An Introduction to Buddhism

Dharmachakra - wheel of lifeBuddhism, as we know it today, began in North East India with the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, who lived, scholars believe, in the fifth century BCE (some traditional datings cite the sixth century BCE). After the Buddha’s death, the Buddha’s teaching spread throughout north India and into what is now Pakistan and Central Asia. In the third century BCE, through the missionary work of the Mauryan King, Asoka, it spread south to Sri Lanka and possibly to what is now Shan State in Myanmar. From Sri Lanka, it spread to other parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia. By the first century CE, it was also travelling along the Silk Road towards China. In the fourth century C.E. it reached Korea and in the sixth century, Japan. In the seventh century C.E. it crossed the Himalayas into Tibet. Buddhism eventually disappeared from India, although the twentieth century saw its return through immigration from Tibet and the conversion of low and ’scheduled caste’ Indians through the example of the politician, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar (1891-1956). A further half million, including many in the UK, converted on the fiftieth anniversary of Dr Ambedkar’s death.

Today, there are two main divisions within Buddhism worldwide:

  1. Southern Buddhism, usually called Theravada Buddhism (The Way of the Elders), which is found in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, South Vietnam and Thailand. In addition, Nepal, although not a traditionally Theravada Buddhist country, has seen a Buddhist revival through the work of Theravada missionary monks. Theravada Buddhists are united through monastic discipline and lineage, and their canon of texts, in Pali.
  2. Mahayana Buddhism (The Great Vehicle), which is found in Bhutan, China, Japan, Korea, Sikkim, Tibet, North Vietnam and many parts of central Asia before the rise of Islam. Mahayana Buddhism can be further divided into East Asian Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism, which, in its tantric form, is sometimes called Vajrayana (The Diamond Vehicle). Mahayana texts are extensive and are usually used now in their Tibetan and Chinese translations.

As Buddhism travelled from India, it did not demonise the religiosity it found but sought supremacy through incorporating local practices and beliefs into Buddhism. As long as the Buddha was placed above them, gods, spirits and celestial beings could enter the Buddhist pantheon. Then, in China, Buddhism met Taoism, which resulted in a creative interpenetration between the two systems of thought at a philosophical level. The result of this is that within schools of Buddhism and even within one country, there is variety. For instance, in Japan, there is a division between Zen and Pure Land Buddhism, the former emphasizing ‘own power’ – reaching a point where enlightenment is possible through one’s own effort, the latter stressing ‘the other power’ of Amida Buddha. In addition, Japanese Buddhism contains movements that try to fuse the two, and also modern lay movements such as Rissho Kosei Kai and Soko Gakkai.

All forms of Buddhism are present in the West, together with new Buddhist movements such as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, which has sought to create a form of Buddhism appropriate for the West.

Buddhism: a view and a way

Textbooks on Buddhism usually state that the Four Noble Truths are the core of Buddhism. Not all Buddhists worldwide, though, would mention the Noble Truths first if asked about their religion. Yet, across all schools and countries, they might mention what are called the three jewels: the Buddha (the historical Buddha and also, especially for Mahayana Buddhists, countless other Buddhas), the Dharma (the Truth about the cosmos that the Buddhas teach, which includes the Four Noble Truths) and the Sangha (the monastic community or the community of dedicated followers of the Dharma). If one can go to these three precious things for refuge and strength, one is a Buddhist.

The Buddha

The historical Buddha, according to the traditional biography, was born into a comfortable, aristocratic or royal home and was protected from suffering. He married Yasodara and had a son, Rahula. At age of 29, after encountering suffering for the first time, he left home and family to become a searcher after spiritual truth. After rejecting two spiritual teachers and the path of asceticism, he gained enlightenment at 35 years of age and spent the next 45 years teaching and building up Orders of celibate monks and nuns. He died at the age of 80 of food poisoning. The scholar may go little further than this, seeing the Buddha as a remarkable spiritual leader who enjoyed a long life and had considerable influence on the religious history of India. Through the eyes of faith, however, the historical Buddha was more than a human teacher. He was an enlightened being who had prepared for his final life as Buddha through countless previous lives, mastering 10 perfections. In the Theravada tradition these are generosity, morality, renunciation, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, energy, equanimity, wisdom. The Mahayana tradition usually speaks of 6 but these were also expanded to 10: generosity, morality, patience, courage, meditation, intuitive insight, skilful means, vow, power and knowledge. So, as one who had mastered these perfections and awoken to liberating Truth, the Buddha was, ‘a wonderful man’, ‘a teacher of gods and humans’,’a knower of worlds’. He was the embodiment of what he taught – compassion and wisdom, the two poles of enlightenment in Buddhism.Theravada Buddhists use the following salutation:

Such, indeed is the blessed One: Exalted, Omniscient, Endowed with knowledge and virtue, Auspicious, Knower of Worlds, A Guide incomparable for the training of individuals; Teacher of gods and humans, Enlightened and Holy.

Most importantly, he was one of many Buddhas, all of whom taught the same message. Theravada Buddhists believe that each era produces one Buddha to teach humankind. The Mahayana tradition goes far beyond this. Buddhas are as numerous as the sands on the river Ganges and can exist simultaneously. The historical Buddha was an embodiment of the cosmic reality of Buddhahood. Each person because of innate buddha nature can become a Buddha.

The Buddha image is a focal point for intense devotion, which includes prostration, chanting and the offering of flowers, light and incense. It is a devotion that involves the body and the mind. What the Buddha taught is remembered with thankfulness. But more than this, as devotees position themselves in front of the image, they imagine the Buddha’s compassion and wisdom and, for some, these qualities come alive, flowing from the image, bathing them in light. They also believe that the very act of devotion will bring good consequences and blessings. When flowers are offered, the following words are chanted in Pali, by Theravada Buddhists:

With diverse flowers the Buddha I adore, and through this merit may there be liberation. Even as these flowers must fade, so does my body reach a state of destruction.

The Dharma

The Dharma (Pali dhamma) literally means that which ’supports and upholds’ the universe. It is the way things are. It is the truth about the cosmos. It is what all Buddhas become awakened to.

The overriding problem for Siddhatha Gautama and all Buddhas was suffering or the unsatisfactoriness that lies at the heart of existence. Why are we born only to grow old and die? Why are we separated from those we love? Why are we placed with those we do not like? Buddhists believe the Truth the Buddhas saw at their enlightenment pinpointed the problem and offered the solution; that it gave a view of the world and a path towards liberation.

The Four Noble Truths are the ‘house’ within which this view and path are usually placed. The first Truth is the Truth of Dukkha or pain/unsatisfactoriness. It affirms that something is twisted and out of shape at the heart of existence. Dukkha is one of three characteristics of existence. The other two are impermanence and non-self. Taken together, these three characteristics assert that everything in samsara, the word in Pali and Sanskrit for the cycle of repeated birth and death that individuals undergo until they attain nirvana, is impermanent, including the self, and that the experience of this makes life appear unsatisfactory.

The Second Noble Truth, the Truth of Arising, declares that the root cause of life appearing unsatisfactory and full of pain is craving – seen traditionally as craving for pleasurable experiences, for continued existence and even for non-existence. In other words, in a world characterised by impermanence, dukkha arises when an individual craves for and clings to that which cannot last, whether this is youth, beauty, possessions, status, relationships or human existence itself, in ignorance of its true nature. In an extension of this Truth, the causes of our pain and dis-ease are often pictured in Buddhism as greed, hatred and ignorance (or delusion) – greed for what is pleasant, aversion towards what is unpleasant and ignorance of the three characteristics of existence.

Taken together the two Truths encapsulate the first step in Buddhism’s view of the world. That the world is enmeshed in selfish craving and that we are bound to be reborn again and again in the several planes of existence, which include hells, heavens, the animal realm and human existence, because of our craving is repeated again and again in Buddhist literature. It is a view that is linked with the Law of Karma. Karma (Pali: kamma) literally means action. So the Law of Karma is the Law of Action. And the Law of Action in Buddhism asserts that each action has a fruit. Wholesome actions will bear wholesome fruit. Unwholesome actions will bear unwholesome fruit. So, if a human life is characterized by acts motivated by selfish craving then that human will experience painful consequences during life and will, at death, gain a painful rebirth.

The principle behind the Law of Karma is that of cause and effect, and it is this that informs the next step in Buddhism’s view of the world and the Third Noble Truth, the Truth of Cessation. This asserts that there is a way out of suffering because the world is governed by cause and effect. So, if the cause of dukkha is eradicated, dukkhais eradicated. If craving – and the greed, hatred and ignorance connected with it – are eradicated, suffering/pain/unsatisfactoriness cannot arise. The message of the Third Truth is that we need not be tied to the round of rebirth. We can be liberated.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the Path to the Cessation of Dukkha, an Eightfold Path: right thought; right speech; right action; right livelihood; right effort; right mindfulness; right concentration. At its heart is advice about plucking out the poisons of greed, hatred and delusion. It is sometimes reduced to a threefold formulation: morality, meditation and wisdom.

This teaching results in a spirituality that places more emphasis on what one does than on what one believes. Faith that the Buddha’s teaching is true is most important but it is not enough by itself.

The goal of the Buddhist path, according to traditional doctrine, is nirvana or nibbana in Pali. Nirvana arises when greed, hatred and delusion or ignorance have been eradicated from the heart and mind. The texts are economical about what they say of nirvana. In some senses, it is beyond our vocabularies. What can be said is that it is liberation from the prison of self and liberation from rebirth. As such, it is highest ethical good, the highest bliss, the highest happiness, the highest truth. It is where absolute wisdom and compassion meet. Mahayana Buddhists picture it as the realisation of our Buddha Nature. Some Buddhists assert that it is attainable in this life; others, probably the majority in Asia, will say that it is far in the future – a better rebirth is all that can be worked for in the present.

The Dharma in Practice

In the Theravada tradition, verse 183 of a popular text, the Dhammapada has, in recent history, been used to sum up the Buddhist path: ‘Not to do evil, to cultivate good, to purify the mind – this is the teaching of the Buddhas’.

Generosity, the ability to give what one has to others, and virtuous conduct form the bedrock of the Dharma in practice in all Buddhist traditions. They are the first step in drawing the mind and heart away from greed and hatred. Virtuous conduct is defined by what Buddhists call the Five Precepts. These go back to the beginnings of Buddhism and are more or less common to all schools. They are voluntarily undertaken commitments not to kill or injure living beings, not to take what is not given, to avoid misconduct in the sensual sphere, not to be involved in false speech and not to take intoxicants that cloud the mind.

To complement the Five Precepts, which concern refraining from certain kinds of action, positive qualities are also developed, again with the ultimate goal of drawing the mind away from greed and hatred. Giving has already been mentioned. Important also are four qualities that are often linked with meditation, but which spill over into conduct: loving kindness; compassion; sympathetic joy (being able to take joy in the success of another even though one is not experiencing success oneself); equanimity (being able to think and act without being torn between greed and hatred). An ancient discourse, the discourse on loving kindness has these words at its heart: ‘Just as a mother would protect her child at the risk of her own life, so cultivate a boundless heart (of loving kindness) to all beings’. This includes surrounding your enemies or those you do not like with loving kindness.

The quality of compassion is important in all forms of Buddhism but was taken to new heights in the Mahayana tradition with its stress that all living beings can become Buddhas, in other words can be filled with the compassion and wisdom of a Buddha. For some Mahayana Buddhists this involves taking what is known as the Bodhisattva Vow (the vow of a Buddha-to-be) – that they will not enter nirvana (and so leave the realm of rebirth) until all beings have been liberated. This may mean voluntarily being reborn numerous times over to help others.

For the lay person, seeking teachers who have spiritual authority is also important. In some Tibetan schools, finding a teacher who can transmit the teachings of the Buddha and staying with this teacher is central to Buddhist practice.

The last practice mentioned in the Dhammapada verse 183 was, ‘to purify the mind’. This is done through meditation or what Buddhists call bhavana (lit: cultivation or becoming). Buddhist meditation is a form of mental culture that is personally transforming. It seeks to deal with the problem of dukkha by working on the mind and heart, where greed, hatred and delusion take hold. There are many forms of meditation in Buddhism but most come under two headings: tranquillity or calming meditation (samatha); insight meditation (Skt. vipaayana; Pali: vipassana).

The aim of samatha practice is to gain one-pointedness of the mind through concentrating on a meditation object such as the breath. This can lead to what Buddhists call the dhyanas(Pali jhanas) – meditative absorptions that are successively more refined, moving from bliss, to equanimity, to states where normal perception is transcended. Vipassana meditation aims at direct appreciation of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings, such as the three characteristics of existence: impermanence; unsatisfactoriness and non-self. One form of insight meditation is ‘bare attention’ or mindfulness and involves watching what is happening in the body and the mind in the present moment. This can lead both to insight into the truth of impermanence and also to seeing more clearly how one’s mind works, for instance how it veers between attraction and aversion.

In the 20th Century, the term ‘Engaged Buddhism’ was coined to denote a form of Buddhism that was specifically directed at analysing the political and social causes of suffering in the world and eradicating them through social action. Some Buddhists believe that the term is not necessary, since all forms of Buddhism seek to help others and are therefore engaged. Those who use the term, however, insist that it is a necessary counterbalance to the individualism that is sometimes linked with Buddhism.

The Sangha

The literal meaning of the term is assembly or congregation. In many Asian Buddhist communities, it refers to the Orders of monks (Skt. Bhiksu; Pali bhikkhu) and nuns (Skt. Bhiksun?; Pali bhikkhun? ), who are seen as the representatives of the Buddha on earth and as a group of people who are progressing faster along the Buddhist path because they have left behind the attachments to home and family that lay people are bound to. In traditional Buddhist contexts, there is a mutually dependent relationship between lay people and monastics. Lay people provide monks and nuns with food, clothing and other needs; the monastics provide lay people with teaching and with ‘a field of merit’, in other words with the opportunity to perform actions (e.g. the giving of food and robes) that will bear good fruit. Both monks and nuns follow strict rules of discipline, the Vinaya, which go back to the time of the Buddha.

In other contexts, particularly among western Buddhists, the Sangha is seen as the whole community of Buddhists – all who are walking along the Buddhist path. The importance of spiritual friendship is stressed.

In addition, a distinction is made in both Asia and the West between the Sangha and the Arya-sangha or Noble community – those Buddhists, lay or ordained, who have attained one of four or five spiritual levels that place them on the supramundane path leading to nirvana. Doctrinally speaking it is the Arya-sangha in which Buddhists should take refuge.

Buddhism in Britain

The 2001 census showed that there were 151,816 Buddhists in Britain. The majority of these are Asian, from countries such as Burma, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam. There are also sizeable numbers of western converts.

The history of Buddhism in Britain, generally speaking, begins in the nineteenth century when missionaries, civil servants and travellers to the British possessions of Sri Lanka and Myanmar collected and translated Buddhist texts, wrote about what Buddhists believed and brought their impressions back to Britain. Some Buddhist students also came to study at British Universities. Missionary accounts of Buddhism usually presented the religion in a negative light. Other writings were more positive, including Edwin Arnold’s 1879 poem, The Light of Asia, which presented the Buddha as a hero who gave up his affluence and family out of compassion for the world.

By the 1870s, members of free-thought movements antagonistic to Christianity and of what we might call today New Religious Movements, such as theosophy (founded in 1875), were being attracted to Buddhism because they believed it to be unencumbered by the problems associated with Christianity. It was non-theistic and rational. The first British western converts come from these groups, for example Allan Bennett, who became a Buddhist monk in 1901 in Myanmar and led the first Buddhist mission to Britain in 1908 as Venerable Ananda Metteyya. The Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland was formed the previous November, partly in order to greet him. The Buddhist Society, based in London, serving all schools of Buddhism, is its successor.

The next important mission from Asia was led by Sri Lankan revivalist, the Anagarika Dharmapala, who founded the Maha Bodhi Society in 1891 and spoke at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago in 1893. This resulted in the first Buddhist monastic community in Britain – 3 Sri Lankan monks settling near Regents Park in 1927. There are now several monastic communities in Britain serving Sri Lankan Buddhists ( and some western converts). In addition, there are centres serving Thai (from 1964), Vietnamese, Burmese and other Asian Buddhist communities.

‘Theravada Buddhism’

It was with Theravada Buddhism that the first British converts to Buddhism had contact, because of Britain’s imperial links with Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Attempts to establish a monastic centre in Britain for western converts to Theravada Buddhism did not succeed until the 1970s, when the English Sangha Trust (founded in the 1956) invited two Thai teachers to help them. One of them, Ajahn Chah, brought with him an American, Ajahn Sumedho, who founded the Chithurst Forest Monastery. This led to further centres being founded, most significantly, the Amaravati Buddhist Monasterynear Hemel Hempstead in 1985.

Numerous meditation groups now exist in Britain linked with Theravada practice sometimes known as

Zen Buddhism

Zen was the next form of Buddhism to influence Britain. There are two main forms of Zen – Rinzai and Soto. Both can be found in Britain together with Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese forms. D. T. Suzuki (1870-1966) was key in bringing Zen to the West. One of the key figures within the later Buddhist Society, Christmas Humphreys, was influenced by him. In 1972, Throssel Hole Priory, a Zen centre, was established in Hexham – it still exists. There are numerous Zen centres and groups in Britain, including groups linked to the Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Nanh.

Tibetan Buddhism

After Zen, came Tibetan Buddhism. One result of the Llasa Uprising against Chinese intervention in Tibet in 1959 and the flight of the Dalai Lama in to exile was that Tibetan Buddhist teachers came to the West. In 1988, the largest Tibetan centre in Europe was opened on the borders of Scotland, founded by two Tibetan teachers, Chogyam Trungpa and Akong Rinpoche – the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre. Britain is now home to different Tibetan schools and groups.

Pure Land Buddhist Organisations

Shin Buddhism is the Pure Land School that is best represented in Britain. In 1976, the Shin Buddhist Association of Great Britain as founded and in 1977, the Pure Land Buddhist Fellowship. A significant ‘Engaged’ Pure Land Centre, founded by western converts to Buddhism, is the Amida Trust, based in Narborough.

Other Japanese Buddhist Groups

Two twentieth century lay Japanese Buddhist movements also work in Britain: Soka Gakkai (The Value Creation Society, now known as Soka Gakkai International, founded in 1930) and Rissho Kosei Kai (Society for Righteousness and Friendship). In addition there is the Nipponzan Myohoji Order, which focuses on peace issues and has established two peace pagodas in Britain, one in Milton Keynes and one in Battersea Park.

Western Buddhist Groups that do not trace their lineage to one Asian tradition

The largest western group of this kind is the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), founded by Sangharakshita (Dennis Lingwood) in 1967. The Western Buddhist Order was founded in the following year. It aimed to draw the best from all schools of Asian Buddhism to create a Buddhism relevant and attractive to westerners. FWBO centres are found throughout Britain.

Useful Books

R. Bluck, 2006, British Buddhism: Teaching, Practice and Development, Abingdon: Routledge

Heinz Bechert & Richard Gombrich (Eds.), 1984 (pbk 1990), The World of Buddhism, London: Thames and Hudson.

Elizabeth J Harris, 1998, What Buddhists Believe, Oxford: Oneworld (a book that grew out of a radio series on Buddhism that Elizabeth wrote and presented for the BBC World Service)

Peter Harvey, 1990, An Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press (a book that has been re-printed almost every year since 1990)

Ramona Kauth & Elizabeth Harris (Eds.), 2004, Meeting Buddhists, Leicester: Christians Aware (£12.20) This can be ordered from Christians Aware, 2 Saxby Street, Leicester LE2 0ND;

Damien Keown, 2005, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press,

Aloysius Pieris, 1988, Love Meets Wisdom: A Christian Experience of Buddhism, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books

Perry Schmidt-Leukel (Ed), 2005, Buddhism and Christianity in Dialogue: The Gerald Weisfeld Lectures 2004, London, SCM.

Useful Websites

Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies:

European Network for Buddhist-Christian Studies:

The Buddhist Society (London):