Eastern religion. The founder, Siddhartha Gautama (c.566-486 b.c.), grew up as the son of a petty ruler in NE India. Tradition relates that, surrounded by luxury, he saw four sights-a diseased man, an old man, a dead man, and a wandering ascetic. These convinced him of the inevitability of suffering and death, and he set out, abandoning his wife and son, to seek enlightenment and release from inevitable rebirth. After several fruitless attempts to find enlightenment by means of accepted ascetic techniques, he finally reached full enlightenment under a tree at what is now Bodh Gaya. He became “the Buddha” (the Enlightened One). Conscious that he was living out his last existence on earth, he determined not to enter into Nirvana directly, but to proclaim the dhamma (law) he had rediscovered, and he did so for some forty years. He founded monasteries for both men and women, and the later spread of Buddhism was linked closely with the fortunes of these institutions. After a couple of centuries during which Buddhism was little more than an unorthodox Hindu school, it began to expand as the result of the work of King Ashoka (third century b.c.)-northward into Tibet, China, and ultimately Japan; southward into Ceylon and SE Asia, where it now has its strongest centers. By the , Buddhism had virtually disappeared from India.
Buddhist teaching rests on four “excellent truths”: all existence involves suffering; suffering is caused by desire; suffering can be ended if desire can be conquered; and there is an eightfold path to the conquering of desire. This path consists of right views, intentions, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration. To this is added an elaborate monastic discipline. Classical Buddhist scriptures are called the Tripitaka (three baskets) and are written in Pali (a dialect of Sanskrit), though there are important writings also in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, Japanese, etc.
The great historical division among Buddhists is between the conservative or Theravamda (way of the elders) school, and the comprehensive or Mahamyamnam (great vehicle) school. Theravamda-also called Hixnayamna (little vehicle) because its opponents maintained that it offered salvation only to monks-is strongest in the South (Ceylon, etc.), Mahamyamnam in the North (formerly Tibet and China, now mainly Japan). Theravamda is atheistic in principle; Mahamyamnam has sometimes tended to reckon the Buddha as a savior-god.
Buddhism and Christianity rest on entirely different conceptual foundations. Buddhism acknowledges the reality of neither God nor the soul; all is constant flux, and personality is an illusion. As in Hinduism, the doctrine of rebirth is axiomatic. Perhaps for these reasons, Buddhism in various forms (Zen, etc.) has of late gained ground in the West and is currently regarded by many as an attractive alternative to Christianity.
E.J. Thomas, The Life of Buddha (3rd ed., 1949); T.R.V. Murti, The Central Philosophy of Buddhism (1955); E. Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development (1959); H. Dumoulin, A History of Zen Buddhism (1963); W. Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (1965); T.O. Ling, A History of Religion East and West (1968); H. von Glasenapp, Buddhism: a Non-Theistic Religion (1970).