Buddhism, religion and philosophy originating in India in the 6th century B.C., based on interpretations of the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama, called the Buddha, or “Enlightened One.” His first disciples became the Sangha, or original Buddhist monastic order, men (and later women) who gave up home and family, shaved their heads, dressed only in rags, and devoted their lives to practicing and spreading his philosophy of Enlightenment.
In the 5th century B.C. a council in Rajagaha resulted in the Pali Canon, a body of scriptures from the oral tradition of the Buddha's teaching, together with his rules for monastic life, a collection of his sermons, and a metaphysical analysis of his concepts. From a second council, held in Vesali in the 4th century B.C., there emerged 2 separate schools of thought, the Hinayana (“Small Vehicle,” surviving as Theravada, “Doctrine of the Elders”), which elected to adhere to strict monastic rules, and the Mahayana (“Large Vehicle”), which adopted a more flexible approach. As a result of a third council, in the 3rd century B.C., called by the Indian emperor Asoka, an ardent convert to Buddhism, missionaries were sent throughout India, as well as to Syria, North Africa, Greece, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). From Ceylon, in the 4th century A.D., Buddhism reached Burma, and in the 7th century it reached Tibet, where it combined with existing beliefs to become Lamaism. It made a deep mark on Chinese thought in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. In 630 an Indian Buddhist living in China, Bodhidarma, introduced his method of meditation and direct or “spontaneous” enlightenment, which led to the dominant School of Ch'an (Zen, in Japanese). Buddhism spread to Korea in the 4th century A.D., and from there in the 6th century it entered Japan. Eventually Buddhism declined in China, but more from its ever-tolerant absorption of other philosophies, which often blurred its intrinsic character, than from the failure of its teaching. By the 7th century, Buddhism had begun to recede from India itself and, by the year 1000, except in Nepal, Buddhist sects had been almost entirely absorbed back into the Brahman religion.
Today the world of Buddhism has 2 main divisions, Theravada, the Southern School, covering Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia, and Mahayana, the Northern School, covering Nepal, Korea, China, and Japan. In the 2 schools can be counted 300–500 million followers, and there are many millions more who practice the teaching alone, for Buddhism has no service, ritual, or church in the Western sense. It is a lone process of self-awareness and self-development aimed at the ultimate enlightenment known as nirvana, a state beyond intellect, words, and form. This attainment, Buddhism holds, is the sole means by which one can be liberated from the “wheel of life,” the continual cycle of birth, death, and suffering. Human beings are bound to this cycle by the cause-effect of karma, in which present circumstances and experience are the result of past thoughts and actions, and present thoughts and actions are creating those of the future. Through Buddhist teaching and the use of meditation, one can begin to purify one's thoughts and thus improve one's destiny. Buddhist teaching uses the Pali Canon as its scriptural authority, Buddha's Four Noble Truths as its main premise, and the Noble Eightfold Path as its manual.
The Four Noble Truths are (1) suffering is omnipresent; (2) its cause is wrongly directed desire; (3) remove the wrong desire and the cause for suffering is removed; (4) the Noble Eightfold Path leads to the end of suffering. The Noble Eightfold Path consists of (1) right understanding, (2) right thought, (3) right speech, (4) right action, (5) right means of livelihood, (6) right effort, (7) right concentration, (8) right meditation.