450 BC – 1300 AD

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Atheist Buddhism - a Religion?

From a Western point of view “Religion” is the belief in a god or in a group of gods, or even more restrictive, an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods (Meriam Webster). By this criterion Buddhism, which is strictly non-theist, is not a Religion, possibly not even a Belief System.

Buddhism says nothing about gods, especially about a Creator God whose son suffers on the cross to atone for our sins. Sins are part of our karma, which determines man's rebirth. There is no afterlife, no heaven in Buddhist teaching. We are entirely responsible ourselves for compensating for our sins with good deeds. To this effect Buddhism teaches methods and “techniques”, - discipline, meditation, love - to make us suffer less, be spiritually at peace, and finally reach a release from the karmic cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Buddhim calls this state Nirvana.

Buddhist Schools and Branchings, table wordpress.com

Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, the first “Enlightened Man”, taught these insights to five disciples, the original Sangha, from whom the “truth” spread to some 600 Million adherents in Southeast Asia and around the world. Buddhism was at first a monastic discipline, (Hinayana) – which it still is in countries that practice the Theravada. – Around 100 AD Buddhism split off a less strict version, the Mahayana that also empowered laymen. Eventually Chinese Buddhism during the Tang Dynasty invented Ch'an, the “fast vehicle” that was adopted in Korea as Seon and in Japan as Zen. Still later, – in the 8th cent, developed the Vajrayana in response to the special conditions in Tibet.

Siddhartha Gautama, the Historical Buddha
563-483 BC

Buddha Gautama in a Greek Chiton
one of the earliest images of the Buddha
Greco-Gandharan, 2nd cent AD, Guimet

According to the Pali Canon Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini-Kapilavastu in modern-day Nepal around 563 BC. He was the son of Śuddhodana, King of the Sakya, and his wife Maha Maya. At the age of 16, his father arranged his marriage to a cousin Yaśodharā. They had a son named Rāhula.
For 29 years Prince Siddhartha lived a protected life in his father's palace. One day he ventured out to meet his subjects and encountered a leper, a decaying corpse, and a Jain ascetic. Overwhelmed by the suffering he saw, he resolved to become an ascetic sadhu, left his wife and parents, and eloped at night from his father's house.

He practiced yoga with a number of sadhus, but abandoned their self-effacing ascetic practices as ineffective for gaining enlightenment. In due time he discovered dhyāna, a contemplative meditation that leads, once perfected, to a state of deep samadhi. Using this technique, seated under a pipal tree—now known as the Bodhi tree—in Bodh Gaya, India, he vowed not to arise until he had found the truth. After 49 days of meditation, at the age of 35, he attained Enlightenment. At the time of his awakening he realized complete insight into the cause of suffering, and the steps necessary to eliminate it. These discoveries became known as the "Four Noble Truths", which are at the heart of Buddhist teaching. Through mastery of these truths, a state of supreme liberation, or Nirvana, is believed to be possible for any sentient being. The Buddha described Nirvāna as the perfect peace of a mind that's free from ignorance, greed, hatred and other afflictive states, or "defilements" (kilesas). Nirvana is also regarded as the "end of the world", in that no personal identity or boundaries of the mind remain.

Subsequenly he attracted a group of disciples, the sangha, and founded a monastic order. The Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching the path of awakening he had discovered, wandering as a mendicant throughout the northeastern part of the Indian subcontinent. He died from food-poisening after eating of the meat of a boar at the age of 80 (483 or 486 BC) in Kushinagar, India.

Miraculous Birth of the Buddha from the side of his mother
Greco-Gandharan, 1st-2nd cent AD
photo mysticalchrist

Buddha's Death (Parinirvana)
Greco-Gandharan, 1st-2nd cent AD
photo wikimedia

During the 200 years after the Buddha's death a rich collection of myths developed about the Buddha's life, Jataka Tales, among them his mother's conception through a white elephant in a dream and his birth fully formed in wisdom, body, and spirit from her right side.

250 BC-present

Theravāda is the oldest surviving form of Buddhism. The word is derived from the Sanskrit sthaviravada, "the Teachings of the Elders". It is relatively conservative, and closer to early Buddhism than other existing Buddhist traditions. Most of Southeast Asia adheres to the Theravada. Theravada Buddhism was first brought to Sri Lanka by Arahant Mahinda, who is believed to have been the son of the Mauryan emperor Asoka, in the 3rd cent BC. Sri Lanka is the only land with an unbroken Theravada tradition. Before the 8th century BC both Indian Mahāyāna and the esoteric Vajrayāna form of Buddhism were also practiced in Sri Lanka, but in the process of declining Budhism in India the Mahayana/Vashrayana disappeared. After the decline of Buddhism in India,(9th-12th cent AD) missions of monks from Sri Lanka gradually converted Burmese Buddhists to the Theravāda, and in the next two centuries brought the Theravāda to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, where it supplanted previous forms of Buddhism.

Theravāda Buddhism has remained a monastic discipline. It teaches the concept of Vibhajjavada (Pali), literally "Teaching of Analysis." This doctrine says that insight must come from the aspirant's experience, critical investigation, and reasoning instead of by blind faith. However, the scriptures of the Theravadin tradition also emphasize heeding the advice of the wise, considering such advice and evaluation of one's own experiences to be the two tests by which practices should be judged. Theravāda orthodoxy proscibes seven stages of purification as its basic path to be followed, culminating in the realization of Nirvana.

Mahayana and Vajrayana
2nd and 8th cent AD-present

The strict discipline required by the Buddha's teachings can only be practiced in a rigorous, monastic environment, the ordinary layman was excluded. For this reason a change of the early Hinyana doctrin took place in the 2nd cent AD with a shift of emphasis from self-salvation by way of a life as an ascetic monk (Arhat), to an emphasis on saving other human beings. The Bodhisattva (Mahasattva) ideal evolved, and this new branch of Buddhism eventually acquired the name Mahayana, the “Great Vehicle”. The Mahayana spread from India along the Silk Road to East Asia, where it underwent further changes into the estoteric Tantrayana (India 8th cent) and the Vajrayana, the “Diamond Vehicle” (8th-9th cent AD) in Afghanistan and Tibet. Both employ Bodhisattvas as mediators.
A Bodhisattva is a
kind of "saint" who has achieved Buddha-nature, but in boundless compassion for his fellow-man remains in the world by forgoing Nirvana and allowing himself to be reborn in order to save other sentient beings. In the Mahayanic view the historical Buddha, who is the "Savior" of our age, becomes the Bodhisattva Avalokitéshvara. With the help of the Bodhisattvas salvation became available to everybody not only to monks.

To fill the visual needs of these often esoteric doctrines and to provide the images for yogic meditation exercises a new imagery developed: a pentade of five "Djanibuddhas" who are the visible (macro-cosmic) personifications of the different aspects of an impersonal, completely transcendent, non-corporeal Adhibuddha.

Addhibuddha and Prajnaparamita










The Five Djani-Buddhas of the Vajrayana Mandala with their Mudras

There are five Djanibuddhas (Vairocana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amogasiddhi). Vairocana is their center. His emblem, is a thunderbolt, "vajra" (Sanscrit), (Tib.: Phurbu) or a "diamond" (Tib.: dorje), a symbol of the speed with which this technique works and of the clarity of its insights. This "instrument" gave the system its name: Vajrayana.
Buddhas and Boddhisattvas exhibit complimentary female manifestations. They may appear alone in their female Gestalt (Prajna) or in sexual union (Tib.: Yab-Yum) with their male complements.
super-mundane Absolute of the Tantra is equated with the Nirvana of the Mahayana. It is associated with a sixth Buddha or Addhibuddha who unifies all opposites including those of the five Djanibuddhas, who are his emanations. The Addhibuddha can be apprehended only in a mystical vision as a "Great White Light" (Bardo Tödol, "Tibetan Book of the Dead") during advanced, deep meditation or in dying. - Nevertheless, in certain Tibetan Thankas the Adhibuddha (transcendental awareness) appears blue and stark naked in Yab-Yum with his white and equally naked female companion Prajnaparamita (transcendental insight). A table of the Djanibuddhas, their prajnas, colors, attributes and psychic correspondences as they appear in the mandalas of the Vajrayana is shown below.


from Buddhas and Mandalas




Buddha Family:















Rintchen Djungdän







Boundless Light

Infallable Success







Place in Vajrayana:









south (right)


north (left)









earth calling

wish fulfillment


fearless giving

















male triangle

semi-circle up

























Female Prajna (Khadroma)


























body, form










Hevajraya Mandala:














Dorje Khadro

Rinchen Khadro

Pema Khadro

Laskyi Khadro

In the late Vajrayana Tantra : Akshobya moves into the center and Vairocana into the eastern position,and Manjushri becomes a Bodhisattva of the Adhibuddha, he can appear in the garb of any family: e.g., Manjushri (Transcendental Awareness), his female conjugation is: Prajnaparamita (Transcendental Wisdom).
In the Hevajra Tantra Akshyoba changes to Vajraheruka. Also some of the colors change and Amitabha becomes Padmaheruka (Heruka of the Lotus), and not illogically Amogasiddhi, the Buddha of the Future, becomes Karmaheruka (Heruka of our Karma). - Manjushri and his female counterpart can in the Hevajra Tantra represent any of the Buddhas and appears in all four colors.

To the Western mind, formed by Christian mores (Augustinus), it is hard to understand and accept the all-pervasive, omnipresent sexual imagery in Tibetan religious paintings and sculpture: sexual unions in Yab-Yum, fierce male figures with erections, and female figures performing erotic dances in full nudity. Sexual practices are an important part of Tantric meditational exercises.
The male-female polarity is irrefutably fundamental to life, and because the Tantra attempts to reconcile and remove polarities as the source of suffering, it endowed the sexual union between man and woman with numinous significance. The woman intuitively "knows" the unity of all opposites (insight), but cannot express it; the man with his analytical faculties can "give these insights names" (awareness) but cannot grasp their emptiness: therefore, make love as a powerful meditational exercise to gain and combine "Insight" and "Awareness". The off-spring of their union is Active Compassion for both. Unequivocally, the Tantric texts state that a
man cannot attain Ultimate Awareness without a female consort.

Chinese Buddhism, Pure-Land and Ch'an/Zen
60-1300 AD

China has played a prominent, most dynamic role in Buddhist history. Over the course of two thousand years, Buddhist ideas and practices have shaped Han Chinese culture in a wide variety of areas, including art, literature, philosophy, medicine, and material culture.

The translation of a large body of Indian Buddhist scriptures into Chinese and the inclusion of these translations together with works composed in China into a printed canon had far-reaching implications for the dissemination of Buddhism throughout the Chinese cultural sphere, including Korea, Japan and Vietnam. Chinese Buddhism is also marked by the interaction between Indian and Chinese religion, (Daoism and Cofucianism). A confluence of foreign and indigenous elements is common wherever Buddhism spread, but in China the encounter between local and foreign traditions was especially pronounced. This is because, unlike in most cases in Buddhist history, when Buddhism first arrived in China, China already boasted a rich, sophisticated literary culture that had developed for centuries. In addition Chinese culture possesed an acute sense for time and history which is absent in India.

Buddhism first came to Han China from the Yuezhi (Parthians) of Gandaharan India (present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Xinjiang) via the Silk Road. After entering China proper, Buddhism blended easily with early Daoism and Chinese traditional esoteric arts and its iconography.

The first documented translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese appeared in 148 AD with the arrival of the Parthian prince-turned-monk An Shigao (Chin. 安世高). He established Buddhist temples in Luoyang and the translation of Buddhist scriptures into Chinese, testifying to the beginning of a wave of Central Asian Buddhist proselytism that was to last several centuries. An Shigao translated Buddhist texts on basic doctrines, meditation, and abhidharma. Mahāyāna Buddhism was first widely propagated in China by the Kushan monk Lokaksema (Chin. 支婁迦讖,164–186 AD), who came from Gandhāra. Lokakṣema translated important Mahāyāna sūtras such as the Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra.

Due to the wide proliferation of Buddhist texts available in Chinese and the large number of foreign monks who came to teach Buddhism in China, various specific Chinese traditions emerged. Among the most influential of these was the practice of Pure Land Buddhism established by Hui Yuan, which focused on Amitābha Buddha and his western pure land of Sukhāvatī (Western Paradise). Other early traditions were the Tiantai, Huayan and the Vinaya school. During the early Tang dynasty, between 629 and 645, the monk Xuanzang journeyed to India and visited over one hundred kingdoms, and wrote extensive and detailed reports of his findings, which have subsequently become important for the study of India during this period.

In the 5th-6th cent (Northern Wei and Sui Dynasties), Ch'an (Zen) "pointing directly to the mind" originated in China. Traditionally attributed to the legendary Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, it is the most ingenious, radical Buddhist teaching method, exemplary Chinese in spirit and form.

The Esoteric Buddhist lineage of China (and almost all of Buddhism in China at the time) was nearly destroyed completly by the Tang Emperor Wuzong, an avid Daoist with a strong dislike of Buddhists and other foreign religions, leading to the Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution (845 AD). There were several components that led to this opposition of Buddhism. One factor was the foreign origins of Buddhism: "Buddha was a man of the barbarians who did not speak the language of China and wore clothes of a different fashion. His sayings did not concern the ways of our ancient kings, nor did his manner of dress conform to their laws. He understood neither the duties that bind sovereign and subject, nor the affections of father and son." (Han Yu). Other objections included the Buddhist monks' withdrawal from society, since the Chinese believed that Chinese people should be involved with family life. Wealth, tax-exempt status and power of the Buddhist temples and monasteries also played a role.

The Spread of Buddhism
100 BC-600 AD

Originally the sangha (400-250 BC) was a purely monastic assembly of followers of the Buddha governed by rules that could only be sustained in such a collective environment. For that reason the Buddha's teachings spread only slowly in India. During Mauryan Emperor Ashoka's reign (268–232 BC) monastic Buddhism spread with his active support rapidly to Gandhara, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma. Apparently Ashoka's emissaries even appeared in Alexandria, Antioch, and Greece. This form of monastic Buddhism, commonly known as Theravada (“Teaching of the Elders”), is still predominant in Southeast Asia today.

Spread of Buddhism 400 BC-600 AD, wikispaces.com

At some period after the Second Council (380 BC) the Sangha began to break into two separate factions, Theravada and Mahayana (Great Vehicle). The various accounts differ as to when the actual schism occurred. The origins of the Mahāyāna, which formed between 100 BC and 100 AD, are still not completely understood. For several hundred years both factions existed together.

Obviously, the gradual spread of Buddhism into adjacent areas meant that it came into contact with new ethnic groups. During this period Buddhism was exposed to a variety of influences, from the Persian and Greek civilization, to changing trends in non-Buddhist Indian religions—themselves influenced by Buddhism. Striking examples of this syncretic development can be seen in the emergence of Greek-speaking Buddhist monarchs in the Indo-Greek Kingdom, and in the development of the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhāra. A Greek king, Menander, was even immortalized in the Buddhist canon.

Both forms of Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka (1st-3rd cent AD). Along the Silk Roads to Central Asia (Tarim Basin) and Han China (2nd-6th cent AD), to Southeast Asia, Burma, Thailand, and Java (2nd-5th cent AD). Direct contact between Indian and Chinese Buddhism continued throughout the 3rd to 7th century, well into the Tang period. From the 4th century onward, with Faxian's pilgrimage to India (395–414 AD), and later Xuanzang (602–664 AD), Chinese pilgrims traveled to northern India, their source of original Buddhist sutras. Much of the land route connecting northern India (Gandhara) with China at that time was part of the Kushan Empire (30-250 AD), and later the Hephthalite Empire (408-670 AD). During these centuries, Indian Buddhism gave rise to the various distinct schools of Buddhism (Chan-Zen and Pure Land) in China, from where they spread to Korea and Japan (4th-6th cent AD).

Buddhist Art
Before 1400 AD

In all these countries Buddhism, started by the Greek artisans of the-Diadochi kings, spawned a profusion of art forms: Greco-Gandharan sculpture, Indian stupas and cave art, Central Asian cave paintings, Chinese rock art, Sri Lankan, Java, Burmese, and Thai architecture. In the beginning the Buddha was not depicted explicitly until Greco-Buddhism gave him a shape in Gandhara.


Amaravati Stupa
Andhra Pradesh, 200 AD
photo Brit Museum

Sanchi Stupa
Madya Pradesh, Ashoka: 3rd cent AD
photo buddhanet

Ajanta Caves
Maharashtra, 100 AD-600 AD
photo Wikipedia

Greco-Buddhism in Gandhara

Bodhisattva Padmapani
Gandhara 2nd cent AD
photo Hermitage

Bodhisattva, painted terracotta
Fondukistan, Bamyan 7th cent AD
Photo: Madelleine Hallade, "Indien, Gandhara, Begegnung zwischen Orient and Okzident",
Pawlak Verlag, Herrsching, 1975 (in German)

Gandhara, 3rd cent AD
photo wiki.fr

Silk-Road Mahayana: Dunhuang Magao Caves

Buddha Gautama
Cave 272, West.Wei, 450 AD

Meditation Vision
Ceiling of Cave 249, Western Wei, 450 AD
Dunhuang Magao Caves, photos RWFG

Apsara Descending
Cave 404, Sui, 590 AD

China, Longmen and Yungang Caves, Mahayana at the End of the Silk Road

Longmen Caves
Luoyang/Hebei, Northern Wei, Sui, Liao, 493-1060 AD

Yungang Caves
Datong/Shanxi, Northern Wei, Liao, 450-1060 AD

Southeast Asia, Late Theravada

Baganmyo, Pagan, Burma, 13th cent AD
photo wsj.com

Borobudur Stupa, Java, 9th cent AD
photo wallpapers

Sukhothai, Thailand, 13th cent AD
photo RWFG