Some Interesting Aspects of Buddhist History

Part 1

History is a much-debated subject. The telling of history is the selection of choices. There is the history that is written down and the history that underlies that, the not spoken. So when we talk about history, what are we talking about? Is it our intuition, handed down verbally? Is it the yet to be articulated or is it our projections from the facts available currently?  These questions loom in the background as we attempt to understand the past.

Rujing, Dogen's teacher spoke of this when he said --"the footprints of the Tathagata can actually be seen today in the land of Udanya in Western India, the room in which the layman Vimalakirti dwelled still exists, the foundation stones of the Jetavana monastery remain as well. But when one goes to the sacred remains such as these and measures them, he finds them sometimes longer, sometimes shorter, sometimes contracted or extended. Their dimensions cannot be fixed. This is the manifestation of the rush and vitality of the Buddhadharma itself.”

Buddhism, like Hinduism, is one of the great religions of the Ganges plain. It is often argued that Buddhism came out of Hinduism but this is not so clear. Another possibility is that nomadic Arians brought a contemplative tradition to the region. It is also possible that an interaction with indigenous traditions became what we now know as Buddhism and Hinduism. Like the Ganges itself Buddhism and Hinduism is developed from a common stream, which eventually separated into what we now call Hinduism and Buddhism. 

It is often said that Buddhism in its Indian form was a religion of renunciation. An example of this can be seen in the emphasis on precepts and sexual renunciation by Buddhist monks and nuns. In ancient India, known for its sensuality, and its emphasis on community rather than the individual, renunciation may be an important emphasis in taking responsibility for the planet. In modern day America the emphasis on the individual and the distinctions of the mind perhaps needs the development of the acceptance of multiplicity, and of a basic faith in Buddha nature.

Renunciation in the cultural realities of the west might best be described as acceptance.  We need to accept our differences in order to see our oneness.  So, perhaps you can see that renunciation and acceptance while appearing to be opposites can often lead to the same understanding.

Buddha was born in Nepal just across the border from India. It was a small kingdom. It was said that Shakyumuni would grow up to be a great religious teacher or a powerful king. One of the great insights into the precepts can be seen in the fact that Ananda asked Shakyamuni, “does a monk have to follow all the precepts?” Shakyamuni said, “only the major ones.” Ananda forgot to ask him which were the minor and which were the major precepts. Mahakasyapa said “the monks should follow all precepts because they do not know which ones are which”.  This keeps the Buddhist religion from getting too self-righteous.                                                                                          

Buddhas native language was Magadan.  India at the time was filled with thousands of languages including Sanskrit and Pali.  Buddha preached in the language of each local populace. The Theravada elders adopted the Pali cannon and the Mahayana teachers adopted Sanskrit.  
The only written word that survived was that on stone tablets.  Due to the Indian weather, the written word did not last.  The sutras were memorized in a way that made them easy to remember and revealed their meaning. There is no archival and exact word-for-word cannon of Buddhism.  Though it may be asserted, and may be true, that the elders were correct (?). We have no hard evidence due to the impermanence of the written word in India. 

Buddhism continued to grow in India after Shakyumuni’s death, and its adoption by King Ashoka made it a national religion. He adopted Buddha's compassionate precepts and transformed a brutal military culture into a harmonious and peaceful nation. Buddhism's ability to adapt to new environments and situations demonstrates the flexibility to spread in many directions.  

Buddha died from eating poison food but he was not a victim.  Ananda was berated for not encouraging Buddha to heal himself.  Was it because he knew his time had come?  Was it someone else's turn?

One of the mysteries that remain is that while the Steles (stone slabs) have quotes from Theravada and Mahayana monks, the evidence of the temples seems to be that they were overwhelmingly Theravadan. It may very well be that lay people with Theravada and Mahayana beliefs lived together with some differences and without everyone having the same emphasis and practices. There were several Buddhist councils after Buddha’s death to bring together an agreed upon teachings of the Buddha. While there was quite a bit of agreement there was also disagreement, due to the differences in the Buddha’s teachings on different occasions, depending on the audience and the context Buddha was teaching in.

Eventually Buddhism in India was destroyed by Muslim invaders from the North, along with attrition to Hinduism in the south.  Buddhism remains in the mountain and border areas with Tibet.  Currently in India there is a Buddhist revival caused by two things:  the rise of Tibetan Buddhism and the adoption of Buddhism by Hindi untouchables so as to escape the caste system.


The Zen School developed in china after moving through India.  Adapting a religion to a new culture changes both the culture and the religion. It requires flexibility to support this mutual growth. Two areas of conflict were: the belief that a day of no work is a day of no eating. This contradicted the reality of the monks not working. In China, as the climate was quite a bit harsher, the monks often ate a third "medicinal" meal in order to keep their health up. 

These small changes had big effects. The monasteries in China had mostly started as Chan or Zen monasteries. When royal patronage was taken away, the Zen temples survived but those that depended on the kindness of the emperor were on a roller coaster of feast or famine.

China, being a large land mass, needed a judicial system to administer laws. It also needed legal succession in order to pass on power with as little strife as could be managed. Thus Buddhism developed an intricate transmission ritual as an important part of training. The koan system in which koans or public cases were held up as fields of study, such as Hakujos fox  [free  will and karma,] are analagous to brown vs board of education, which focused on equal opportunity in  America.

More to come…