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Today’s approximately 400 million Buddhists can look back on 2,500 years of history with diverse developments and a wide spectrum of cultural expressions. Although the different traditions emphasize specific concepts, practices, and lifestyles, all Buddhists relate back to these three fundamental principles: the Buddha, the Teachings, and the Order. They call these principles the three Jewels or “Gems of Buddhism.”

It is generally assumed that Buddha Shakyamuni lived from 560 to 480 BCE. However, in the later 20th century, Indological research questioned those dates and placed the lifetime of the Buddha at the turn of the fifth to the fourth centuries BCE. And though the debate has not yet come to an end, scholars provide good evidence to adopt as the lifetime of the historical Buddha the span between 448 and 368 BCE, with a margin of 10 years. As a consequence of this recalculation, the Buddha’s life, the order’s development, and Buddhist history in general move much closer to the reign of King Ashoka (ca. 268–239 BCE), and thus to the earliest reliably datable accounts in Indian history.

The name Buddha is an honorific title meaning “the Awakened One.” Born as Siddhartha Gautama in a royal family in a region of northern India (in Lumbini, now southern Nepal), Siddhartha spent his childhood and youth in luxury. He was married at 16 and became the father of his son Rahula 12 years later. Upon leaving—and while away from—the protected world of the palaces, the “four sights” provoked a major change in the course of his life. The 29-year-old saw an aged man bent by the years, a sick man scorched by fever, a corpse followed by mourners weeping, and a mendicant ascetic. Becoming aware of the transitoriness of life, Siddhartha left the palace and became a wandering monk. In those days monks and ascetic orders commonly sought to find and teach final solutions to the human sufferings of old age, sickness, and death, and their perpetual recurrence. For six years Siddhartha engaged in strict practices of asceticism designed to deny the pleasures of the senses. When that severe self-denial failed to bring the solution desired, he withdrew to a balanced form of asceticism, called the Middle Path. This approach avoids the extremes of self-denial and self-indulgence. At the age of 35, while meditating in a resolved manner under a tree known as the Bodhi Tree (Ficus religiosa), Siddhartha attained enlightenment (Sanskrit/Pali: bodhi). In Buddhist accounts, here at Bodh Gaya he became “awakened” from the sleep of delusion—that is, from the ignorance that binds living beings to the suffering of this world.

From now on, the homeless ascetic was called the Buddha, the Enlightened or Awakened one. Buddha spread his insight and the teaching of the Middle Path through conversation, parable, and speech. He preached for 45 years in northern India, where he founded an order of monks and nuns. Laymen and laywomen supported the newly founded order by donating food and clothes and offering accommodations. For centuries the Teachings were transmitted orally, and it was no earlier than about 300 years after the Buddha’s death that they were written down in Pali, and later in Sanskrit. Buddha did not nominate a successor. It was rather his Teachings that succeeded him, after the “extinction” of his physical death.

Buddha adapted the Vedic and Brahmanic concepts of rebirth and dependent origination—that is, the principle of cause and effect. According to those theories, the next life is dependent on the meritorious and bad deeds (Sanskrit: karma) of the present life. In order to leave the endless cycle of rebirths (samsara), a practitioner would have to fully understand and follow the Buddhist teachings. Thus the aim of the teachings is to overcome the suffering or dissatisfaction (duhkha) that is caused by being imprisoned in the cycle of rebirths. The Four Noble Truths describe and analyze the existence of suffering and provide a way to extinguish it. According to Buddhist tradition, in his very first sermon at Deer Park in Sarnath (near Benares), the Buddha had preached these Truths, a sermon later known as the “first turning of the Wheel of Dharma.” The truth of Suffering points to the fundamental reality that nobody is able to escape birth, old age, illness, and death. The truth of the Origin of Suffering states that desire (tanha) and thirst after life are the causes of suffering. The truth of the Cessation of Suffering says that it is possible to put an end to suffering by overcoming desire and thirst. The fourth truth, the truth of the Path to the Cessation of Suffering, consists of eight parts. Called the Noble Eightfold Path, it is pictured as an eight-spoked wheel, an important Buddhist symbol. This Path consists of: (1) right view, (2) right intention, (3) right speech, (4) right conduct, (5) right livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration. For convenience and clarity, the Path’s eight components are regrouped into three categories: wisdom (1–2), ethics (3–5), and meditation (6–8).

Basic to the Four Noble Truths and Buddhist teaching is that every existence is unsatisfactory (duhkha). This is because nothing has an enduring substance or self (anatman), due to the fact that everything is subject to change and is transitory in the final end (anicca). These three “characteristics of existence” are to be found in everything that is born and comes into existence. Clinging to the idea of a lasting satisfaction or something that is enduring in perpetuity is both desire and a false view—that is, ignorance (avidya). The Noble Eightfold Path provides practical advice and exercises both to acquire an understanding of these principles and to embark on the liberating path to extinguish the “thirst” (trishna). This path is directed to reach the ultimate goal, nirvana (Sanskrit) or nibbana (Pali), the “blowing out” of the fire of desire and ignorance.

Strictly speaking, only the monks (bhiksu) and nuns (bhiksuni) constitute the members of the sangha, the Buddhist monastic order. They have undergone a formalized ordination and taken vows to live in celibacy and simplicity. Monks and nuns are responsible for preserving and passing on the teaching and providing the social context for its practice. The ordained are intended to serve as inspiring ideals to the laity and to teach them the dharma. The sangha is an autonomous body that is, ideally, self-regulating. There is no individual or collective body that can make decisions for the sangha as a whole. As a consequence, divisions according to different monastic rules (vinaya) and ordination lineages occurred, resulting in a variety of monastic traditions and schools (nikaya).

According to Mahayana Buddhist interpretation, however, not only the ordained but also male and female lay supporters are a part of the sangha. All Buddhists, the ordained as well as the laypeople, take refuge in the “threefold refuge”: the Buddha, the Teachings (dharma), and the community (sangha). Tibetan Buddhists additionally take refuge in the teacher (Tibetan: bla ma, pronounced lama). All Buddhists promise to refrain from killing, stealing, undue sexual contacts, lying, and taking intoxicants. The ordained pledge themselves to numerous further self-disciplines, the number of precepts varying according to the monastic tradition they belong to. In the southern tradition (Theravada), the monks have to observe 227 rules and the nuns 311.

The Spread of Buddhism

Buddha and the members of his order preached the dharma in northern India on the plain of the River Ganges, in Magadha and Kosala. Compared with competing ascetic orders in the fifth and subsequent centuries BCE, the Buddhist community grew fairly rapidly. It gained support from the economically better-off strata of society. This enabled the building of residences (vihara) and later monasteries. Parallel to the settled monks and nuns, dwelling in monasteries, a tradition of forest-dwelling monks practicing intense austerities and meditational practices persisted throughout Buddhist history.

During the time of Ashoka in the third century BCE, the model of rulers who assumed the role of “righteous king” (dharmaraja) came into being. These rulers supported the sangha and protected the monasteries. In return, the king received a sense of moral and religious legitimacy. This relationship, beneficial for both sides, was confirmed and celebrated in festivities and processions. The spread of Buddhism in China, Korea, Japan, and Tibet was greatly assisted by the patronage of Buddhist rulers. In Southeast Asia a close association between the practice of Buddhism and the institution of monarchy existed throughout its history.

With the encouragement of King Ashoka, Buddhist monks and nuns started to spread the dharma beyond the borders of the vast empire, covering the whole of northern and central India. The ordained reached the northwestern parts of the subcontinent, and from the first century on, order members and Buddhist traders traveled from the Kusana Empire’s center, Bactria (today’s northern Afghanistan), to Chinese Turkestan.

In India itself, Buddhism blossomed with the development of the philosophical Mahayana schools of Madhyamika and Yogacara. Also, for the whole of the second half of the first millennium, the monastic University of Nalanda (in the north of India) became the center of learning. There and in other huge monasteries of the time, monks and nuns adhering either to schools of the Mahayana or Shravakayana lived side by side, following the same vinaya rules. The seventh century gave rise to Tantric ideas and practices within Buddhism. This new emphasis, with its focus on mantras, body-based experiences, and ritual, brought Buddhism nearer to concepts and devotional forms current in Hindu traditions. The gradual absorption of Buddhism into Hinduism and the destruction of the Buddhist centers of learning by Muslim invaders in the 12th century brought about the end of Buddhism in India as a lived religious tradition. In Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, however, the forms of Indian Buddhism survived and continued in culturally translated versions. It was no earlier than the late 19th and mid-20th centuries that Buddhism gained a new footing in its land of origin. In 1891 the Sinhalese Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) founded the Maha Bodhi Society with the purpose of regaining control of the Maha Bodhi temple at Bodh Gaya and resuscitating Buddhism in India. In 1956, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s (1891–1956) conversion to Buddhism set in motion a mass conversion movement among the West Indian Mahars, a caste of unskilled laborers designated as untouchables. Mainly because of that development, in 1991 the census counted some six and a half million Buddhists in India.

According to Buddhist tradition, the monk Mahinda, declared to be a son of Ashoka, brought Buddhism in its Theravada form in the mid-third century to the island of Ceyon. Mahinda built a monastery in the capital, Anuradhapura, and propagated Buddhist teachings and practices at the court and among the elite. Of utmost symbolic importance, during this time a cut from of the Bodhi Tree at Bodhi Gaya was planted in the ancient capital. Later, the relic of a tooth of Buddha, venerated to this day, was brought in an annual grand procession to Kandy. The sacred status of the tooth is symbolic of the close relationship between the sangha and the king. It represented the royal protection of the sangha and the king’s legitimation on religious grounds. During succeeding centuries, the interweaving of kingdom and monastic order resulted in the establishment of prosperous monasteries, the monks of which becoming landlords with endowed villages and lands. With European colonialism from the 16th century on, a process of disestablishment and loss of privileges of the sangha began. In the late 19th century, as Western technologies (such as the press), scientific concepts, and Christian missionaries arrived, a Buddhist revival gained momentum. Responding to these challenges, Buddhist monks and laypersons like Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933) emphasized rationalist elements in Buddhist teachings, accompanied by a tacit elimination of traditional cosmology, a heightened recognition and use of texts, a renewed emphasis on meditational practice, and a stress on social reform and universalism. The two broad strands of Buddhism —that is, modernist and traditionalist, or village-based Buddhism—existed side by side, at times in tension. The involvement of the monastic order in the politics of the country has lasted, especially so as certain parts highlight the status of Sri Lanka as a “Buddhist nation” and the custodian of Buddhist tradition. This claim is to the detriment of ethnic and religious minorities in present-day Sri Lanka, observable also in the current Sinhalese–Tamil civil war.

Buddhism in the West

Currently, Buddhism in the West is experiencing an enthusiastic growth of interest and a dynamic proliferation of groups and centers. During the 1990s the news media repeatedly declared Buddhism as “in” and as the “trend religion” of the 21st century. In this wave of positive adoption, it is worthwhile to remember that Europeans and North Americans had no coherent conception of Buddhism until 150 years ago.

First information about Buddhist concepts can be traced to the records of the Greek philosopher Plutarch (first century CE). Plutarch writes about the Indo-Greek king Menander (second century BCE) and his commitment to Buddhist ideas. The Pali text Milindapanha (Menander’s Questions) gives a detailed account of this conversation between the Buddhist monk Nagasena and the king. The rise of Christianity and later of Islam blocked any further exchange until the travels of Franciscan friars to Mongolia in the 13th century. Reports by Jesuit missionaries to Tibet, China, and Japan from the 16th century on provided further data, although fragmentary and distorted in nature. In the course of European colonial expansion, information was gathered about the customs and history of the peoples and regions that had been subjected to British, Portuguese, and Dutch domination. Around 1800, texts and descriptions about Indian religions had become known in literate and academic circles in Europe, and a glorifying enthusiasm for the East took hold. In particular, the Romantic movement and the Eastern Renaissance discovered the Asian world and its religious and philosophical traditions. In the 1850s, Europe witnessed a boom of studies and translations, paving the way for an enhanced knowledge of and interest in Buddhist teachings.

The sudden discovery of “Buddhism”—a concept systematized and coined by the French philologist Eugène Burnouf (1801–1852) in 1844—was essentially treated as a textual object, being located in books and Eastern libraries. During the 1880s, Europeans, self-converted by reading Buddhist treatises of the Pali canon, took up Buddhism as their guiding lifeprinciple. Around the turn of the century initial Buddhist institutions were founded, the first being the Society for the Buddhist Mission in Germany, established in 1903 in Leipzig. The close contact of early Western Buddhists with the revival of Theravada Buddhism in South Asia was of much importance. European men traveled to South Asia to be ordained as Buddhist monks. On their return to Europe, they were active in propagating Buddhist ideas. The Ceylonese Anagarika Dharmapala traveled to Europe and the United States numerous times, founding sister branches of his Maha Bodhi Society, first established in 1891. During this time a philosophical interest in Buddhist ideas and ethics dominated. The texts of the Pali canon rather than the actually lived and practiced Theravada tradition formed the focus of interest. The few Buddhists came mainly from the educated middle strata, some from the upper strata of society.

After World War I (1914–1917) Buddhists in Germany and Great Britain started to take up religious practices such as spiritual exercises and devotional acts. Outstanding Buddhists during the 1920s and 1930s were Paul Dahlke (1865–1928) and Georg Grimm (1868–1945) in Germany and Christmas Humphreys (1901–1983) in Great Britain. In other European countries, Buddhist activities remained low-key (if present at all) until the 1960s.

The postwar years saw the influx of Mahayana traditions from Japan and a growing interest in meditational practice. Zen in particular caught the interest of many spiritual seekers. The Zen boom of the 1960s was followed by an upsurge of interest in Tibetan Buddhism since the mid-1970s. Within only two decades, converts to Tibetan Buddhism were able to found a multitude of centers and groups, at times outnumbering all other traditions in a given country. This rapid increase, accompanied by an expansion of the already existing institutions of Theravada Buddhism and nonsectarian societies, led to a considerable rise in the number of Buddhist groups and centers on the side of convert Buddhists. In Britain, for example, within only two decades the number of organizations quintupled from 74 to 400 groups and centers (1979–2000). In Germany, interest in Buddhism resulted in an increase from some 40 to more than 500 groups, meditation circles, centers, and societies (1975–2001). Often ignored and hardly noticed in public, considerable numbers of Buddhists from Asian countries have come to Western Europe since the 1960s. In France, as a former colonial power in Indo-China, strong communities of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have emerged; Paris has become the central place for Southeast Asian Buddhist migrants. Informed estimates speak of a million Buddhists currently living in Europe, two thirds of whom are made up of Buddhists from Asia and their offspring. Among the convert strand, Tibetan Buddhism and Zen are favored most. Buddhism in the country is heterogeneous and plural, with Buddhist schools from the Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, as well as newly founded Western Buddhist groups. Buddhism is very well organized in many European countries, often with a national umbrella organization that works for mutual cooperation between the different Buddhist traditions.

The intellectual approach toward Buddhism, dominant in Europe during the 19th century, also characterized the adoption of Buddhist ideas by American sympathizers and early convert Buddhists Writers such as the Transcendentalists Ralph W. Emerson (1803–1882) and Henry D. Thoreau (1817–1862) spread Buddhist ideas in their essays to members of the middle and upper classes. The Theosophist Society, founded in 1875, additionally aroused an interest in Buddhist concepts. The Chicago World’s Parliament of Religion in 1893 became important for the history of convert Buddhism in North America, as Buddhist speakers such as Dharmapala and the Japanese Zen master Soyen Shaku (1859–1919) presented Buddhism as a rational and scientific religion. It was in Chicago, as well, that the German-American Carl Theodor Strauss (1852–1937) became the first American to take refuge formally in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, in 1893. Although Dharmapala succeeded in founding an American branch of the Maha Bodhi Society in 1897, and three Rinzai Zen masters resided in the United States as of 1905, interest in Buddhist teachings and practices was minimal. It wasn’t until the lecture tours of Daisetz T. Suzuki (1870–1966) during the 1950s, which spread a modernist understanding of Zen Buddhism, that a broader interest in Zen came about among artists, poets, and members of the counterculture. Zen as a meditational practice started with the infl uence of the Beat Generation and increased in the 1960s with the arrival of Japanese teachers (Japanese: roshis) and American disciples returning from Japan to teach and establish meditation centers. The Zen masters were followed by Tibetan lamas and Theravada bhiksus from the 1970s on, further enriching the increasingly plural spectrum of Buddhist options in North America.

Parallel to these processes, since the mid-19th century Buddhism had spread along a very different line to North America. Chinese and later Japanese migrants had come to the West Coast to find work and gold. By the 1880s, the number of Chinese in Gold Mountain (California), Montana, and Idaho had grown to more than 100,000, with an additional 10,000 in Canada. Upon their arrival, Chinese temples were built, the first two in San Francisco in 1853. During the next 50 years, hundreds of so-called joss-houses, where Buddhist, Daoist, and Chinese folk traditions mingled, spread throughout California and Canadian British Columbia. In striking contrast to the high esteem that Buddhist texts and ideas had gained among East Coast intellectuals, in the American West, residents devalued East Asian culture as strange and incomprehensible. In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act restricted further immigration of Chinese nationals to the United States. Japanese immigrants during this time were treated no better. For their religious guidance, two Jodo Shinshu priests were sent to the United States in 1899, and the Buddhist Mission to North America was formally established in 1914. Renamed the Buddhist Churches of America in 1944 during the internment of 111,000 people of Japanese ancestry, the Jodo Shinshu Buddhists have become a part of the broader middle class in U.S. society since the 1960s.

Following the change of U.S. immigration laws in 1965, further Buddhist traditions arrived from Asia with Sri Lankan, Thai, Chinese, Taiwanese, Korean, and Japanese teachers and adherents. Among these traditions and schools, one of the most vigorous turned out to be the Soka Gakkai International, gaining a stronghold with a claimed membership of 500,000 people in the mid-1970s. As in Europe, Buddhism is a heterogeneous and very diversified phenomenon. Although well established in a multitude of groups, centers, and monasteries, intra-Buddhist cooperation and exchanges are on a much lower level than in the “Old World.” Estimates of the number of Buddhists in the United States and Canada run from around one million to about four and a half million convert and immigrant Buddhists.


  1. Batchelor, Stephen. The Awakening of the West: The Encounter of Buddhism and Western Culture. Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 1994.
  2. Baumann, Martin, and Charles S. Prebish, eds. Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.
  3. Bechert, Heinz, and Richard Gombrich, eds. The World of Buddhism. London: Thames and Hudson, 1984.
  4. Gombrich, Richard F. How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings. London: Athlone, 1996.
  5. Seager, Richard Hugh. Buddhism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.
  6. Tweed, Thomas A. The American Encounter with Buddhism 1844–1912: Victorian Culture and the Limits of Dissent. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992, 2000.

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