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The Geography of Buddhism

The Essentials of the Faith

Founded: Buddhism was founded in the sixth century BCE by Siddhartha Gautama (may also be spelled as "Gotama"). Siddhartha was a prince born in Lumbini near the border of present day India and Nepal. His dissatifaction with the nature of suffering and the answers of existing religion led him in a quest which eventually brought him to enlightenment, and thus the title, the Buddha--meaning "an enlightened one".

Siddhartha Gautama was born a prince and had every luxury expected of royalty. When Gotama was confronted with the reality of life and the suffering of mankind, he was determined to find the solution to the problem of suffering and at the age 29, left his kingdom to become a ascetic. After trying various systems and methods of teachers in the Ganges River valley for six years, Gautama was left utterly dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction led to his abandonment of traditional religion and practices to seek his own path. One evening at age of 35 while seated under a Bodhi tree, Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment, after which he became known as the Buddha.

Adherents: Originally, Buddhism was fairly widespread across Asia. Buddhism has ranged from western outposts in present day Pakistan and Turkestan east to the islands of Japan; north from Siberia and south to Sri Lanka and the islands of Indonesia. Buddhism has lost ground as other religions have invaded in succession. Although Buddhism began as a reform of Vedic Hinduism in the land of its birth, it is hardly practiced in India today. Buddhist ruins now stand in Afghanistan to Bali where Muslims invaders eventually brought Islam.

Today, however, many varieties of Buddhism are found in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Southeast Asia, China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan. Because of the non-exclusive nature of Buddhism, it is often practiced with other eastern non-exclusive religions. Although a universalizing religion, ethnic flavors are found in some of the branches and sects within Buddhism. Recent exposure to the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism has acquainted Western society with just one of these branches.

Distribution: The distribution listed for Buddists is given as follows from Markham, pp. 356-357:

AreaAdherentsPopulation Percentage
Latin America541,0000.1%
Northern America558,0000.2%

Major Teachings: Buddhism is primarily a spiritual philosophy and system of ethics. It places little or no emphasis on deities, teaching that the goal of the faithful is to achieve nirvana, a blissful state of release from the bonds of the self, the world, and samsara, the endless round of birth, death, and rebirth in successive lives. Spiritual perfection is achieved through the practice of humility, generosity, mercy, abstention from violence, and above all, self-control.

Scriptures and Significant Writings: The major writings of Buddhism are a collection of greater and lesser writings, known as the Tripitaka. They are a collection of teachings, monastic rules, and philosophy of the Buddha. Many of these teachings are known as sutras.

Symbols: One of the most important symbols of Buddhism is the wheel of life, which depicts the cycle of birth and death, shown onthis website's button. The eight spokes represent the Eightfold Path. The lotus blossom is strongly associated with the Buddha, symbolic of the enlightenment of the soul.

Major Divisions: The two major divisions of Buddhism are Therevada (or sometimes disparagingly called Hinayana, meaning "little vehicle") and Mahayana. Therevada Buddhism is the more traditional form, characterized by the strict adherence to the major teachings of the Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism is characterized by the addition of other teachings and practices to the stricter form of Buddhism. Most sects of Mahayana Buddhism add the doctrine of the Bodhisattva (other enlightened ones who have postponed Nirvana to help humankind). Other sects include elaborate hierarchies of demons or add practices such as mantra, mudra, and mandala which are often regarded as heretical by other Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhism is an example of Mahayana Buddhism, although it may be classed as a third division of Buddhism. The Japanese sects, such as Zen, have become well known in the West. Zen seeks enlightenment through meditation and intuition. Other Japanese sects, further removed from their origins, stress still other teachings and values.

Major Holy Days: include Parinirvana, Puja (Buddha's birthday), Wesak/Viasakha, Padmasambhava Day, Dhamma Day, and Bodhi Day.

The Details about Buddhism

From The Wise Man

Few cross over the river.
Most are stranded on this side.
On the riverbank
They run up and down.

But the wise person,
Following the way,
Crosses over,
Beyond the reach of death.

Free from desire,
Free from possessions,
Free from attachment and appetite,
Following the seven lights of awakening,
And rejoicing greatly in his freedom,
In this world the wise person
Becomes themself a light,
Pure, shining, free.

--Adapted from
The Dhammapada 6.85-89
Translated by Thomas Byrom
As quoted in Kornfield, pp. 46-47.

Buddhism is a religion which shares few concepts with Christianity. For example, Buddhists do not believe in a transcendent or immanent God or gods, or a personal savior. Buddhism believes that the position of humanity is supreme--humanity is responsible for saving itself. Buddhism requires no faith, but is a matter of seeing and knowing. The teachings of Buddhism are wholly practical, refraining from questions such as "Where did I come from?" and "Where am I going?" Rather, it is concluded that such questions lead to sadness, confusion, and strife: only distracting from the task at hand.

Enlightenment, as would be expected, is complex. Many things became apparent to Gautama Buddha under the Bodhi tree. Of these, the Four Noble Truths are the basic teachings on the human condition.

The Four Noble Truths are:

  1. Dukkha: the universality of suffering found in pain, sorrow, misery, impermanence, imperfection, emptiness, insubstantiality, and hollowness. There is no "I" or "self"; only a combination of energies known as the Five Aggregates which are matter, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. These five aggregates are not separate from Dukkha, but are responsible for the perception of self by workinginterdependently according to cause and affect.
  2. Samudaya: the source of Dukkha--the desire to have and control sense gratification, known as "the arising of Dukkha." Tanha is the desire found in pleasures such as intoxication, sex, or eating as well as the desire for existence or popularity. Death does not end the existence of these energies.
  3. Nirodha: the path to the cessation of Dukkha--it is truth that leads to the cessation of Dukkha, to the cessation of suffering, called Nirvana. Nirvana is total detachment and extinction of desire. Nirvana is absolute truth or the realization of absolute truth. One who has realized Nirvana in this life is happy--free from attachment, desire, greed, hatred, conceit, ignorance; free to enjoy things in their purest sense, left with universal love, compassion, kindness, and understanding. Wanting nothing, such are free from the illusion of self.
  4. Magga: the path to the cessation of Dukkha is found in the Noble Eightfold Path. Magga is the way to Nirvana. It is the "middle path," avoiding the extremes of life such as extreme wealth or extreme poverty, and asceticism or gluttony. Another aspect of Magga is our functioning involving the Four Noble Truths--understanding that the function of Dukkha is to realize suffering as the nature of life, that the function of Samudaya is the eradication of desire and the passions, that the function of Nirodha is to realize Nirvana, and that the function of Magga is to follow and to keep the path.

    The Noble Eightfold Path is:

    1. Right Understanding(of the Four Noble Truths)
    2. Right Thought(selfless renunciation, universal love, etc.)
    Ethical Conduct
    3. Right Speech(not to lie, slander, gossip, foolishly babble)
    4. Right Conduct(not to kill, steal, fornicate, become intoxicated, etc.)
    5. Right Livelihood(not to trade in arms, drugs, alcohol, or promote evil)
    Mental Discipline
    6. Right Effort(will to prevent evil and unwholesome states of mind)
    7. Right Mindfulness(awareness of bodily actions, states of mind, emotions)
    8. Right Concentration(a meditative state of mind heightening awareness)

Other concepts and practices of Buddhism include:

  • Annatta--Buddhism denies the existence of the soul, self, or ego as a permanent, everlasting entity. The idea of a soul is the result of fear, weakness, and ignorance. "Self" is simply the product of the Five Aggregates.
  • Dana--thoughtful, ceremonial giving
  • Sila--accepting Buddhist teaching and following it in practice; refrain from killing, wrong behavior, and use of drugs. On special days, three additional precepts may be added, being, restricting adornment, entertainment, and comfort.
  • Karma--in Buddhist terms pertains to volitional activity and not to physical actions (as taught in Hinduism).
  • The Cosmos--consists of billions of worlds grouped into clusters; clusters are grouped into galaxies, which are themselves grouped into super-galaxies. The universe also has many levels: four underworlds and 21 heavenly realms.
  • Paritta--ritual chanting
  • Festivals--days of the full moon, and three other days during the lunar cycle are celebrated. There is a new year's festival and celebrations tied to the agricultural year.
  • Pilgrimages--particularly to Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka and India
  • Vipassana--"meditation" or a disciplined mindfulness. There are two forms of meditation: the development of mental concentration and singleness of mind which can lead to mystic states, or the insight into the nature of things, leading to the complete liberation of the mind. This second form, vipassana, is an analytical method based on mindfulness, awarenes, vigilance, and observation.

Lamaistic Buddhism began in the seventh century with the introduction of Buddhism and Vajrayana doctrine into Tibet. Lamaism, today found in Mongolia and the Himalayan region, emphasizes ceremony and ritual. They engage in dana, sila, chanting, worship, and pilgrimage. Lamaism also engages in searching out a young child at the death of an important teacher. The child is believed to be the successor to the deceased teacher. The West knows Lamaistic Buddhism mostly through the efforts of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, exiled in 1959 after the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

Buddhism was first widely introduced to the West through the efforts of the Theosophical Society, which founded at New York in 1875. Immigration to America of Asians also increased the development in the West. Most schools of Buddhism are now united in the Buddhist Church of America, which provides some influence on American culture. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer provided the first introduction to Buddhism in Europe who was followed by the writing of The Light of Asia by Edwin Arnold in 1879 (Eerdmans, p. 240).

The Geography of Buddhism

The geography of Buddhism is found today in the distribution of the many varieties of Buddhism as well as the impact that Buddhism has had on the human geography of the countries in which it resides. Until British investigators starting identifying ancient Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the 19th century, the Buddha was thought to have been a mythical character in the West. Now after an absence of several centuries, pilgrims have again returned to the sacred sites once forgotten in the land of Buddhism's birth and pilgrimage is now significantly contributing to the tourism industry there. As in the case of the once warrior nation of Tibet, the cultures and institutions of nations have been irrevocably changed as the values of Buddhism have become assimilated into mainstream consciousness of their peoples. Furthermore, the geography of the landscape itself has been altered by the structures created by the various incarnations of Buddhism.


Kornfield, Jack, with Gil Fronsdale (Editors), Teachings of the Buddha. Boston: Shambala Publications, Inc., 1993.

Mead, Frank S., Handbook of Denominations in the United States. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1985. An excellent guide! Now available in a newer edition.

Markham, Ian S., (Editor), A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Mascaró, Juan (translator), The Dhammapada: The Path of Perfection. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.

Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Eerdmans' Handbook to the World's Religions. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982.

Links for More Information

Buddhism in General
The Dharma Ring
Moksha (Salvation)--a Vaishnav Hindu refutation of Buddhism

Dharma Ohana

Dharma Haven
Tibetan Buddhist Enlightenment
Quiet Mountain

Zen & Nichiren
The Electronic bodhidharma
Zen Garden

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