Buddhism and its origins

It’s hard to find a self-help book today that doesn’t praise the benefits of meditation, mindfulness, and yoga.

Many people engage in meditation and other practices associated with Buddhism. But not everyone realizes the intricacies of religion, according to Stanford expert Paul Harrison. (Image credit: FatCamera / Getty Images)

Many of these practices are rooted in the ancient tradition of Buddhism, a religion first developed by Indians in the fifth century BCE.

But according to Stanford Buddhist scholar Paul Harrison, Buddhism is more than finding Zen: it’s a religious tradition with a complicated history that has extended and evolved over the centuries. Harrison has dedicated his career to studying the history of this religion, which is now practiced by more than 530 million people.

In a recent book he edited, Going on the Great Way: Essays on Early Mahāyāna Buddhism, Harrison brings together the latest perspectives on the origins and beginnings of a type of Buddhism that influenced much of today’s Buddhist practice around the world.

This new work focuses on the rise of Mahayana Buddhism, which evolved approximately 400 years after the birth of Buddhism. It is an elaborate network of ideas that has seen other types of Buddhism branch out from its traditions. Unlike other Buddhists, Mahayana followers not only aspire to be free from suffering, but also to lead others to liberation and enlightenment.

Stanford News Service interviewed Harrison, Professor George Edwin Burnell of Religious Studies in the School of Humanities and Sciences, about Buddhism and the latest research into its origins.

What are some things people might not know about Buddhism?

Some people, especially those in the western world, seem to be spellbound and mesmerized by the charm of Buddhism and the way it is portrayed in the media. We are now saturated with the promotion of mindfulness meditation, which comes from Buddhism.

Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison (Image credit: Connor Crutcher)

But Buddhism is not limited to meditation. Buddhism is a surprisingly complex religious tradition. Buddhist monks don’t just sit there and meditate all day. Many of them don’t do any meditation at all. They study texts, do administrative work, fundraise, and perform rituals for lay people, with particular emphasis on funerals.

Buddhism has a very good press. I try to show my students that Buddhism is not as beautiful and mellow as they might think. Buddhism has a dark side, which, for example, we saw in Myanmar with the recent persecution of the Rohingya people there.

It’s like we have to believe that there is a religion that is not as dark and dark as everything around us. But every religion is a human instrument, and it can be used for good and for bad. And this is just as true of Buddhism as it is of any other religion.

Why is it important to study the origin of Buddhism and other religions?

Religion plays an extremely important role in our world today. Sometimes this has extremely negative consequences, as witnessed by terrorist incidents such as the September 11 attacks. But sometimes it has positive consequences, when used to promote altruistic behavior and compassion.

Religion is important to our politics. So we have to understand how religions work. And part of that understanding involves trying to understand how religions have developed and become what they have become.

This new book of essays on Mahayana Buddhism is just a small part of how Buddhism has developed over time.

What is Mahayana Buddhism and what are its particularities?

Word Mahayana is generally translated as “the great vehicle”. Word maha means “large”, but the Yana little is trickier. It can mean both “vehicle” and “track”, hence the title of this book.

As far as we know, Mahayana Buddhism began to take shape in the first century BCE. This religious movement then rapidly developed in a number of different places in and around what is today India, the birthplace of Buddhism.

Buddhism itself began in the fifth century BCE. We now believe that the Buddha, who founded the religion, died around the year 400 BCE. As Buddhism developed, it spread beyond India. A number of different schools have emerged. And from this already complicated situation, we had the rise of a number of currents, or ways of thinking, that eventually started to be labeled as Mahayana.

The pre-Mahayana kind of Buddhism, which I call mainstream Buddhism, is more or less a direct continuation of the founder’s teachings. Its main ideal is to achieve liberation from suffering and from the cycle of life and rebirth by reaching a state called nirvana. You can achieve nirvana through moral effort, the use of various meditation techniques, and learning Dharma, which is the teaching of the Buddha.

Finally, some people said that traditional Buddhism is great, but it does not go far enough. They believed that people should not only be free from suffering, but also free others and also become Buddhas.

Mahayana Buddhists strive to copy the life of the Buddha and reproduce it endlessly. This effort was at the origin of the Bodhisattva ideal. A bodhisattva is a person who wants to become a Buddha by setting out on the great path. This meant that Mahayana Buddhists were allegedly motivated by greater compassion than the normal type of Buddhists and aimed for a full understanding of reality and greater wisdom.

It is Mahayana in a nutshell. But along with that, there is a whole bunch of new meditation techniques, elaborate cosmology and mythology, and a large number of texts that were written around the time of the Mahayana’s birth.

What is the biggest takeaway from the latest research on the origin of Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism?

The development of Buddhism and its literature is much more complicated than we have realized. By the middle of the 20th century, scholars believed that Mahayana Buddhism had been developed by lay people who wanted to make Buddhism for everyone. It has been compared to the Protestant movement in Christianity. But we now know that this picture is not true.

Evidence shows that Mahayana Buddhism was ruled by renunciators, Buddhist monks and nuns. They were the staunch practitioners of the religion, and they were responsible for writing the Mahayana scriptures and promoting these new ideas. The laity were not the initiators.

But the whole story is even more complicated than that. The development of Buddhism is more like a tumbleweed than a tree. And Mahayana Buddhism is a kind of stream braided by several river currents, without a main current.

Why is it difficult to understand how Mahayana Buddhism came into being?

What is special about Buddhist studies and what sets them apart from the study of religions like Christianity is that there is still a huge amount of material that has not been translated or studied properly.

Over the past two or three decades, scholars have also discovered numerous texts in a long lost language called Gandhari, some of which are related to the Mahayana. These documents, the oldest of which date from the first century BCE, were found in an area that now includes Pakistan and parts of northern India, Afghanistan, and central Asia.

Many of these texts are very difficult to translate and understand. And there is more material that continues to surface. All of this changes our view of the beginnings of Buddhist history.