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Religion Library: Buddhism


Written by: Julia Hardy

In the beginning, all of the Buddha's followers gave up home, family, social status, and possessions, and begged for their meals. They were taught that this was the way to become detached from material things and social status, which would hinder an individual's enlightenment. Sexual activity was also prohibited, as were intoxicants, comfortable seats or beds, and any form of entertainment. Monks were not allowed to handle money and were permitted only one meal a day.

Those who appreciated the Buddha's teachings but were unable or unwilling to give up all their possessions and their social status supported the monks by providing food, clothing, and shelter. These lay followers were given five precepts: not to take human life, not to lie, not to steal, not to take intoxicants, and not to participate in illicit sexual activity. Their support earned them merit, which would facilitate rebirth as an individual who would be free to pursue spiritual goals.

The Buddha allowed people of all castes, and those of no caste, to join the sangha.Many became monks, but lay people also joined in large numbers. Among these were people of low status as well as wealthy merchants and rulers.

Although the first Buddhist monks were all wanderers, wealthy lay supporters soon began to donate land to the monks, originally for places to stay during the monsoon season and later for permanent dwellings and places for meditation and teaching. These became the first Buddhist monasteries. Soon this organization of itinerant monks had acquired, paradoxically, extensive holdings of land, which led to strict monastic rules about the use of this property, and which also led to some tensions between Buddhist monks and political rulers.

The conversion of two powerful rulers also quieted some of the political wrangling. Converting to Buddhism accorded the rulers a higher religious status than they had held within the traditional caste system. The strict moral expectations of Buddhism also appealed to some rulers because it eased the burden of maintaining social stability. In turn, the Buddha expressed a vision of an ideal society in which selfless and fair rulers would distribute their wealth among the people.

Within a few centuries after the Buddha's death, Chandragupta Maurya of Magadha would unite most of what is now called India into an empire. His grandson, Ashoka, converted to Buddhism a few years after he took the throne.At first Ashoka did not take his conversion seriously, but after leading a bloody conquest of the northeastern state of Kalinga, he experienced remorse and began to take Buddhism to heart. He decided to apply the Buddha's Dharma, or teachings, to his government and to spread the word of the Buddha throughout the empire and beyond. He erected dozens of huge stone pillars inscribed with basic Buddhist teachings, built monasteries, and created shelters for Buddhist pilgrims. Ashoka became the model for many subsequent rulers throughout Asia who affiliated themselves with Buddhism.

Study Questions:
1.     Who was the Buddha?
2.     What were the lessons taught in the Buddha's first sermon?
3.     How did Buddhism initially spread?
4.     What did individuals have to renounce to become a Buddhist? What happened if they couldn't or wouldn't renounce such things?


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