The Buddhist Religion

Buddhism is a religion that is still widely practiced across Asia. It offers a spiritual path for transcending the suffering of existence. The endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara), to which all living beings are subject, renews the suffering incurred by one's karma, the sum of good and bad actions that accumulates over many lives. Release from this endless cycle is achieved only by attaining enlightenment, the goal for which Buddhists strive. A buddha ("awakened one") (Fig. 1) is an all-knowing being who has reached a perfect state of transcendent knowledge in which the fires of greed, hate, and delusion are quenched; passing into nirvana ("blowing out, to become extinguished"), a buddha is never subject to rebirth again.

Scenes from the life of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, are a popular subject in Buddhist art. According to tradition, Siddhartha ("he who achieves his goal"), the founder of Buddhism, was born a prince of the Shakya clan in 563 B.C.E. in what is now southern Nepal (Fig. 2). Confined by his father to the palace grounds so that he would not become exposed to anything that might deter him from becoming the next ruler, Siddhartha first visited the outside world at the age of twenty-nine. Moved by the suffering he saw, he abandoned his luxurious existence for a life of ascetic practice and sought to understand why we should be born to a life of physical decay, sickness, and death. He spent six years as an ascetic, attempting to conquer the innate appetites for food, sex, and comfort. Near death from vigilant fasting, he was offered a bowl of rice from a young girl. After accepting it, he had a revelation that physical austerities were not the means to achieve spiritual liberation. He then sat and meditated beneath a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) and reached enlightenment in one night (Fig. 3). That tree became known as the "enlightenment" (bodhi) tree. He set about teaching others what he had learned, encouraging people to follow a path he called "The Middle Way," a path of balance rather than extremism. Shakyamuni Buddha ("sage of the Shakya clan") presented himself only as a teacher and not as a god or object of worship. Traditional accounts say that he died at the age of eighty, in 483 B.C.E (Fig. 4)

Three main types of Buddhism have developed over its long history, each with its own characteristics and spiritual ideals. "Foundational Buddhism," often known by the pejorative term Hinayana ("Lesser Vehicle"), is the earliest of the three and emphasizes the attainment of salvation for oneself alone and the necessity of monastic life in order to attain spiritual release. The Mahayana ("Greater Vehicle"), whose members coined the word "Hinayana" and believed its adherents pursued a path that could not be followed by the majority of ordinary people, teaches the salvation of all. Practitioners of the Vajrayana ("Diamond Vehicle"), or Esoteric Buddhism, believe that one can achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, as opposed to the other two types, which postulate that it takes many eons to accrue the necessary good karma. These three types were not mutually exclusive, but their emphasis on different practices affected Buddhist art. For example, whereas foundational Buddhism teaches that only a few devotees are able to reach enlightenment and that they do so through their own efforts, Mahayana and its later offshoot, Vajrayana, teach that buddhahood is attainable by everyone with help from beings known as bodhisattvas. As a result, images of bodhisattvas proliferated in Mahayana and Vajrayana art and are often depicted flanking buddhas.