Buddhism: A Concise Overview

Skt., dharma, buddhadharma
Tib., chos
Jap., ho, bukkyo

Similar to most other so-called major religions, the Buddha-Dharma (Skt., Buddhist Doctrine) is not such a homogenous whole as it may seem, to an outsider, on first sight. The original teachings of Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni (563-483 BCE), the historical Buddha, have undergone substantial changes (and have been elaborated and refined by others) not only due to different interpretations by his immediate and historical followers, but because they have been adapted to many societies and been influenced by many local customs and beliefs, resulting in various distinct forms of Buddhism.

Not long after Gautama’s death (or rather: his passing into Nirvana), a schism occurred in the 1st century Buddhist community that led to the distinction between Hinayana and Mahayana, two forms of interpreting the Buddha's original teachings and intentions. In due process, both these streams engendered a variety of philosophical schools and religious systems; some of which were more successful (in attracting students and practitioners) than others.

Today, about 2,500 years later, the number of people who practice Buddhism in one way or another is about 300 to 500 million, yet the forms of Buddhism they practice are rather different ones - in their views concerning life and the universe as well as in their actual practice:

Although Buddhism originally developed in India, the major Buddhist countries today are Bhutan, Burma (Myanmar), Japan, Cambodia (Kampuchea), Korea, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), Taiwan, Thailand, Tibet and Vietnam.

In India itself, the Dharma plays only a marginal role (since the 13th century) and exists today mainly in those Himalayan territories that were politically incorporated into the country in relatively recent times:
Northern Assam, Darjeeling, and Sikkim in the East; and Ladakh, Lahul, Spiti and Zanskar in the West.

During the last few decades, Buddhism has also begun to attract a substantial number of people in Europe, Australia and the America's, with Vajrayana and Zen being the two favored forms.