The three characteristics of Buddhism are: anicca (transiency), dukka (sorrow), and anatta (soul- lessness). In other words, life is constantly changing and all conditioned things are transient. Whatever is transient is painful, and where change and sorrow prevail, the question of a permanent immortal soul does not arise.
The Buddha in particular criticised the theory of a permanent soul as a selfish system from the ethical point of view as it meant the solitary pursuit by soul of its own release. He did not accept that there was an immortal entity which survived the death of the body and was born in other forms through a series of incarnations.
Nevertheless, the principle of transmigration of soul (rebirth) was accepted by the Buddha, and the process of rebirth is explained in the pattica samuppada(Dependent Origination) as follows:
On ‘delusion’ (avijja) depend the “karma- formations”(janWiara).
On the karma-formations depends ‘consciousness’ (vinnana; starting with rebirth- consciousness in the womb of the mother).
On consciousness depends the ‘mental and physical existence’ (namarupa).
On the mental and physical existence depend the ‘six sense-organs’ (sal-ayathana).
On the six sense organs depends ‘sensorial impression’ (phassa).
On sensorial impression depends ‘feeling’ (vedana).
On feeling depends ‘craving’ (tanha).
On craving depends ‘clinging’ (upadana).
On clinging depends the ‘process of becoming, (bhava).
On the process of becoming (kanna-bhava, or karma-process) depends ‘rebirth’ (jati).
On rebirth depend ‘decay and death’ (jaramarana), sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair.
Besides being a great spiritual teacher and preacher, the Buddha was also a great social reformer. Before his advent, the social and religious laws in India were rigid, partisan, oppressive and even cruel for the vast mass of the people.
The Buddha revolted against social inequality and titualism for the common welfare, of all. Verify, it was the Buddha who for the first time attacked the fortresses of privileges, caste system, ritualism, religious fanaticism, superstitions, and ignorance.
Again, it was the Buddha who expounded the transcendental philosophy of universal brotherhood and equality in all respects. Lord Buddha was, therefore, the creator of the virtues like individual liberty, toleration, fellow- feeling, compassion, non-destruction of- life (ahimsa), moral character, benevolence, service and sacrifice.
The Buddhist Sangha or Church
The Buddha had two kinds of disciples – monks (bhikkhus or shramanas) and lay worshippers (upasakas). The former were organised into the sangha or congregation. The membership of the sangha was open to all persons, male or female, above fifteen years of age and who were free from leprosy, consumption and other infectious diseases.
There were no caste restrictions. The sangha was governed on absolutely democratic lines and was empowered to enforce discipline amongst its members. The life of monks and the nuns was strictly governed by the laws and the Ten Commandments, and there was no room for personal likes or dislikes. The great defect of the Sangha system was the absence of a central coordinating authority.
The sangha or the Order of the Bhikkltus, founded by the Buddha still exists in its original form in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Amongst the most famous Bhikkltus at the time of the Buddha were: Sariputta, who possessed the profoundest insight into the dhamma; Moggallana, who had the greatest supernatural powers; Ananda, the devoted disciple and constant companion of the Buddha; Maha- Kassapa, the President of the Buddhist Council held at Rajagriha immediately after the Buddha’s death; Anuruddha, master of Right Mindfulness; Upali, master of Vinaya; and Rahula, the Buddha’s son. A Bhikkhu is not a priest in the sense of theistic religious. He is being the torch- bearer of the dhamma, acts as a friend, philosopher and guide of the laity in all religious and social matters. Every Buddhist monk has to be samanera(sramne) before being ordained as a full-fledged member of the sangha. The higher ordination of Bhikkhu is called upasampada.
Shortly after the Buddha’s death the first Buddhist Council was held in 483 B.C. at Sattapanni cave near Rajagriha, to compile the dhamma (religious doctrines) and the vinaya (monastic code). Five hundred monks representing different local san- ghas assembled there and adopted authoritative canonical texts by dividing the teachings of the Buddha into two pitakas – the vinaya and the dhamma (dharma).
A century later a dispute arose regarding the code of discipline, as the monks of Vaishali wanted a relaxation of the rules in respect of the ten points. A Second Council was convened in or about 383 B.C. at the Vaishali (Bihar) which condemned the ten heresies. As the Vaishali monks stuck to their views, no agreement was arrived at and the Council ended in a permanent schism of the Buddhist church into Sthaviras and Mahasam- ghikas.
The Third Council was held at Pataliputra, during the reign of Asoka, 236 years after the death of the Buddha, under the chairmanship of a learned monk Moggaliputta Tissa to revise the scriptures. The Third Council accomplished two important results.
First, it made a new classification of the Buddhist canonical Pitaka which contained the philosophical interpretations of the doctrines of the existing two Pitakas. As a result of this the sayings and discourses of the Buddha now came to be known as the Tripitaka. Secondly, the canonical literature was precisely, definitely and authoritatively settled so as to eliminate all disruptive tendencies, making all division within the Church punishable.
The Fourth Council was held during the reign of Kanishka in Kashmir under the leadership of elder Vasumitra and the great scholar as- vaghosha. The convening of this Council led to the division of Buddhism into two broad sects, namely, the Mahayana and the Hinayana.
The Buddhist Scriptures
The sacred scriptures of the Buddhists are in Pali. The word Pali means simply ‘text’ or ‘sacred text’. As a language, Pali is an archaic Prakrit and in the days of the Buddha was the spoken language of the Magadha and adjoining territories. Since Lord Buddha spoke in Pali, the Pali canon is regarded as the most authentic version of the Buddha word. The Buddhist scriptures in Pali are commonly referred to as Tipitaka (Tripitaka) i.e., ‘Threefold Basket’. The three ‘Baskets of the Law (Pitakas) are:
1. Vinaya Pitaka
2. Sutta Pitaka
3. Abhidhama Pitaka.
The Pali canon was first of all codified at the First Council held at Rajagriha, immediately after the mahaparinirvana of the Buddha, under the president ship of Maha Kassapa. At this Council (sangiti), Ananda, the life-long companion of the Buddha, recited the dhamma, while Upali recited the vinaya.
A hundred years later, a new edition of the scriptures was drawn up by the Second Council held at Vaishali, under the president ship of Sabbakami. The Pali canon was further edited by the Third Council which was convened by Asoka at Patna (Pataliputra) and was presided over by Moggaliputta Tissa. Later, Mahindra and San- ghamitra, son and daughter of Asoka, introduced Buddhism into Sri Lanka.
Since then, that island has safely preserved the entire Pali canon, though, in due course, it was lost by India, its original homeland. The sacred scriptures were committed to writing for the first time on palm leaves in Sri Lanka (Ceylon), where a Council was held for this purpose in 29 B.C. under the patronage of the pious Sinhala king Vattagamani Abhaya.
The Vinaya Pitaka mainly deals with rules and regulations which the Buddha promulgated, as occasion arose, for the future discipline of the order of monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkhunis). It describes in detail the gradual development of the sangha. An account of the life and teachings of the Buddha is also given. It also reveals some important and interesting aspects of ancient Indian history, Indian customs, arts etc.
The Sutta Pitaka consists chiefly of discourses, both small and long as delivered by the Buddha himself on various occasions. Included in it, there are also a few discourses delivered by some of his distinguished disciples such as Sariputta, Ananda, Moggallana and others. The sermons embodied therein serve as moral guides. The Dhammapada (way of truth), containing a summary of Buddha’s universal teachings, is regarded as one of the great religious texts of the world.
The Abhidhamma Pitaka contains the profound philosophy of the Buddha’s teachings. The Abhidhamma investigates mind and matter, the two composite factors of the so-called being, to help the understanding of things as they truly are.
The Pali canon is further divided into nine parts on the basis of the matter they contain. These nine divisions are:
1. Sutta Nikaya (Sermons in prose)
2. Geyya Nikaya (Sermons in prose and verse)
3. Veyyadkarana (Commentary)
4. Gatha (Stories, Psalms)
5. Udana (Pithy sayings)
6. It-vuttaka (“Thus spoke” short speeches of the Buddha)
7. Jataka (Birth stories)
8. Abbhutadhamma (Stories of miracles)
9. Vedalla (Teachings in the form of questions/answers).
With the rise of Mahayanism, Sanskrit was adopted by the Mahayanist scholars. There are a few Sanskrit texts belonging to the Hinayana (Theravada) school. The bulk of the Buddhist literature, in Sanskrit, belongs to the Mahayana school. Among the Mahayana sutras, the following texts or dharma’s, also called the Vaipulya sutras, are regarded as the most important: