Beginnings of Buddhism

Buddhism is the teachings of Shakyamuni, who was born a prince of the Shakya clan in north-eastern India around 2,500 years ago. In his youth, he was deeply distressed and troubled by the eternal and unavoidable problems of humanity such as ageing, illness and life and death. He thought deeply about these existential issues and when he was 29 years old renounced his everyday life to seek a way to liberate all people from suffering.

In Shakyamuni’s time, the dominance of the priestly caste (spiritual, religious or social leaders in tribal and nomadic societies) was in decline and instead newly emerging classes of royal families, merchants and artisans were rising to power and becoming prosperous in the area around the middle reaches of the Ganges. In that shifting society, where established value systems were being questioned, various types of thinkers and philosophers appeared who harboured doubts about traditional religious thought and practices. Among them were those who embraced such philosophies as nihilism, materialism, determinism and scepticism, and so India was flooded with competing schools of religious and philosophical thought.

With an open but critical mind, Shakyamuni studied these philosophies, sometimes practising and either adopting or rejecting them. After he renounced a secular life, his search for truth continued for six years. At 35, as he sat meditating under a bodhi tree (since known as the tree of awakening), he attained enlightenment, what is known as the Supreme Perfect Awakening. He started to understand that the cosmic law and order permeates all things and all phenomena in the universe (also known as the Dharma), including our own human nature and characteristics.

Following his enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha expounded teachings based on the Dharma initially at Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, India, to five ascetics (those who avoid physical pleasures) who had been his fellow truth-seekers. And so began his 45-year teaching ministry throughout north-central India. He brought many people to awakening before his death aged 80.

Shakyamuni trusted his disciples to lead their groups of followers and never asked that they integrate his teachings. Since his only purpose was to liberate people from suffering, he expounded the Dharma to them in various ways, according to their ability and level of understanding, and according to time and place. It has been impossible to compile Shakyamuni’s teachings systematically during his lifetime.

To learn more about Shakyamuni Buddha, we recommend Shakyamuni Buddha: A Narrative Biography.

Two schools of Buddhism and the Lotus Sutra

What became of Buddhism after Shakyamuni’s death?

Over time, there were differences in the interpretation of rules, ideas and teachings among Buddha’s disciples. They had separated into roughly two schools – the traditional and the progressive – and were further divided into about 20 sects by 300BC.

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

Disputes between the traditional and progressive schools became increasingly heated in the first and second centuries AD. Followers of the progressive school criticised the traditional school’s unyielding insistence on individual liberation. They viewed its attitude as departing from the essential pragmatism of Shakyamuni’s teaching and called its doctrine Hinayana, or the “Lesser Vehicle”. The progressive school started a movement for the liberation of ordinary lay people and compiled many of the sutras that make up the sacred books of Mahayana or “Great Vehicle” Buddhism. The traditional school responded to this challenge with resolute declarations of the correctness of its traditional orthodoxy.

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

Mahayana development and the Lotus Sutra

Mahayana Buddhism later spread northward from India in two directions – through central Asia, to China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan and in the other to Tibet and Mongolia. Tibetan Buddhism, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, has been preserved since the seventh century by the Buddhist monks (lamas) of Tibet. Today it has become internationally well-known through the activities of the highest of all the lamas, the Dalai Lama, and his followers.

With the former stream of Mahayana Buddhism, the Lotus Sutra made its way to China. There the T’ien-t’ai patriarch Chih-i (AD538-597), revered as “the Little Shakyamuni”, wrote several excellent commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, explaining its profound teachings. Through his efforts, many more people were able to understand and value Buddha’s message.

In the year that Chih-i was born in China, Buddhism arrived in Japan from China via Korea. Since the introduction of Buddhism in Japan, the teachings of the Lotus Sutra have been a major influence on Japanese culture. For example, Prince Shotoku (AD574-622) established the Seventeen-Article Constitution, which he based on the spirit of the Lotus Sutra. It was the first law code in Japan. The great priest Saicho (AD767-822) founded the Japanese Tendai (T’ien-t’ai) sect with the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. Under this sect, many distinguished priests studied Buddhism and founded new sects by advocating a variety of doctrines suited to the intellect of different groups of people. Even in Zen Buddhism that emphasises seated meditation as a major religious practice, especially the Soto Zen sect established by Dogen (AD1200-1253), we find that the spirit of the Lotus Sutra is a strong undercurrent in thought and writings.

In the 13th century, the priest Nichiren (AD1222-1282) infused new life into the Lotus Sutra. He asserted that only by practising the teachings of the sutra is it possible to liberate society and the nation, as well as the individual. Almost 700 years after Nichiren’s death, the spirit of his teaching had lost most of its vitality, and the true spirit of the Lotus Sutra is almost forgotten.

At this point in Buddhist history, Rissho Kosei-kai was established in 1938 by Founder Nikkyo Niwano and Co-Founder Myoko Naganuma. The Lotus Sutra is its primary scripture and brings the spirit of Shakyamuni’s teachings to the modern world for the liberation of all people.