by Carole Losee © 2005-2019

To commit no evil,
To do all that is good,
To keep one's thought pure;
This is the teaching of all the Buddhas.

Buddhism is an outgrowth of Hinduism, a branch of the great tree of Indian religion and philosophy. Its truths, its moral code, and its methods are based on the long tradition of Hinduism, for the Buddha, who founded it, was born a Hindu. There are important differences, however, which have led to its being called a separate religion. Buddhism does not accept the Vedas as its authority and therefore cannot correctly be called a Hindu faith. The Buddha denied the existence of Brahman, or God, and also of the human self, or ego; as he saw it, the universe was governed by law alone. This was contrary to the teaching of the Vedas, and yet he promised the same bliss that the Upanishads declare as the supreme attainment of human life.

His doctrine was a clarified, systematized, new interpretation of the Indian thirst for the infinite; for in his time Hinduism had become confused with many theories and many sects; it was also overlaid with ritual and was too dependent on the priesthood. Buddhism does not recognize caste or the power of the Brahmins; anyone who is qualified may preach its doctrine. It rejects sacrifices and acts of worship, and lays all its emphasis on the effort and conduct of the individual.

This new, strong faith was founded nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, long before the time of Gandhi and Vinoba.


The Buddha means "enlightened one"; it is not a name but a title that is given to men of great wisdom. The man who is most widely known by that title is the founder of Buddhism, the religion that is named after him.

He was born in the northeastern part of India, which at that time included a part of what is now Nepal; it is close to the splendor of the Himalaya Mountains. His father was the ruler of one of the small states into which northern India was divided. His family name was Gótama, his given name, Siddhartha, [see pronunciation chart] which means "he who has reached his goal." He was born about 560 B.C., during that extraordinary time when an upsurge of thought and aspiration passed through the civilized parts of the world.

There is no written account of his life, though writing was widely used in his day. But the main facts, and incidents told by the Buddha himself, were remembered by his followers and handed down from one to another for centuries before they were finally written. Many legends were also told about him during those centuries. The resultant story is partly fact and partly legend, and both reveal the great spiritual teacher and the love and reverence in which he was held.

Gótama Siddhartha was born, then, in the country of the Sakyas, the son of its ruler, the rajah. His mother died when he was a week old, and he was lovingly cared for by her sister, who was also the rajah's second wife. At the time of his birth a very wise man was at his father's court and was asked to look upon the child. "You have begotten a wonderful son," said the sage. "If he remains within the home, he will become a mighty ruler over the whole earth; but if he leaves the home for the homeless life, he will become a savior of mankind." His father was troubled by this prophecy, for he wanted his son to succeed him and to become a great king. Therefore, the story goes, he surrounded the boy with every pleasure and never let him see anything ugly or painful that might disturb him and arouse questions in his mind.

Once, when Siddhartha was a young boy, he went out with his father who, following the custom of those times, was plowing with his own hand the first furrow of the season. Siddhartha sat down in the shade of a rose-apple tree and before long fell into a deep and serene meditation. His father did not see him there and returned to his palace, but later he missed the boy and sent a servant to find him. He was still sitting under the tree, lost in meditation, and although hours had passed and sunlight and shadow had changed, the shade of the tree had not moved but still sheltered him.

In time, he married a lovely girl and had a son; but still the rajah tried to keep him within the palace and its pleasure grounds, lest he awake to the truths of life. One day Siddhartha told his father that he wished to drive out and see the world. The rajah ordered the streets to be decorated and cleared of all dirt, and sick or old people to stay within doors. The young prince rode out in his chariot and looked at the fair city and the smiling people. As he was returning, a very old man who had not heard the rajah's order came, bent and hobbling, down the street. "What has happened to that man that he looks so weak and miserable?" asked the prince. "He is old, my lord," answered the charioteer, "as we shall all be some day, if we do not die before out time."

Siddhartha's heart was shaken, partly by pity and partly by disgust, and he ordered the charioteer to drive him home. His wife asked what was troubling him, and he told her what he had seen. "How can anyone rejoice in youth and beauty if that is the end for us all?" he asked.

He drove out again and yet again. He met a sick man, groaning with pain, and the charioteer told him that any man may suffer such pain and illness. He met a funeral procession; he saw the stiff, cold body being carried to the funeral pyre, and the weeping family following it. This time the charioteer's answer was firm. "Whatever is born must die," he said. "To this we must all come, my lord."

Lastly they met a sánnyásin, clad in a yellow robe, carrying a begging bowl; his face was calm and radiant. Siddhartha stopped the chariot and asked the man why he had become a sánnyásin. "I wished to conquer my self and to win peace and freedom from all ills," answered he man, smiling.

That night Siddartha rose from his bed and dressed himself. He went softly to his wife's room, where she lay with their little son by her side. He would have liked to caress her and the baby once more but feared to waken her. There had been feasting and music in the palace that evening, and in its hall the dancing girls lay asleep with their instruments beside them. He walked quietly past them and left the palace. He wakened his charioteer and told him to saddle his favorite horse, Kánthaka. As he was being saddled, Kánthaka thought, "My girth is being drawn much tighter than when I am saddled for a ride in the park. My master must be going forth this night into homelessness," and in his delight he neighed loudly. The gods, however, were watching this momentous departure, for they wanted Siddhartha to achieve his purpose. A Buddha was a far higher being than a god and they, too, would need his help. So they muffled with their hands the sound of Kánthaka's neighing and held up his hoofs lest they strike too sharp a sound from the stones of the courtyard and waken sleepers in the palace. Quietly the prince went out with his faithful servant and rode on all through the night, until at dawn they found themselves beside a river.

There Siddhartha dismounted and laid off his robes except for a single garment; he took out his sword and cut off his long hair. The robes and sword, the locks he had cut off, he gave to the charioteer, saying to him, "Take these to my father and tell him that I have gone forth into the homeless life."

When Kánthaka had to turn back without his master, his great heart broke and he died. The charioteer, who before had only one sorrow, the loss of his master, now had two and went back, weeping, to the city.

When he found himself alone, Gótama, as he was called henceforth by his companions, did what any Hindu would do who sought the truth: he looked for a teacher. He had heard of two who were famous for their wisdom, and he went first to one and then to the other and learned all they had to teach. But he was not satisfied; he wanted to know why men suffered and how they could be freed from suffering , and his teachers could not tell him. So he joined a group of five hermits who lived in the forest and were seeking enlightenment in the time-honored way by fasting and by severe discipline of body and mind. Gótama outdid them all and for six years disciplined himself in the most rigorous ways. At last he was living on only one sesame seed a day; his body was shrunken almost to a skeleton; his skin was black and shriveled. One day as he was returning from a bath in the river, he fainted from weakness.

When he came to, he realized that his mind was not being purified, but rather weakened, by this terrible training. He remembered the serene and blissful meditation he had attained as he sat under the rose-apple tree when he was a happy, healthy boy. A girl passed by and saw him sitting there, weak and emaciated; she brought him a bowl of rice cooked in milk, and he took it gratefully and ate it. After that he ate, frugally but normally, and felt his mind refreshed and strengthened. But his five companions thought him a backslider and left him.

Shortly afterward he felt strong enough to find for himself the truth that he sought. He sat down, cross-legged, under a fig tree and vowed that he would not rise until he had accomplished his purpose. Concentrating all his power of mind and spirit on that one goal. he passed from one state of mediation into another until at last he reached, in the highest degree, the state of consciousness that is called nirvana. There he found all his questions answered. "And thus perceiving, thus beholding," he said later, "My mind was freed from desire, from the craving for life, from delusion. And this knowledge came to me: rebirth is ended, the holy life fulfilled; what was to do is done; this world is no more for me."

He was tempted to stay in the bliss of this experience; to remain forever in nirvana and to let his body fall to the earth and die. For he thought, "The truth, which is sublime and peace-giving, is difficult to understand. It will remain hidden from those who love the world. If I preach it and men do not understand, it will bring me only weariness and loss." But Brahma the creator, so they say, appeared before him and , after greeting him respectfully, said, "Alas, the world will perish if the Blessed One does not teach the Law. There are many whose minds are barely covered by the dust of the world; if they do not hear the truth, they will be lost. Be merciful to them!" And Gótama looked with his enlightened perception at the world and saw that there were indeed many who were able to understand. So he decided to teach them the truths that he had found and to end their searching.

Some say that he remained for seven days under the fig tree, which, after that, was called the Bodhi, or the Bo tree, the tree of wisdom. During that time he thought out the details of his belief and of the doctrine that he was to preach all the rest of his life. Some say that he stayed there for seven times seven days. When all was clear in his mind, he thought, "To whom shall I first teach this doctrine?" He thought of the five companions who had left him and knew that they had gone to the Deer Park in the holy city of Benares. So he went there on foot in his hermit's robe, gathering his food each day in his beggar's bowl from willing villagers.

When he reached the Deer Park, his former companions saw him approaching. "Here comes Gótama," said one to another. "Let us not rise to greet him or show him any respect, for he has forsaken the holy life." Yet when they perceived the majesty and radiance of his presence, they rose to greet him and brought water to wash his feet. "How is it with you, friend Gótama?" one of them asked. "Do not call the Tathágata [Tat-háh-ga-ta means "he who has thus come." The Buddha often referred to himself by that title.] by his name or address him as friend," answered Gótama, who knew very well what had happened to him. "For he has become the Buddha, the enlightened one. Listen to me, and I will teach you the Dharma, the Law, by which you, too, may attain the highest goal of the holy life."

First he told them that he had not given up his former rigorous life out of weakness. He had found out that it was wrong either to indulge the body or to torture it with fasting and too rigorous discipline. One should live simply, eat what was put into the begging bowl, and clothe one's body in the yellow robes of the sánnyásin.

Then he told them, briefly and clearly, the truth that had come to him in his enlightenment. He had first sought it out of pity for the suffering of humanity, and his whole purpose was to free people from the pain and misery that he had seen. Therefore he said to them:

The First Noble Truth is the existence of suffering. Birth is painful, and death is painful; disease and old age are painful. Not having what we desire is painful, and having what we do not desire is also painful.

The Second Noble Truth is the cause of suffering. It is the craving desire for the pleasures of the senses, that seeks satisfaction now here, now there; the craving for happiness and prosperity in this life and in future lives.

The Third Noble Truth is the ending of suffering. To be free of suffering one must give up, get rid of, extinguish this very craving, so that no passion and no desire remain.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Path that leads to the ending of all pain. The first step on that path is Right Views: You must accept the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

The second step is Right Resolve: You must renounce the pleasures of the senses; you must harbor no ill will toward anyone and harm no living creature.

The third step is Right Speech: Do not lie; do not slander or abuse anyone. Do not indulge in idle talk.

The fourth is Right Behavior: Do not destroy any living creature; take only what is given to you; do not commit any unlawful sexual act.

The fifth is Right Occupation: You must earn your livelihood in a way that will harm no one.

The sixth is Right Effort: You must resolve and strive heroically to prevent any evil qualities from arising in you and to abandon any evil qualities that you may possess. Strive to acquire good qualities and encourage those you do possess to grow, increase, and be perfected.

The seventh is Right Contemplation: Be observant, strenuous, alert, contemplative, free of desire and of sorrow.

The eighth is Right Meditation: When you have abandoned all sensuous pleasures, all evil qualities, both joy and sorrow, you must then enter the four degrees of meditation, which are produced by concentration.

This is the Eightfold Path to the ending of all suffering.

When he had finished speaking, he asked his five listeners, "Have you thoroughly understood, O wanderers:" And one of them answered, "I have thoroughly understood, Lord." He became the first disciple and the other four soon followed him. The Buddha stayed with them in a hermitage near Benares and began to teach all who would listen to him. In a few months he had sixty disciples, and he sent them out to wander through the villages and towns, preaching his gospel. "Go forth now," he said, "for the benefit of many, for the welfare of mankind, out of compassion for the world. Proclaim the life of holiness; many will understand and accept it."


The Buddha's teaching was very clear and assured and systematic; he listed and numbered the points he wished to emphasize, beginning with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path: this made them easy to remember and follow. Many people turned to him because of the power of his personality and the clarity of his doctrine. His teaching freed them from dependence on the Brahmins and on the gods: sacrifices, supplications, and prayers did not matter. Salvation was in one's own hands.

The way out of suffering and out of continuous rebirth and death was not hard to understand; the Eightfold Path could be followed by anyone who wished to do so. The Buddha's philosophical teaching was more difficult but was eagerly welcomed by many of the brilliant minds that loved to debate and search out the problems of spiritual life. He taught that the whole perceptible universe, including its creatures, has no permanent being; that it changes at every moment and is in a state, not of being, but of becoming. Everything, therefore, being impermanent, is subject to growth and decay, to birth and death, to pain and sorrow. The individual self is also impermanent; it is a combination of different qualities, some inherited and some acquired, bound together, as it were, by karma, the sum of its own actions and thoughts, which leads it through lifetime after lifetime and death after death. This, indeed, is the crux of his teaching: it is the ego, the belief in self, that suffers, because of its separateness, its desires, its cleaving to and grasping of things and people, its clinging to life. "Whatever you cling to will fail you," he said. These desires send it spinning on the wheel of continuous births and deaths, which can bring only continued and repeated suffering.

The first step on the way to freedom is to realize that the self has no reality; after that it is not hard to shed the desires that the self clings to. As there is no self, so also there is no higher Self; the Buddha acknowledged no God, no Brahman, and therefore no indwelling spirit.

He did not deny all individual consciousness, for he said that during the first watch of the night of his enlightenment he saw all his past births, "And I called to mind my various fortunes in other lives: first one life, then two lives, then three...up to many thousand lives. Then I recalled the periods of many a world-arising and many a world-destruction. There was I. That was my name. To that family I belonged. That was my occupation." He was asked once what it was that went from one life to another, from death to rebirth. Was it not the same self? "If you light one lamp from the flame of another lamp, is it the same flame? he asked. The questioner was puzzled; it was the same and yet not the same. "So it is with what passes from life to life," said the Buddha. It was the ego, the personality, that many of us love so dearly, that he denied.

In exchange for the belief in self and the consequent suffering, the Buddha offered peace and joy and, as soon as one was able to follow the Eightfold Path all the way, absorption into nirvana. Nirvana means "blowing out," "extinguishing," and most people believe that the Buddha meant it (as other Hindus did) to be the extinguishing of the passions of desire, anger, and sloth. But some people, both Buddhists and foreign scholars, have taken it to mean the extinguishing of life itself, the annihilation of all consciousness. So the controversy has gone on, from that day to this, as to what nirvana means, and the student must judge for himself. The Buddha would never say anything about it or even state firmly that a man continued to exist after his last death; he said that such talk was not profitable and did not help people to live the holy life. Nevertheless, he said once to his disciples, "Some hermits and Brahmins say that I am a destroyer, that I preach the extinction of being itself. But they accuse me falsely of the very thing I do not say. For I preach only suffering and the ending of suffering."

He spoke of nirvana as a reality beyond all sorrow and change, "unfading, still, undecaying, taintless, peaceful and blissful. It is the shelter, the refuge, and the goal." He often called it "the other shore." It seems unlikely that a man whose whole motivation was pity for mankind and a desire to put an end to their pain should offer at the end only eternal death. He also spoke of the attainment of it as "the full awakening." Does one awake to extinction?

One of his own followers came to him once and complained that he would not tell them whether the world is finite or infinite or what happens to the holy man who has lived his last life on earth.

"Did I ever say to you," asked the Buddha, "that I would tell you those things?"

"No, Reverend Sir," answered the other.

"You are like a man wounded with a poisoned arrow who, when his friends and kinsmen bring a physician, says to them, "I will not have this arrow taken out until I know the caste of the man who wounded me, and his name, and the clan to which he belongs, and whether he was tall or short." The questions that you ask have little to do with the holy life. Whether the world is eternal or not, birth, death, old age, sorrow, misery, and despair remain, and I can tell you how they may be extinguished," said the Master.

There seems to be no doubt that nirvana is the name for that same experience that lies at the end of all high spiritual endeavor, that the Hindus call "immeasurable bliss," that Ramakrishna found through following the paths of Christianity and Islam as well as the path of Hinduism.


The Buddha also taught many things that would now be included in the realm of psychology. One of the great discoveries of his night of enlightenment was that everything that we experience is caused by something that precedes it. He started with ignorance as the primary cause of all human woes. He was too wise to say that he knew the origin of life or of the universe, and he had no use for speculation. Starting with ignorance, he perceived a twelvefold chain of causation which leads to hatred, delusion, and desire, to death and rebirth. Deliverance comes with the realization that whatever begins must end and that whatever is caused can be stopped by removing the cause, which lies within oneself. It is said that two learned Brahmins were converted by hearing one of the Buddha's disciples recite this simple verse:

The Buddha has the causes told
Of all things springing from a cause
And also how they cease to be:
This does the Blessed One proclaim! (1)

These and many more profound and subtle questions of philosophy and psychology the Buddha discussed with his disciples, with learned Brahmins and scholars, and with anyone else who questioned him. They are just as interesting today as they were in his time. They are hard to understand and hard to practice, as he realized on the morning of his great awakening; but they are lightened and softened by the kindness and compassion that had made him decide not to pass forever into nirvana but to remain in the world to teach. To simple people he spoke simply and gently, often through poetic metaphors and parables.

Only a few people, ever, are ready to give up the world and to seek the truth of the spirit. Few, even of his own disciples, would reach nirvana; but anyone--a peasant, a shopkeeper, a warrior, or a king--could live the holy life wherever he was and whatever he was doing. That life is one of goodness, selflessness, purity, kindness to all creatures--animals as well as men--and steadfast spiritual purpose. Anyone, no matter how humble or how busy in the affairs of the world, who lived the holy life, was honored as a true disciple of the Buddha. He always emphasized one's own actions and one's own experience, drawing people away from the idea that a sacrifice or an act of worship would help them.

"All that we are is the result of what we have thought; it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the cart. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like his own shadow, wherever he goes.

"By oneself the evil is done, by oneself one suffers; by oneself the evil is left undone, by oneself one is purified. Purity and impurity belong to oneself, no one can purify another.

"Not in the sky, not in the midst of the sea, not if one enters into the clefts of the mountain is there a spot in the whole world where a man may be freed from an evil deed.

"Although one man conquers a thousand times a thousand men, if another conquers himself, this man is the greater conqueror.

"He who, seeking his own happiness, injures or kills other beings who long for happiness, will not find what he seeks.

"Hatred does not cease by hatred, hatred ceases by love. This is the eternal law." (2)

"Yes, even if highway robbers with a two-handed saw should take and dismember you limb from limb, if your mind was darkened thereby you would not be obeying my teaching. Even then you must school yourselves thus: 'Our minds shall remain unsullied and no evil word shall escape our lips. We shall fill those robbers with a stream of loving thought, and forth from them it shall unfold and penetrate the whole world with constant thoughts of loving kindness, ample, expanding, measureless, free from enmity and all ill will.' Call to mind again and again this parable of the saw; it will make for your happiness and well-being." (3)

"As a mother cherishes her son, her only son, even at the risk of her own life, so must your love encompass every living creature. Cultivate towards the whole world . . . a heart of love unstinted, unmixed with a sense of differing or opposing interests. This state of heart is the best in the world." (4).


The Buddha was thirty-five years old when he sat under the Bo tree and became enlightened; he lived to be eighty. During the forty-five intervening years he spent his days teaching and preaching to all who would listen. He walked from village to village, from town to town, usually with some of his disciples; they took the food that was given to them and slept where lodging was offered. Peasants in the villages and rich men in the towns often vied with one another in offering hospitality, for holiness and learning were always honored in India. Towns and cities built halls and houses or set aside pleasant parks where these wanderers could stay and where learned men could meet and debate with one another. In such houses the Buddha and his followers would spend the late summer season when the downfall of rain made traveling impossible. There the people crowded to hear him, to bring him their problems and doubts, and there Brahmins, statesmen, and other sánnyásins came to question him. He received them all with serenity and kindness and perfect assurance, and he usually convinced them.

Not long after he began his ministry, he received a message from his father, asking him to visit his family once more. Though he was more than a hundred miles away, he undertook the long journey, on foot, with a few of his followers. With his shorn head and ragged robe, carrying his begging bowl, he appeared at the palace and was greeted with reverence by his father, as any holy man would be received, and by the aunt who had brought him up, who was also his father's second wife. These parents, his own wife and young son, he met again, and to them he was still the beloved son and husband, the unknown father; but to him they were as anyone else, neither dearer nor less dear, for he was free of all human affections and did not think of himself as the same person who had lived for nearly thirty years in his father's palace.

He did not live there when he went back; he and his followers stayed in a nearby grove of trees, as they loved to do. Early on the morning after they arrived, they went into the city with their begging bowls to receive their morning meal. Someone ran breathless to the palace and told the rajah that his son was begging in the streets. He found the Buddha and reproached him: "Come into the palace and eat with us," he said. "You are disgracing your family, my son. You are a Kshatria; no Kshatria begs for his food."

"I am of the lineage of the Buddhas," was the reply. "We always beg for our food."

Later, when he came into the palace courtyard, his wife said to her son, who was still a boy, "That glorious man in the hermit's robe is your father. Go to him and ask him for your inheritance; I hear that he has four great treasures." So the boy, Ráhula, went to his father and said to him, "Father, give me my inheritance." "I have no gold nor silver," answered the Buddha, "but if you are willing to receive spiritual treasures and are strong enough to bear and to keep them, I will give you those." "I am willing," said Ráhula and he followed his father from that time on. When the Buddha saw how grieved his own father was to lose his grandson as well as his son, he promised that he would never again take anyone who was under age into the order without the parents' consent. His half brother, Ananda, his aunt's son, went with him, too, and became his most devoted disciple, staying close to him all his life and taking personal care of him.


The Buddha founded an order of monks. This was a comparatively new thing in India, though there were many groups of men, professing different beliefs, who wandered about begging their food. But, like everything that the Buddha did or thought, the brotherhood he founded was systematic and carefully ordered, and it exists to this day in thousands of monasteries throughout Asia. At first it was very simple. The monks were homeless; they must not marry but be perfectly chaste; they ate their only solid meal before midday; in the evening they might eat lightly of fruit or juice. Their only vow was: "I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma (the Law, or doctrine); I take refuge in the Sangha (the brotherhood)." Most of the time they traveled on foot about the country, preaching and teaching. During the rainy season they lived in the places given to them by the cities or by rich men and spent their time in meditation, in discussion of the doctrine, and in listening, first to the Buddha, then, as their number increased, to the wisest of the monks. In time, they were offered permanent houses and these were the first monasteries.

The monks and their master traveled about the northeastern part of India, from his birthplace in Nepal through the present state of Bihar, which takes its name from vihara, meaning monastery. They stayed often in Benares and in the city of Rajagriha, which has disappeared now but was once the capital of a strong kingdom. There was a mountain near it called the Vulture's Peak where they often retired for meditation and discussion.

Women often asked the Buddha if they might join his order, but he refused them. His wife begged that she might follow him, but he never allowed her to do so. His aunt, the mother of Ananda, was the most insistent. One time when the Buddha was staying in a banyan grove near his father's city, she came to him and begged him three times to allow her to leave her home for the homeless life, and three times he refused her. He left and went to another city, still in his father's territory but many miles away. Then his aunt cut off her hair and put on yellow garments and followed him on foot, with several other women. She stood in the porch of the hall where he was lodging, "sorrowful, sad and tearful, with swollen feet, and covered with dust." He son, Ananda, saw her standing there and asked her why she had come.

"Because, alas, O Ananda, the Blessed One does not permit women to retire from household life to the homeless one, under the doctrine and discipline of the Tathágata."

"Wait but a moment," answered her son. "I will beseech the Blessed One to permit you to do so."

He told the Buddha that his aunt stood, weeping and footsore, in the porch, begging to be admitted to the order. Three times he asked his master to admit her, and three times he was refused. But Ananda was as persistent as his mother and tried another way.

"Are women able to attain to the holy life, to free themselves from rebirth, and to attain to sainthood, O Exalted One?" he asked.

"Yes, they are able," answered the Buddha.

"Then, if they are able to live the holy life, consider, sir, what a service this woman has already done for the world. As foster mother and nurse, she suckled the Blessed One after his mother's death. For her sake, pray let women enter the homeless life under the doctrine and discipline of the Tathágata."

His master relented and told Ananda that she might join the order if she would accept the difficult rules that must not be broken as long as life shall last. He added one which made nuns always subservient to the monks; although they lived separately, the nuns must never stay in a place where there were no monks. He did not trust women very far.

Ananda brought the good news to his mother and asked her if she would accept the rules, which he repeated to her. "Just as a young woman, beautiful and fond of ornament," she answered, "would take a wreath of flowers and set it on her head, so do I take up these weighty rules that must not be broken as long as life shall last."

Joyfully she and the women who had come with her took up the holy life. Many more joined them, and some of them became both wise and saintly. The monks came to learn from them, and so did learned men from the cities where the nuns lodged.


The Buddha continued his ministry without any change in his way of living until he was eighty year old, a greater age then than now. Just before the time of his death he was living on the Vulture's Peak, near the city of Rajagritha. The king, whose capital city it was, planned to attack a neighboring clan, the Vajjians, and to destroy them; but since the Buddha was so near he thought it wise to consult him. So he sent a Brahmin, with great ceremony, to the Vulture's Peak to deliver the king's message. The Buddha did not answer but said to Ananda, who was standing behind him, "Do the Vajjians foregather often in public meetings, Ananda?"

"I have heard so, Lord," answered Ananda.

"So long as they gather often in public meetings in concord, and carry out their undertakings in concord; so long as they honor their elders and listen to their words; so long as they revere their shrines in town and country and continue the proper offering and rites and protect and support the holy ones who live among them; so long, Ananda, the Vajjians will prosper and be strong. I taught them these things, and so long as they preserve them they will prosper."

The Brahmin understood. "So, Gótama," he said, "the Vajjians will not be overcome in battle." He took the message back to the king, and the Vajjians were left in peace.

The Buddha went on from place to place with a great company of disciples, and he taught them how to live together in harmony, for he knew that he would soon leave them. Everywhere they were received with honor, and people vied with one another to give them their noonday meal. At Vesali the Buddha was taken ill and was in great pain, but he overcame the illness, for he was not yet ready to leave his disciples.

They had been walking northward and were now in his family's territory, north of the Gogra River. He led them to the town of Kusinágara, to a grove of trees where there was a shelter for monks and travelers. "Spread me a couch between those two trees," he said to Ananda. "I am weary and would lie down." Ananda folded a robe, and the Exalted One lay down upon it, on his right side, as lions do, one foot resting on the other. "I am now grown old," he said, "my life is nearing its end. Just as a worn-out cart must be carefully tied together to make it move along, so, Ananda, the body of the Tathágata must be patched up to keep it going. Only when the Tathágata is rapt in contemplation and concerned with no external thing is his body at ease."

Then Ananda went to the door of the shelter and leaned against it and wept, thinking to himself, "Alas, I am but a student, and the Master is about to pass away from me, he who is so kind." The Buddha missed him and sent for him and when he had come, said lovingly to him, "Enough, Ananda! Do not weep! Have I not told you that it is in the nature of things that we must leave all that is near and dear to us? Whatever is born and brought into being must dissolve and die. For a long time you have been very near to me by acts and thoughts of love that are beyond all measure. You have done well, Ananda. Be earnest in effort, and you, too, shall soon be free!" And he praised Ananda to all the rest.

Then he sent him into the city to tell the citizens that the Tathágata would enter nirvana in the last watch of the night, for he knew that they would want to see him while he yet lived. Men and their wives, young men and maidens, gathered together and went to the grove and bowed down to the feet of their Master and then sat around him through the night, grieving sorely in their hearts and thinking. "Too soon the Exalted One will die! Too soon will the Eye of the World vanish away!"

The Buddha spoke to the monks: "It may be that some of you will think 'The word of the Master is ended; we have no teacher any more.' But you should not thing that. Let the Truth and the rules of the order which I have laid down for you be your teacher after I am gone. And now, O monks, I take my leave of you. All the world is transient and subject to suffering. Work out your own salvation with diligence."

These were his last words. In the last watch of the night, passing through the ascending stages of meditation, he entered nirvana.


In the forty-five years of his teaching, many, many of the Buddha's sermons, lessons, and talks were memorized by his followers and written down much later. They begin, "Thus have I heard," and end, "so spake the Blessed one." They make beautiful reading and are as valuable now as they ever were. Many stories inevitably grew about his memory. Some of them throw light on the Buddhists' attitude to the gods, whom they do not deny and whom the Buddha himself often mentioned.

Thus have I heard. At one time when the Blessed One was staying in a pavilion in the east grove, Indra, king of the gods, came to him, greeted him respectfully, and asked, "Can you state briefly, Lord, how a monk is wholly purified, perfected, made secure, and come to complete deliverance?"

"Suppose, O king of the gods," answered the Master, "that a monk understands that whatever he clings to will fail him. Understanding that, he penetrates the nature of all things and finds them impermanent and painful. Therefore he clings to nothing in the world and, unclinging, does not fear or tremble. Unfearing and untrembling, he attains his own deliverance and knows 'rebirth is ended, the holy life fulfilled; all that was to do is done; for me this world is no more.' So, stated briefly, O king of the gods, is a monk wholly purified, perfected, made secure, and come to complete deliverance."

Indra was pleased and satisfied with these words; he made obeisance to the Buddha and vanished from sight.

Now all this time that wise disciple, Shariputra, was seated nearby and heard all that was said. He thought to himself, "Is that great god really satisfied by the words of the Blessed One? Suppose I find out!" In a moment, by the spiritual power he had attained, he left the pavilion of the east grove and appeared in the heaven of Indra. The king of the gods was in his lotus garden, waited upon by the divine musicians and damsels. He welcomed Shariputra gladly, giving him an honorable seat and taking a lower one himself. The monk asked him whether he had been satisfied by the Master's words, and Indra said that he had understood them perfectly and had laid them to heart. Indeed, he repeated word to word what the Blessed One had told him.

Then he said, "There was once a great war, O venerable one, between the gods and demons, in which the demons were overthrown. I built a magnificent palace to celebrate that victory. Would you like to see it?"

Shariputra agreed, and Indra, with his chief ministers and many attendants, showed him all over the shining palace, saying constantly, "Look at the splendor, O venerable one, just look at that!"

The monk admired everything politely but thought to himself, "How foolish this god is, to value all this! Shall I give him a fright?" He put out his foot, and with his big toe he set the whole airy palace to shaking and trembling, till Indra and his ministers and all the celestial company were amazed at his magic power and their hair stood on end. Then, well pleased with his errand, Shariputra disappeared from among the gods and returned to the pavilion in the east grove.

One of Indra's ministers asked him, "Was that the Blessed One, the Master, who was just here among us?" "No," answered Indra, "it was one of his disciples." "You were fortunate to be visited by a disciple of such spiritual power," said the other, and added fearfully, "What if the Blessed One himself were to appear among us?"


After the Buddha's death, the fertile imagination of India fashioned many a story, especially about all the former lives that he must have lived in order to attain finally to perfection. With their strong belief in evolution, the Indians thought that each individual had come through innumerable experiences, starting at the lowest form of consciousness. They loved to tell of the time when the Buddha was born as an ox, as a dog, as an elephant, or as a quail. There is always some noble or wise act done by the bird or the animal who was to become the Buddha. Most of these stories are folktales of which the Buddha is made the hero; they make a charming collection and usually start, "Once upon a time when Brahmadatta reigned in Benares..."

So, once upon a time when that legendary king was reigning in Benares, the future Buddha was born as a hare who lived in a wood with three friends, a monkey, an otter, and a jackal. The hare always taught the others, telling them that alms must be given, the holy days kept, and the moral law always obeyed. One day, looking at the sky and observing the moon, he said to his companions, "Tomorrow is a fast day when alms must be given. Let us prepare food so that we may feed any beggar or holy man who may come to us."

They all agreed, and next morning each one went his way to find food. The otter brought back seven fishes, the jackal stole a lizard and a pot of curd from a peasant's hut, and the monkey gathered a bunch of mangoes. But the hare thought, "No beggar eats grass, which is my food, and I have no grain to offer him. If any beggar comes, I shall have to offer him my own flesh to eat." This virtuous thought struck up like a ray of light to the throne of Indra, who discovered whence it came and decided to put the hare to the test. He took the form of a Brahmin and stood by the four friends' dwelling and asked them for food.

The monkey, the otter, and the jackal all offered the food they had collected, but the Brahmin refused it for one reason or another. Then he came to the hare, and the hare said joyfully, "I will grant you a boon that I have never offered before. But I shall not make you break the moral law by taking a life. Go, friend, and make a fire and I shall leap into it, and when my body is roasted you shall eat it."

So Indra made a hot fire, and the hare approached it, first shaking his body lest any insects perish with him. Then he sprang up and, like a swan alighting on a bed of lotuses, he fell upon the flames. But the fire did not even singe his hair, and he said to the Brahmin, "Your fire is icy cold. What is the meaning of this, O Brahmin?" "I am no Brahmin," answered the god. "I am Indra and have come to test your virtue. O wise hare, this act of yours shall be remembered to the end of the world." Then he drew with his hand the figure of the hare on the orb of the moon and there it remains to this day.


Once upon a time when Brahmadatta reigned in Benares, the Buddha was born as a monkey. He grew up to be strong and wise and became the king of all the monkeys round about. He took them to a safe place, high in the mountains by the river Ganges. There was a beautiful mango tree growing beside the river; it bore delicious and fragrant fruit, and the monkeys swarmed about it when the fruit was ripe. The king saw that one great branch hung over the river, and he ordered the others not to leave one mango on that branch; indeed he told them to pick the very flowers off, lest any fruit drop into the river and be carried away. One day danger will come to us from the fruit falling into the river." he said.

And so it happened, for one day a hidden mango dropped off and was carried downstream and caught in a fisherman's net near the city of Benares. It was so large and perfect that the man took it to his king. The king ordered his boats out and sailed upstream with a great retinue of courtiers and archers. After many days they came upon the tree, tasted the mangoes, and set up their camp under the thick branches, as night was coming on.

At dawn the king was wakened by a great noise in the tree, and looking up, he saw hundreds of monkeys swarming through the branches and eating the fruit. He called to his archers, "Surround the tree and shoot these thieves; let not one escape. We shall eat our mangoes with their roasted flesh." And the monkeys found themselves facing a hundred lifted bows on three side and the river on the fourth.

Now the monkey king saw that the branch that had dropped its fatal fruit reached far out across the river and almost touched the branch of a tree on the opposite bank. He climbed swiftly up, flung himself out from the tip of the branch, which he held tight with his feet, and just caught the tip of the other branch with his hands. So he lay across the river like a bridge. "Pass quickly over me," he cried to the others, "and you will be safe." One after another, they took the road across his body, treading as lightly as they could and saluting and thanking him. But there was one who was jealous of him and saw this chance to be rid of him and to take his place. So he waited till the last, and when he crossed, he jumped on his chief's back and broke it, while he himself scampered off in safely.

The monkey king, helpless and in great pain, fell into the river. But the ruler of Benares had been watching all that went on with wonder and admiration. He ordered his boatmen to save the monkey, to lift him very gently and bring him to land. He clothed the wounded one in a yellow silken robe, laid him on his own bed, and fed him with comforting food and drink. Then he himself took a lower seat and asked the monkey to teach him how to be a king.

When the monkey died, the king had his body burned with as much ceremony as if he had been a ruler of men. He raised a shrine there in the forest and honored it with flowers and incense. Then he took the monkey's skull from the ashes, and when he returned to his city, he built another shrine to hold it, and there he honored it all his life. And he became a great and wise ruler, loved and honored by his people.


On things that crawl my love is shed
         On biped and on quadruped,
On those with many feet.


May crawling things do me no harm;
          May those that run with feet along
Do no offense to me.


All creatures that have life within
          And all our sentient kith and kin,
May you from every hurt be free
         And live beside us peacefully!

        --From the Culla Vagga



It seems extraordinary that great spiritual teachers, like the Buddha and Jesus, were willing to entrust their teaching to the spoken word and to leave this world, to which they gave their lives, without using the more lasting and reliable form of writing, which was available to both of them. They had complete faith in what they taught. "The Dharma which I have taught you will be your teacher when I have gone," said the Buddha. "The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life," said Jesus. They also must have had faith in humanity and known that there would always be someone who understood their teaching in its purity and would keep it alive, however it might be distorted and however their forthright and uncompromising message might be softened and elaborated to meet the needs and the longings of the vast majority of people. And they were right, of course: a religion would die if there were not an invisible but unbroken current of its saints from the time of its founding to the present day. Hinduism has proved itself in the lives of Gandhi, Ramakrishna, Vinoba, and many others; Buddhism is very much alive today, in spite of many changes and many elaborations of its doctrine.

After the Buddha died, his disciples met together and held a council, in order to define and recite his teaching. There is no reliable record of this council except traditions, but this is accepted by scholars as true. Five hundred of his followers assembled at his favorite city, Rajagriha, in the present state of Bihar, and met for several months on the Vulture's Peak, by the mouth of a great cave. Their purpose was to recite not only the whole doctrine, beginning with the Four Noble Truths, but the long and detailed rules of the order, the rules of life for lay members, and the principal thoughts and sermons of the Master during the forty-five years of his ministry. All of these were known by heart to many of the monks who were present, and they shared in the long recital.

It is said that the lovable Ananda knew more than anyone else, but it was well known that, in spite of his devotion and conscientiousness, he had not yet reached nirvana, perhaps because he was too much attached to his Master. So he was not allowed at first to join the assembly. But in order to continue his service, even after the Buddha's death, he strove mightily all one night and at dawn reached enlightenment. He was admitted at once and was the most useful member of that company, although he had to confess to a few sins, one being that he had persuaded the Blessed One to admit women to the order. Many of the monks were still unwilling to believe that women were able to live the monastic life.

These five hundred men and many more remembered their Master's commandment to "Go forth for the gain of many, for the welfare of many, in compassion, for the world. Preach the glorious doctrine; proclaim the life of holiness." They obeyed, and Buddhism increased in India. It must be remembered that Buddhism is a Western term; to the faithful it is the Dharma (in the Buddha's own language, Pali, it is Dhamma), the Law, or the Truth. It grew and spread from eastern India to the west and to the south, and existed side by side with Hinduism, from which it had grown. The Brahmins were not pleased to have a strong new sect which denied their traditional authority, but there was no serious quarrel between them, though there were probably many debates. There were so many schools already that one more made little difference.

There were disagreements, however, among the Buddhists themselves and different interpretations of the teaching. A second council was held about a hundred years after the Buddha's death, and at that one there was a cleavage, for a large group of monks walked out and formed another council. They wanted to soften the severity of the monastic rules: to eat after midday, to have more comfortable beds, to handle money. This was the first serious division.

A third council was held in the third century B.C. at the court of the great king Asoka, one of the few rulers who was able to hold the vast extent of northern India together. He was converted to Buddhism after waging a cruel war in order to enlarge his empire. After that he forswore all violence, and during his long reign (270-233 B.C.) he did all that he could to promote the faith and to live by it. He became an example of the old ideal of the Hindu king, whose worth was measured by the welfare of his people. Since he was not a monk but a lay member of the order, he was concerned mostly with the moral teaching of the Master. He built many monasteries and encouraged the monks in their missionary work. He also inscribed in stone, either on rock or on carved pillars, the teaching of the Buddha, his own deeds in obedience to that teaching, and exhortations to all his subjects to do the same. This praiseworthy habit has preserved many of his inscriptions to the present day.

"Thus says His Majesty," one of them reads. "Father and mother must be obeyed; all living creatures must be respected; the teacher must be revered by the student; the truth must be spoken. This is the ancient nature of piety; this leads to length of days and according to this men must act."

"All men are my children," says another. "As I desire that all my children may partake of all that is good and happy in this world and the next, so I desire it for all mankind."

He urged everyone to care for the public welfare: to dig wells, to plant trees, to build shelters for travelers and holy men, to plant healing herbs for medicine, to be kind to servants and to the poor and to animals. He forbade the sacrifice of animals. He also raised stone monuments to mark important places or to commemorate deeds of people. A pillar that marked the birthplace of the Buddha was found very recently, and other monuments of Asoka's have helped archaeologists to find both the sites and the dates of obscure events in Indian history.

One of the most important things that he did was to send missionaries far and wide. Buddhism became not only the most favored faith in India but was established in Ceylon, in the Deccan, and as far north as Kashmir. In his enthusiasm he sent missionaries to the Greek lands on the northwest; indeed, he would have liked to convert the whole world. His most successful mission was to Ceylon: his son, a monk, went there, converted the king, and soon spread the news of the Dharma over that beautiful island. It has been maintained there ever since, and he is revered as its founder. One of Asoka's daughters had become a nun. She followed her brother and brought with her a precious gift; a branch of the very Bo tree--the tree of wisdom-under which the Buddha sat during the night of enlightenment. The branch was successfully transplanted and still flourishes among the ruins of what once was the splendid capital city of the island. It is the oldest historic tree in the world. Ceylon nobly repaid its debt to Buddhism. For the first time, about four hundred years after the Buddha's death, the scriptures were written down and faithfully copied and preserved by the island monks.


Asoka's empire diminished and then broke up, not long after his death. Only a very powerful ruler could hold together such a vast land, and it was now open on the northwest to any invader.

The great civilizations of Asia grew up in the river valleys of the south and of the east. The center of the vast continent was dry, full of deserts and high mountains; agriculture was very difficult, and the people were nomads, living on great herds of sheep and cattle. In the early centuries B.C. they began to invade the richer countries, first to rob and destroy, then to conquer. They were known first as Scythians, then as Huns, Mongols. Turks, and Tatars, and they plagued both Asia and Eastern Europe for two thousand years. It is convenient to speak of them as Tatars.

They came into India over the northwestern passes and conquered and settled there. Their religion was a primitive and barbarous one, and they gladly adopted the Buddhism that they found in India. A powerful dynasty of these Tatars was formed about the beginning of the Christian era, and one of its kings, Kanishka, was as devoted a Buddhist as Asoka himself. From northwestern India the Dharma was carried into the kingdoms of Central Asia.

The heyday of Buddhism was from about 400 B.C. to about A.D. 400. It was a very vigorous time for Hinduism, too, as the reader may remember. The epic stories were composed and written down, and the Bhagavad Gita as well. The fresh vigor of Buddhist thought challenged the Hindus; schools of philosophy flourished and culminated in the Vedanta, which was founded on the Upanishads.

During the centuries after the Christian era, Buddhism was deeply divided into two schools, one of which followed the original teaching of the Buddha, while the other took that teaching as a foundation for many new ideas and much further thought. The latter school called itself the Mahayana: yana means a vehicle and maha means great in Sanskrit, from the same root as the Latin magna. The Buddha had likened his teaching to a raft which took travelers across a great river to the "other shore." The meaning of vehicle was the same: The Great Vehicle, its followers said, could carry the whole world to salvation. They called the other school the Hinayana or Small Vehicle, for they said that only monks who took up the homeless life could be saved by it and that they saved only themselves.

The Hinayanists denied this, quite rightly, because the followers of the Buddha, during the centuries just after his death, had obeyed his command to go forth and teach the Dharma. It was they who had spread he word all over India, into Central Asia, into Ceylon, and later into Burma and Southeast Asia. All this was done before there was any division and before the Mahayana appeared. Not only monks but also many householders had become devoted Buddhists; Asoka was an outstanding example. They naturally did not like the title of Small Vehicle; they called themselves the Theravada, or school of the elders. For they had preserved the original records of the Buddha's sermons and teachings; they had written these down in their Master's own language, Pali, and took them as their scriptures. The Mahayanists wrote in Sanskrit and created their own literature and their own scriptures, with many new ideas and variations.

The two schools are sometimes called the southern and the northern schools because the Hinayana prevailed in the south while the Mahayana was carried northward into China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan and had far-reaching influence in those countries. We shall use the latter terms since they are most commonly known and will be found in other books if the reader cares to explore further this extremely interesting field.

The religious teaching of the Buddha was simple, apart from its philosophical aspects. The Hinayana taught and followed it, and it appealed to many people, but not by any means to all. The Master had been silent about the very things that fascinated the Hindu scholars: the infinite, the real and the unreal, the nature of the universe and of man. He had said very little about nirvana, the final goal of life. For ordinary people, too, his doctrine was kind but stern. He had shown them the way; they must work out their own salvation; there was no one to help them except some wise human teacher. Nonetheless there is a deep desire in people's hearts to worship and to depend on some power higher than themselves and to give that power a human shape so that it seems near and can be appealed to for help and guidance.



In those creative centuries at the beginning of the Christian era, Buddhist philosophers and writers of the Mahayana school added much to the Dharma that would satisfy the desires of the mind and the heart. Some of their doctrine seems far removed from the Buddha's teaching, but these men held that he had said many things that had not been written down. They said that he had told the partial truth to those who were not able to understand the whole, and that he had taught far more to some of his disciples than to others. They quoted a well-known story:

One day the Buddha was sitting with some of his followers in a grove of trees where they often gathered. He picked up a handful of leaves and asked them, "How many leaves do I hold in my hand, compared to those that are in this wood?" "Compared to those that are on the trees," answered one of them, "the Blessed One holds very few leaves in his hands." "Even so," said the Master, "compared with the truths that I have learned, those that I have told you are very few."

The Mahayanists claimed that they were now making known some of those further truths, even though they were writing many hundreds of years after the Buddha's death. They held that he had not vanished into nirvana when he left this life. He had three appearances or bodies; the human one, when he walked on earth; then a glorified body; finally he had an eternal one, beyond all form and human perception. In his glorified body he still appeared to gods and to enlightened men and continued to teach them.

And who could gainsay them? The talks and sermons that the Buddha had given to his disciples had not been written down for four hundred years. Who could prove that they were any more authentic than those that were written a few centuries later? The Mahayanists used the old formula, "Thus have I heard," and put the new ideas into the Buddha's own mouth. Thus an enormous literature was assembled, which forms the scriptures of the Great Vehicle.

One of these new thoughts is that the visible world of life and death--samsara--is no different from nirvana; they are two aspects of the same reality. The idea is expressed in a small book called The Awakening of Faith:

    Both aspects are so closely related that one cannot be     separated from the other; ...the mortal and the immortal     coincide with one another...This can best be illustrated by     the water and the waves that are stirred up on the ocean. The     water is the same and yet not the same as the waves. The     waves are stirred up by the wind, yet the water remains the     same. When the wind ceases, the waves subside, but the     water remains the same. The wind is ignorance; wisdom is     the knowledge that water and waves are one.

    Therefore one need not flee from life or fear samsara, as the     Buddha had taught; nirvana can be realized in the midst of     life.

The Mahayana teaches that there is a still higher goal to be reached than nirvana. All men, all living creatures, possess the very same nature as the Buddha himself and can become enlightened even as he did. Indeed, the whole creation--plants and trees, rocks and grass, even grains of dust--is moving toward perfection, to Buddhahood.

When the doors of the mind were thrown open as widely as this, that rich imagination, which is one of India's great gifts, had free play. Soon there were millions of Buddhas in millions of worlds, working for the freedom and salvation of all living creatures. The Buddha Gótama, who had trodden the roads of India, was one of the many, and sometimes even he was overshadowed by other figures. These became the gods of Buddhism, replacing the Hindu deities.

One of the most important is the Buddha Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light. Aeons ago, it was said, he had been a man who attained great spiritual power after innumerable lives. He was on the very threshold of nirvana, but he vowed that he would go no further until he was sure that any person who called upon his name with perfect faith, especially at the moment of death, would be reborn in his paradise without further reincarnation. His vow was honored; he entered nirvana and became a Buddha. His paradise, the Pure Land, lies in the west and is more sumptuous than the heaven of Indra. In the Pure Land the leaves and flowers of innumerable trees are made of jewels of every color; on quiet lakes grow tortoises as large as chariot wheels, of every lovely hue. Birds sing, and music flows from the clouds and from streams of bells hung between the trees. "And if they desire a palace...adorned with a hundred thousand gates made with different jewels, covered with heavenly flowers, full of couches strewn with beautiful cushions, then just such a palace appears before them. And there they dwell, play, sport, and walk about, honored and surrounded by seven times seven thousand of dancing nymphs." (What would Shariputra have thought of that, he who with his great toe had set the whole palace of Indra to shaking and trembling?)

Amitabha himself comes to the dying one and takes him to this lovely land. If he is already a good and devout man who believes in the Mahayana doctrine, he finds himself seated upon a jeweled lotus on one of the crystal lakes, in the presence of Amitabha and many other spiritual beings. Very soon he becomes completely enlightened, and all the celestial worlds are open to him. If he is not very good and is not purified of his sins, he is enclosed in a lotus but which will not open until he is able to understand the doctrine and start on the path of enlightenment. Sometimes the lotus bud opens in a few weeks, sometimes not for long ages, according to the worthiness of its prisoner.

This belief presents a kind god and a life of bliss and pleasure after death; it also restores the ego, the personality that the Buddha denied; for who is it that enjoys the Pure Land if not the one who calls upon Amitabha? That very person survives to live forever in paradise.

Since there are so many Buddhas there must also be many people who are on their way to becoming Buddhas, who are, in one holy life after another, nearing their full awakening. Such a person is called a Bodhisattva, which means literally one whose being (sattva) is wisdom or enlightenment (bodhi). The Buddha, before his night under the Bo tree, was a Bodhisattva; he was a Bodhisattva through all the legendary birth stories that are told about him. Only after full enlightenment does one become a Buddha.

A Chinese image of the Bodhisattva Kuan-Yin.

Carved and painted wood.

(William Rockhill Nelson Gallery of Art)

Now, with the Mahayana, another new belief arose, whence and when no one knows; there are bodhisattvas who have reached nirvana but who have refused to pass into that state of bliss, as Amitabha had done. They have chosen to remain in the world out of love and pity for suffering humanity and have vowed that they will liberate all men before they themselves will accept the infinite peace and freedom that awaits them. When the Buddha died, it was believed that he entered nirvana and was beyond all prayer or appeal, except to a very few who claimed to behold his

glorified body. But the Bodhisattvas are here, on the hither side of heaven, full of kindness, ready to help, for that is their whole purpose. Most of them have once been human beings, but there are others who are simply embodiments of wisdom, mercy, or contemplation. They are thought of as radiant beings, invisible but ever present. They are gods, but they are a new kind of god, with no problems of their own, pure of heart, stainless of mind, possessed of all knowledge and of infinite love.

There are countless portrayals of these lovely beings, in paintings and sculptures, in China and Tibet, Korea and Japan. They are exquisite and graceful figures, sometimes seated in the classic pose of meditation, with legs crossed, or with one foot resting on the opposite knee; or standing, with their two, or many, hands holding out gifts and blessings. They seem to sway or bend toward the worshiper; their faces are serene; they are crowned and hung with jewels. They are revered by millions of people and are powerful forces for good. As Buddhism spread northwestward into the Tatar kingdoms of Central Asia and into Tibet, primitive peoples, who believed in both good and evil spirits and in savage gods, replaced their fearful images with those of the gracious Bodhisattvas, and their fears were calmed by the assurance of an infinite and loving compassion.

Since every creature possesses the Buddha nature, anyone with enough devotion and perseverance can become a Bodhisattva, though the way is arduous. The qualities that one must possess, first of all are six: charity, virtue, forbearance, zeal, meditation, and finally wisdom, or that intuitive insight to which the other five lead. Then the aspirant must take the four vows of a Bodhisattva: to save all beings; to destroy all evil passions; to learn the truth and teach it to others; to lead all beings to Buddhahood.

The Mahayana is rightly called the Great Vehicle, for it appeals to every sort of person. To many it gives comfort and the promise of a happy afterlife. To the spiritually-minded, it offers the noble purpose of the Bodhisattva, and, if one is able to attain it, the bliss of Buddhahood. It also attracts the learned; for various schools of Mahayana philosophy have speculated upon those things that the Buddha left unsaid. Like the Hindus, they sought an infinite reality, beyond what seemed to them the unreality of the visible world. They gave it a new name, The Void. This does not mean emptiness in the usual sense of the word, but simply that which is devoid of those qualities that we perceive with our senses or grasp with our minds. Many profound and subtle books were written, and many different schools of philosophy and sects of the Dharma developed, based upon one book or another, for there was no final authority, such as the Vedas.

The Four Great Vows

However innumerable beings are, I vow to save them;
However inexhaustible the passions are, I vow to extinguish them;
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to master them;
However incomparable the Buddha-truth is, I vow to attain it.

Buddhism and Hinduism lived side by side for over a thousand years in India. Each influenced the other, and they became so much alike that it was hard to distinguish them. The doctrine of the Mahayana that every creature possesses the Buddha nature is the same that was taught in the Upanishads; the same that the father taught his son: "It is the subtle essence of all things. That is the Truth; That is the Self. And you, my son--you are That."

Buddhism declined in India from about the sixth century on. A Chinese pilgrim, traveling in the seventh century, writes with sorrow of the ruins of monasteries and temples. By about 1000, little was left of it, and that little was savagely destroyed by the Muslim invasion of that period. Unlike the Hindus, the Muslims were fanatically intolerant; their God was the only God and the teaching of their prophet Muhammad must be forced upon people if they would not accept it willingly. They also forbade the worship of any graven image, as the Jews also did. Therefore, as they swept into northern India, they destroyed the rich sculpture and painting that they found there, razed the temples and monasteries, and massacred the monks.

The Dharma took refuge in the countries outside of India where its missionaries and its teachers had gone and where it was eagerly welcomed.

Buddhism of the Hinayana school became the most important religion of Ceylon and of the countries of Southeast Asia, where it remains now. It spread also into Indonesia. The Mahayana faith was carried first into the Tatar kingdoms on the northwestern borders of India and then into China, Tibet, Korea, and Japan. In China and Japan it was accepted on equal terms with the strong religions already established there. In China an important sect, the Zen, was developed, which will be discussed in the next chapter, for it owes much to the character and ways of thinking of the Chinese.

In Tibet Buddhism permeated the whole life of the people; it was not only their religion but their government for the Dalai Lama, the head of the church, also ruled the state. The missionaries who carried the Dharma into foreign countries always adapted it to whatever religion they found there. The Tibetan religion was superstitious and full of gods and demons. The land is a high and rugged one of immense empty spaces, towering mountains, and extremes of weather; the forces of nature are not always benevolent. Tibetan Buddhism incorporated some of the superstitions, but it also produced many wise and holy men, who lived either as hermits in the mountains or in the many monasteries that crown the hills. In 1950 Tibet was taken over by the Chinese Communists who would put an end, if they could, to all religions. The Dalai Lama has taken refuge in India.

Buddhism remains, strong and serene, in several Asian countries; it has returned to India and has adherents in many Western lands, for it is open to everyone and does not belong to any place or people.



1. Dhammapada, chapters I, VIII, IX, xX.
2. Majjhima Nikaya, III, 21. In Thomas W. Rhys Davids, trans., Dialogues of the Buddha, London, H. Frowde, 1899-1921.
3. Sutta Nipada, V, 48. In Thomas W. Rhys Davids, trans., Buddhist Suttas, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1881.
4. The larger Sukhavati Vyuha. XIX. in E. B. Cowell, editor. Buddhist Mahayana Texts. New York. Dover Publications, 1969, part II, pp. 41-42.


Seeger, Eastern Religions, Print edition, op. cit., pp. 57-101; Photos: Stone head of the Buddha appears on p. 56; A Chinese image of the Bodhisattva Kuan-yin appears on p. 97.



by Elizabeth Seeger © 1973


Part Three


Stone head of the Buddha from Siam [Thailand].
(Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)