Buddhism is followed by approximately 535 million people worldwide and is variously described as a religion, philosophy, code of ethics, path of practice and spiritual development and/or a way of life
There is great variety within Buddhism – people often refer to Western Buddhism, indigenous Buddhism, or other more tradition and/or geographically specific designations to clarify the ‘kind’ of Buddhism to which they are referring. In the West, one may find monks who devote their lives to Buddhism alongside those who pick some Buddhist concepts and practices that resonate with them and blend them with other beliefs.
Outside of its home in Asia, Buddhism is particularly associated with meditation and, in more recent years, with mindfulness (the focusing of attention and awareness).
A world population review in 2020 estimated there to be 535 million Buddhists worldwide – between 8 and 10% of the world’s population. China has the highest number of Buddhists (at over 244 million) but Cambodia’s population has the highest proportion of Buddhists (at 96.9%).
There are an estimated 240,000 Buddhists in the UK according to this resource, accounting for 0.4% of the population.
How did Buddhism begin?
Buddhism was founded in the late 6th century BC by Siddhartha Gautama (c 563-483 BC), now generally referred to as the Buddha – an honorific title which means “awakened one”.
According to tradition, the Buddha was born into an aristocratic household in Lumbini, a village in modern-day Nepal. He left home at the age of 29 to seek religious knowledge and attained enlightenment at the age of 35. The remaining years of his life were spent giving religious teachings, and he died at the age of 80.
The Buddha’s first followers were wandering ascetics – they were homeless, had few possessions, and travelled around spreading the teachings. It was not until about 80 BCE, that the earliest texts, known as the Pāli Canon, were written down in Sri Lanka. This collection was transmitted orally before this point and is believed to record discourses between the Buddha and his disciples (sutra), the Buddha’s teachings on monastic discipline (vinaya), as well as discourses that organize and interpret doctrine (abhidharma).
What happened next?
About a century after the Buddha’s death, sectarian divisions were forming; there are records of several councils and eighteen schools. The biggest rift formed around the question of monastic discipline and authority. There are now three generally accepted distinctions:
The ‘mainstream’ traditions (Śrāvakayāna) stick close to the Pāli canon. This category describes around thirty known historical traditions, but the most influential of these in the contemporary world describe themselves as the Theravāda (it literally means ‘the teaching of the elders’). Therevāda traditions emphasize individual enlightenment, which can be achieved without the help of external forces or gods. Theravāda interpretations account for the majority of believers in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma and significant minority religious groups in Vietnam, China and Bangladesh.
Mahāyāna focuses on the transcendent nature of Buddha, bodhisattvas (compassionate enlightened beings), and the doctrine of śūnyatā, or ‘emptiness’. It emphasizes enlightenment of all beings rather than individual enlightenment, and emphasizes upāya (skilful means), the use of ‘expedient means’, to realise enlightenment. The Pāli canon is seen as not necessarily being the most expedient or comprehensible guide for all occasions and locations, hence doctrinal adaptation is seen as important in this tradition. There are over one hundred recognized Mahāyāna texts and some Buddhist schools are organised primarily around one of these later texts. Ch’an/Zen, Pureland, T’ien Tai/Tendai are major Mahāyāna traditions active today.
Vajrayāna, the ‘diamond vehicle’, is a further development from Mahāyāna traditions and emphasizes the importance of the guru-disciple relationship on an esoteric spiritual path. Vajrayāna traditions typically focus on Tantra, a term which can encompass a large variety of beliefs and practices including the harnessing of energy (often discussed in terms of a “subtle body” consisting of channels (nadī), winds (prāṇa), and energetic focal points (chakras)), and meditation practices which include identification with particular deities as a means to enlightenment.
A focus on sexual activity as a spiritual path is better termed Neo-Tantra, which has developed as an integration of Western esoteric magic and ritual, with selected readings of Indian texts from different religious traditions.
What do Buddhists believe?
Three Jewels (or Treasures) are regarded as central to Buddhism:
- Buddha – can refer to the historical figure, the state of Buddha-hood, or “Buddha-nature” (the innate capacity for beings to transform into Buddhas/achieve enlightenment).
- Dharma – refers to the teachings and wisdom of the Buddha.
- Sangha – refers to the followers of the Buddha, whether ordained or lay practitioners.
There are three Dharma Seals, or basic ‘characteristics of existence’, from which many other ideas have developed. They are:
- impermanence (anicca in Pali/anitya in Sanskrit) – everything is transitory.
- suffering (dukkha/duḥkha) – attachment is futile due to impermanence and will lead to suffering.
- no-self (anattā/anātman) – our idea of our ego-self as permanent and separate from other things and beings is false, our being is illusory, and realising this will lead to the experience of no-self, and Buddha nature.
Another key assumption behind Buddhist teaching is that of saṃsāra (endless wandering or unceasing flow) – i.e. repeated rebirths/reincarnation (a belief which predates Buddhism).
This is tied to the doctrine of karma – or action within different contexts. Buddhists aim to cultivate actions which will eventually lead to effects that will liberate them from saṃsāra. Nirvāṇa refers to the state of being free from saṃsāra.
The four Noble Truths are considered to be the core insights of the Buddha:
- Suffering is part of life.
- The cause of suffering – it arises from ignorance, attachment and aversion within a cycle of cause and effect.
- Cessation of suffering – the Buddha’s discovery that liberation is possible.
- The path to liberation – the Noble Eightfold Path.
The Noble Eightfold Path
The Noble Eightfold Path (also called the Middle Way or the Threefold Way) are eight guiding principles, divided into three categories of wisdom, morality and meditation.
- Right View
- Right Resolve/Thought
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Meditation/Concentration.
It is represented in the image of an eight-spoked wheel (the Dharma Wheel).
How do Buddhists practice their faith?
Contemporary Buddhism allows for lay members as well as monastics (usually both male and female). Traditionally, the first formal step to be taken in most Buddhist schools requires ‘taking refuge’ in the Three Jewels (embracing the teachings of the Buddha).
A student who takes refuge may make vows to adhere to the Five Precepts (pañca-śīla). They are:
- To refrain from harming living creatures (vegetarianism is mandatory in some traditions, and voluntary in others).
- To refrain from taking that which is not given.
- To refrain from sexual misconduct.
- To refrain from false speech.
- To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness.
Buddhist ceremonies and pūjās (ceremonial offering to the Buddha and/or deities) usually involve devotion, chanting and meditation. Ceremonies can take place at holy sites, places of worship or of ceremonial significance (such as temples and shrines), or in the home, where Buddhists may construct their own small shrines.
Specific dates may vary across schools and traditions, but some key ceremonial dates include Buddhist New Year (dates vary), Nirvāṇa Day (Buddha’s death and final enlightenment, 8th or 15th February), Buddha Day (incorporates the birth, enlightenment and death of Buddha, celebrated on the first full moon day in May), Dharma Day (celebration of Buddha’s first teaching after enlightenment, The Wheel of Truth; it usually falls in July) and Bodhi Day (refers to the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha was first enlightened, and usually falls on 8th December).
The Buddha is said to have identified four sites most worthy of pilgrimage for his followers:
- Lumbini: birthplace (in Nepal).
- Bodhgaya: the place of his Enlightenment (in the current Mahabodhi Temple, in India).
- Sarnath: (Pali: Isipathana) in Uttar Pradesh, India, where he delivered his first teaching.
- Kusinara: (now Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, India) where he died.
In Western Buddhism, meditation is seen as the core practice. Although there is a great variety in the way this is done, it always involves a point of mental focus (be it through chanting, visualisation, or focus on breath and/or mind). Meditation can be practised in community or in solitude, at home.
For many Asian Buddhists, meditation is seen as primarily a practice for monastics. Lay Buddhists in these traditions may express their adherence to Buddhism primarily by giving (śīla), supporting the monastic community, participating in community rituals and living an ethical life.
How did Buddhism arrive in the West?
Westward transmission of Buddhism began nearly at the time of the Buddha through the trade networks of Alexander the Great (356-323) who conquered areas as far East as what is now Afghanistan and North India. Despite these ancient links, the contemporary introduction of Buddhism dates from the European colonial period, through intellectual routes (through scholars, writers and artists), many of them officials who were posted to different parts of Asia.
Many of the first European centres founded in the West focused on idealised textual translations of the Pāli canon, and were founded by Western scholars/writers. In the twentieth century, new understandings of Buddhism came through immigration from Buddhist countries. Although many Buddhists in Europe are converts to Buddhism, they continue to be outnumbered by immigrants from Asia who brought their beliefs and practices with them.
How did Buddhism come to be established in the UK?
The introduction of Buddhism in the UK was first through intellectual channels and translations of the Pāli canon. In the Victorian era, Henry Olcott (1832-1907) and Madame Blavatsky (1831-91) founded the Theosophical Society, where Buddhism became a popular subject of study and discussion.
Later, several travelling Britons returned to the UK as ordained Buddhists; The Buddhist Society of Great Britain and Ireland was founded in 1907, under the leadership of Venerable Ananda Metteyya (Alan Bennett) an Englishman who, in 1901, had been ordained as a monk in Burma. This organisation later merged with the London Buddhist Society (founded 1924 by Christmas Humphreys, which had Theosophical influences). Eventually this group became the Buddhist Society UK – providing a platform for all schools and traditions of Buddhism.
In 1960s Britain eastern religions became fashionable, and lamas (Tibetan Dharma teachers) and other Asian gurus began travelling to the West with greater frequency. The early Buddhists in Britain were mainly from Theravadin groups (Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka), followed by Zen and Tibetan Buddhism.
By the early 2000s there were over 30 different traditions or sub-traditions of Buddhism in Britain. In 1993, the Japanese Buddhist group Soka Gakkai International, were instrumental in founding the Network of Buddhist Organisations UK as an umbrella body. Soka Gakkai International is in the Mahāyāna tradition, having broken from the Nichiren school which follows the Lotus Sūtra.
British-founded Buddhist movements include the Triratna Buddhist Community (previously called the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order – FWBO), founded by Sangharakshita (aka Dennis Lingwood, 1925-2018) in 1967. This is an interdenominational Buddhist group dedicated to communicating Buddhist teachings in ways it deems appropriate to the modern Western world.
Another major group is the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT), founded by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso in 1991. This bases its teachings on Gyatso’s commentaries of Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), who revived the teachings of Atisha (982-1054), the founder of the Kadam order of Buddhism in Tibet (which later evolved into the Gelug tradition).
What are some of the contemporary issues and controversies around Buddhism?
A number of groups and individuals have been implicated in scandals, including doctrinal/theological disputes. For example, the NKT have central practices relating to Dorje Shugden, whom they consider a fully-enlightened Bodhisattva. Shugden worship has been strongly discouraged by the religious institutions associated with the Dalai Lama, who considers Shugden a disruptive spirit.
Scandals also include lineage disputes. For example, Samye Ling (a Tibetan Buddhist centre based in Scotland) and Diamond Way (a Tibetan Buddhist organisation founded in Denmark) are on different sides of a lineage dispute over the 17th Karmapa – an honorific title for the head of the Karma Kagyu school in Tibetan Buddhism.
There have also been claims of abuse of members (including sexual abuse) within many Buddhist organisations including in Samye Ling, Rigpa, the NKT, Triratna, Shambhala, and the Pathgate Institute of Buddhist Studies, amongst other movements.
The student-teacher relationship is complicated and plays a different role in different cultures and traditions; some problems are caused by Asian teachers and their European students not having the same assumptions about appropriate behaviour.
Most traditions suggest that students have a responsibility to check and test their teachers – there should not be unquestioned submission to authority. But some teachers have abused their positions of authority and trust, and/or have pressured students to rely too quickly on their teacher without taking time for proper and necessary checks.
Dr Naomi Appleton, University of Edinburgh
Dr Mikel (Mik) Burley, University of Leeds
Professor Kate Crosby, King’s College London
Professor Mahinda Deegalle, Bath Spa University
Dr Lucia Dolce, SOAS
Contact Inform (firstname.lastname@example.org) for recommendations of experts on specific Buddhist movements/experts by geographical locations.
Bluck, Robert (2006). British Buddhism; Teachings, practice and development. London, Routledge.
Cush, Denise (1994). Buddhism. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Harvey, Peter (1997) An Introduction to Buddhism. Teachings, History and Practices. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Gethin, Rupert (1998). The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks.
Gombrich, Richard F. (1988). Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. London: Routledge.
Gombrich, Richard F. and Bechert, H. (1991). The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture. London: Thames and Hudson.
Keown, Damien (1996) Buddhism: a very short introduction. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Prebish, C. and Keown, Damien (2006). Introducing Buddhism. London: Routledge.
Robinson, Richard H., Johnson, Willard L. and Bhikkhu, Thanissaro (2004). Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction. Wadsworth Publishing.
Strong, John S. (2015). Buddhisms: An Introduction. Oneworld Publications.
Williams, Paul (2008). Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations. London: Routledge.