History

As a 2,500-year old religion, Buddhism has a rich and diverse past
  • The Buddha-charita Paid Member

    This installment is the second in a series of excerpts from The Buddha-charita or Life of Buddha, the first complete biography of Shakyamuni Buddha, written by the poet Ashvaghosha, probably in the first century C.E. The Buddha-charita is made up of twenty-eight songs recounting events in the Buddha’s life up to the time of his great awakening. The previous installment described Shakyamuni’s family and the events that surrounded his birth. In this episode we hear Shakyamuni’s first words and witness the arrival of Asita, the great seer, who pronounces the Buddha’s fate. This excerpt was adapted from Edward B. Cowell’s 1893 translation (Cosmo Publications, New Delhi, India). Original spellings, usages, and punctuation have been retained throughout. More »
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    Meeting the Buddha Paid Member

    The following are excerpts from Meeting the Buddha: On Pilgrimage in Buddhist India, a selection of writings by pilgrims from ancient times to the present, to be published in November by Tricycle Books (an imprint of Putnam/Riverhead). Here we have selected pieces from the sections on the pilgrimage itself and on Bodh Gaya. In a discussion with his attendant Ananda, the Buddha delineates the basis for the eight holy sites in India. Tathagata refers to the Buddha: More »
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    Digesting The Dharma Paid Member

    In my last column, I provided a brief history of the attempt to anthologize Buddhist texts, to reduce the teachings of Buddhism to a single volume. The organization of these anthologies was often telling, revealing the presuppositions and prejudices of the editors. Some were chronological, beginning with Pali texts (believed to be the earliest sources) and moved on to Indian Mahayana, then to China, and sometimes Tibet, and ended with some works of Japanese Zen. Tibet was almost neglected in this schema: because of the paucity of Tibetan translations, anthologizers drew inevitably from The Tibetan Book of the Dead or The Life of Milarepa. The president of the Buddhist Society of London, Christmas Humphreys augmented the Tibetan materials in The Wisdom of Buddhism (1960) with a selection from Madame Blavatsky's The Voice of the Silence, a work scholars regard as her own fabrication. More »
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    Losing Our Religion Paid Member

    Robert Sharf's interest in Buddhism began in the early 1970s, when, as a seeker in sandals barely out of his teens, he hopped from one meditation retreat to the next, first in India and Burma, then back in North America. It was shortly after a three-month Vipassana meditation retreat in Bucksport, Maine, in 1975 that Sharf began to wonder whether the single-minded emphasis on meditation characteristic of much of Western Buddhism was in some way misguided. Over time, doubt and confusion gave way to a desire to better understand Buddhism's historical background, which in turn led him to pursue a career in Buddhist scholarship. Today Sharf is the D. H. Chen Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. More »
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    A Democracy of the Imagination Paid Member

                         Ernest Hemingway spoke once of sitting at his desk each morning to face "the horror of a blank sheet of paper." He found himself (as any writer can confirm) having to produce by the end of the day a series of words arranged in a way that has never before been imagined. You sit there, alone, hovering on the cusp between nothing and something. This is not a blank, stale nothing; it is an awesome nothing charged with unrealized potential. And the hovering is the kind that can fill you with dread. Rearrangement of the items on your desk assumes an irresistible attraction. More »
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    The Final Word: An Interview with Jacqueline Stone Paid Member

    What is the Lotus Sutra about? In it we read how to hear the sutra, how to preach the sutra, who was gathered to hear it preached, what happened before it was preached, why it is so important, how it was preached in the past, what will happen in the future to those who hear it, and so on. It is like an extravagant preamble to an event that never seems to arrive. Some scholars of the Lotus Sutra have noted just that point, and I think it is a fair reading. If we just read the sutra, and set aside later interpretations, one thing we see going on is that the sutra is establishing its own authority. For example, at the beginning the Buddha emerges from meditation and begins to preach spontaneously, and not, as is usually the case, in response to a question. He says that he will soon enter final nirvana, and so he is now going to preach the true and unsurpassed dharma. More »