History Of Buddhism
Over the last 2500 years Buddhism has spread across Asia to be practiced by Tibetan nomads and Chinese aristocrats, Indian scholars and Japanese poets. But what is the legacy that remains today? Many schools of Buddhism developed and we can still see their art, read their texts, and, in some cases, meet their living representatives. Sometimes these schools were expressions of the fresh insights into the Dharma by a great teacher. Sometimes they were adaptations of previous schools that had arrived in new cultures. Sometimes they were reform movements instigated by people who felt that the spirit of the teaching had been buried beneath religious institutions, or that practices had degenerated into formalism. What is clear is that there is no single form that alone is the true expression of the Dharma. It has had to be rediscovered and re-expressed in every generation according to the conditions that prevail.
Some of the Buddhist schools survive in the modern world as vibrant spiritual communities and lineages of practice; others have died out altogether; others again have preserved an ossified form of Buddhist practice that had its heyday hundreds or even thousands of years ago. These schools often developed in isolation from one another, sometimes in ignorance of one another’s teachings. Each express its values an its perspective on the path to Enlightenment in its own vocabulary, and these vocabularies often owe much to the national culture in which they developed. And developments in Buddhist doctrines have led to disagreement about what authentic Buddhist teaching should include.
In the last century or so, Buddhism has faced challenges as great as any in its history in the encounter with what, as shorthand, we can call modernity – the complex, secularized, and technologically powered cultures and societies that have replaced traditional social structures across much of the world. The most pressing question is whether it can survive at all. Scholars estimate that a hundred years ago a third of the world’s population lived in countries that were strongly influenced by Buddhism. But Buddhism was persecuted in countries that became communist, and elsewhere it has lost much of its traditional role as cultures have been transformed by technology and consumer capitalism, or targeted by Christian missionaries.
A second challenge arises from encounters between Buddhist traditions , and the light thrown on this meeting by historical scholarship. Buddhists are being forced to ask if Buddhism is one or many; if the differences between schools are more important than what they have in common; if it is possible distinguish the Dharma – the teachings in principle – from the cultural forms in which they have been expressed; and if some of these teachings need to be revised in the light of science and history. Buddhists are being forced to dig deep into their tradition to address these crises.