Buddhism: Past, Present, and Future

Buddhism is one of the oldest major world religions with over 480 million people identified as buddhists, mainly in East and Southeast Asia and a growing number in Europe and North America. Despite its growing popularity in the West, many Westerners, including some of its converts, mistake it for more of a philosophy than a religion because of its lack of deities, which isn’t exactly true either. Instead, Buddhism is a complex religion with both spiritual and secular implications thanks to its history and integration into the culture of its practitioners.

This blend into individual cultures and the West’s adoption of certain tenets will ensure Buddhism’s longevity even as its share of the world’s religious people declines.

To understand Buddhism, it is important to understand its founder Siddhartha Gautama, who became known as the Buddha, and the world he lived in. India, at the time of Siddhartha’s birth, was divided in a hierarchy called the caste system (this caste system has implications today although it is no longer an official social organization structure).

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The highest of these groups was the brahmins, which was made up of religious figures who performed religious rituals that, overtime, became extremely complex and expensive. The nature of these rituals made it so that the common people (those under the ruling caste) were excluded and this exclusion allowed the brahmins a great amount of power. Brahmanism underwent a paradigm shift thanks to the Sramana Movement. This movement introduced certain concepts that would be expounded upon by Buddhism.

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The first of these concepts were the ideas of the atman and the Brahman. The atman is somewhat akin to the western idea of a soul. The Brahman was the spirit of the entire universe of which the atman was part. The movement also introduced the idea of reincarnation where the atman is recycled into a new human body after death. Reincarnation, however, was not seen as a blessing but as a continuous cycle that needed to be broken. Breaking the cycle is done by reuniting the atman with the Brahman. This can be achieved by performing acts of self-denial like fasting and other extreme self-imposed tasks. The idea of karma was also extremely important. Simply put, karma is the spiritual version of Isaac Newton’s third law of motion in that a good deed will have a good reaction and a bad deed, a bad reaction. Karma stuck around in various lives, thus answering the question “why do bad things happen to good people” and eventually people came to believe that karma from past lives needed to be excised in order to escape the cycle of reincarnation and reach “enlightenment” (Hawkins 32-35).

These beliefs were well established by the time Siddhartha Gautama was born around 560 B.C.E. in northeast India near Nepal to the king of that region. As a prince, Siddhartha lived a privileged life. It wasn’t until Siddhartha was nearing middle age that he was introduced to aging, sickness, and death when traveling outside of the palace. Concerned, Siddhartha left his family to live as a holy man. After practicing under Brahmanism, including meditation and extreme acts of self-denial, Siddhartha come to realize that this was not the way to enlightenment and he decided to take a more moderate approach which he called “the middle way”. Using this approach he continued to meditate until he achieved enlightenment, became the Buddha, and decided to teach others the way to enlightenment. The way to enlightenment, according to Buddhism, is through acknowledgment of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

In expressing the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha explained the Three Marks of Existence which are that the nature of existence is impermanence, that human suffering is a result of this impermanence, and the atman itself is impermanent (Hawkins 42-43). The Four Noble Truths expound on this stating that 1) life is unsatisfactory, 2) human desire causes life to be unsatisfactory and humans desire because they do not understand the true nature of the world (that all things are impermanent), 3) there is a way to end this suffering, and 4) the way to end suffering is through the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path is comprised of right viewpoint, right intention, right speech, right actions, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. These points are generally similar to other religions in that the first two are a commitment to the teachings of the Buddha and the next four relate to the ways to treat others like the commandments in the Abrahamic religions. The last two, however, are unique to Buddhism because they deal with meditation. These basic tenets of Buddhism show that rather than being a complete departure from Brahmanism, it was a response to it. Also, the lack of emphasis on complex rituals made Buddhism more accessible to the common people which encouraged its spread throughout India.

Like many other religions, after the death of the Buddha, disputes arose as to the interpretation of Buddhist scripture and what could be considered official Buddhist scripture. As a result, three major divisions of Buddhism have emerged: Theravada, Mahayama, and Vajrayana. Theravada, currently practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, is closest to the original teachings of the Buddha. The Mahayana is made up of many different schools of Buddhism but its most important commonality is the acknowledgement of Bodhisattvas. Bodhisattvas are those that achieved enlightenment but decided to continue in the cycle of rebirth in order to help others achieve enlightenment. Often, these figures are characterized as gods because they have spiritual powers. This shift from reliance on the self for enlightenment to reliance on others shows why Mahayana Buddhism became popular in East Asia since it fit in better with East Asian philosophy and culture which emphasized the duties people owe to each other like that of the child to the parent. Vajrayana Buddhism, which encompases the school practiced by the Dalai Lama and is mostly found in Tibet, is characterized by tantric forms of meditation which is seen as a quick but dangerous path to enlightenment.

Buddhism spread in India thanks to its emphasis on practicing using the local language (again making Buddhism accessible to the common person) and was cemented with the help of rulers who encouraged behaviors inspired by Buddhism. Buddhism’s spread to China, Korea, and Japan began first through trade. Ultimately, Buddhism didn’t catch on in those countries until major political changes occured. In China, the decline of the Han Dynasty saw large numbers of people begin to embrace Buddhism, at first as a curiosity as Daoists began to translate scripture and then more seriously as it saw continued support from rulers, especially from the Tang Dynasty (Buddhism 8). In Korea as well as Japan, Buddhism gained a foothold in the countries as the governments began to change from local to centralized authorities (Hawkins 57). This shows that Buddhism was particularly appealing in times of chaos since its very premise is that life is impermanent and unbearable. In all three of these countries, Buddhism merged with local philosophies such as Confucianism and Shintoism. Buddhism became so entrenched in the culture and its philosophy in China that popular sayings that arose from Buddhism are miscategorized as from Confucianism and Daoism (Wright 41). Buddhism has declined, and are projected to decline in South Korea and Japan, for different reasons. Buddhism has gone through various persecutions in Chinese history with the most recent during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s. Still, according to the Pew Research Center, the percent of Buddhists in China will remain about the same in the next 30 years. Buddhism in Korea and Japan has seen a decrease in Buddhism in part for a desire to go away from more spiritual religions (which is in direct contrast to North American and European converts who see Buddhism as an atheistic religion). Buddhism has also decreased, and will continue to decrease, in these countries due to the low birth rate and an aging population (“Buddhists”).

Buddhism came to North America and Europe first through immigration and colonization. In the past half century, however, there have been a number of converts to the religion. World War II served as a catalyst for interest in Buddhism in North America and Europe. Zen Buddhism (formed in China) became of particular interest to Americans, especially the beatniks, which created a kind of positive feedback loop where interest in Zen Buddhism brought more Zen masters to America, and thus further interest in America (Hawkins 100). Most of the growth of the Buddhist population in America and Europe is, and will continue to be, due to immigration like after the Vietnam War. Of note in the Western interest in Buddhism is its use in psychology, specifically meditation. Meditation has been shown to be an effective technique in treatment of depression by “providing a methodology to cultivate beneficial emotions and get rid of some harmful ones” (Sandhu 168). Meditation has also been encouraged as a good health practice for those who don’t suffer from mental illness, showing that Buddhist thought is growing in popularity in Western cultures even if it isn’t being marketed as a religious practice.

With a rich history of thought and the fact that it has played a role in politics of many nations to this day, it is clear that Buddhism is much more than a flat philosophy it is thought of in the West. Although the percent of the Buddhists throughout the world is not expected to change much in the next 30 years, Buddhism could probably survive a drastic decrease. Its emphasis, especially in the Theravada school of thought, on the individual will be appealing to an increasingly individualistic world. Buddhism has also found itself entangled in East Asian culture, like the co-mingling of philosophies in China and the preference for cremation in Korea (prior to the introduction of Buddhism burying the dead was more popular). Its growing popularity in the treatment of mental health will also ensure that basic tenets of Buddhism will survive throughout the coming decades. Given all of this, the future of Buddhism will certainly be interesting to watch.

Works Cited

  • ‘Buddhism & Buddhism in China.’ 2008. 16 Feb. 2019.
  • Hawkins, Bradley K. Buddhism. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999.
  • Sandhu, Ramesh. “Buddhism and Psychology: Basics of Integration.” Indian Journal of Positive
  • Psychology 8.2 (2017): 166–168. Web.
  • Wormald, Benjamin. ‘Projected Changes in the Global Buddhist Population.’ Pew Research
  • Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. 12 May 2015. 16 Feb. 2019.
  • Wright, Arthur F. “Buddhism and Chinese Culture: Phases of Interaction.” The Journal of Asian
  • Studies 17.1 (1957): 17–42. Web.

Cite this page

Buddhism: Past, Present, and Future. (2021, Aug 10). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/buddhism-past-present-and-future-essay

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