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The History Of Buddhism - The Early Period



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By Jayaram V

Next > Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

This article describes the early history of Buddhism starting from the death of the Buddha and how the followers of the new faith attempted to preserve the teachings and the memory of the Buddha.

Soon after the Buddha's death, the monks gave up the practice of begging for alms and wandering from place and place. They settled down for a sedentary life in monasteries, built by kings and wealthy merchants who were inspired by the teachings and the events of the Buddha's life and became his ardent followers. With generous donations and material contributions from these patrons, the monasteries thrived as Buddhism took deep roots in the subcontinent, despite stiff competition from sectarian movements within the Vedic religion and other religious movements such as Jainism.

During his life time on earth, the Buddha attracted the attention of many people. His exemplary life, the fact that he descended from a princely family, the simplicity of his teachings and his opposition to ritualism and casteism, drew the attention of many from all ranks and contributed to the immense popularity of Buddhism. The Buddha was aware of the problems of monastic life that could surface within the monastic order over a period of time. He therefore established well defined code of conduct for the monks to ensure that they followed the right way of life during their practice of the Dhamma in general and the eightfold path in particular.

His parinirvana must have left a big vacuum in the Order. None of his followers had his great stature and his personal appeal, though they had an infinite capacity to remain loyal to his teachings and the discipline he established. They were incapable of filling the void he left behind and needed a leading and guiding source of inspiration that would keep them firmly abide by the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, the three cardinal principles of Buddhism.

The best that they could do in such circumstances was to preserve the teachings of the Buddha in a systematic manner and use them as points of reference in times of doubt and confusion. This would help them preserve his teachings for the future generations,  strengthen the roots of Buddhism and create a universal code of conduct that could be implemented uniformly in all the monasteries that were know during that period.

And this was probably one of the objectives of the First Buddhist Council which was convened by the early followers of the Buddha after the Buddha's parinirvana. We understand that soon after the Buddha's parinirvana,  his chief disciples, Ananda and Upali recited his teachings to the gathered assembly and thus laid the foundation stone for the Buddhist Canon, that was to emerge later in the form of three Pitikas - Vinaya, Sutta and Abhidhamma.

The Buddha admitted all types of people into the Order, irrespective of their social and religious backgrounds. This practice contributed greatly to the popularity of the religion. But in many respects it also proved to be its weakness, for it admitted into the Order many who were ill qualified for a strict monastic discipline. It helped the Order to grow into an organized body of huge proportions. But at the same time it sowed the seeds of internal dissension and divisions, that finally led to the break up of the Order into various sects and sub-sects.

It is difficult to say how far the immediate disciples and followers of the Buddha succeeded in their efforts to preserve his teachings.  The early history of Buddhism does not offer many clues. It is possible that during the life time of the Buddha, his followers might have done some ground work to organize his teachings and preserve them for posterity. True to the ancient Indian tradition, some of the teachings might have been preserved through the oral tradition and in the form of descriptive fables and parables.

We do not know much about the relationship the followers of Buddhism and the Buddha himself maintained during the early days of Buddhism with other religions and faiths. We know that there were occasions in the life of the Buddha when he personally engaged himself in religious debates and discussions with other sects such as the Jainas and the Ajivakas to disprove their theories and beliefs. It is hard to attribute any reason for such debates and discussions on the part of the Buddha, other than unbound compassion the Buddha had towards others and his attempts to bring them to the Dhamma and Sangha in order to help them in their salvation.

The fledgling new faith needed immunity from the corruption of teachings,  a strong leadership and a distinct identity of its own to distinguish itself from other religions, gain a strong foothold in the subcontinent, keep the Dhamma and Sangha intact and attract new followers and converts to the faith.

As a scion of a ruling family, and having been tutored in the early part of his life, the Buddha was familiar with the art of leadership, organization and administration. He was also aware of the implications of creating a large body of Buddhist monks who would have to stay together and practice Dhamma under the most challenging circumstances. We know that at times he was disappointed with the behavior and insincerity of some of his  followers. He knew the evils of decay and disintegration inherent in all component things, which he reminded his followers to remember even from his death bed.

He therefore organized the Buddhist Monastic Order on the basis of an established code of conduct, a hierarchy with in the Order and a daily and seasonal routine for the community of the monks within the Order. He also maintained a rigid stance when it came to admitting women who he believed would disturb the Order with their very presence and created a procedure to admit them. He exhorted his followers to be wary of the temptations of samsara by remaining focused on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path. He did not designate a successor as he truly believed his followers to be lamps unto themselves and follow the Dhamma as it was taught to them.

One of the new practices that began after his passing away was the veneration of the chaityas or the sacred spots. This practice was already prevalent in ancient India in some rudimentary form and the  Buddhists adopted it as their own. Another new practice adopted by The Buddhists was the building of the stupas. Originally stupas were built to designate the places where the ashes of the Buddha were buried as a mark of honor and symbols of veneration. In course of time stupas were being built for other reasons as well such as to express devotion or to honor the relics of a Buddhist monk.The third development was the development of sacred places and objects like the Bodhi tree, the Deer Park etc., which were associated with the Buddha's life and activities. These places became sacred places of pilgrimage and veneration for the followers of Buddhism.

These new developments contributed to the popularity of Buddhism outside the monastic order. But rituals were still looked with disfavor and the worship of the Buddha or his images, perhaps, did not yet begin.

These changes gradually led to the emergence of a new schools of Buddhism that were radically different in several respects from the original teachings of the Buddha. The changes helped the new religion adapt itself to the growing demands of a wider population and helped it emerge as a major world religion. 

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