Buddhism

Buddhism is one of the world's most prolific religions, dominating much of South East Asia, and influential as well in South Asia and East Asia. There is also a Buddhist diaspora spread across most of the world and a renaissance of interest in the West in the late 60s and 70s.

Understand

The Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya

Buddhism is a religion founded around 400-500 BC by Sakyamuni Buddha. Born in Lumbini as heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Sakya (in present day Nepal, near the Indian border), Prince Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha's former name) was raised in the palace with the best luxuries money can buy, but shut off from the outside world by his father, the king. One night, he sneaked out of the palace and saw four sights that have a profound impact on the rest of his life; an old man, a sick man, a dead man and an ascetic. As a result, he discovered that a life of luxury did not lead to peace of mind, and that the rich, like the poor, still suffer the torments of old age, sickness and death. He therefore renounced his title and abandoned his wealth in order to seek a way that could lead all beings, without discrimination, to freedom from suffering. He spent six years experimenting with the various common methods of the day, but to no avail. Finally, at the age of thirty-five and while meditating under the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, he awoke to the insights he had been seeking. The essence of the Buddha's discovery are categorized in his first teaching that was delivered to a group of five ascetics at the Deer Park in Sarnath and is called the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha devoted the rest of his life to spreading his teachings, and finally passed away in a copse of sal trees at Kushinagar. He was believed to be over 80 years old at the time.

For many centuries, Buddhism was the major religion in India, and was supported by many great kings. Asoka the Great (273–232 BCE), the third Mauryan emperor, was probably the most famous. He ruled most of the Indian subctontinent from his capital city of Pataliputra, modern day Patna. Some sources portray him as a wicked, fierce, and extremely violent monarch in the years before his conversion. Asoka embraced Buddhism and became a follower of the cause of Dharma (right behaviour, translated in Ancient Greek as ευσεβεία- respect for human sufferings) after he repented, following his victory over the neighboring empire of Kalinga (modern Odisha), which was so costly in lives that it caused him to turn his back on imperialism and concentrate on bettering the world. Asoka left a large number of inscriptions on rocks and pillars, as Achaemenid rulers previously did in Iran. Asoka’s inscriptions witness his change of heart. Almost all of the emperor edicts deal with the Buddhist concept of Dharma/Ευσεβεία. He abolished the death penalty and showed respect towards all living beings saying that rearing and killing animals for food violates the Dharma cosmic law.

Ashoka inscription in Delhi-Topra Pillar summarize his efforts for the promotion of the Dharma and the dispatch of missions which established Buddhism within his kingdom and beyond. He was responsible for the spread of Buddhism in a major way, as he is known to have sent Buddhist missionaries to Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, China, Mongolia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Syria, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Italy and Turkey. He also had stone-carved Buddhist pillars with inscriptions or animal figures erected, apparently throughout his realm — 19 of these, including those at Sarnath and Allahabad, survive to this day. Buddhism's influence in India waxed and waned over the next millennium, and during the 6th and 7th century support was mostly confined to Southern India. However, perhaps the single most significant blow to Buddhism in India occurred in 1193 when Turkic Islamic raiders burnt the great Buddhist center of learning in Nalanda (in current-day Bihar), and by the end of the 12th century it had all but disappeared from the lowlands, though it continued to thrive in the Himalayan regions. However, the Buddha himself was incorporated into the Hindu pantheon: Many Hindus consider the Buddha to be an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Buddhism as a philosophy and religion can roughly be divided into two schools: Theravada and Mahayana. The Theravada school which spread to Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka promotes personal liberation from suffering, whereas the Mahayana, which is prevalent in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Bhutan and Tibet, emphasizes the liberation of all beings. The Vajrayana school, which is often called Tibetan Buddhism, is an offshoot of Mahayana and differs from it only in method, not philosophy. A common thread throughout all Buddhist schools is the cultivation of wisdom, compassion for all living creatures and the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) as a basis of interacting with the world, and the total rejection of religious conversion. All schools of Buddhism recognize karma (the law of cause and effect) as the creator of our illusory universe, which Buddhists refer to as samsara. Buddhism generally aims to follow the "middle path", in which one does not go out of the way to inflict suffering on himself, but at the same time does not indulge in material pleasures. The ultimate goal in all schools of Buddhism is to attain enlightenment as the Buddha did, which is believed to be reached when one is successfully purged of all emotional attachments and selfish desires.

For the most part, relations between the different schools are peaceful, with no history of major armed conflict between them. It is also not uncommon for followers, or even monks of one school to visit temples belonging to other schools to offer prayers.

Common images and symbols

The eight-spoked dharma chakra represents the Noble Eight-fold path taught by the Buddha

Cities and other destinations

South Asia

Below are listed some of the most notable Buddhist sites in the sub-continent:

Taktsang Monastery at Paro in Bhutan

See also: Sacred sites of the Indian sub-continent

Southeast Asia

East Asia

Giant Buddhas

Leshan Giant Buddha, dating from 713

Chinese Buddhist grottoes

Central Asia

Europe and North Asia

Talk

Most Buddhists speak the language of the country they reside in. However, religious concepts are often described through loanwords from the language the concept first originated in. The original versions of most Buddhist religious texts are in the ancient Indian languages of Sanskrit and Pali.

Do

Spiritual retreat tourism is a branch of leisure travel. People go to meditation centers to renew their energies, remove emotional blocks, gain an understanding of themselves, and get rid of their anxieties.

For example, Vipassana meditation is a practice associated with the Theravada Buddhism. The word "Vipassana" can be translated from the Sanskrit to mean "clear-seeing". Retreat centers are generally set in beautiful environments and stunning scenery. Apart from some luxury hotels in Kerala and Sri Lanka that may offer some Vipassana retreats as a complement of their Ayurveda packages, meditation centers in South and South-East Asia charge a small amount of money for the lodgings and food. Most of them usually operate on a donation basis. People who want to stay in Buddhist monasteries or meditation centers have to bring bed sheets, towels, toiletry, as they are probably not available outside of a retreat setting. Buddhist monasteries are usually set on silent mountain slopes. Although they are a great option for budget travelers, conditions can be somewhat uncomfortable for those seeking just a relaxing vacation or used to luxuries. Participants follow a prescribed code of discipline and a strict daily schedule.

See also

Festivals

Vajrayana tradition

Theravada tradition

Buy

Statues of the Buddha and other sacred images are available in many stores in Buddhist areas.

Eat

There are many different variations of Buddha's delight

Sleep

Many Buddhist temples accommodate guests who desire the serenity and contemplation of a temple environment.

Learn

Buddhist temples and meditation centers welcome all comers. They exist not only in Buddhist countries but in many large cities and some smaller cities in many other countries including those in North America and Europe.

Stay Safe

Due to the fact that Buddhism is not a very common religion in Western countries, there are unfortunately many scams that prey on tourists' lack of knowledge of Buddhist customs. Here are some points to take note of so you can avoid a few of the common scams.

Respect

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