the country and a major pilgrimage destination. The smaller Sule Pagoda (ဆူးလေဘုရား) serves as an oasis of calm in what is otherwise one of the busiest parts of the city. Another notable temple is the Chaukhtatgyi Temple (ခြောက်ထပ်ကြီးဘုရားကြီး), which features one of Myanmar's most famous reclining Buddha images.
- Mongolia's Buddhist Monasteries - Only a few of the 843 old monasteries survived Stalin's purges in the 1930s. Among these are the well-known Erdene Zuu Monastery, now a museum and part of the Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site, and the very off the beaten path Amarbayasgalant Monastery, included on the UNESCO Tentative List.
- Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet - the former residence of the Dalai Lama from 1649 to 1959, is now a museum and World Heritage Site.
- Sansa in South Korea - 7 Buddhist mountain monasteries from the 7th-9th centuries and a World Heritage Site.
- Daibutsu at Tōdai-ji, Nara, Japan — largest Buddha statue in Japan
- Spring Temple Buddha, Lushan County, Henan, China — standing 128m high, this is the tallest statue in the world
- Leshan Giant Buddha, Leshan, Sichuan, China — part of a World Heritage Site, the stone statue is carved out of a cliff-face
- Ushiku Daibatsu, Ushiku, Ibaraki, Japan — built in 1993 to commemorate the birth of Shinran, founder of the Jōdo Shinshū
- Tian Tan Buddha, Lantau, Hong Kong — a large bronze statue of a seated Buddha at the top of 240 steps
Chinese Buddhist grottoes
- Mogao Caves in Gansu province - art and manuscripts dating back to the 4th century
- Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang - 5-10th century
- Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi Province - more than 51,000 Buddhist carvings, dating back 1,500 years, in the recesses and caves of the Yangang Valley mountainsides
- Dazu Rock Carvings near Chongqing - dating from the 7-13th century
- Maijishan National Park Bas relief and cave carvings of the Buddha grace the cliff face of this mountain.
- Bamiyan, Afghanistan — once among the largest statues in the world, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two 6th-century statues carved into a cliffside, fell victim to the iconoclasm of the extremist Taliban in 2001. The ruins of these statues left after their dynamiting are the main reason to visit this picturesque region of a decidedly unsafe country.
- Termez, Uzbekistan — the main centre of Buddhism of the ancient Bactria during the Kushan period (between 3rd and 1st centuries BC), the reconstructed Fayaz Tepe temple and the ruins of the Kara Tepe temple still attract Buddhist pilgrims to this desert town.
Europe and North Asia
- Buryatia, Russia — sharing much of its culture with Mongolia to the south of the international border, a Mongolian style temple in Arshan, an extremely scenic forest on the Siberian mountains, is a must see while in the region.
- Kalmykia, Russia — settled by the Kalmyks originally from Mongolia in the 17th century, this autonomous republic on the Caspian Sea coast is considered to be the only Buddhist nation in Europe. While most of its Buddhist (and other) heritage was destructed in the iconolastic madness of the Soviet years, Buddhist temples and monasteries have started to reappear all over the republic. Elista, the capital of the republic, has an impressive temple built in 2005.
- Tuva, Russia — the predominant religion in this Siberian region, known for its ancient throat singing in which the singer produces multiple notes simultaneously, is Tibetan Buddhism mixed with indigenous shamanism. Large Buddhist ceremonies open to the public are held there regularly.
Most Buddhists speak the language of the country they reside in. However, religious concepts are often described through loanwords from the language the concept first originated in. The original versions of most Buddhist religious texts are in the ancient Indian languages of Sanskrit and Pali.
Spiritual retreat tourism is a branch of leisure travel. People go to meditation centers to renew their energies, remove emotional blocks, gain an understanding of themselves, and get rid of their anxieties.
For example, Vipassana meditation is a practice associated with the Theravada Buddhism. The word "Vipassana" can be translated from the Sanskrit to mean "clear-seeing". Retreat centers are generally set in beautiful environments and stunning scenery. Apart from some luxury hotels in Kerala and Sri Lanka that may offer some Vipassana retreats as a complement of their Ayurveda packages, meditation centers in South and South-East Asia charge a small amount of money for the lodgings and food. Most of them usually operate on a donation basis. People who want to stay in Buddhist monasteries or meditation centers have to bring bed sheets, towels, toiletry, as they are probably not available outside of a retreat setting. Buddhist monasteries are usually set on silent mountain slopes. Although they are a great option for budget travelers, conditions can be somewhat uncomfortable for those seeking just a relaxing vacation or used to luxuries. Participants follow a prescribed code of discipline and a strict daily schedule.
- New Year, first full moon in year (usually in February).
- Modlam Chenmo, 8th-15th day after lunar new year.
- The Buddha's Enlightenment and Passing into Nirvana, 15th day of 4th lunar month (usually May).
- Guru Rinpoche's Birthday, 10th day of the 6th lunar month.
- Chokhor Duchen, 4th day of the 6th lunar month (usually July). Celebrates the first sermon given by the Buddha Sakyamuni after enlightenment.
- Vesak (also spelled Waisak, Wesak, Sanskrit: Vaishakha, Pali: Vesakha) is the most important of the Theravada Buddhist festivals, commemorating the birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha. The event is observed on the full-moon day of the lunar month - usually in April or May, except in some countries like South Korea and China where the day is fixed. The day is observed as a public holiday in many Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia.
- Asalha, first full moon of 8th lunar month (usually July). Celebrates the first sermon given by the Buddha Sakyamuni after enlightenment.
- Statues of the Buddha and other sacred images are available in many stores in Buddhist areas.
- Mala or beads, as aids for meditation and recitation are available at Buddhist gompas and establishments
- Cloth to cover sacred objects and texts
- Incense as offering
- Books relating to the lineage or area of Buddhism supported
Although Buddhism does not have strict dietary laws in the same way that Judaism, Islam or Hinduism does, most Mahayana Buddhist sects require their monks to be vegetarian, and also encourage their lay followers to do the same. Many otherwise non-vegetarian Buddhists would also go on a vegetarian diet for specific Buddhist festivals.
- Buddha's delight, a traditional Chinese Buddhist vegetarian dish
- Vegetarian cuisine, served in Buddhist monasteries to monks and visitors. May include mock-meat made from soy or wheat gluten.
- Most Buddhist establishments are well catered for tea drinking
Many Buddhist temples accommodate guests who desire the serenity and contemplation of a temple environment. However, guests who choose this option are often required to book in advance, and usually required to follow a strict routine and show sufficient respect for the traditions.
Buddhist temples and meditation centers welcome people of all faiths. They exist not only in Buddhist countries but in many large cities and some smaller cities in many other countries including those in North America and Europe.
Due to the fact that Buddhism is not a very common religion in Western countries, there are unfortunately many scams that prey on tourists' lack of knowledge of Buddhist customs. Here are some points to take note of so you can avoid a few of the common scams.
- Monks do not sell religious items. Temple shops selling religious items are always staffed by laymen and not monks.
- Mahayana Buddhist monks do not go on alms rounds. Instead, they would either grow their own food or buy it using temple donations. Most of them are also required to be vegetarian.
- Theravada Buddhist monks are not allowed to touch money, and offering money to a monk is considered to be disrespectful. Alms bowls are solely for the purpose of collecting food.
- Theravada Buddhist monks only collect alms in the morning, and are not allowed to eat after noon.
- Temples will have donation boxes for followers to place their monetary donations. Temples do not use high-pressure tactics to solicit donations, and will leave it entirely up to an individual to decide whether or how much he/she wishes to donate.
- You may be invited to pay for releasing caged birds or other animals, a practice known as fangshen and meant to generate benefit for those who pay for it. Be aware that the creatures offered for release may have been caught specifically with the intention of being released again, and may have been kept in unsatisfactory conditions. There is evidence of serious environmental damage being caused by the release of non-native species into fragile environments as part of fangshen practice.
All Buddhist temples welcome people of all faiths, though everybody is expected to behave in a respectful manner when in the temple compounds.
- Wear clothing that expresses respect for the sacred nature of the site.
- Go bare foot within the main temple/stupa complex.
- Circumambulate stupas and other sacred objects in a clock-wise direction.
- Turn prayer wheels in a clockwise direction.
- Preserve the peace and tranquility.
- Do not climb onto statues or other sacred objects.
- Do not try to photograph selfies by moving inside statue or shrine limits
- Do not sit with the soles of the feet facing either a teacher (if attending a talk/event), or a Buddha image - whether statue or picture (important in all Buddhist temples)
- Do not point at statues with your index finger. Instead, use your thumb or an open palm.
Theravada Buddhist monks are forbidden from having any physical contact with the opposite sex. Women who wish to offer food to a monk should either place it on a piece of cloth the monk will place on the ground to pick up the food, or hand it to a layman accompanying the monk who will pass it on to the monk. With the exception of those in Japan, who are allowed to get married, monks of either tradition are required to abstain from any form of sexual activity.