Historical and cultural context

Like Christianity and Islam, Buddhism, born as a great “heresy” of Brahmanism, has been developed as a universal doctrine of redemption and salvation from the pain, in the long period of time that saw the birth, the emergence and decay social system based on slavery, between sec. VI BC and VII A.D.

Today it is almost the fourth religious community the world, after Christianity, Islam and Hinduism, and has at least 400 million followers. The historical period that has characterized this first truly universal religion was rich in cultural world. Between the eighth and sixth century BC the true spiritual earthquakes have occurred in all superior civilization, from the Mediterranean to China.

Taking as a point of reference the lighting Siddartha Gotama (about 523 BC), we have that fade in Greece the ancient monarchies of sacred origin and spread the philosophy of Pythagoras of Samos, Heraclitus of Ephesus and that of Eleatics. In China, where they teach Confucius and Lao Tsu, fades away the idealized period of “Spring and Autumn Annals.” In Persia dominates the religion of Zarathustra. In Rome collapses the monarchy. In the Near East there is the decline of theocratic civilizations as the Egyptian and Assyrian-Babylonian. In practice, the men gradually abandon the primacy of intuitive and inspirational, and they tend to develop intelligence logical-discursive. Slavery needs more solid basis to be justified or, at least, tolerated.

This new understanding of things seeks the truth of things in the interiority of the human being or in a world as seen through eyes more disenchanted with a mind less willing to believe in mystical explanations or arcane traditions. More specifically, it must be said that the result was an immediate success because Buddhism in India in the sixth century BC Brahmanical religion not only expressed interest merely caste, but also because the priests as mediators between men and gods, had exalted the act of mediation, ritual, as absolute act, by making the salvation of a ritual rather formal and complicated.

The relationship between Buddhism and the West

In Europe, the first news of the habits and customs of the Indians of India and the Buddhist religion came to the time of the conquests of Alexander the Great (326-323 BC), who was very impressed Hindu asceticism. Later, the Indian Emperor Asoka (third century BC.) sent missionary monks among the Greeks settled in the regions bordering the north-western India. We read in one of his edicts: “You should not consider their religion with reverence, without devaluing reason that of another … because the religions of others all deserve reverence for one reason or the other.”

However, the Buddha's name is mentioned for the first time only by Clement of Alexandria (150-212 AD), despite the fact that the Christian tradition already attaches to the Apostle Thomas the spread of the gospel in India. How interesting fact should be noted that the story of the Buddha was renewed and adapted to a Christian context in the Book of Life Byzantine Baarlam and Joasaph, uplifting content and controversial dating (VIII-IX sec.). The holy Joasaph is none other than the Buddha in disguise. The opera was a great success and spread in Europe, so as to accommodate the protagonist in the number of Christian saints.

The golden age of the contacts between East and West is realized, even in the midst of terrible crusades, in the thirteenth century. The Franciscan Giovanni da Pian del Carpino wrote a History of the Mongols, dealing with a lot of respect Buddhists. William of Rubruck, sent by the king of France up to the famous Marco Polo, sent from Venice, in Million expressed his admiration for the figure of the Buddha.

At the end of 400, when the Europeans discovered the sea route to go to Asia, the dialogue immediately turned into conquest. Navigators, merchants, soldiers and missionaries, which nationalities were Portuguese, Spanish, French and English, had better things to do than to be interested in Buddhism. Among the Christian missionaries taking interest into the study of Oriental languages ​, you may remember Francesco Saverio to Japan, Matteo Ricci to China, Roberto de Nobili for India and Ippolito Desideri for Tibet. You still have to wait before 1735, in Paris, for a valuable description of the Empire of China and Chinese Tartary: the work of PGB du Halde, which uses the memoirs of 27 missionaries. But a real appetite for oriental languages ​​and thus also for the texts of Asian religions matures only in the nineteenth century, when E. Burnouf wrote the “Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism”. Since then, the knowledge of Buddhism has gradually deepened and clarified.

The Story of Siddhartha Gotama

The Buddhist literature attributes the birth of the movement to the Indian prince Siddhartha, later known as Gautama, who would have lived in the sixth century BC (Apparently was born around 563 BC), in a historical period characterized by the disintegration of the primitive Indian community, which was replacing a society based on slavery and the division into social classes opposed.

The dominant religion of India, Brahmanism, suffered a crisis significantly increased dissatisfaction with the unjust structure of caste and the will of Brahman priests, whose power (almost absolute in civil life) began to be threatened by the dynasty of warriors.

It should also be said that in the period in which relations were strengthened slavery (especially in northern India), Brahmanism, the religion of primitive slave society, reflecting the fragmentation of tribal communities, could no longer serve as the ideological basis for the great despotisms slavery that were forming.

Siddartha was the son of the governor of one of the small and belligerent kingdoms of North India, between the Ganges and Nepal. The warrior race was that of the Sakya (“powerful”). He spends the first part of his life in luxury and worldliness of his home, where he received an education due to his rank, also acquiring knowledge of legislation and administration.

At 16, his father marries and has a son after 13 years, but just the age of 29 he decided to leave everything and everyone.

In fact, having never known any really negative aspect of life, as he had never left the confines of his own palace, was literally shocked to see one day, in a village, a decrepit old man, a sick man and a funeral procession. Suddenly he realized that there were also the disease, old age and death as the universal destiny of human beings.

Finally he met a poor ascetic who voluntarily refused all wealth and pleasure of life, but conducting an happy life in the countryside. He decided to follow his example. In those days, that marked the beginning of the Indian philosophical speculation, disconnected from Vedic ritualism, there were a few men (especially of the warrior caste), and sometimes even women, who abandoned the world to devote himself to a life of meditation and asceticism according to well-established techniques of yoga. The Buddha lived for seven years in the forest, undergoing - under the guidance of various teachers-a fast, sufferings and privations of every kind, in order to achieve inner peace and the knowledge of the truth. But he was not satisfied with this life.

He abandoned every teacher and decided to seek its own way of liberation (mukti). At age 35, came to the threshold of death by exhaustion, one-night-according to tradition, while he was sitting under a tree, plunged in thought arriving at '“Illumination” (in fact Buddha means “enlightened” or “awakened” ). It was the refusing of a life of pleasure, because it is too ephemeral; a life of voluntary suffering instead, as a source of pride.

The Four Noble Truths

At the time of the “Awakening”, Siddartha thought he recognized four fundamental truths of existence:

  • the reality of personal existence and of the external world is pain, consistent of no variation of his condition: birth, illness, death, lack of what you want, union with that which was evil, separation from what we love;
  • the source of pain is the desire to exist, the need for pleasure and also his refusal;
  • this thirst of rebirth must be extinct in Nirvana (the desire to be eliminated);
  • the road that leads to the arrest of the pain is the Dharma (ie the Eightfold Path).

In short, Siddartha at some point he realized that extreme asceticism did not dismiss that at deeper levels of consciousness, strengthening them, impulses and instincts which he supposed to eradicate.

The right way is Buddha-said-is in the middle (Middle Way). The secret of happiness is accepting one another as it is, giving up desires, which makes you unhappy as well as their realization. In fact, every desire already satisfied is the door to another even bigger. Give up desires means giving up a needless suffering. The supreme condition of happiness is that of Nirvana, in which man is happy while not wishing it, he is happy because he won the cosmic illusion (maya).

Success of preaching

Discovered the true way, Buddha, who meanwhile was already surrounded by various disciples, began to preach the Dharma with them (law, rule of Buddhist doctrine) throughout India, from Benares and turning (unlike the Brahmins) to ordinary people, using their local languages. He also formed a community of women.

After about 40 years of pilgrimage and teaching, he died, poisoned by rotten food, and was cremated by his disciples according to the rite Indian (about 480 BC).

In the third BC King Asoka, the head of a dynasty fought to unify under his rule most of India, converted to Buddhism and contributed to its spread, both within and outside India, making it a state religion.

Buddhism in fact returned to be a good thing for the Maurya dynasty, originally coming from a low caste, which, after having driven out the conquerors greek-Macedonians (324 BC) and completed the national unification at the price of terrible carnage, needed order (and Buddhist communities were structured with a lot of discipline), as well as a national ideology (and Buddhism was not in a relationship with the local tribal cults, also with its doctrine of “non-resistance to evil” could help governments to keep the people submitted).

And so the Buddhist missionaries began to spread the Buddha's Law beyond the boundaries of India, especially in Asia (Kashmir, Himalayas, Burma, Thailand), Africa (Egypt), but also along the shores of the Mediterranean (Syria, Egypt, Macedonia, Epirus).

The first communities

In the early days of his preaching, the Buddha did not have in mind to impose a particular monastic discipline. However, He had to do it when he found himself to be the head of an Order.

At first the disciples came from the upper classes (excluded debtors, slaves, the sick contagious, the incurable, the eunuchs, the murderers, minors under 15 years of age and those whose legal guardians opposed).

The ways of living Buddhism are, even today, basically two: membership in the Order made by monks (bhiksu) or nuns (bhiksuni) and the Brotherhood of the laity (upasakas).

The monk must have a shaved head, beard and mustache should not lead, his tunic to be broad and yellow-orange; bowl hanging from the belt indicates that the begging is his only means of livelihood, his food should consist of bread and water, broth and cooked rice, and in any case he should not swallow any solid food between noon and dawn the next morning. Unique personal items, apart from those mentioned, a pair of shoes, a razor, a needle (for tunic, robe and cloak) and a water filter. He may not have a paid job and can only receive gifts in kind, not cash. Celibacy is a must. The monk practices, about once a month, the public confession of his own sins, led by a older monk: there are specific penances, especially for those who do not repent (the precepts are 227).

The monk must not be the cause of pain to any living being (animals included). On the ritual, Buddhism rejects the ceremonies refined typical of Brahmanism and of course forbids animal sacrifices. The cult is led by monks who read the canonical texts; lay people do not take an active part in divine ceremonies. The monks must be constantly on the road to spread the Buddha's Law: therefore have no fixed abode; monasteries are only meeting places for retreat days and the rainy season (July-October), in which there is a prohibition to leave the monastery, even for alms. They can also take care of the religious instruction of the young ones. Pilgrimages to the places that recall the stages of the life of the Buddha are practiced very much. As the status monastic value of divine investiture, the Monk can return to the lay state if no longer willing to follow the rules of the order.

The law of causality

In the Sermon of Benares, with which the Buddha began his preaching, is clearly denied the essence of all things, justifying it with the fact that everything derives its reality from other things that are causing it. Only Nirvana escape that fate, as it is not a “state”, but a “condition” of absence (there is life and death, joy and sorrow …). The same “I” is nothing but a succession of states of consciousness based on a set of psychic states, feelings and physical appearances. The ego, if it is viewed as “reality” is not an illusion.

The fact Buddhism starts from the premise that all life is suffering, that is, it is assumed that the desires cannot be realized and that, even when they are, do not bring happiness, because they arise others of higher grade or of different nature. In this sense, the pleasure is pain, since it implies adherence to something foreign.

The origin of pain is the “thirst” or desire, which can be of three types: * pleasure, you want to be, not wanting to exist, and there are three roots of evil:

  • lust (desire)
  • anger (hate)
  • darkening (mental blindness).

The ego, that he can not escape this slavery, is destined to be reincarnated (samsara) forever, as long as it is not entirely purified.

The Dharma

According to the Buddhists the self is not an individual entity (such as the Upanishads), but is a combination of different particles (Dharma or spiritual qualities), type sensitive, strong-willed, perceptive and innate impulses: there is the unity of 'I nor his personal immortality. The constituent parts of the self, or rather, the psycho-physical phenomena of existence are classified as aggregates, bases and elements.

The aggregates are five:

  • Form or Matter ('s body, the physical elements of the world);
  • Sensations;
  • Notions or ideation;
  • Construction subjective or psychic karmic propensities (complex derivatives innate ignorance);
  • Consciousness (passing of thoughts).

The Basics are twelve:

  • six are internal: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind, which correspond
  • six external bases: visible, sound, smell, taste, tangible ideas.

The eighteen elements are:

  • s ix bases Internal;
  • six external bases
  • and their knowledge, however, constitute the mental element: the ideas, so we can talk about 17 actual items.

This threefold classification is based on the fact that the way to learn is different among human beings: it can be concise, normal, verbose, and so on. In other words, the dharma have the infinite variety of ways of reality and thus the countless events of our existence, the result of actions taken in the past and the seeds of future events.

A person and the World are the result of the union of various dharma, flowing continuously in a perpetual game of associations and dissociations, combinations and disruptions, guided by ethical law of karma, which is a kind of pay principle (taken from Brahmanism) according to which laws are forced to reincarnate until the person was not purified: man must consider his past life that past life in previous generations. This circulation or flow of dharma is the wheel of life from which it must be freed.

The Eightfold Path

On a practical level, the Buddhist, in order to achieve the elimination of desires, must follow the eight fundamental ways of Dharma:

  • right view, so you contemplate the reality is, without polluting it with your own unconscious complexes, ingrained habits, prejudices, innate repugnance, character limitations, automatic memory etc..
  • right thinking, you can only do it exercising uninterrupted control of their own conceptual representation;
  • right speech, that is your perfect match, without emphasis or sloppiness, with the object set out;
  • right action, which is the act exactly when and how much it is necessary;
  • straight life form, ie knowing how to mediate between the needs of the physical life on earth and the spiritual goals that each one seeks to achieve;
  • right effort, that is able to adapt exactly every initiative to the importance of the purpose to be achieved;
  • straight presence of mind, in practice a constant reminder of how you think, do and feel, so as to be continuously present to himself;
  • right practice of meditation, without dwelling with the mind on depressed or elated moods.


By following these eight “ways” a man arrives to perfection and sinks into Nirvana which-according to the Mahayana school- it is the complete annihilation. It can also be reached in life and therefore it is defined in a positive sense, as a state of total peace and absolute joy and ultimate truth, but that only the enlightened can see.

Conversely, according to the Hinayana school , Nirvana defies any definition because it represents the end of life accessible to consciousness and the transition to another existence, unconscious, only possible after death. In both cases Nirvana means interruption of the chain of reincarnations (samsara).

According to the Buddhists, the Buddha himself, before being born as Gotama, he suffered a long series of rebirths. He, however, was also the first man to reach the light, so that his death has been the immediate passage to Nirvana. Nirvana, therefore, although it literally means “extinction”, spiritually means “bliss.”


The fundamental means to walk the Eightfold path is meditation, which is on two different lines and complementary:

  • Appeasement or Purification;
  • A state of total transparency property of consciousness (ataraxia). It means to focus on a single point, which is actually a symbolic image, to be used as a support for the process, making a gradual exclusion of peripheral sensorial stimulation, which are the desires to be stimulated, aversion, drowsiness, restlessness, skepticism. The meditative act of thinking draws on the same ascetic, which reaches the first four levels of perfection:
    • quiet happiness,
    • end of logical-discursive thoughts,
    • end of emotional factors,
    • the end of the sense of happiness / unhappiness. The “thing” is transformed into the “concept” and the world is learned “as is”. The thought becomes universal consciousness;
  • Penetrative vision or intuition: it consists of a vigilant attention to the physical facts, however minimal, and mental processes. It leads to a series of in-depth purification of thought, which must come to the realisation that the essence of the elements of reality is given by the same thinking that if he is, but that, in itself, is non-existent. The reality is experienced as “empty”, in particular as “noetic” emptiess, which corresponds to the subjective condition of “extinction” (nirvana), in which subject and object must identify themselves, otherwise, in front of the “nothing” that explains its causes, the person would despair.

The four Councils

The discipline of monastic communities (and lay) shaped itself went through four Councils, the first of which (483 or 477 AD), in Rajagriha, had in fact intended to set an initial Canon.

The Second Council of Vaisali (383 or 367 BC), was caused by an issue of monastic discipline, but it will lead to the greatest schism within Buddhism, the one between the Hinayana and Mahayana schools.

The points at issue were five:

  • a monk, even with all his holiness, may be subject to uncontrolled physiological needs;
  • his lighting does not in itself exclude residues of ignorance in daily life;
  • the monk may be subject to doubt;
  • his knowledge of contingent facts can be acquired with the help of others (not for immediate intuition);
  • the monk can define words of ordinary language the Way that leads to the ineffable Awakening.

As you can see, they were all objections having as aims to democratize and humanize a movement too rigid and elitist. The ideal here becomes not so much the individual who has attained enlightenment for himself, with special ascetic practices: it is directed the common layman, who, though unable to reach enlightenment, expressly and in the name of compassion strives to help all our fellow human beings to find the way of perfection.

Two hundred years after the Second Council there were already 18 schools, each of which claimed to be the true interpreter of the doctrine of the Buddha. The Third Council of Pataliputra, organized by the sovereign Asokato in 243-242, was organised with the attempt to reintroduce the notion of the Hindu atman (the “self”), under the name of pudgala (“person”), responsible for of karma.

In this Council, moreover, a thousand monks worked for nine months to check, complete and classify the traditions handed down.

In the fourth Council of Harvan you discussed the review of the Canon Sarvastivadins made by the school, for which it was necessary to preserve a minimum of reality to the experience of the world, otherwise it would fail the relationship of cause and effect it is based on the law of karma .

Canonical texts

The sacred texts recognized as authentic by Buddhism are collected in two Canons, called, according to the scriptures used, Pali and Sanskrit.

  • The Pali Canon (decided in the first century BC.) Is also called Tripitaka, because it groups together the corpus into three parts (or “three baskets”: in fact, each collection of books, written on palm leaves, could be contained in a basket) . It represents a summary of the doctrines preached by the Buddha or attributed to him and the theories developed by the Hinayana school.
    ** The first basket (Vinaya) communicate the rules to be observed in monastic communities, it consists of three collections of books. They are so voluminous that to read them all, at the Council of Rangoon (1954), it took 169 sessions in 46 Days;
    • the second basket (Sutra) speaks of the conversations of Buddha with his disciples and is twice the first, the recitation of sutras is the basis of worship and meditation of monks and laymen. Their language is poetic, the rhythmic composition are very convincing explanations of difficult psychological and spiritual themes. This basket also contains 547 legends concerning the previous lives of the Buddha;
    • the third basket (Abhidarma) provides an explanation of the main tenets of Buddhism contained precisely in the Sutra (metaphysics). These texts were composed by unknown authors from the third to the first century BC and are for the specialists.
  • The Canon Sanskrit, born about six centuries after the Buddha's death, varies greatly, according to the subdivision and denominations, from state to state. It is basically linked to the Mahayana school. This tradition, the texts of which are very large, argues that Buddha would have reserved the thinnest part of his truth to succeeding generations. An edition of the Buddhist canon, the Taisho Shinshu, printed in Tokyo, comprises some 100 volumes and suggests the need to choose a “pars pro toto” personal faith. Among the many Mahayana scriptures deserve to be rememberd The sutra of perfect wisdom and especially the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which aroused great interest in the West.

Buddhism: is it a religion?

Buddha did not explicitly denied the existence of the gods, Brahmins, but these -according to his philosophy- the man can not avoid the sufferings of life, so to believe or not to believe in them does not change things. The path that leads to salvation according to the man -Buddha- must be find by himself alone. On the other hand, for Buddhism even the gods are subject to samsara, and the Absolute or the Lord matche that the concept of emptiness (sunyata). Brahman is the nothing (the difference is evident from Hinduism). The theological or metaphysical questions about the essence of the world, the origin of the universe and so on, are considered necessary for the purpose of enlightenment. Even Cosmo is reduced to a few sentences.

Buddhism wants to be a philosophy of life and especially as a meditative practice. The moment of enlightenment the Buddha guessed a clear ethical imperative: “get rid of opinions.” The attitude then wants to be kind of anti-dogmatic. “The doctrine is similar to a raft-the Buddha said - you need it to cross, not just to be placed on your shoulders.”

Obviously, Buddhism, like any other religion, has its dogmas, its own standards, their rituals and even their mysticism.

It should also be noted that if one accepts the idea that the deity is the “wholly other”, one can not rule out the possibility that Buddhism is also a religion. It was this particular form of “implicit atheism” or, if you will, of “apophaticism religious” that for many Western intellectuals has made Buddhism an object of interest and study: think about Schlegel, in Schleiermacher, but especially Schopenhauer , in Hesse (the latter is the famous book Siddhartha). In Italy it was the well-known book by Liliana Cavani, The Life of Milarepa. Particularly successful has been the recent film of B. Bertolucci “Little Buddha”.

Social behavior

In terms of social behavior, Buddhism rejects the brahminical caste system and recognizes the formal equality of all men (“formal” because in fact the doctrine of “non-resistance to evil” spiritually disarms the people in front of the exploiters ). Every man has an equal probability of moral salvation, since everything depends on his will.

The Buddhist loves not so much the individual, as mankind itself. He does not defend himself from injury, he does not take revenge, he does not condemns those who commit murder. Overall, the Buddhist has an attitude of indifference to evil, refusing only to practice it.

On the other hand Buddhism-says-“those who have healthy mind does not compete with the world, a judge meditation will make him know that nothing is permanent here on earth, except the cares of life.”

The Buddhist essentially believes that those who practice evil, seeing the lack of reaction on the part of those who suffer, at some point will realize that it is useless to do it.

Ethical rules of life

The fundamental precepts of Buddhism, with regard to the ethical rules of life (sila) are divided into three groups: the five prohibitions, the eight of the ten commandments and moral conduct. In practice they are the same commandments, to which every time others are added.

The five prohibitions are:

  • do not to kill any living being,
  • do not take other people's property,
  • do not touch the neighbor's wife;
  • do not tell lies,
  • do not drink intoxicating beverages.

The eight commandments include the above-mentioned five prohibitions, which were added three more:

  • not eating food that is not due:
  • refrain from singing, dancing, music and any indecent show; does not adorn your person with garlands, perfumes and ointments;
  • do not use high and luxurious seats.

The last two moral precepts are:

  • do not to use big and comfortable beds;
  • do not trade in gold and silver.

Of course these precepts become more demanding as much as one tries to purify themselves spiritually: the prohibition of killing extends to all animals, without exception, the water can be drunk only if filtered, you can not use the plow because it could hurt worms of the earth: sexual chastity must be complete, must be absolute poverty etc..

It should be stated, however, that to achieve liberation, rather than a morally exemplary life, which can at best lead to a good karma, the Buddhist must devote himself to meditation, which involves an energetic ascetic discipline (yoga), whose experience in a sense goes beyond all morality. The “I must get rid of Illusion about the reality of the world and especially about his personality”, to sink into the “non-self”, in the “non-being”.

However, this has not prevented many monks to engage actively in favor of democratic demands and national independence (see eg in Vietnam during the war against the U.S.).

Moral virtues

As for the moral virtues which must follow the Buddhist, they can essentially be summarised in four:

  • compassion (perceiving in himself the joy and the pain of the other);
  • loving-kindness towards all living beings;
  • joy and consideration of the positive side of things;
  • impartiality in considering the reality

The status of women

During his preaching, the Buddha always maintained a fundamental misogyny, like all philosophers of antiquity.

The woman was seen as a source of temptation completely incompatible with the ascetic life; they obviously were not condemned as a person, but rather as a power of seduction that leads to that attachment to life which, through the generations, perpetuates the condition “being in the world” and links, as a result, the individual to his pain, his blind ignorance, to the wheel of rebirth. Since love and sexual union are the second-most primordial-forms in which it manifests a thirst for life, classical Buddhism denies to the woman the opportunity to reach Nirvana: the only condition for a woman, was to extinguish in himself all that is feminine, that is, in essence strive to develop a male thought in order to be reborn as a “man.”

Only after much discussion and controversy, the Buddha allowed to admit women among his disciples, in the community obviously separate, subject to the same rules and, in addition, to oversight by the abbot of the nearest male monastic community, with the obligation to obey the monks males of any age. Under these conditions it was possible for them to reach Nirvana.

This form of machismo came attenuated over time, to the point that we started to produce, in the arts, mythical figures of Buddha with feminine elements. It must be said, however, that Buddhism does not intervene in the aspects of everyday life and even in the fundamental events of life, such as marriage and the birth of children, whose rites are always based on local customs. The rules of conduct laid down by Buddhism for married life are essential, essentially based on common sense and then practiced by anyone.

Two basic schools

Around the first century. AD, Buddhism was divided into two fundamental trends, each of which, in turn, is divided into thirty-current:

  • Hinayana or “small vehicle” (narrow way of salvation), which requires a strict observance of the eight streets. The followers of this movement believe that only monks can reach Nirvana. They do not consider Buddha a god, but only a master of moral perfection. They devote themselves to preaching, to the study of canonical texts, the veneration of the places connected with the life of Buddha, etc.. This current flatly denies the existence of atman (the individual self), instead allowed by Brahmanism, and feels useless rituals, devotions, symbols and religious sentiments. It is especially widespread in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and especially Sri Lanka.
  • Mahayana or “great vehicle” (wide path of salvation), which allows the salvation even to the layman, in a less rigid way. The Mahayana school, which also replaced the Pali language, used by the Small Vehicle, with Sanskrit, is the development of Buddhism in the philosophical sense, mystical and gnostic. It recognizes a large number of deities, among which includes the Buddha himself. Indeed, Siddartha Gotama would not be that one of the buddha: there exist hundreds more (sovereign of heaven, the future of the world etc..). This conception, which allow you to easily assimilate other religions to Buddhism.

In addition to the buddha there are the saints, those who, after purchasing the right to dive into Nirvana, they decided to stay a little time on earth to save mankind. The Mahayana followers, unlike hinayanisti, also believe in evil spirits and other supernatural beings, as well as the difference between heaven and hell, and deny the existence of dharmas as entities in their own right. In heaven there are the souls of the righteous (even secular) that must incarnate again on earth before reaching Nirvana. This current, which basically has nothing of the original Buddhism (which, despite everything, was an elitist movement), has spread between the second and the tenth century. in Central Asia, Tibet, China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan, Mongolia and Nepal (for some time even in Burma, Indonesia and northern India).

Vajrayana (The Way of Tantra)

The third stream of Buddhism, also known as the Diamond Vehicle, the less common (about 20 million followers), and that more has moved away from its origins, insisting on the points that the Buddha had most criticized: ritualism, mysticism and magic, has emerged around the sixth century., diffodendosi mainly in Mongolia and Tibet, but also in Nepal, China and Japan. This current, without the Mahayana school, could have hardly be constituted. Its two main branches are Lamaism and Zen.

These esoteric currents (also called by the name of Vehicle magic formulas or Mantrayana), attach central importance to the repetition of sacred formulas (mantra) to reach enlightenment.

In Tibet this current, born about 750, took the name of Lamaism, also expanding in Mongolia and Siberia. The only current is structured in a hierarchical manner.

To his followers Tibet is like a “parent” and a “promised land”. Lhasa, the capital, is considered “sacred city”. Even the Tibetan language is considered “sacred”.

Being the product of a fusion of Buddhism and animistic and shamanistic religions, Lamaism gives considerable importance to magic spells, mystical knowledge and music, with the help of which it is confident of being able to reach Nirvana in a very short time.

Very influential were the monks, called Lama, who managed to form a hierocratic government: nominally civilian power belonged to Chinese emperors, in fact the monks were to command and their leaders were chosen among the most influential feudal families.

The last Dalai Lama, having accepted the unification of Tibet by Communist China (1951), imposed by it, decided, after a failed uprising, to flee to India in 1959, with 100,000 refugees. Before the union with China, a Tibetan out of four belonged to a religious order.

When the Dalai Lama dies, it is believed that he immediately incarnated in some part of the country. A painstaking search is then made between all the male babies revealing some special signs in the eyes or ears, or in the skin … Their names are introduced in a golden urn and then is extracted from one to fate. From that moment the chosen one is educated by priests, leads a privileged life and must refrain from any kind of impurities and sexual intercourse. The current Dalai Lama (XIV Incarnation) was established in 1940. In 1990 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace.

Zen Buddhism

The current most mystical Zen Buddhism is introduced in China in the sixth century and arrived in Japan in the twelfth, where it became the religion of the samurai.

It emphasizes the indivisibility of the Buddha from all that exists: the man then can and must achieve, even in this world, unity with the divine. This can be done only through an inner illumination, instantly, in exceptional condition, also caused by physical stimulation, because truth can not be achieved rationally and can not be expressed in concepts.

One of the favorite stimulation, in that sense, the sense of beauty (which includes the art of flower arrangement, tea ceremony, the understated elegance of the house, etc..). The control of breathing is a fundamental technique.

In this school the Monk may have family.


For nearly four centuries the human representation of the Buddha, in accordance with the liturgy of the primitive non-iconic Buddhist schools, was limited to simple symbolic images: foot print, an empty throne, a turban, a riderless horse.

Through the spread of Buddhism in the Asian world, and thanks to the emergence of the Mahayana tradition, started from the second century. A.D. sensitive changes to the iconography. The Buddha in essence becomes a “superman” with a “glorious” body: the turban, in statuary, has been translated as a protuberance of the skull; urn between the eyebrows, the footprint of the wheel of the Law on the palm of the hand or on the soles of the feet, and the lobe of his ear three times longer than normal.

The Buddha expressed, depending on the attitudes, meditation, reassurance, love, witness (In tantric iconography the lotus flower represents compassion).

Geographic expansion and historical decline

Because in Buddhism there is anything ethnocentric, its spread was almost immediate. In the first century of our era it had already reached China. The Chinese took him to Korea. In the sixth century Koreans introduced it in Japan, where, in less than 50 years, became the state religion (VII cent.). Outside India, Buddhism was able to easily replace the old cults, but on condition of becoming a emotional and ritualistic religion willing to accept various celestial deities and spirits of hell, also making extensive use of music and the visual arts, of sacred dances and sumptuous processions.

The decline of Buddhism began to occur from the seventh century, first in India, with the revival of Brahmanism, then, especially in the IX-XV centuries, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and again in India, because of Muslim invasions.

It is estimated that at least 200 million Buddhists, who were in Pakistan and Bangladesh, were converted by force to Islam. To this day has remained the state religion only in Thailand and Bhutan.

Revival of Buddhism

The awakening of Buddhism goes back to a little more than a century ago and is due, paradoxically, to the interest that some Western scholars began to show for its sacred texts and monuments.

In 1875 was founded the Theosophical Society in New York. Buddhism in Europe is a matter of great interest on the part of the German philosopher A. Schopenhauer; in 1879 E. Arnold, with the book The Light of Asia, strongly disseminated knowledge, so much so that at the beginning of the twentieth century was founded the Buddhist Society of England.

Then they were the same Asian to undertake a number of initiatives to revive this doctrine. At the end of the last century in India was founded the Mahabodhi Society and, soon after, similar organisations appeared in Japan, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Their purpose is to renew Buddhism, intensifying missionary activity, purifying religious practice and scientifically studying the Canons.

From 1930 reform movements become more determined. Official support of the governments that are getting independence from colonial rule and the interest of European scholars allowed a great revival at the international level. It started a stage of high-level meetings among the best exponents of Buddhism.

Towards the end of the 40s, U Nu, Prime Minister of Burma, processes and attempts to propagate his “social Buddhism,” that could never be the welfare of his country until it was expropriated land to the landowners . In particular, he argued that it was impossible to try Nirvana when you are slaves of wealth or, on the contrary, when you are distressed by the struggle for survival. For some countries (Sri Lanka and then Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia …), Marxism appeared as the most suitable instrument for supporting the anti-colonial struggle.

In December 1947, the Congress invites pan-Sinhalese Buddhists to organize an International Congress: something that is done in 1950, again in Sri Lanka. It was born the World Federation of Buddhist, based in Banglok, establishing a program in three points: the establishment of a united front, spread of the writings of Buddha, missionary expansion outside of Asia. The actual effort of Buddhism, with regard to the last point, is to spread the spirit of universal brotherhood and non-violence, which is to collaborate on humanitarian initiatives to combat bigotry and war.

In 1975, it was founded in Paris the European Buddhist Union, which holds a general meeting every year, each time in a different European headquarters, to discuss the different aspects of the presence of Buddhism in Europe, East and West.

In Italy

In Italy there are at least 60 Buddhist centers, mostly in the northern regions (only two in the south).

Barring any intent to proselytize, italians Buddhists are dedicated mainly to volunteering, for socially useful activities, to interreligious and intercultural dialogue.

In Europe and the United States

In Europe, the Buddhists would be 1.5 million, of which 600,000 in France. In Britain the Buddhists come mainly from Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand. In the U.S., considering the immigration, it reaches 5-10 million members, of which at least 300,000 euro-Buddhist, that is converted from Judeo-Christian traditions.


QR Code
QR Code buddhism (generated for current page)