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History of Buddhism

Beginnings of Buddhism

Buddhism comprises the teachings of Shakyamuni, who was born a prince of the Shakya tribe in northeastern India about twenty-five hundred years ago. In his youth he was distressed by and deeply thought over such unavoidable problems of human beings as aging and illness, and life and death. Therefore, he renounced his worldly life at the age of twenty-nine to seek the way to liberate from suffering all human beings, including himself.

In Shakyamuni's time, the long dominance of the priestly class was in decline, and instead newly emerging classes of royal families, merchants, and artisans were rising to power and becoming prosperous in the area around the middle reaches of the Ganges River. In that shifting society, where established value systems were being questioned, various types of thinkers appeared who harbored doubts about traditional religious thought. Among them were those who embraced such philosophies as nihilism, materialism, determinism, and skepticism, and thus India at that time was flooded with competing schools of thought.

With an open but critical mind toward these philosophies, Shakyamuni studied them, sometimes practicing them, adopting or rejecting them. After he renounced the secular life, his hardships and search for truth continued for six years. Finally, as he sat meditating under a bodhi tree, he comprehended the Dharma permeating all things and all phenomena in the universe. He attained this perfect wisdom (enlightenment) at the age of thirty-five years.

Buddha under the bodhi tree

Following his enlightenment, Shakyamuni preached teachings based on the Dharma first at Sarnath to five ascetics who had been his fellow truth-seekers. Thus began his forty-five-year teaching ministry. Throughout north-central India, he brought many people to enlightenment before his death at the age of eighty.

Shakyamuni trusted his disciples to govern their groups themselves and never asked that they integrate his teachings. Since his only purpose was to save people from suffering, he preached the Dharma to them in various ways, according to their ability and level of understanding, and according to the time and the place. It therefore would have been impossible to compile Shakyamuni's teachings systematically during his lifetime.

Two Schools of Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra

What, then, became of Buddhism after Shakyamuni's death? In time, differences arose in the interpretation of precepts and teachings among his disciples. Later disciples had separated into roughly two schools - the conservative and the liberal - and were further divided into about twenty sects by 300 B.C.

map of transmission of BuddhismAround the same time, the great Maurya dynasty emperor Ashoka, who was a devout Buddhist, introduced the conservative school of Buddhism into Ceylon (Sri Lanka). From there this teaching (which is known as Theravada Buddhism) spread to Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and other parts of Southeast Asia, where it still flourishes, having long served as a major basis of the life and culture of the people there.

Disputes between the conservative and liberal schools became increasingly heated in the first and second centuries A.D. Followers of the liberal school criticized the conservative school's unyielding insistence on personal salvation. They viewed its attitude as departing from the essential pragmatism of Shakyamuni's teaching, and called its doctrine Hinayana, or the "Small Vehicle." The liberal school initiated a movement for the salvation of ordinary lay people and compiled many of the sutras that comprise the sacred books of Mahayana, or "Great Vehicle," Buddhism. The conservative school responded to this challenge with resolute declarations of the correctness of its traditional orthodoxy.

It was under these circumstances that the Sutra of the Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma, or the Lotus Sutra, was introduced. It was an effort to unite the two schools of Buddhism in a single vehicle (which is called Ekayana, or the One Vehicle) to be followed by all people. Since its content represents the essence and climax of Shakyamuni's teaching of wisdom, compassion, and liberation, the Lotus Sutra was revered by innumerable people. As time passed, however, people began to find the sutra difficult to understand because of its profound message and its position as a superb work of literature.

Mahayana Development and the Lotus Sutra

Mahayana Buddhism was later transmitted northward from India in two streams: in one stream, through central Asia, to China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan; and in the other stream, to Tibet and Mongolia. Tibetan Buddhism, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, has been preserved since the seventh century by the lamas, or Buddhist monks, of Tibet. Today it has become internationally well-known through the activities of the Dalai Lama, the highest of all the lamas, and his followers.

With the former stream of Mahayana Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra made its way to China. There the T'ien-t'ai patriarch Chih-i (538-597), revered as "the Little Shakyamuni," wrote several excellent commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, explaining its profound teachings. Through his efforts, many more people were able to understand and value Shakyamuni's message.

In the year that Chih-i was born in China, Buddhism arrived in Japan from that country via Korea. Since the introduction of Buddhism into Japan, the teachings of the Lotus Sutra have been a major influence on Japanese culture. For example, Prince Shotoku (574-622) established the Seventeen-Article Constitution, which he based on the spirit of the Lotus Sutra. It was the first law code in Japan. The great priest Saicho (767-822) founded the Japanese Tendai (T'ien-t'ai) sect with the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Under this sect, many distinguished later priests studied Buddhism and founded new sects by advocating a variety of doctrines suited to the understanding ability of different groups of people. Even in Zen Buddhism that emphasizes seated meditation as a major religious practice, especially the Soto Zen sect established by Dogen (1200-1253), we find that the spirit of the Lotus Sutra is a strong undercurrent in his thought and writings.

In the thirteenth century, the priest Nichiren (1222-1282) infused new life into the Lotus Sutra. He asserted that only by practicing the teachings of the sutra is it possible to save society and the nation, as well as the individual. Nonetheless, almost seven hundred years after Nichiren's death, the spirit of his teaching had lost most of its vitality, and the true spirit of the Lotus Sutra was forgotten.

At this point in Buddhist history, Rissho Kosei-kai was established in 1938 by Nikkyo Niwano and Myoko Naganuma with the Lotus Sutra as its basic scripture, in order to bring the spirit of Shakyamuni's teachings to the modern world for the salvation of humankind.


 

 
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