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Buddhism is such a vast and varied field that professional scholars who have studied it admit that it is impossible, or virtually so, for a single scholar to keep track of the whole field. As a result, all accounts of Buddhism, including this one, are unreliable.
A further difficulty is that recent scholarship tends to avoid generalization, so the general statements making up most of this article may be unrepresentative.
Yet a further problem is that scholars have mostly tended to study scriptures and other classical literature rather than real live Buddhism (Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, volume 30, page 282). (But Buddhist sources are even worse. Would you trust the Pope or Billy Graham for a reliable unbiased account of Christianity?)
Most people, including most Buddhists, consider Buddhism to be a religion, and modern western textbooks on religions regularly include a chapter on it, though most scholars agree that there is not a clear-cut distinction between religion and philosophy in Buddhism. It is the oldest of the three religions that have transcended ethnicity and spread round the world on a large scale. It is the official religion in Bhutan, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. There are significantly large communities of Buddhists in 126 countries. More than half the world population is located in areas where Buddhism has been dominant at some point in history. Most scholars estimate the world Buddhist population as around 480,000,000 (Understanding the Religions of the World, ed Deming, Wiley Blackwell, 2015, page 63).
Scholars do not try to identify any essence or defining characterization of Buddhism, though its different forms have family resemblances (Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2012, page 4).
- the cause of suffering,
- the cessation of suffering,
- the path leading to the cessation of suffering;
there are a variety of interpretations.
Buddhism is dominated by the monastic Order, though in Japan nearly all male clergy are married. The Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese traditions preserve an order of nuns subordinate to the monks.
There is a growing consensus among scholars that Mahayana is not characterized by a collection of beliefs or practices. It emphasizes adapting the teachings to suit different people, and is thus very diverse. The most popular form of Buddhism is Pure Land. It offers a way of salvation based on faith alone. It believes the Buddha Amitabha has the power to take his devotees to his Pure Land.
Nearly all Buddhists use ritual for spiritual ends.
Devotion is a major part of the lives of most Buddhists.
Virtually all forms of Buddhism regard meditation as the main way to enlightenment, but, for most of Buddhist history, it has been mainly monastic, and in a minority even in that context.
Buddhism has no tradition of moral theory (Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2007, pages 345f).
The most basic code of Buddhist morality is the Five Precepts (Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism (Volume Two), page 673): to refrain from
- taking life
- sexual misconduct
Different branches of Buddhism use different collections, though with some overlap.
The founder of Buddhism is known as the Buddha, a title meaning "awakened" or "enlightened". He was born in what is now Nepal, and taught there and in nearby areas now in India. His family name was Gotama. There is now a more or less established,  though not final, consensus among specialist historians that the Buddha died some time around 400 BC. Certain teachings are found with such frequency throughout the early texts that most historians conclude that he must have taught at least something of the sort. Over the first few centuries of its existence Buddhism evolved into a number of schools, of which Theravada is the only survivor. Little or nothing is known of the origins of Mahayana. Buddhism eventually virtually died out in India.
Theravada Budhism was introduced into Ceylon around 250 BC and spread from there to Burma in the 11th century, and from there to what are now Thailand, Cambodia and Laos over the next two centuries or so.
Buddhism spread through Central Asia to China, where it is first recorded in AD 65. It spread from there to Korea in the late 4th century, and was officially introduced from there to Japan in 538.
Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th or 8th century. The Mongols were converted to the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism in the 16th century. A migrating Mongol tribe settled Buddhism in Europe in the 17th century.
Buddhism has made significant numbers of converts in the West in the last couple of centuries, almost entirely of a style that emphasizes modernist elements.
- Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2007, page ix
- Lopez, (Story of) Buddhism, Harper/Penguin, 2001, Acknowledgements
- Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 30, page 289
- Numen, volume 49, page 388/Williams, Buddhism, Routledge, Volume III, 2005, page 403
- Chryssides & Greaves, Study of Religion, Continuum Press, 2007, page 13
- Buddhism Questioning Christianity, ed Anreas Bsteh, English translation St Gabriel Publishing, Moedling, Austria, 2010, page 198
- Schroeder, Skillful Means, University of Hawai'i Press, 2001, page 5
- Bechert and Gombrich, World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, 1984, page 7; Sopher, Geography of Religion, Prentice-Hall, 1967, page 7; the other two are Christianity and Islam; others have done so on a much smaller scale
- Fox, World Survey of Religion and the State, Cambridge University Press, 2008, Table 7.1 [page 182]
- World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd ed, Oxford University Press, 2001, volume 1, page 3
- Penguin Handbook of the World's Living Religions, 2010, page 371
- Lopez, The Scientific Buddha, Yale University Press, 2012, page 15
- History of Religions, volume 42, page 389
- Jerryson & Juergensmeyer, Buddhist Warfare, Oxford University Press, 2010, page 15, note 5; Keown, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1996, chapter 4; Cambridge Illustrated History of Religions, page 78
- Jerryson & Juergensmeyer, Buddhist Warfare, Oxford University Press, 2010, page 5
- Bechert & Gombrich, World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, 1984, page 9
- History of Religions, volume 43, page 167
- Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004 (Volume Two), pages 607f
- Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004 (Volume One), page 353
- Keown, Buddhism, Oxford University Press: 1st edition, 1996, page 11; 2nd edition, 2013, page 13
- Oxtoby & Amore, World Religions: Eastern Tradtions, Oxford University Press, 2010, page 205/4th edition, page 218/Oxtoby & Segal, Concise Introduction to the World Religions, Oxford University Press, 1st ed, 2007, page 398/2nd ed, 2012, page 394
- Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism, Routledge: 1st ed, 1988, page 21/2nd ed, 2006, page 22
- Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism, Routledge, 1st ed, 1988/2nd ed, 2006, page 3
- Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, volume 30, page 219
- Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 2nd ed, 2006, Routledge, pages 1f
- Flesher, Exploring Religions, University of Wyoming
- Oxtoby & Amore, World Religions: Eastern Traditions, Oxford University Press, 2010, page 211/4th edition, page 224/Oxtoby & Segal, Concise Introduction to World Religions, 2nd ed, 2012, page 398
- Mitchell, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, ist ed, 2002, page 206/2nd ed, 2008, page 226
- Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004 (Volume One), page 139
- Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 170
- Keown, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2013, page 96; for the second part, see also Lopez, Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics, 2004, page xxxii, and Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2007, pages 502f
- Macmillan Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2004 (Volume Two), page 756
- Bechert & Gombrich, World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, 1984, page 7
- Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 1
- Bechert & Gombrich, World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, 1984, page 11
- Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism, Routledge, 1st edition 1988/2nd edition 2006, page 1
- Gethin, Sayings of the Buddha, Oxford World Classics, 2008, page xv
- Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2007, page 107
- Mitchell, Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1st ed, 2002, page 34
- Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 2
- , page 91
- Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 140
- Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism, Routledge, 1st edition 1988/2nd edition 2006, page 3
- Bechert & Gombrich, World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, 1984, page 196
- Bechert & Gombrich, World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, 1984, page 202
- Harvey, Introduction to Buddhism, Cambridge University Press, 1990, page 161
- Bechert & Gombrich, World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, 1984, page 256
- Bechert & Gombrich, World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, 1984, page 266
- Bechert & Gombrich, World of Buddhism, Thames & Hudson, 1984, page 268
- Keown & Prebish, Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2007, page 286
A wide range of books in this field can be obtained through Wisdom Books.
Works of scholars
For the general reader
- Bechert, Heinz, & Gombrich, Richard, eds, The World of Buddhism: Buddhist Monks and Nuns in Society and Culture, Thames & Hudson, London, 1984: written by 11 scholars; includes nearly 300 illustrations, 82 in colour; arranged by country; assessed in 1987 as much the best (Macmillan Encyclopedia of Religion, volume 2, page 382)
- Lopez, Donald S., Jr., Buddhism, Penguin/The Story of Buddhism: a Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings, Harper, San Francisco, 2001 (same book, though different pagination): arranged topically; rather impressionistic, not always making clear which Buddhists believe and practise which things
- Cantwell, Cathy, Buddhism: the Basics, Routledge, 2010
- Gethin, Rupert, Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 1998; mainly on early Buddhism, which the author treats as the "foundations", always present in the background if not the foreground
- Habito, Ruben L. F., Experiencing Buddhism: Ways of Wisdom and Compassion, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 2005; Table of contents; treats the subject by analogy with a tree: the "root experience", the "trunk", and the "branches": Theravada, Zen, Tantra (mainly Tibetan), Pure Land and Lotus (mainly Nichiren)
- Harvey, Peter, Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History and Practices, Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2012: teachings are embedded in historical context, but practices are dealt with in parallel
- Keown, Damien, Buddhism: a Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 1996; review
- Klostermaier, Klaus K., Buddhism: a Short Introduction, Oneworld Pub, 1999: as stated in the Introduction, this is actually an account of Indian Buddhism, based on the "assumption" that the "substance" of the teaching has been preserved
- Mitchell, Donald S., and Jacoby, Sarah H., Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 3rd ed, Oxford University Press, 2014; review of 1st ed in Philosophy East and West, volume 54
- Olson, Carl D., The Different Paths of Buddhism: a Narrative-Historical Introduction, Rutgers University Press, 2005
- Prebish, Charles S., & Keown, Damien, Introducing Buddhism, 2nd ed, Routledge, 2010
- Robinson, Richard H., revised by Johnson, Willard L., and Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Buddhist Religions: a Historical Introduction, 5th ed, Wadsworth, Belmont, California, 2004: the s is new to this edition; particularly popular (Routledge Encyclopedia of Buddhism, page 629); review (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, volume 74, number 3, September 2006, pages 765-70) also makes brief comments on several other books in this list
- Chapter 8 in Penguin Handbook of the World's Living Religions, 3rd edition, 2010
- Kitagawa & Cummings, Buddhism & Asian History, Macmillan, 1989: selected articles from Encyclopedia of Religion, 15 vols, Macmillan, New York, 1987
- Encyclopedia of Buddhism, 2 vols, Macmillan, 2004: written by over 200 scholars
- Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Routledge, 2007: written by 23 scholars
- Oxford Dictionary of Buddhism, 2003
- Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, 2013
Compilations of Buddhist writings
- Morgan, Kenneth W., ed, Path of the Buddha, Ronald Press, New York, 1956; reprint Motilal, Delhi, distributed by Wisdom Books: the editor travelled round the East asking leading Buddhists to recommend contributors; he ended up with 7 Japanese professors, 3 Theravada monks and a Tibetan official
- See also Buddhist anthologies in English