Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), "Dover Beach," 1867

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind: Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), "Dirge Without Music," 1928

... und wenn man den verstocktesten Optimisten durch die Krankenhospitäler, Lazarethe und chirurgische Marterkammern, durch die Gefängnisse, Folterkammern und Sklavenställe, über Schlachtfelder und Gerichtsstätten führen, dann alle die finstern Behausungen des Elends, wo es sich vor den Blicken kalter Neugier verkriecht, ihm öffnen und zum Schluß ihn in den Hungerthurm des Ugolino blicken lassen wollte; so würde sicherlich auch er zuletzt einsehn, welcher Art dieser meilleur des mondes possibles ist.

If we were to conduct the most hardened and callous optimist through hospitals, infirmaries, operating theatres, through prisons, torture-chambers, and slave-hovels, over battlefields and to places of execution; if we were to open to him all the dark abodes of misery, where it shuns the gaze of cold curiosity, and finally were to allow him to glance into the dungeon of Ugolino where prisoners starved to death, he too would certainly see in the end what kind of a world is this meilleur des mondes possibles.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, §58, Volume I, E.F.J. Payne translation, 1958, Dover, 1966, p.325; German text, Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Band 1, Philipp Reclam, Stuttgart, 1987, 1990, p.458.

(...-- die Ausschweifung eines »Mitleidens mit Gott« gehört in ein demokratisches Zeitalter --); Eins allesammt im Schrei und der Ungeduld des Mitleidens, im Todhaß gegen das Leiden überhaupt, in der fast weiblichen Unfähigkeit, Zuschauer dabei bleiben zu können, leiden lassen zu können; Eins in der unfreiwilligen Verdüsterung und Verzärtlichung, unter deren Bann Europa von einem neuen Buddhismus bedroht scheint...

(... the extravagance of "compassion with God" belongs to a democratic age); they are one in the shriek, the impatience, of their compassion; one in the deadly hatred against suffering as such, in their almost feminine inability to remain spectators to it, to allow suffering to take place; they are one in the involuntary depression and molly-coddling under whose spell Europe seems threatened by a new form of Buddhism.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Marianne Cowan, Henry Regnery Company, 1955, p.114, translation modified; Jenseits von Gut und Böse, Philipp Reclam, Stuttgart, 1988, p.108; Todhaß restored for Todhass; color added.

Ihr wollt womöglich -- und es giebt kein tolleres »womöglich« -- das Leiden abschaffen; und wir? -- es scheint gerade, wir wollen es lieber noch höher und schlimmer haben, als je es war!

You want, if possible -- and there is no more insane "if possible" -- to do away with suffering. And we? -- it seems that we want it more and worse than it ever was!

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by Marianne Cowan, Henry Regnery Company, 1955, p.151, translation modified; Jenseits von Gut und Böse, Philipp Reclam, Stuttgart, 1988, p.140; color added.

Siddhārtha Gautama, (563-483 or 466-386 BC), also called Śākyamuni, (the Sage of the Śākya Clan), the Gautama Buddha, , the "Enlightened One" (from budh, "to wake up"), and the Tathāgata, (the "Thus Come"), was born to a royal Kṣatriya family.

At his birth there was a prophecy that either he would become a world conqueror, a Cakravartin, , or he would "conquer" the world by renouncing it and becoming a Buddha. His father preferred the more tangible kind of conquest and tried to shield Siddhartha from all the evils of life that might tempt him into spiritual reflection. This strategy backfired; for when, about age thirty, Siddhartha finally did experience evils, by encountering a sick man, an old man, a dead man, and a wandering ascetic, he determined immediately to renounce the world and seek enlightenment like the ascetic. This violated Siddhartha's duty as a householder, since his wife had just given birth to their first child, but Vedic duties and the traditional four stages of life were no longer of interest to him.

After years of fasting and other ascetic practices, during which he supposedly subsisted on as little as one grain of rice a day, Siddhartha felt that he had achieved nothing. He ceased his fasting, which disillusioned his fellow ascetics -- "Siddhartha has become luxuriant!" They left him. Siddhartha then sat down under a tree with the determination not to arise until he had achieved enlightenment -- which sounds like an ascetic practice in its own right. The tree became the Bodhi, , "Enlightenment," Tree; for under it Siddhartha, resisting the attacks and temptations of Māra, the king of the demons, became the Buddha, , the one who "Woke Up." In the traditional chronology, that was in about 527. The Buddha proceeded to Sārnāth, near Benares [note].

Along the way the Buddha met some traveling merchants, who recognized him as a Buddha. Since merchants later spread Buddhism to Central Asia and China, this began a tradition of respect for merchants and trade, very different from the disapproving attitude in Western philosophy or in Confucianism. At Sārnāth, the Buddha encountered his old companions and delivered his first sermon in a place called the Deer Park. That set the "Wheel of the Law," the Dharmacakra, , in motion. The form of the Dharmacakra at right is identical to the one on the flag of India and is copied from a pillar set up at Sārnāth by the great King Aśoka.

In Chinese, the "Wheel of the Law" is translated (Hōrin in Japanese), and to "revolve" the Wheel, or preach the Dharma, is (Tenhōrin in Japanese).

The Buddha's sermon consisted of the Four Noble Truths, , Āryasatya:

  1. The Truth of Suffering, or Misery (Duḥkhasatya, ), that life is suffering, including birth, disease, old age, and death;

    I have seen people saying that the First Noble Truth is not really "suffering" or "misery," which are "mistranslations," but something more like unhappiness, dislocation, dissatisfaction, or "unsatisfactoriness," on the analogy that , duḥkha, is about a chariot axle not working quite right. I see some texts (which I had even used for my classes) claiming that this is the "deeper meaning" of duḥkha. I have also heard that religious practices, like "mindfulness" meditation, are simply a way of releaving "stress," which will make us healthier and happier in life. The Buddha is even said to have discovered that Salvation, or Nirvāṇa, ("Extinction"), is nevertheless simply living "normal human life... doing normal human things" -- something that the Buddha himself, of course, unaccountably did not do.

    This whole business seems to go back to what is presented as the etymology of duḥkha. Sukha, , can mean "pleasant, agreeable, gentle, mild, comfortable, happy, prosperous" [M.F. Monier-Williams, Sanskṛit-English Dictionary, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 2008, p.1220, Oxford, 1899]. This analyzes as "good," su, [cognate to Greek εὖ, "well, good"], "[axle] hole," kha, ["cavity, hollow, aperture... 'the hole in the nave of a wheel through which the axle runs'," p.334], giving, with the other meanings, "having a good axle-hole." The opposite of this would be duḥkha, , i.e. "bad [axle] hole." Therefore it is said that duḥkha does not really mean anything all that bad. The "YogaGlo" site (which I mention, not because it is important or authoritative in itself, but just because it is characteristic) says that duḥkha "might be thought more simply as a 'bad fit'," or "uneasiness, or discomfort." The problems with this I would classify under three headings:

    1. I have never seen the citation of a canonical, authoritative text where the Buddha says something like, "Now don't get the wrong idea about this. I just mean that duḥkha makes us uneasy. I may be a wandering ascetic; but I don't expect all you to do something so extreme and abnormal, the way I have. I mean, what kind of socially conscious person goes around begging? The government owes them a job, you know, and medical care. Social justice means that the police should be taking the money from those who have it -- like my father -- and giving it to me, oh, I mean, to the poor. And this celibacy stuff, I mean, that's for people like child molesting Catholic priests, not for, er, ah, me? I'm going to have to think about that."

      The Tripitaka is huge, and I can't say I've read much of it at all; but Buddhist scholars I know have read a lot, and they know of no proof text for this. More authoritative persons making this argument, whether Zen masters or lamas, don't seem to have a reference to Scripture ready. Instead,

    2. The canonical examples of duḥkha are inconsistent with its trivialization (which is what we are talking about). A canonical statement is at Majjhima-Nikâya, Sutta 63, where the Buddha says "there still remain birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair, for the extinction of which in the present life I am prescribing" [Henry Clarke Warren, Buddhism in Translation, Cosimo, 2005, p.121, Atheneum, 1896]. When Siddhartha went out, he saw an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and an ascetic. He did not see someone just having a bad (hair) day. I would say that disease, death, "sorrow, lamentation... grief, and despair," amount to a lot more than "uneasiness." Anyone regarding a malfunctioning axle as "deeper" than the experience of disease, old age, or death sounds like they have not had much experience of disease, old age, death, grief, despair, or lamentation. Indeed, grief, despair, and lamentation are not manifestations of anything so tepid as "dissatisfaction." Furthermore, the sort of modernist, feel-good, psychologized version of Buddhism that something like "YogaGlo" promotes is not going to involve the practices posited by the Buddha, namely asceticism and monasticism. But then, that is probably the point. The modernist guru is world-affirming and has no intention of recommending renunciation to his audience. We all know that celibacy is unhealthy. Ask any Zen master -- although most historical Zen masters were celibate monks.

    3. While the etymology for duḥkha is cute, it is a fundamental linguistic and semantic error to reduce the meaning of a word to its etymology -- especially when that may be a speculative or folk etymology. Indeed, the Monier-Williams Sanskṛt-English Dictionary says that duḥkha is "more probably a Prakritized form for duḥ-stha" [p.483], in which the second element, sthā, , is simply the cognate of "stand" in English (or stê- in Greek ἵστημι, "make to stand, stand"). No axle holes here. The question then is about the first element, duḥ, in the compound:

      1. This can be from du, , which Monier-Williams defines as "to be burnt; to burn, cause internal heat, pain, or sorrow, afflict, distress" [p.483]. We also get "burn, be pained; pain, hardship, misery, suffering" [in A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, Arthur Anthony Macdonell, Oxford University Press, 1929, 1971, p. 121].

      2. Or it can be from dush, , "wrong, bad," which can be reduced to duḥ, . Dush in Monier-Williams is "to become bad or corrupted, to be defiled or impure, to be ruined, perish; to sin, commit a fault, be wrong" [p.488].

      Either way, duḥ is going to be a rather stronger element than the YogaGlo version of duḥkha is going to contemplate.

      If Nirvāṇa is living a "normal human life... doing normal human things" -- as one of my textbooks actually said -- then not only is the practice of the Buddha himself inexplicable, but what we hear about his followers is also something very different. When asked why he had abandoned Vedic sacrifices and become a follower of the Buddha, the Brahmin Kassapa answered:

      It is visible things and sounds, and also tastes, pleasures and woman that the sacrifices speak of; because I understood that whatever belongs to existence is filth, therefore I took no more delight in sacrifices and offerings. [Vinaya 1,36, quoted by Patrick Olivelle, The Āśrama System, Oxford, 1993, boldface added]

      Somehow, if "whatever belongs to existence is filth," including pleasures and women, it is hard to imagine Kassapa leaving his Buddhist meditation class to drive his SUV home to a suburban household and prosperous professional life. Siddhartha walked away (well, rode way, actually) from all that. To the idea that the Buddha's Enlightenment meant that he could just live a "normal life," the critical question would be to ask, "Well, why didn't the Buddha then just go home and return to his wife and family?" But the Buddha obviously did not live a "normal" life "doing normal human things." He was a mendicant monk, and still an ascetic; and one may notice that Westerners, who may rather smugly tell us that Nirvāṇa is just "normal life," are almost never engaging in monastic practice themselves. Its very existence renders their assertions incoherent. So they conveniently forget about it.

      My suspicion is that those who trivialize the meaning of "suffering" may be transposing, consciously or unconsciously, a Mahāyāna notion that maybe the world isn't all that bad. This is a point of view that is, to be sure, part of the Buddhist tradition, but it is very different from the early message and attitude of Buddhism. Nor is it even characteristic of all of the Mahāyāna, where the practice of Pure Land schools is to "shun the defiled world." Also, the most authoritative Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, for the Tendai and Nichiren sects, which are themselves noteworthy for their reconciliation with the mundane world, nevertheless contains the striking characterization of the world as a "burning house." A "burning house" offers little opportunity for a trivializing interpretation of suffering, and it recalls part of the likely meaning of duḥkha, , "to burn."

      Acting like Mahāyāna doctrine was the meaning of Buddhism from the beginning may reflect a sectarian commitment, but it is ahistorical and, for people who are supposed to be scholars of Buddhism, dishonest or incompetent. However, the idea that the world is essentially unpleasant, in all its details, and gives us a nagging feeling that something is not quite right, is a good Buddhist clue that something is wrong more deeply. This is even rather like what we find in the movie, The Matrix, where, from initial uneasiness, and in properly Buddhist fashion, it turns out that the world is a horrible illusion and deception.

      Much worse than presenting as original and authentic an interpretation of Buddhism that may actually only be characteristic of some schools of the Mahāyāna is a secularizing and psychologizing approach. If Buddhist practice relieves stress and produces greater health and happiness, and enables us to live a normal life, it does not matter that disease, old age, and death are still there if death itself will actually deliver us from these conditions. We can get this approach from people who are in fact modern materialists and naturalists, reject the reality of karma and reincarnation, dismiss the miraculous powers of the Buddha as metaphors or fairy tales, and regard death as nothingness. Each of these contradicts basic Buddhist metaphysics and are all historically judged to be major Buddhist heresies. Viewing the dead as nothing is "annihilationism" and conflicts with the application of the Four-Fold Negation to the ontology of Nirvāṇa. In Buddhist philosophy, materialism is despised. It is alien to the letter and the spirit of Buddhism, not to mention rather missing the point.

      However, rejecting basic Buddhist doctrines, like karmic recompense, and embracing heresies, like materialism, renders one an icchantika, , someone who, from unbelief (), is incapable of salvation and destined for the Avīci Hell. A lot of "Buddhist modernism" is an attempt to actually reject traditional Buddhism and reduce it to nothing more than a scientifically reasonable form of rationalistic philosophy, while at the same time scrambling to make it ecologically and politically correct. These are concerns that are foreign to any traditional form of Buddhism and irrelevant to the sober truth of the Buddha's insights. Why people who may regard themselves as Buddhists would give doctrinal credence and priority to the metaphysics of Western atheists puzzles me [note].

  2. The Truth of the Cause (Samudayasatya, ), that suffering is caused by desire () and by ignorance (avidyā, ), which ultimately depend on each other. This is the doctrine of Dependent Origination, discussed below. Despite rigorous attacks on the metaphysics of substance and essence, there is no critique of causality in Buddhism as there is in Western Philosophy with al-Ghazzālī or David Hume;

  3. The Truth of Cessation (Nirodhasatya, ), that suffering can be ended if its causes, desire and ignorance, are removed. Again, in the Mahāyāna, we get the notion that desire can be transformed rather than abolished, which strictly speaking leaves us as part of the cycle of Dependent Origination; and

  4. The Truth of the Way (Mārgasatya, ), which is the Middle Way between the extremes of asceticism and indulgence. I might expect the "Middle Way" to be , madhyamārga; but I do not see use of this particular expression. Instead, we get , madhyama-prati-pad, with variations. This is also the Eightfold Way, which is

    1. Right Knowledge (or Views), , samyagdṛṣṭi,
    2. Right Resolve, , samyaksaṇkalpa,
    3. Right Speech, , samyagvāka,
    4. Right Conduct (or Action), , samyakkarma,
    5. Right Livelihood, , samyagjīva, what in Greek would be ὀρθὸς βίος,
    6. Right Effort, , samyagvyāyāma,
    7. Right Mindfulness, , samyaksmṛti, and
    8. Right Meditation (or Concentration), , samyaksamādhi.

The Buddha established a monastic Order, the (Chinese ), with five basic Precepts: not to kill, not to steal, not to be unchaste, not to drink intoxicants, and not to lie. The monastic discipline soon involved many more rules, and the Five Precepts became simple moral injunctions that applied to the laity as well as to the monks and nuns -- until debate began about whether the Precepts needed to be observed at all.

For all Buddhists, lay and monastic, convertion to Buddhism involved accepting the "Three Refuges," , Tri-Sharaṇa, i.e. (1) Refuge in the Buddha, (2) Refuge in the Dharma, and (3) Refuge in the Sangha (सङ्घ, saṅgha, or संघ, saṃgha, where the velar nasal is fully nasalized, or at least written that way). Note that this is not really a confession of faith or a creed, except indirectly. Presumably one must know about the Buddha to take refuge in him, but this is presupposed. The only institutional aspect to this involved the Sangha, but lay Buddhists may only interact with the Sangha by making offerings to monks. Later, the institutional presence of Buddhism will involve monasteries, temples, and ritual services, through which monks become "priests," whose presence in the community is more established and permanent than mendicant monks. Some ritual services we might expect from religion, and certainly from Hinduism, like weddings, were long of little interest to Buddhism. And in Japan, where weddings are usually handled by Shinto, it is only unusual Buddhist sects that now officiate at them.

Indeed, when Buddhism really only existed as the Sangha, a larger social context was assumed. This is starkly evident in Japan, where the symbiosis between Buddhism and native relgion -- which came to be called Shintō, , the "Way of the gods" -- progressed to the point that sometimes it was hard to tell them apart. An attempt at legal and institutional separation was made in the Meiji Period, but this proved unpopular and unworkable, so that today the saying is "Born Shintō, die Buddhist." Shintō will not touch anything having to do with death, while Buddhism is mainly uninterested in birth, marriage, etc. A further syncreticism can be seen in "Born Shinto, marry Christian, die Buddhist," although the trappings of a Christian wedding are valued mainly for the clothes, and these are sometimes only featured at the wedding banquet, without the necessity of a church service -- where many churches would be reluctant to conduct real weddings for people who are not real Christians.

On the other hand, the Kingdom of Korea, under the influence of Ming Neo-Confucianism, actively suppressed Buddhism for centuries. Such policies were ended by the Japanese, which unfortunately then associated Buddhism with the Japanese occupation, especially when Japanese Buddhist sects established "missions" in Korea. The result is that as many or more Koreans now are Christian than Buddhist.

Once Buddhism was (reluctantly) accepted in China, the institutional and ideological systematization of Chinese religion led to the theory of the Three Ways. Confucianism was never happy with either Buddhism or Taoism, but even staunch Confucians often found themselves unable to avoid Buddhist and Taoist influences. Indeed, there is no Confucian aesthetics, all of which is derived from Taoism; and the popular gods of China usually appear in Taoist and Buddhist reflexes.

Practice according to the Precepts accumulated moral Merit, and then, with sufficient Merit, Enlightenment would lead one to Nirvāṇa, , which the Buddha refused to positively characterize. Since Nirvāṇa means "Extinction," do we even exist when we achieve Nirvāṇa? The Buddha denied that we exist, denied that we do not exist, denied that we both exist and do not exist, and denied that we neither exist nor do not exist. This kind of answer is called the Four-Fold Negation and becomes a fundamental Buddhist philosophical principle to deal with attempts to characterize Nirvāṇa or ultimate reality:  we cannot either affirm or deny anything about them.

Buddhist scriptures are called the Tripiṭaka, , or the "Three Baskets," consisting of the Sutrapiṭaka, the Buddha's sermons, the Vinayapiṭaka, the monastic rules, and the Abhidharmapiṭaka, early philosophical treatises. The Buddha himself spoke the Prakrit Māgadhī, but the oldest version of the Tripiṭaka that is extant was committed to writing in Sri Lanka using the Prakrit Pāli, which had become a literary language. These texts are called the "Pāli Canon." The version of the Tripiṭaka that exists in Chinese used to be regarded as derived from the Pāli Canon, but they are now both seen as based on older versions. One frequently finds Pāli terminology used in reference to Buddhism. Sanskrit , sūtra, becomes sutta; dharma becomes dhamma; , ṛṣi (Hindi rishi) becomes isi; āshrama, , becomes assama; (King) Aśoka becomes Asoka; etc.

As I have noted, it is tempting to many to see the Buddha as essentially a philosopher and Buddhism as profoundly unlike other world religions -- perhaps not a religion at all. Since there is no God or soul in Buddhism, there is certainly a sharp contrast with religions like Judaism, Christianity, or Islām. However, the contast is less sharp with other historical and world religions. Thus, while there is no God, there are gods in Buddhism, gods like Indra and Brahmā who turn up as guardians of Buddhist temples. Most importantly, the sanctity of the Buddha, the "Blessed One," himself is immediately obvious. After his death, the ashes of the Buddha became relics in much the same way that we find relics of the Saints in Christianity. The form of the stupa originally served to enshrine such relics.

Indeed, it has become credible that the share of the Buddha's relics, 1/8th, kept by his own Śākya Clan, was actually discovered in situ in 1898 at Piprahwa by the amateur excavator William Peppe. The jewels and other treasures of the find were kept by the Government of India and the Peppe family, while the actual bones and ashes found were given to the Buddhist King of Siam.

In Buddhist tradition, however, some of the jewels, if not all, may have counted as relics also. Jewels are supposed to be found after cremation in the ashes of those particularly holy, and certainly in the case of the Buddha himself. Sometimes, ignorant people make fun of Buddhist relics the way they are accustomed to do with the Christian variety. However, unlike Christian relics, Buddhist relics are usually the result of cremation, something Christians long avoided. It also took some time for cremation to become common in China, or even in Japan. And in Japan there is rare tradition of "self-mummification," whereby the entire body of a monk may be displayed as a relic. But the proper and distinctive relics of Buddhism, from the earliest days, are jewels.

That the Buddha may originally have been just a person is not something extraordinary in Indian religion, where in Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism it is possible for ordinary human beings to become morally and spiritually superior to the gods. Especially noteworthy is the belief that in achieving Enlightenment, the Buddha acquired supernatural powers. These powers were:

  1. Psychokinesis, the power to move objects with the mind;
  2. Clairaudience, the power to hear sounds at extraordinary distances;
  3. Telepathy, the power to read the minds of others;
  4. Retrocognition, the power to know one's own previous existences;
  5. Clairvoyance, the power to see and know things at a distance; and,
  6. Knowledge of the destruction of the defiling impulses, such as would lead to Enlightenment and Nirvāṇa.

These supernatural and extrasensory powers, it should be noted, do not actually add up to either omniscience or omnipotence, or even immortality -- there was debate about whether they meant that the Buddha did not need to ask directions when he entered a strange town. They are enough, however, to enable the Buddha to discover and verify the essentials of Buddhist doctrine, as well as to function in this world at a level far beyond ordinary human abilities. These may seem like modest claims in comparison to the divinities of other religions, but they are certainly rather more than what is claimed by those we would regard as merely philosophers -- or than is expected by those looking for a primarily humanistic and rationalistic religion.

The swastika is often associated with Buddhism in East Asia. It is character number 7032 in Mathews' Chinese-English Dictionary [Harvard University Press, 1972, p. 1042], pronounced wàn. In a place like Japan it is often found on maps marking the location of Buddhist temples. The symbol and the name, however, both come from India. The bar at the top of the Nazi swastika points to the right. And while the Indian and Chinese swastika tends to point to the left, observers will notice that this is not always the case, even after World War II. Although the Nazi swastika seems to turn to the right, and the Buddhist to the left, in Buddhist terms it would make more sense to see the Nazi form as "left-handed," i.e. dark, violent, and transgressive (Tantric), and the common Buddhist form as "right-handed," i.e. proper, non-violent, and observant of the Precepts.

Basic Buddhist Philosophical Doctrines

Stages in the History of Buddhism

The Six Schools of Japan

History of Philosophy, Buddhist Philosophy

History of Philosophy

Philosophy of Religion

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2022, 2023 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Basic Teachings of Buddhism, Note 1

It has proven uncommonly difficult to run down how "Sārnāth" is written in Devanāgarī. Articles on line about Sārnāth do not show it, although some indicate the long vowels (Sārnāth) and some don't (Sarnath). With the long vowels, writing the name the way it looks would be . However, if we go to Google Maps, and look at Sarnath on the map of India, it is written below as , "Sāranātha." Since Hindi does not pronounce the short final "a's" of Sanskrit, and sometimes even loses medial "a's," this writing will be pronounced "Sāranāth," and perhaps even "Sārnāth."

So "Sārnāth" simply does not seem to be a Sanskrit name. In the Wikipedia article on Sarnath, it says that the name is derived from Sanskrit , "Sāranganātha," based on a word for a deer, , probably because of the Deer Park at Sārnāth.

For the versions of the names of Benares, see the note.

Another "Deer Park," of very different significance, was that of Louis XV of France, the Parc auc Cerfs. This is where a veritable assembly line was established for the mistresses of the King. Most the monarchs of Europe, from Charlemagne to Charles II of England, had mistresses and illegitimate children, who were generally given titles and sometimes became valuable agents of the King. With Louis XV, there was an unusually quick turnover of these favorites, and one of them, who became the Madame de Pompadour (Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, d.1764), came up with the idea of preserving her status by becoming the Procuress of the King, finding girls and then providing them for him, at a facility, the Parc auc Cerfs. As the girls became pregnant, they were pensioned off, modestly titled, and then replaced with a new girl. The scale and organization of this, more than its nature, is what became a disgrace to the Monarchy. Poor Louis XVI, who seems to have had no excessive sexual appetites, ended up paying the price for the scandal.

A 1979 movie, Winter Kills, fictionalized the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and it included a part played by Elizabeth Taylor (d.2011) as "The President's Procuress." From what we know now, the sexual appetite of President Kennedy may have been comparable to Louis XV, but he does not seem to have needed a Madame de Pompadour. Modern politicians have had an endless line of available young women from interns, campaign workers, secretaries, etc. Many may even count as what are called in the music industry "groupies," i.e. young women who seek proximity to celebrities just to provide sexual services. A paternity suit can also be counted on to provide income even from brief encounters. Thus, actress Liv Tyler was only the illegitimate daughter of singer Steven Tyler and was born Liv Rundgren, after her mother's husband. Her actual paternity was concealed from her until she was 11 -- although her mother had never sued Steven Tyler as the biological father. The prudent celebrity need not engage in any harassment or coercion. The puzzle of Bill Clinton, for instance, is that the availablity of willing women was not enough, and his preferences came to include sexual assault. If Clinton had any illegitimate children, this has not come to light.

Return to Text

The Basic Teachings of Buddhism, Note 2;
Why Buddhism Is True:
The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment
by Robert Wright, Simon & Schuster, 2017

While we can get the right idea about distortions of Buddhism from "YogaGlo," a weightier example may be this book by Robert Wright (a journalist who, however, teaches classes at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania -- without graduate credentials? -- I thought that no one got hired at universities anymore without a Ph.D. in hand -- that's what they told me....), which was excerpted in the "Review" section of The Wall Street Journal of July 29-30, 2017 [p.C1].

This was not a review of the book, but an essay by the author himself. The piece is titled "The Meditation Cure" and subtitled "A basic practice of Buddhism turns out to be one of the best ways to deal with the anxieties and appetites bequeathed to us by our evolutionary history." The "evolutionary history" part involves Charles Darwin, who is featured on the second page in a pair of matching photographs of Darwin and a statue of the Buddha. The implication is somehow "separated at birth."

For a book entitled Why Buddhism Is True, we find substantial portions of Buddhist doctrine and practice ignored. It might as well be titled, Fake Buddhism for Narcissistic Snowflakes. Thus, there is nothing about karma (, कर्मन्), karmic recompense, or rebirth. Certainly no heavens or hells. This erases doctrines of "causal practice," 因行, yīngxíng (Japanese ingyō), and "resulting merit," 果德, guǒdé (Japanese, 果徳, katoku). In the simplest terms, it erases all moral accountability from Buddhism.

Nor does the practice here involve something essential to the practice of Buddhism ever since the Buddha, namely, monasticism. No "truth of Buddhism" is going to motivate Robert Wright to renounce the world and become a mendicant, as did Siddhartha Gautama. Probably Wright has never seen a dead man, or a mendicant (panhandlers don't count), by the roadside -- sights that are not all that unusual in India today.

These are characteristic oversights in the materialistic and naturalistic treatment of Buddhism by modern secular elites; and the result is an idiosynscratic and ahistorical version of "Buddhism" that would not be recongizable to most Buddhists in history, let alone the Buddha himself. The loss of karmic recompense, of course, entails the loss of the entire moral dimension of Buddhism, i.e. of the Dharma, (धर्म), itself a moral doctrine. That Buddhist practice was to acquire merit, upon which spiritual progress depends, is entirely avoided, and voided. This is characteristic in its own way of the "feel good, anything goes" principles of pop psychology. Carl Jung could recognize here a development of his "self-realization" psychology, but he would be appalled at the amoral form it has taken. In Buddhist terms, the rejection of karmic recompense and other essential features of Buddhist doctrine makes someone like Robert Wright an icchantika, (इच्छन्तिक), someone who, from unbelief, is incapable of salvation and destined for the Avīci Hell. In Buddhism, heresy has its karmic consequences.

The trivialization of suffering is going full blast here, as we find Wright saying:

Though the Buddha is famous for asserting that life is full of suffering, some scholars say that's an incomplete rendering of his message and that the word translatted as "suffering," dukkha [sic], could be translated as "unsatisfactoriness."

I have noted this "translation" of , duḥka (दुःख). While "unsatisfactoriness" is a problem, birth, death, disease, and old age are more what we would consider in terms of how "unsatisfactoriness" itself is an "incomplete" characterization of the human condition. Wright does not consider these canonical examples of suffering, which no amount of meditation alone will remedy. Instead, Wright worries about modern anxieties and addictions, including the fear of public speaking. The Buddha's own example of public speaking is cited, but not his assertion, "there still remain birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair, for the extinction of which in the present life I am prescribing," which could easily be addressed specifically to Wright's idea of the goals of Buddhism.

The most revealing thing about Wright's approach is his attempt to link Buddhism with Darwin and Evolution. Thus, "We don't generally think of Darwin and the Buddha as being on the same wavelength, but in this and other ways their worldviews turn out to harmonize nicely." Not, as it happens, in the least. Their "worldviews" are more in the manner of opposites and contradictions than of "being on the same wavelength."

Thus, the basic principle of Evolution is, as Wright admits, survival. But survival means the continuation of life, while the goal of the doctrine and the practice of the Buddha was the "extinction" of rebirth and the avoidance of further life in samsara. Thus, Wright sees Buddhist practice as a way of reconciling us to the nature of human life. There are, indeed, some Mahāyāna schools, like Zen, that promote this idea. If the antinomian character of Zen had not also erased moral discourse and allowed, by implication, the Rape of Nanking, we might take this more seriously.

Mr. Wright, of course, doesn't examine any of these problems. He has entirely psychologized Buddhism and, by the implicit denial of karmic causality and recompense, and the implicit affirmation of naturalism and materialism, he has committed several errors that have always been regarded as serious heresies in Buddhism. Indeed, the traditional accusation of Hinduism against Buddhism, that it eliminates morality (by ignoring caste), would be true with Robert Wright.

And if Darwin were around today, and joined the mindfulness meditation movement, he might thank the Buddha for coming up with a way to address the problem.

Note that "right mindfulness," , is only the 7th part of the Eightfold Way. So Mr. Wright has forgotten the 8th part, , "right meditation," even though he seems to be talking about meditation.

I doubt that Darwin would thank the Buddha, or the Buddha either Darwin or Robert Wright. Calming anxiety is a means of Buddhist practice, not its goal. Calming enables us to let go of attachments, not just to addictions, but to everything. Without attachments, karma will not cause rebirth, and we will find the "extinction" of "birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair," all of which continue even if Wright is able to do his Power Point presentations. The alternative is , Nirvāṇa, which Wright does not mention.

The true reconciliation of Buddhism and Darwin is in Arthur Schopenhauer, who matches Darwin's principle of survival (and lived to see the publication of The Origin of Species), with the blind drive of the all-consuming Will. No more than Natural Selection, the Will cares not the least for our feelings or happiness. And Schopenhauer's response is the denial of the Will, which is much closer to Buddhist detachment than is Wright's prescriptions for anxieties and addictions. Wright, after all, does not anticipate the extinction of "craving," only its moderation to the reasonable level commensurate with prudent self-realization and flourishing, amid an abundance of consumer products. The addiction, to both the Buddha and Schopenhauer, is to life itself, not to some imprudent magnification of its desires. Mr. Wright has wholly missed this, and certainly wouldn't like it if confronted, say, by the Buddha himself -- with his simple garment and begging bowl. Wright has not and will not be joining the Sangha.


Return to Text


There are some philosophical doctrines that are so early and so fundamental to Buddhism that denials of them tend to be regarded as profoundly non-Buddhist heterodoxies. All forms of Buddhism endeavor to maintain these principles.

  1. Momentariness: Nothing exists for any length of time. There is no substance or duration to things. Each moment is an entirely new existence, which is succeeded by an entirely new existence. The only connection between one thing and the next is that one causes the next. This doctrine sounds much like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. You cannot step into the same river twice. The "things" tend to be called the dharmas in Buddhist thought.

  2. Relative Existence or No Self Nature: Nothing has a essence, nature, or character by itself. Things in isolation are , shūnya, "empty." The nature of things only exists in relation to everything else that exists. Existence as we know it is thus completely relative and conditioned by everything else. Only Nirvāṇa would be unconditioned, although we cannot know what it is like.

    The distinction between the conditioned reality that we know and the unconditioned reality that we do not know is similar to the distinction between phenomena and things-in-themselves made by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The notion that the dharmas derive their nature from everything else has led to comparison with the "monads" of another German philosopher, Leibniz. The monads also represent the whole universe. However, since the dharmas are momentary, and the monads are not, this is actually more like the "actual entities" postulated by Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) in his "Process" philosophy.

    Shūnyatā, , "Emptiness," is easily misunderstood. It is not nothingness. Emptiness is neither existence, nor non-existence, nor both existence and non-existence, nor neither existence nor non-existence. At the very least, this means that we don't know what is left when we take away all conditioned relations. Beyond that, it can mean that we cannot know what that is. No Self Nature means that there are no essences, just as Momentariness means that there are no substances.

  3. No-Ātman, अनात्मन्, anātman, or अनत्ता, anattā, in Pāli: In Buddhism there is no Self (the , ātman, in Vedānta), either as an essence or as a substance. What we call our self is a collection of things, the "aggregates" (skandhas, स्कन्ध): 1) the body, or "form," 2) feelings, 3) ideas, 4) impressions, & 5) momentary consciousness. There is no enduring thing present in the aggregates. This critique of the self as just a collection is very similar to the view of the Scottish philosopher David Hume -- though without Hume's critique of causality. An implication of No-Ātman is that reincarnation cannot be transmigration, since there is nothing to migrate.

    Where Wikipedia says:

    While often interpreted as a doctrine denying the existence of a self, anatman is more accurately described as a strategy to attain non-attachment by recognizing everything as impermanent, while staying silent on the ultimate existence of an unchanging essence.

    We must be warned whenever popular presentations say things like "more accurately" about Buddhism. This is always a way of avoiding the full force of Buddhist doctrine, lest it upset the snowflake students of modern education. In fact, the non-existence of essences and substances is fundamental to Buddhist metaphysics. That is what "impermanence" is all about, and its edifying purpose is indeed "non-attachment." The "more accurately" discourse wants to preserve the New Age possibility that Buddhism is all about finding your "true self," as we see in treatments like the absurd Why Buddhism is True book, while dispensing with most of Buddhist doctrine, especially the mean stuff, like moral accountability. The Buddha was just too "judgmental."

  4. No-God: There is no Brahman or any other such ultimate enduring substance or nature to reality. Nirvāṇa, , thus cannot be characterized as realizing either Self, Brahman, or God. No-Self and No-God simply follow from the basics of Buddhist metaphysics.

  5. Dependent Origination, Pratītyasamutpāda, प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद: Everything has a cause. A momentary existence occurs as it does because of a previous momentary existence, but the cause itself is also momentary. Dependent Origination combines the doctrines of momentariness and relative existence and is why in the Second Noble Truth desire and ignorance cause each other. That relationship can be expanded:

    1. ignorance (), causes
    2. impressions, having the appearance of (शंकर, śaṃkāra), which cause
    3. consciousness (विज्ञान; vijñāna), which causes
    4. mind-body, "name and form" (), which causes
    5. the six sense organs (षडायतन, ṣaḍāyatana), which cause
    6. touch, sensation, contact with objects (स्पर्श, sparśa), which cause
    7. perception, sensation, feeling (वेदना, vedanā), which causes
    8. thirst, desire, craving, greed (), which causes
    9. clinging, grasping (उपादान, upādāna), which causes
    10. becoming, arising, the will to be born (, arising), which causes
    11. rebirth (), which causes
    12. old age & death (जरामरण, jarāmaraṇa), which in turn causes
    13. ignorance (अविद्या, avidyā).

    Nirvāṇa is thus not the removal of an ultimate cause but the simultaneous removal of all causes, all of conditioned existence. The interpretation of Buddhist doctrine discussed above, that "suffering" is really more like unhappiness or dislocation, puts forward the notion that our understanding of Dependent Origination (now often called "Interdependent Arising") enables us to adjust to the world and thus live a happy and normal life.

    This may be a reasonable Mahāyāna or Japanese interpretation, but the point of the original teaching (the Third Noble Truth) is that Nirvāṇa is to be attained by the removal of the causes of suffering, which means the entire system of causation in Dependent Origination -- to be free of the world, not adjusted to it. The normal in this world, which necessarily includes birth, old age, and death, is what the Buddha wanted to avoid.

    Indeed, no amount of "adjustment" to life will actually remove birth, disease, old age, and death, without the sort of magical remedies that one finds in Taoism, where adepts achieve immortality -- which, to be sure, we might find bleeding over into Chinese or Japanese Buddhism.

  6. Karma: Because there is no substance or duration in Buddhism, the Buddhist view of karma is different from that in Hinduism or Jainism. Karma is only causation, without the mediation of any substance (apūrva, causal body, etc.). Reincarnation thus consists in our being caused by something in the past, and our karma is simply the effect now of past actions.

In the history of Buddhist philosophy, these doctrines created some difficulties. If there is no self, then what is it that attains enlightenment or Nirvāṇa? It is not me, for I am already gone in an instant; and if it is not me, then why bother? Also, if there is no enduring self, then the rewards and punishments of karma are visited on different beings than those who merited them. Why do I, instead of someone else, deserve the karma of some past existence? The Buddha himself probably would have been irritated with the doctrines that created these difficulties, since he rejected theorizing (it did not "tend to edification"), and he would have expected no less than that such theories would lead to tangled and merely theoretical disputes.

The important philosophical lesson of these difficulties, however, is whether the concept of causality (which is accepted with none of the skepticism visited upon substance and essence) can be used as a substitute for the concept of substance. In all honesty, no. Something rather like the Buddhist position, however, can be formulated by Kant, for whom the concept of substance applies to phenomena but has only uncertain meaning when applied to things-in-themselves. Phenomena are only "provisional existence" to Buddhism, and the Buddhist doctrine of no enduring Self could easily be adapted to the Kantian transcendent.

Stages in the History of Buddhism

The Six Schools of Japan

History of Philosophy, Buddhist Philosophy

History of Philosophy

Philosophy of Religion

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2007, 2014, 2016, 2018, 2023 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved


The history of Buddhism in India, which lasted about 1500 years, can be divided into 500 year periods, during which distinctive forms of Buddhism emerged. This is an idealized and schematic picture, but it is convenient, and it can be matched up with where Buddhism spread during these periods and what forms of Buddhism became dominant there.

Buddhist doctrine and practice in the earliest period were agreed upon in a series of Councils, sometimes reckoned to be three, or four.

  1. The First Council was held shortly after the Buddha's death, at Rajagriha (capital of the Kingdom of Magadha). Issues about the conduct of the Sangha, the monastic community, in the absence of the Buddha appear to have been settled.

  2. The Second Council was held about a century after the Buddha's death, at Vaisali (under Magadhan control). Sometimes this is considered the First Council, or is confused with the previous one. It began to agree on the content of the Buddhist Canon and on the monastic discipline, the vinaya.

  3. The Third Council was called by the Emperor Aśoka and held at Pataliputra. The content of the Pāli Tripiṭaka, "Three Baskets," is supposed to have been settled at this Council, or thereabouts in this period, consisting of the Sutra-piṭaka [Sutta in Pāli], the sermons of the Buddha, the Vinaya-pitaka, the monastic discipline, and the Abhidharma-pitaka [dharma is dhamma in Pāli], the philosophical development of Buddhist doctrine. Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka (Ceylon) as the result of Aśoka's own efforts, and the Canon in Pāli was preserved there.

  4. The Fourth Council was called under the Emperor Kanishka I and held at Jalandhara (or Purushpura, Peshawar, Kanishka's capital). This is not attested in Pāli sources, and so one often hears that there were only three Councils. The Council is supposed to have supervised the translation of the Tripiṭaka into Sanskrit. The Canon apparently had not only existed in Pāli, but in other Prakrits, which were all consulted for a standard Sanskrit version. It appears to be the Sanskrit texts that were subsequently spread to China. The sutras of the Mahāyāna may have existed only in Sanskrit from the beginning.

  1. Theravāda, थेरवाद ("Teaching of the Elders") Buddhism (called "Hīnayāna," हीनयान, the "Lesser Vehicle," by the Mahāyāna): In India, 5th century BC to 1st century AD.

  2. Mahāyāna, महायान ("Great Vehicle") Buddhism: In India, 1st century AD to 6th century.

  3. Vajrayāna, वज्रयान ("Thunderbolt Vehicle") Buddhism: In India, 6th to 11th century.

The end of Buddhism in India. Buddhism may have died out in India in the 11th century because: 1) It had become almost indistinguishable from the Tantric forms of Hinduism. Sophisticated Buddhist doctrine did not appeal to most people, and the actual practices and iconography of Vajrayāna could easily be assimilated into Hinduism. And, 2) Islām arrived in earnest in India with the Afghan prince Maḥmūd of Ghazna, who defeated a coalition of Hindu princes in 1008 and soon annexed the Punjāb. Unlike Hinduism, Buddhism could not make the case to Maḥmūd that it was really a Monotheism like Islām and should be protected like Judaism and Christianity (and Zoroastrianism). As Buddhism was persecuted, conversions to Islām increased, and Buddhism declined. By the time the British arrived, about 25% of India was Moslem. That ultimately led to the partition of the country into India and Pakistan. The Gautama Buddha himself has ended up being regarded as the 9th Incarnation (Avatar) of the great Hindu God Viṣṇu, although the unflattering take on it is that he deliberately taught a false doctrine (i.e. Buddhism) in order to deceive and destroy demons.

The Final Dharma Age

Another way of dividing the history of Buddhism emerged in the Buddhist tradition as a way of dealing with the prediction of the Buddha himself that the Dharma would only last 500 years. This became a matter of concern in China, where Buddhism did not even become established until nearly 1000 years after the time of the Buddha. Indeed, there was uncertainty about when the time of the Buddha had been, but soon enough it was obvious that far more than 500 years had passed. The doctrine that was formulated in response to this we find in K'uei-chi (Tz'u-en, 632-682), founder of the Fa-hsien school early in the T'ang Dynasty, in his I-lin-chang, "The Grove of Meanings." There we find a division into three periods based on the existence of Buddhist teaching, Buddhist practice, and Buddhist "proof," i.e. results -- supernatural powers and Nirvāṇa:

  1. The Age of the True Dharma (Sanskrit Saddharma, सद्धर्म; Chinese, 正法, Zhèng Fǎ; Japanese Shōbō). In the first 500 years of Buddhism (sometimes put at 1000 years, however), the teaching, the practice, and the proof of Buddhism are all evident and effective. This becomes the Buddhist equivalent of the "age of the Apostles" in Christianity or of the "companions of the Prophet" in Islām -- when the best exemplars of the religion lived, people whose achievements are now largely beyond the reach of believers (as most Protestants do not believe that any modern Christians can perform miracles on the scale of the Apostles). It becomes, naturally, particularly associated with Buddhism in India, the first step in the Sangoku, or "three nations," ideology that later developed in Japan.

  2. The Age of the Counterfeit Dharma (Sanskrit Saddharma-pratirūpaka; Chinese, 像法, Xiàng Fǎ; Japanese Zōhō). In the 1000 years following the True Dharma, the teaching and the practice of Buddhism are evident but the proof fails. While uncertainty about the length of the True Dharma Age could postpone a reckoning, Buddhism in China -- which now becomes particularly associated with the second Age -- eventually had to face the fact that the full force of the Dharma, as defined by the Buddha himself, was spent. This would seem to remove the point of Buddhist belief and practice altogether, but it was also something whose full implications most Buddhists were unwilling to accept. One result was the popularity of devotionalistic forms of Buddhism, which substitute intermediate goals before final Nirvāṇa. In Pure Land practice, the Vow of the Buddha Amitābha enables devotees to be reborn in a Pure Land, where they will be free of suffering, let alone the Hells, and can work out their salvation without distractions (like hunger or sex). Pure Land Buddhism, indeed, became the most popular form of Buddhism in China and Japan. Another approach, which we see in the T'ien-tai (Japanese Tendai) and Ch'an (Zen) Schools, was to redefine the "proof," so that avoiding rebirth was no longer the goal of Buddhist practice. Instead, life in the world of samsāra can become the equivalent of Nirvāṇa. This gives to Buddhism itself a very different character, unlike the world-denying tendencies of India and more conformable to the sensibilities of both Confucianism and Taoism. This goes along with discussions about whether it was really necessary to keep Buddhist Precepts. Nevertheless, we do have a continuation of traditional monasticism, and of course not everyone agrees with the new tendencies in thinking.

  3. The Age of the Final Dharma (Sanskrit Saddharma-vipralopa; Chinese, 末法, Mò Fǎ; Japanese Mappō). If the Counterfeit Dharma posed a disturbing challenge for Buddhism, the Final Dharma was even worse. At that point the real practice and proof of Buddhism are both supposed to no longer be possible. Only the teaching remains. While K'uei-chi didn't yet quite have to worry about that, by the time we get to the Kamakura Period (1186-1336) in Japanese history, it becomes widely accepted that the Final Dharma, Mappō, is upon them. This is expected to last no less than 10,000 years. After that, Buddhism will simply be forgotten, and ages will pass, perhaps a million years, before the arrival of the Future Buddha, Maitreya. By this time, of course, Buddhism was already vanishing in India itself. Some Japanese expected this, or were aware of it, others didn't believe it. But it was the kind of thing to reinforce the sense of the fading of the Dharma.

    The response was a period of religious creativity, in which a number of Chinese schools were adopted and reworked (Tendai, Zen, Jōdo), and some original Japanese schools (Jōdo Shin, Nichiren) emerged. Japanese monks ceased taking full monastic vows, clerical marriage became tolerated, sometimes sanctioned (in Jōdo Shin), later even expected, and Japanese monks could easily gain reputations as formidable drinkers, despite the Precept against intoxicants. To Buddhists elsewhere, this kind of thing often makes it seem that Japanese monks are no longer proper Buddhists. In the Japanese tradition, however, this is all of a piece with Mappō, and the development of Japanese Buddhism was seen as actually making it the living center of the Buddhist world. Thus, in the Sangoku ideology, Japan itself becomes the exemplar of the third Age. This would have some unfortunate implications, when Imperial Japan saw itself as exporting its superiority to the rest of Asia. Japanese Buddhist "missions" in Korea helped discredit Buddhism to many, resulting in large numbers of Koreans converting to Christianity. Nevertheless, Japanese religious creativity remains impressive, as groups of "New Religions" and even "New New Religions" continue to draw on Buddhist, Shinto, and various eclectic sources, and some schools, like Nichiren, have managed to establish themselves among non-Japanese around the world.

While many Buddhists now no longer worry about the problem of the fading Dharma, there is no denying the statement of the Buddha, or the role that dealing with this has played in the history of Buddhism.

Ceylon, Kings of Lanka & Kandy

The Himalayan Realms, Nepal, Bhutan, & Sikkim

Culmen Mundi

The Six Schools of Japan

History of Philosophy, Buddhist Philosophy

History of Philosophy

Philosophy of Religion

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019, 2023 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

The Himalayan Realms,
Nepal, Bhutan, & Sikkim

Licchavi Dynasty
Jayavarma (Jayadeva)c.185 AD
Vasudattavarma (Vasuraja)
Visvadeva (Vrshadeva)c.400 AD
Sankaradevac.425 AD
Manadeva Ic.464-505
Manadeva IIc.575
Sivadeva I590-604
Bhimarjunadeva (Jisnugupta)631-633
Sivadeva II694-705
Jayadeva II713-733
Sankaradeva II748-749
Manadeva IIIc.756
Baliraja (Balarjunadeva)c.826
Manadeva IVc.877
Raghavadeva Dynasty
Narendradeva I
Gunakamadeva I
Rudradeva Ic.1008-c.1015
Lakshmikamadeva Ic.1015-c.1039
Thakuri Dynasty
Narendradeva II?-1146
Rudradeva II?-1176
Gunakamadeva II1187-1193
Lakshmikamadeva II1193-1196
Malla Dynasty
Jaya Yaksha Mallac.1428-c.1482
Nepal divided into Bhatgaon, Katmandu, & Patan, and later Gurkha
State of Katmandu, Malla Dynasty
Annexed by Gurkha
State of Gurkha, Kingdom of Nepal
Prithvi Narayan Shah/Pati1669-1716
Prithvi Barayana1742-1768
King of Nepal,
Prithvi Narayana1768-1774
Pratapa Simha1774-1777
Rana Bahadur1777-1799
War with China and Tibet, 1788–1792
Girvan Yuddha Bikram1799-1816
War with the Sikh Punjab, 1809; with British India, 1814-16; dominance of the Thapa family, 1806–37
Rajendra Bikram1816-1847
dominance by the Rana family, 1846-1951
Surendra Bikram1847-1881
War with China, 1854-1856; British Protectorate, 1860
Prithvi Bir Bikram1881-1911
Tribhuvana Bir Bikram1911-1950,
Gyanendra Bir Bikram1950-1951
Rana family deposed, Royal sovereignty restored, 1950-1951
Mahendra Bir Bikram1955-1972
Birendra Bir Bikram1972-2001
killed in coup by Crown Prince
Dipendra Bir Bikram2001
massacred Royal family, suicide
Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shahrestored,
dismissed the government, Feb. 1, 2005, assumed autocratic rule, alliance with China; Communist-Maoism insurgency, 1996-2005; monarchy abolished, 2008

On the southern slopes of the Himalayas are a chain of three states with similar and related histories. In order of size, they are Nepal, the largest, then Bhutan, and Sikkim. The size also gives the history of their degrees of sovereignty. Nepal, warring with Tibet, India, and Britain, was the least compromised in sovereignty and is now completely independent. Bhutan in turn became the vassal and protectorate of China, Britain, and modern India. Sikkim was more or less ruled by Britain as one of the Princely States of India. Although it did not join India in 1947 like other Princely States, eventually, in 1975, it was annexed to India. This was approved by popular vote, but India had great strategic interest in the place, since it fronts on Tibet, which was conquered by China in 1950. Since the Chinese subsequently attacked India and sought to resolve border disputes by force, this has remained a matter of concern for India.

Besides its size and independence, Nepal also has the longest history of the states. The Buddha supposed to have been born in its territory; and although about 76% Hindu, the country still contains a 20% Buddhist minority. Nepalese history begins with the Licchavi Dynasty, which may have been an offshoot of the Kushan rule of northern India. Unlike Bhutan and Sikkim, Nepal has been strong enough to retain territory down into the Gangetic plain. The official language of Nepal is Nepali, which is in the Pahari group of the Indic language family. This was brought to Nepal late in its history by the Gurkhas. There are surviving Tibeto-Burman languages in the country, and these now have influenced Nepali.

Under the Malla dynasty the country became fragmented. At the death of Jaya Yaksha Malla in 1482, a division was made between this sons. This resulted in separate states of Bhatgaon, Katmandu, & Patan. The rulers of Katmandu are in the main list at left. Those of Bhatgaon are listed separately below. This division weakened the country enough that control was lost over outer areas and further fragmentation occurred. By 1669, one of these new states, of the Gurkhas, brought the whole country together under its rule. This ushered in the modern era of Nepalese history.

Limitations of Nepalese sovereignty were due to clashes with Britain. A proper war with Britain in 1814-1816 ultimately led to a treaty in 1860. The British were impressed enough with Gurkha fighting that part of the treaty allowed them to recruit Gurkhas into the British Army, where they often distinguished themselves, as in Burma in World War II. This arragement continued long after the end of the British dominion in India. Gurkhas were still fighting for the British in the Falklands War of 1982.

Another ethnic group in Nepal are the Sherpas. Living in the mountains, where these are the highest mountains in the world, the Himalayas, the Sherpas are used to the terrain and the altitude. Thus, attempts on Mt. Everest, at 29,035 ft., relied on Sherpa guides. When Edmund Hillary (b.1919) first reached the peak of Everest on 29 May 1953, he was accomplanied by the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (1914–1986). At the time, the Nepalese were only allowing one expedition up Everest a year. These days it has grown into a rather large business. In 1993, 129 people reached the summit of Everest; 8 died. In 1996, 98 reached the summit; and 15 died. More than 150 have died on the mountain, and 120 bodies of climbers remain there, freeze-dried by the wayside -- perhaps pour encourager les autres. Although Nepal was never a proper part of British India, Everest nevertheless was named, in 1865, after Sir George Everest, the British surveyor-general of India, 1830–1843. The mountain is Sagarmatha ("goddess of the sky") in Nepali and Chomolungma ("mother goddess of the universe") in Tibetan. George Everest himself argued that the mountain should be recognized by a local name. Of course, the locals did not know the height of the mountain, or its preeminence, until Everest's survey.

The power of the Nepalse monarchy came to be compromised by noble families, the Thapas and then the Ranas. This continued until 1950, when the Ranas were deposed and the power the monarchy reestablished. The monarchy, indeed, has often been an absolute one. Nepal, indeeed, has had great difficulties adjusting to modernity, both politically and economically. As of 2004, 81% of the work force was in agriculture, and literacy was only 45.2%. As with other politically backward and economically underdeveloped places, Nepal has been diverted by confused ideologies. Thus, governments have often included Communists, and since 1996 there has been a guerilla war carried on by Maoist rebels. In 2001, the King and other Royal family members were killed by the Crown Prince, who himself then (reportedly) died of suicide. The current King, his brother, dismissed the government in 2005, suspended civil rights, and assumed personal rule. This earned the displeasure of India and Western countries that gave aid to Nepal, and the King then turned to China. Since the Chinese seem to have gotten the Maoists to stand down, one wonders if the whole business may have been their doing in the first place. None of this does Nepalese life much good, where a growing population but traditional life has tended to deforest the mountains for firewood. Without enough of an economy to develop more modern sources of energy, conflict and poverty would seem to necessarily follow.

State of Bhatgaon/Bhaktpur, Malla Dynasty
Annexed to Gurkha

The monarchy of Bhutan was founded by a Tibetan monk of the Drukpa subsect of the Kargyupa sect. This priest king of the country (an Indian Dharma Raja), like the ruling lamas of Tibet, was chosen as a child, supposedly the reincarnation of the previous king. Such a system made for very long minorities. The system of regents for minor kings soon grew into the equivalent of a secular monarchy (the Deb Raja). The table of sacred kings is thus followed by that of the regents.

Kingdom of Bhutan
Kings, Shabdrun Thuktrul
or Dharma Raja
Ngawang Namgyal1616-1651
Pekar Jungney1651-1680
Kunga Gyaltshen1698-1712,
Phyogla Namgyal1712-1730,
Jigme Norbu1730-1735
Mipham Wangpo1735-1738
Jigme Dragpa I1738-1761
Choeki Gyaltshen1762-1788
Jigme Dragpa II1791-1830
Jigme Norbu1831-1861
Jigme Chogyal1862-1904
Jigme Dorji1905-1931
no reincarnation found, end of line

Regents, Druk Desi or Deb Raja
Tenzin Drugyel1651-1655
Gedun Chomphel1695-1701
Ngawang Tshering1701-1704
Umdze Peljor1704-1707
Druk Rabgye1707-1719,
Ngawang Gyamtsho1719-1729
Chinese suzerainty, 1720; British intervention, 1772–1773
Mipham Wangpo1729-1736
Khuwo Peljor1736-1739
Ngawang Gyaltshen1739-1744
Sherab Wangchuk1744-1763
Druk Phuntsho1763-1765
Druk Tendzin I1765-1768
Donam Lhundub1768-1773
Kunga Rinchen1773-1776
Jigme Singye1776-1788
Druk Tendzin II1788-1792
Tashi Namgyal1792-1799,
Druk Namgyal1799-1803
Sangye Tendzin1805-1806
Umdze Parpop1806-1808
Bop Choda1807-1808
Tsulthrim Drayga1809-1810,
Jigme Dragpa II1810-1811
Yeshey Gyaltshen1811-1815,
Tshaphu Dorji1815
Sonam Drugyal1815-1819
Tendzin Drugdra1819-1823
Choki Gyaltshen1823-1831,
Dorji Namgyal1831-1832
Adap Thrinley1832-1835
Dorji Norbu1838-1847
Tashi Dorji1847-1850
Wangchuk Gyalpo1850
Jigme Norbu (at Thimphu)1850-1852
Chagpa Sangye (at Punakha)1851-1852
Damcho Lhundrup1852-1856
Kunga Palden (at Punakha)1856-1861
Sherab Tharchin (at Thimphu)1856-1861
Phuntsho Namgyal1861-1864
Tshewang Sithub1864,
Tsulthrim Yonten1864
Kagyu Wangchuk1864
British intervention, 1864-1865
Tsondru Pekar1866-1870
Jigme Namgyal1870-1873,
Kitsep Dorji Namgyal1873-1877,
Chogyal Zangpo1879-1880
Lam Tshewang1881-1883
Gawa Zangpo1883-1885
Sangye Dorji1885-1901
Choley Yeshe Ngodub1903-1905,

By the 19th century, the regents were losing control of the countryside. Local governors (penlop) and military commanders (jungpen) were becoming autonomous. In 1907, the Penlop of Tongsa ended the old system and created secular monarchy. The last Dharma Raja then died in 1931.

Bhutan remains 75% Tibetan Buddhist (officially -- this may be inflated for political reasons). Its official language, Dzongkha, is cognate to Tibetan.
Kingdom of Bhutan,
Tongsa Dynasty
Ugyen Wangchuck1907-1926
British Protectorate, 1910
Jigme Wangchuck1926-1952
Protectorate of India, 1949
Jigme Dorji Wangchuck1952-1972
Jigme Singye Wangchuck1972-2006
Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk2006-present
With the occupation (in 1950) and colonization of Tibet itself by China, Bhutan thus remains the purest example of an independent culturally, religiously, and linguistically Tibetan state. As it had been with the British, however, Bhutan is in many ways a Protectorate of India, especially for defense. Bhutan did join the United Nations in 1971. It has also experienced ethnic strife, with the Hindu Nepalese minority, over attempts to enforce Buddhism as a state religion. Many Nepalese have fled to Nepal, creating a point of friction between Bhutan and that country.

Sikkim, like Bhutan, was established by rulers from Tibet. The Namgyal Dynasty, however, does not seem to have originated from monks, and Sikkim was not a theocratic state like Tibet or Bhutan. Losing territory to Nepal, the position of Sikkim was restored by the British when they defeated Nepal in 1816.
Phuntsog NamgyalChogyal,
Tensung Namgyal1670-1686
Chador Namgyal1686-1717
deposed by Bhutanese, 1700, restored by Tibetans, 1710
Gyurmed Namgyal1717-1733
Namgyal Namgyal1733-1780
Tenzing Namgyal1780-1793
Tsugphud Namgyal1793-1863
Sidkeong Namgyal I1863-1874
Thutob Namgyal1874-1914
Sidkeong Namgyal II1914
Tashi Namgyal1914-1963
Palden Thondup Namgyal1963-1975
Annexed by India, 1975
But this also brought Sikkim under British protection. The Lowland parts of the country were annexed to British India in 1849. A treaty with Britain in 1861 effectively made Sikkim one of the Princely States of India, and Britain began handling its external relations. In 1890, Tibet agreed to a border and ceded to Britain any rights over Sikkim. A British resident was appointed, who, as in other Princely States, often seemed little less than the de facto Governor of the country.

Although several languages are spoken in Sikkim, including Nepali, Hindi, and English, the one known as "Sikkimese" (or Bhutia or Dranjongke) is a cognate of Tibetan, like Dzongkha in Bhutan. However, two thirds of the population are Nepalese, and Hindu, which led to a fate for the realm that Bhutan evidently wants to avoid.

Unlike other Princely States of India, Sikkim retained its autonomy, by popular vote, when India became independent in 1947. However, the subordinate relationship to India continued, with India retaining also some supervision over Sikkimese government. This culminated in 1975, when a referendum assented to annexation by India and the end of the monarchy. India had already occupied the country, which thus became a State of India.

The tables here are derived almost completely from the invaluable Bruce R. Gordon's Regnal Chronologies, with some details from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Wikipedia, and some other internet and print sources.

Culmen Mundi

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2007, 2008, 2018 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Culmen Mundi et Via Serica,
the Roof of the World
and the Silk Road

Most people think of the Himalayas, on the border between Tibet and India and Nepal, as the "Roof of the World," since Mt. Everest, at 29,035 ft., is the highest mountain on the planet. There was no easy route across the Himalayas, however, so the term actually originates in Persian -- , Bām-e Donyā -- to refer to those ranges that were more familiar to travellers.

The , Bām-e Donyā, especially meant the Pamirs, which are very nearly the center from which the other ranges radiate, and the focus of overland travel between India and Central Asia, especially by way of the Tarim Basin:

"Roof of the World" would be nicely translated into Latin as Culmen Mundi, especially when culmen means not just "roof," but the "summit" or "ridge of the roof," from which we get a word like "culminate." In Greek I don't know of anything quite the equivalent. We can say ἡ τοῦ κόσμου στέγη, literally "the roof of the world." A version of this with "peak of the roof" would probably not be helpful, although that phrase could be ἡ τῆς στέγης ἀκμή or ἡ τῆς στέγης κορυφή. The word ἀκμή, "point, edge; highest point; best," is the familiar "Acme" of Roadrunner cartoons, as the fictional maker of all that is "best" -- although it always fails Wile E. Coyote.

The Silk Road -- a 19th century coinage in German, the Seidenstraße, by the traveler Ferdinand von Richthofen -- means the routes from the Middle East to China, which mainly went through the Tarim Basin, either on the north side, below the Tian Shan, or the south side, above the Kunlun. The center of the Basin, the Taklimakan Desert, is waterless, uninhabited, and, really, uninhabitable. There was also a route north of the Tian Shan. That was a bit further, but the Dzungaria Basin, which I've heard described as a "sage brush and jack rabbit desert," is not as lifeless as the Taklimakan. Today, the through rail line and the larger cities (like Ürümqi) are on the north side on the Tian Shan. All this is now in the Chinese territory of Sinkiang [Xinjiang], whose imperial and colonial status (like Tibet) is rarely an object of concern for people otherwise indignant over American "imperialism". Perhaps the most famous Silk Road site, the caves full of Buddhist art and manuscripts at Dunhuang, is just north of the Nanshan ranges, still in the Chinese province of Kansu [Gansu].

While is the Chinese for "Silk Road," the term originated in German, as noted; and so this is actually a translation into modern (Mandarin) Chinese. Both the characters and can individually mean "silk," "silk goods," and some other things. Curiously, Mathews' Chinese Dictionary [Harvard University Press, 1972] does not list as a binome for either character, which means it does not occur as such in Classical Chinese literature. The binome is listed in the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary [John DeFrancis, Hawai'i, 2003] with the meaning "silk cloth, silk," but with an asterisk that means "used only in compounds," presumably such as . This simply reinforces the novelty of the term in modern Chinese.

The expression also gets translated into other languages, but there is little point in the exercise when it does not inform us about contemporary usage. Thus, "Silk Road" in Latin would be Via Serica, which is a nice phrase, but, having not been used at the time, and with little modern Latin literature to feature it (I doubt it occurs in any Papal Bulls), there is an overtone of anachronism about it. However, a Greek translation is of interest just because of the development of sericulture in the Mediaeval Peloponnesus. Thus, the Greek word for "silk," μετάξα, is attested in the 6th century historian Procopius. Wikipedia gives a Greek translation of "Silk Road" as δρόμος τοῦ μετάξιου, where we get a neuter diminutive, μετάξιον, without explanation -- although this may reflect the Modern Greek form of "silk," μετάξι. An uncomplicated Classical version would be ὁ δρόμος τῆς μετάξης, "the way/road of silk." Silk worm larvae were brought across Asia to the Court of Justinian, whether the route was called the "Silk Road" or not.

The passes trough the Pamirs are so high, that familiar pack animals like horses and mules would simply die from the altitude. Only yaks are adapted to the thin air. But then yaks can't live at lower altitudes. Every caravan (from Perisan , kārvān), consequently, needed to begin down below with one kind of animal and then change over to yaks, and then back again once over the passes. Modern trucks may need to adjust their carburetors.

Following Central Asia, the Andes have the highest peaks in the world, culminating in Aconcagua at 22,834 ft. North America comes next, with Mt. McKinley at 20,320 ft -- President Obama, by Executive Order, changed the name of Mt. McKinley (for assassinated President McKinley) to the "native" name "Denali," despite the designation as "McKinley" resting on an Act of Congress. A court could reverse that at any time, just by following the law. Then Africa, with Mt. Kilimanjaro at 19,340 ft.

The Culmen Europae, the highest range in Europe, are the Caucasus mountains, whose highest peak is Mt. Elbrus (18,510 ft.). This is far from the population, historical, and cultural center of Europe -- but Stalin placed a statue of himself there, to match the highest peak with the "greatest man" of the age. The Germans briefly visited the site in 1942, during the Stalingrad offensive, but don't seem to have had the time to remove the statue.

The Culmen Franciae is in the Alps, whose highest peak is Mt. Blanc at 15,771 ft. This lay in the historic Kingdom of Burgundy, and later in the Country and Duchy of Savoy, but it is now on the border between France and Italy -- France because Savoy was ceded to France in 1860, Italy because the Dukes of Savoy eventually became the Kings of Italy. As such, the mountain is definitely in the population, historical, and cultural heart of Europe, with various routes passing around it to traverse the Alps between France, Italy, and Germany. Hannibal marched not far from here.

The "Roof of Francia" in Greek would be ἡ τῆς Φραγγίας στέγη, while the "Roof of Europe" would be ἡ τῆς Εὐρώπης στέγη. Note that Greek frequently uses definite articles with proper names like Francia and Europa.

Just to round things off, the highest peak in Antarctica is the Vinson Massif, at 16,864 ft. The highest peak in the remaining continent, Australia, is Mt. Kosciusko at only 7,310 ft. This is beat on two nearby islands, Mt. Jaya on New Guinea, at 16,500 ft., and Mt. Cook in New Zealand, at 12,349 ft.

However, the highest peak in Polynesia is Mauna Kea ("White Mountain" from the winter snowfalls at the summit) on the Big Island of Hawai'i, at 13,796 ft. Measured from base to summit, Mauna Kea is itself actually the tallest mountain in the world. Mt. Everest is at the edge of the 10,000 foot Tibetan Plateau, meaning that it only rises about 19,000 feet. Mauna Kea, however, rises directly from the sea floor, which is at least 15,000 feet (three miles) down. Base to summit, Mauna Kea is at least 5.6 miles, or 29,568 ft. high (or perhaps as much as 33,000 feet, depending on the reference depth -- sea level certainly makes this kind of thing easier).

The Himalayan Realms, Nepal, Bhutan & Sikkim

Culmen Europae

Culmen Franciae

Return to Buddhism, Mahayana text

History of Philosophy, Buddhist Philosophy

History of Philosophy

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Ceylon, Kings of Lanka & Kandy,
Portuguese, Dutch, & British Governors

Kings of Lanka
VIJAYA, Tambapanni
Vijayac.544-c.505 BC
Upatissaregent, c.505-c.504
Tissaregent, 454
Devanampiya Tissa307-267,
converts to Buddhism
slaughters Damilas (Tamils)
Saddha Tissa137-119
Lanja Tissa119-109
Khallata Naga109-104/3
Vattagamani Abhaya104/3, d.77
Five Dravidians
Panya Mara98-91
Pilaya Mara91
Vattagamani Abhaya, Valagambahu Irestored, 89/88-77/76
Mahaculi Mahatissa76-62
Siva I47
Darubhatika Tissa47
Anula 47-42
Kutakanna Tissa41-19
Bhatika Abhaya19 BC-9 AD
Mahadathika Mahanaga9-21
Amanda-Gamani Abhiya22-31
Kanirajanu Tissa31-34
Sivali 35
Candamukha Siva44-52
Yasalalaka Tissa52-59
Vankanasika Tissa109-112
Mahallaka Naga134-140
Bhatika Tissa140-164
Kanittha Tissa164-192, or 164-183
Khujjanaga192-194, or 194-195
Kunganaga, Kunchanaga194-195, or 185-186
Sirinaga I195-214, or 186-205
Voharika Tissa214-236, or 205-227
Abhayanaga236-244, or 227-235
Sirinaga II244-246, or 235-237
Vijaya-Kumara246-247, or 237
Samghatissa I247-251, or 238-242
Srisamghabodhi251-253, or 242-244
Gothabhaya253-266, or 244-257
interregnum?, 257-267
Jettha Tissa I266-276
Jettha Tissa II331-340
Upatissa I368-410
Chattagahaka Jantu432
Six Dravidians, of Pandya, 432-459
Khudda Parinda433-449
Kassapa I, Kasyapa the Usurper477-495
Moggallana I495-512
Siva II521
Upatissa II522
Silakala Ambosamanera522-535
Moggallana II535-555
Aggabodhi I575-608
Aggabodhi II608-618
Samgha Tissa II618
Moggallana III618-623
Aggabodhi III Sirisanghabodhi632, 633-643, 643
Jettha Tissa III632-633
Dathopa Tissa I Hatthadpatha I643, 643-650
Kassapa II650-659
Dappula I659
Dathopa Tissa II659-667
Aggabodhi IV667-683
Hatthadpatha II684
Aggabodhi V718-724
Kassapa III724-730
Mahinda I730-733
Aggabodhi VI733-772
Aggabodhi VII772-777
Mahinda II Silamegha777-797
Udaya I (Dappula II)797-801
Mahinda III801-804
Aggabodhi VIII804-815
Dappula II (III)815-831
Aggabodhi IX831-833
Sena I833-853
Sena II853-887
Udaya II887-898
Kassapa IV898-914
Kassapa V914-923
Dappula III (IV)923-924
Dappula IV (V)924-935
Udaya III (II)935-938
Sena III938-946
Udaya IV (III)946-954
Sena IV954-956
Mahinda IV956-972
Sena V972-982
Mahinda V982-993,
Ruhana, 993-c.1007, d.1029
Tamils, Chola
Rajaraja I Chola993-1012
Rajendra I Choladeva1012-1044
Rajadiraja I Chola1044-1054
Kassapa VI, Vikramabahuc.1019-c.1031
Mahalana Kittic.1031-c.1034
Vikkama Panduc.1034-c.1035
Pārakkama Pandu?c.1039
Kassapa VIIc.1045
Vijayabāhu I1055/1070-
Jayabāhu I1100-1111
Vikramabāhu I1111-1132
Parākramabāhu I the Great1153-1186
Vijayabāhu II1186-1187
Nissanka Malla1187-1196
Vikramabāhu II1196
Lilavati 1197-1200, 1209-1210, 1211-1212
Kalyanavati 1202-1208
Anikanga Mahadipada1209
Parakrama Pandu1212-1215
Vijayabahu III1220-1234, 1232-1236
Parākramabāhu II1234-1267, 1236-1270
Vijayabāhu IV1267-1270, 1270-1272
Bhuvanaikabāhu I1272-1284
vacant, 1285-1286
Parakramabāhu III1287-1293
Bhuvanaikabāhu II1293-1302
Parakramabāhu IV1302-1326
Bhuvanaikabāhu III1326-1335
Vijayabāhu V1335-1341
Bhuvanaikabāhu IV1341-1351
Gambola, Dedigama
Parakramabāhu V1344-1357
Vikramabāhu III1357-1374
Bhuvanaikabāhu V1372-1408
Vira Bāhu1392-1397
Vira Alakeshvara1397-1411
captured by Chinese Admiral
Zheng He, 1411
Parakramabāhu VI1408/1412-
Jayabāhu II1467-1469
Bhuvanaikabāhu VIJaffna, 1450-1467
Parakramabāhu VII1478-1484
Parakramabāhu VIII1484-1508
Vijayabāhu VI1508-1521
Bhuvanaikabāhu VII1508-1551, 1521-1543
Dom Joaõ Dharmapala1543/1551-
Portuguese client, 1557-1597
The island nation of Ceylon is now, since 1972, generally known as Sri Lanka. While both names are of Indian origin, the name change was a political decision that reflects the ethnic conflict that has convulsed the place since 1956. "Sri Lanka" is now generally used, retrospectively and anachronistically, by historians, apparently on the
politically correct grounds, observed by many scholars of South Asia, that it is in the indigenous language of the island and the official name of the present state, regardless of the conflicts of language, religion, and history in which the name has a current, essentially hostile, even genocidal, political meaning.

In Sanskrit, the island is Simhala, , or Simhala-dvīpa, , i.e. the "island" of Simhala. This appears to be from the Sanksrit word for "lion," simha, (or singha, , from which Singhala, , is an alternative name for the island). The word is still used, as Sinhala, for the language, Sinhalese, and the identity of the historic and largest ethnic group on the island.

Simhala-dvīpa is apparently the origin of the words for the Ceylonese used by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, Serandives, and for Ceylon by the Greek sailor Cosmas Indicopleustes, Σιελεδίβα, Sielediba. Since Greek doesn't have an intervocalic "h," it is not surprising that sound has disappeared in many of the derivatives. These words then look related to the Arabic word for Ceylon, , Sarandīb (Persian , Sarandip), which gets rendered into English as "Serendip" (e.g. "serendipity"). "Ceylon" itself, like Latin Selan and related words in European languages, looks to derive from either "Seran" or "Sielen."

Sri Lanka is also from Sanskrit, Śrī Lankā, , where śrī, , is simply an honorific prefix, while Lankā, , is the name of the island in the great epic, the Rāmāyaṇa, .

This is not entirely a positive association, since Lanka is ruled by the Rākṣasa () Demon (, asura) King Rāvaṇa, . Rāvaṇa kidnaps Sītā, , the wife of King Rāma, , an incarnation of the God Vishnu. Rāma leads an army, including monkeys led by Hanumān, , to Lanka, defeats the demons, kills Rāvaṇa, and recovers Sītā.

The demons, however, are not supposed to be the ancestors of modern Ceylonese. According to the Mahāvamsa chronicle, the island was conquered by the Aryan Vijaya, who called the place Tāmra-dvīpa ("Copper Island") or Tāmraparnī -- Tambapanni in Pāli:  This name turns up in Greek as Ταπροβάνη, Taprobanê. Indeed, the Sinhalese language is an Indo-European language of Indic group, unrelated to the older languages of South India (the Dravidian) and Southeast Asia. This attests to its introduction from the North of India, and the assimilation, at least, of the original inhabitants of Ceylon. Vijaya, however, is not otherwise a historical figure, and its is likely that his story, and that of the continuation of the dynasty by his nephew Upatissgama, is largely legendary.

The first historical King of Ceylon would be Devanampiya Tissa, who converted to Buddhism. This conversion was effected by Mahinda and his sister Sanghamitta, children of the Maurya Emperor Aśoka, who are supposed to have flown to Ceylon on their mission. Although this should enable us to date Devanampiya Tissa with some precision, I nevertheless find conflicting dates for him, either 307-267 BC or 250-210. The latter looks more like it, since Aśoka is now dated to 269-232 BC. An earlier date for Aśoka runs into the problem that his grandfather Chandragupta apparently met Alexander the Great, who can be dated with certainty, and that we know of the Hellenistic contemporaries whose conversion to Buddhism was solicited by Aśoka.

The Buddhism of Lanka suggest a thought about Rāvaṇa and the demons. In Hinduism, the Buddha is regarded as an Avatar of Vishnu whose approach was to teach a false and destructive doctrine, Buddhism, to demons, in order to destroy them. The Rāmāyaṇa long postdates the Buddhism of Ceylon, and one might wonder if populating Lanka with demons is actually a comment on its Buddhist inhabitants. A nice touch in that respect is when Rāvaṇa objects to people calling Rāma, , Śrī Rāma, with the honorific prefix. To Rāvaṇa, he does not deserve the prefix. Well, modern Tamils might think that Śrī Lankā does not deserve its prefix, since for many years the Sinhalese indeed behaved like demons in the discrimination, oppression, and even massacre of the Tamils. Modern Lanka to Hindus is still the Lankā of the Rāmāyaṇa. Nor was massacre of Hindu Tamils unprecented, as we will see below.

The Chronicles of Lanka preserve some of the earliest information about Buddhism. Indeed, the life of the Buddha is usually dated using the Chronicle statement that 218 years had elapsed between the death of the Buddha and the reign of Aśoka. This is the source of the conventionally given dates for the life of the Buddha as 563-483 BC, though I get 487 for his death adding 218 to 269 BC -- we evidently have some small disagreements remaining about when Aśoka ascended the throne (I also see 274 as the date, which is even worse).

The Chronicle figure of 218 years, however, has been questioned. To cover 218 years the tradition only lists five kings and five masters of the Buddhist vinaya, the monastic discipline. This would imply reigns averaging 44 years each, which is not impossible but otherwise seems unlikely for the era (see the similar problem for Egypt's Dynasty II). As discussed by Hirakawa Akira (A History of Indian Buddhism, From Shākyamuni to Early Mahāyāna, translated by Paul Groner, U. of Hawaii Press, 1990, pp.22-23), northern traditions allow only 116 years from the Buddha to Aśoka. This requires only 23 years for the reigns and the masters, putting the life of the Buddha at 466-386 BC. This would seem generally more consistent with the evidence, such as it is, but the topic is one of endless dispute. That the earlier date is usually given is a tribute to the prestige of the Lanka tradition in Buddhist scholarship and history. This is understandable given the preservation of the Pāli Canon in Ceylon and the attention that this attracted from 19th century Buddhologists.

Following Devanampiya Tissa there is an obscure period, including a time of rule from the mainland of South India. This area was the Tamil homeland, grew into the later Chola empire, and was in different eras the source of conquest and migration to Ceylon.

Considering the recent history of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, we certainly get off to a bad start when the Sinhalese King Dutthagamani emerges from the shadows of history. With a relic of the Buddha on his spear, Dutthagamani defeats and slaughters the Tamils. The King feels that he has sinned with such killing and says to the monks sent to reassure him, "How shall there be any comfort for me, O venerable sirs, since by me was caused the slaughter of a great host numbering millions?" The answer seems to be an extraordinary statement, coming from Buddhists (indeed, according to the text, actual Arhats, those who have achieved Enlightenment):

From this deed arises no hindrance in thy way to heaven. Only one and a half human beings have been slain here by thee, O lord of men. The one had come unto the (three) refuges, the other had taken on himself the five precepts. Unbelievers and men of evil life were the rest, not more to be esteemed than beasts. But as for thee, thou wilt bring glory to the doctrine of the Buddha in manifold ways; therefore cast away care from thy heart, O ruler of men! (from the Mahavamsa, Chapter XXV)

We thus discover that even Buddhists sometimes regarded Unbelievers as inhuman.

Over the next centuries, we get episodes of rule from the mainland. The Lambakanna dynasty, which begins in 65 AD, is overthrown by the Dravidian Pandyans in 432; but Sinhalese rule is restored by the Moriya dynasty in 459. The Tamils return in 993, briefly created the Chola empire that stretches to Indonesia. Vijayabāhu of the Polonnaruwa dynasty expells them in 1070. The Cholas had not gone undisputed, however, since most of their rule was contemporaneous with a line of kings at Rajarata. The Kalinga dynasty follows in 1187, but after Nissanka Malla (1187–1196), the state weakens and before long the country begins to fragment. One noteworthy fragment is Jaffna, a Tamil state, of the "Arya Chakravarthi" kings, in the north. I have not listed the kings, in part because I find two different lists which vary substantially in names and dates. One dates the beginning of Jaffna to 1210, the other to 1240. Either way, by 1461, the state is under the control of Portugal; and the line of kings ends, either in 1615 or 1620, replaced by direct Portuguese rule.

Curiously, the Portuguese were not the first voyagers to arrive from great distances in ocean going craft. The Chinese had beat them. The great expeditions of the Ming Dynasty, led by Cheng Ho, , called at Ceylon. The third expedition (1409-1411) had the greatest impact there. The ruler of Raigama, Vira Alakeshvara, was defeated, made a captive, and taken back to China. This was the strongest political and military intervention during any of the Chinese voyages. The Yung-lo Emperor (1402-1424), however, was not bent on conquest and returned Vira Alakesvara to Ceylon. It is not clear, however, if he was able to return to power.

The Chinese, as it happens, did not stay long. The last of the expeditions returned to China in 1433. The experience testifies to the position of Ceylon at a crossroads of the oceans. This was already evident in the embassy that king Bhuvanaika Bāhu I (1272-1284) had sent in 1283 to the Mamlūk Sultān of Egypt. Such relations are not surprising in that the Mamlūks controlled all the trade that passed from the Mediterranean world to India. Their monopoly is what motivated the Spanish and the Portuguese to look for alternate routes. Thus, in 1498 the Portuguese entered the Indian Ocean by rounding Africa, something that Herodotus said the Phoenicians had done in the reign of the Egyptian King Neko II. A Portuguese fleet, under Lourenço de Almeida, was blown into Colombo harbor in 1505. This led to friendly relations with the King of Kotte, Vira Parakrama Bāhu VIII. In 1518 the Portuguese were allowed to build a fort, marking the beginning of the Portuguese presence in Ceylon, which rapidly passed through phases of trade, conversion, and conquest. The last King of Kotte was converted to Christianity and in 1580 willed his kingdom to the Portuguese. They inherited at his death in 1597. With direct Portuguese rule, we start to get Governors, or Captains General, as in the following table.

Portuguese Captains General of Ceylon
Pedro Lopos de Sousa1594
D. Jeronimo de Azevedo1594-1613
D. Francisco de Meneses1613-1614
Manuel Mascarenhas Homem1614-1616
Nuno Alvares Pereira1616-1618
Constantino de Sa e Noronha1618-1622
Jorge de Albuquerque1622-1623
Constantino de Sa e Noronha1623-1630
D. Philippe Mascarenhas1630-1631
D. Jorge de Almeida1631-1633
Diego de Mello de Castro1633-1635
D. Jorge de Almeida1635-1636
Diogo de Mello de Castro1636-1638
D. Antonio Mascarenhas1638-1640
D. Philippe Mascarenhas1640-1645
Manuel Mascarenhas Homem1645-1653
Francisco de Mello de Castro1653-1655
Antonio de Sousa Coutinho1655-1656
Antonio de Amaral de Menezes1656-1658, Jaffna

In the midst of the Portuguese conquest of Ceylon, we actually get the foundation of a new and durable Ceylonese kingdom, that of Kandy. The Portuguese unintentionally helped with this, installing their convert, Don Phillipe, as King. With Don Phillipe's death, however, a Sinhalese nobleman, Konnapuu Bandara, seized the throne, expelled the Portuguese, and created an independent Buddhist kingdom. The Portuguese were never able to recover, and Kandy remained independent until British conquest in 1815.

The flag of Kandy, representing the last independent kingdom in Ceylon, was revived for an independent Ceylon in 1948. Since the flag could be taken to represent the Sinhalese, stripes were added later to represent the Hindu Tamils (orange) and Muslims (green).

Kings of Kandy
Don Phillipe1590-1591
Konnapuu Bandara, Vimala Dharma Surya I1591-1604
Vimala Dharma Surya II1687-1707
Narendra Sinha1707-1739
Sri Vijaya Rajasinha1739-1747
Kirti Sri Rajasinha1747-1763, 1763-1782
Dutch occupation, 1763
Rajadhi Rajasinha1782-1798
Sri Vikrama Rajasinha1798-1815

While the Portuguese were occupying Ceylon, in 1580 the Kingdom of Portugal itself became a possession of Spain. This immediately put Portuguese colonies in peril from the Dutch, who were fighting their long war of independence (1568-1648) against Spain. Thus, the new King of Kandy welcomed Joris van Spilbergen, a Dutch representative, in 1602. Although joint action against the common enemy was soon in the works, things ended badly with the Dutch being killed instead. This was straightened out by 1612, when the new King, Senarat, concluded a treaty with the Dutch. Eventually the Portuguese were driven out, and the Dutch assumed their dominant place on the island. By then (1658), Portugal was independent again (1640), but it was too late for many of the prizes of their former empire.

Dutch Governors of Ceylon/Zeylan
William J. Coster1640
Jan Thyszoon Payart1640-1646
Joan Maatzuyker1646-1650
Jacob van Kittensteyn1650-1653
Adriaan van der Meyden1653-1660, 1661-1663
Ryklof van Goens1660-1661, 1663
Jacob Hustaart1663-1664
Ryklof van Goons1664-1675
Ryklof van Goens Jr1675-1679
Laurens Pyl1679-1692
Thomas van Rhee1692-1697
Gerrit de Heere1697-1702
Cornelis Jan Simons1702-1706
Hendrik Becker1706-1716
Isaac Augustin Rumpf1716-1723
Johannes Hertenberg1723-1726
Petrus Vuyst1726-1729
Stephanus Versluys1729-1732
Jacob Christian Pielat1732-1734
Diederik van Domburg1734-1736
Gustaaf Willem baron van Imhoff1736-1739
Willem Maurits Bruyninck1739-1742
Daniel Overbeek1742-1743
Julius V.S. van Gollenesse1743-1751
Gerard Joan Vreeland1751-1752
Johan Gideon Loten1752-1757
Jan Schreuder1757-1762
L.J. Baron van Eck1762-1765
Iman Willem Falck1765-1785
Willem J. van de Graaff1785-1794
J.G. van Angelbeek1794-1796

After more than a century, Dutch rule finally ended because of a problem similar to the one that had undermined the Portuguese. In 1795 Revolutionary France deposed the Dutch monarchy and installed a friendly republican government. In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte revived the monarchy, but with his own brother Louis as King of the Netherlands, and then simply annexed the country to France in 1810. None of this was agreeable to Britain, which became the principal enemy of France and of Napoleon. The British moved quickly to occupy Dutch colonies and prevent them from becoming French bases. Some of these would be returned to the Netherlands at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but Ceylon (like the Cape Colony) would not. Ceylon thus became a kind of outlier of the growing British Indian Empire.

The British would rule Ceylon for a century and a half. After they absorbed Kandy in 1815, the island was completely unified for the first time in many years. To most in Britain, what "Ceylonese" came to mean was probably little more than tea.

An extraordinary development during the years of British rule was the interest of Westerners in Ceylonese Buddhism. Perhaps the most notable name in this was Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907). In New York in 1875, with Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) and some others, Olcott founded the Theosophical Society, which embodied their interests in spiritualism and Eastern religion. In 1878-1879, Olcott and Blavatsky travelled to India to create a new headquarters for the Society, presumably on soil more congenial to its values. However, in 1880 Olcott went on to Colombo and there converted to Buddhism. His enthusiasm for his new faith would have a lasting impact on Western perceptions of Buddhism, on Buddhist perceptions of Buddhism, and on the strength, it is often called a "revival," of Buddhism in Ceylon.

Although Britain had renounced any official policy of proselytism for Christianity, private Christian missionaries, of course, had a free hand.
British Governors of Ceylon
Frederick North, 5th Earl of Guilford1798-1805
Sir Thomas Maitland1805-1811
Sir Robert Brownrigg, 1st Baronet1812-1820
Sir Edward Paget1822
Sir Edward Barnes1824-1831
Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton1831-1837
James Alexander Stewart-Mackenzie1837-1841
Major-General Sir Colin Campbell1841-1847
George Byng, 7th Viscount Torrington1847-1850
Sir G.W. Anderson1850-1855
Sir Henry G. Ward1855-1860
Sir Charles Justin MacCarthy1860-1865
Sir Hercules G.R. Robinson, 1st Baron Rosmead1865-1872
Sir William H. Gregory1872-1877
Sir James R. Longdon1877-1883
Sir Arthur Hamilton-Gordon, 1st Baron Stanmore1883-1890
Sir Arthur B. Havelock1890-1896
Sir J. West Ridgeway1896-1903
Sir Henry Arthur Blake1903-1907
Sir Henry B. McCallum1907-1913
Sir Robert Chalmers1913-1916
Sir John Anderson1916-1918
Sir William H. Manning1918-1925
Sir Hugh Clifford19251-1927
Sir H.J. Stanley1927-1931
Sir Grame Thompson1931-1933
Sir Reginald Edward Stubbs1933-1937
Sir Andrew Caldecott1937-1944
Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore1944-1948
Christian schools in Ceylon had some success at winning converts, as they would long be successful in conveying modern Western learning. Olcott, in turn, wanted to help Buddhism meet Christian missionaries on their own terms. He formulated a catechism for Buddhism in 1881, wrote extensively promoting Buddhism, and even created a "Young Men's Buddhist Association" (YMBA). The result was influential in what has been called "Buddhist Modernism."

Olcott did not believe that ritual and superstition were proper to Buddhism and promoted the idea, now quite common, that Buddhism is really a system of philosophy, or a kind of empirical spiritualism, in its own way rational and even scientific. What went along with this was a view that all Eastern religion was really, at root, like this, and that any differences between Buddhism and, say, Hinduism were only superficial.

This is a view that is now also quite common, to the extent that popular culture lumps together Indian, Chinese, and Japanese religion as all subscribing to the same esoteric truths. That this really has little to do with the traditional practice of such religions is obvious to scholars, and to anyone really familiar with the countries, is irrelevant, since an approach like Olcott's is normative and owes much more to the originally Western ideology of something like Theosophy than it does to anything intrinsic to Indian or Chinese religion. Where the one parts company with the other is the most conspicious when we come to the devotionistic sides of the religions. Thus, the most popular form of Buddhism in East Asia is the Pure Land sect of the Buddha Amitābha, who promises rebirth in his paradise even for the sinful. This sort of thing was altogether too much like Christianity for someone like Olcott, and we get the beginning of an attitude that most of Mahāyāna Buddhism is not really Buddhism (the only Mahāyāna sect eventually to pass muster would be Zen).

Thus, Olcott and those of similar predilections would find the Theravāda Buddhism of Ceylon more congenial, though even this would take some cleaning up, to return it to the Purity of the early Sangha. Such preferences were not without a tangible basis. Sinhalese Buddhism preserved the Pāli Canon, the oldest collection of the Buddhist Tripitaka. In 1881 the Pali Text Society was founded by Thomas William Rhys Davids (1843-1922), a member of the British Civil Service in Ceylon. Rhys Davids had no sympathy for Theosophy, but his project would provide a scholarly foundation for whatever appropriation anyone wanted to make of Theravāda Buddhism. A Pāli dictionary had already been published in 1874 by another Civil Servant in Ceylon, Robert Caesar Childers (1838-1876), and Edwin Arnold's (1832–1904) popular and influential The Light of Asia, a handsome and sympathetic presentation of the life of the Buddha, had already been published in 1879.

Considering the contemptuous and patronizing attitude of the Mahāyāna (and so of the Chinese, Japanese, etc.) for Theravāda Buddhism, calling it the Hinayāna, i.e. the "Lesser Vehicle," the esteem of Europeans for their own tradition would have been flattering to the Ceylonese. With a Protestant rigor, Olcott and others would have dismissed the Sutras of Mahāyāna Buddhism as apocryphal or fraudulent. I gather that the impression for many years was that Pāli was the language of the Buddha himself, and that the Pāli Canon thus preserves his actual words. For all their Buddhist revivalism, however, Western Neo-Buddhists in general were (and are) not much interested in the monasticism of Buddhism, a characteristic that was undeniable, not only in every Buddhist tradition, but something that could hardly be missed in the Pāli Canon itself, where a large part of the corpus concerns monastic discipline, the vinaya. It is hard not to see that disinterest as reflecting an originally Protestantizing attitude towards religion.

Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment, by Robert Wright

Governors General of
the Dominion of Ceylon
Sir Henry Monck-Mason Moore1948-1949
Herwald Ramsbotham, 1st Viscount Soulbury1949-1954
Sir Oliver Ernest Goonetilleke1954-1962
William Gopallawa1962-1972
President, 1972-1978
Ceylon becomes
the Republic of Sri Lanka
Ceylon became independent in 1948. Like India and Pakistan, this was in the form of a
Dominion, with the King of England still the formal Head of State of the country and a Governor General as his representative. Ceylon, however, continued as a Dominion far longer than the others, for 24 years, until 1972. This casual pace of development would seem to bespeak the sort of leisurely nationalism and complacent good will that we find in some other former British possessions. We might be led to see the country as peaceful and happy, as indeed I would gather from my 1962 World Book Encyclopedia, which says that the Sinhalese are a people of "gentle habits" [Volume 3, p.277]. However, this would be a false impression. The spirit of Dutthagamani had already started to revive, and riots had begun in 1956 where Tamils were attacked and often killed by Sinhalese mobs. With "Buddhist Modernism" often celebrating the pacifism of Buddhism in general, and that of the Theravāda in particular, the ugly history that begins to unfold would be an anomaly and an embarrassment, if not a refutation, to its conceits. These developments are discussed with the recent history of Sri Lanka.

The list of rulers and governors here is combined from lists given by Bruce R. Gordon's Regnal Chronologies and a number of articles at Wikipedia. Other information is from the Encyclopædia Britannica and print sources like the above referenced book by Hirakawa Akira. The different lists sometimes give different dates or have other anomalies. I cannot always tell which versions represent the best scholarship, so I have tried to indicate the variations.

Prime Ministers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka

The Sun Never Set on the British Empire

Philosophy of History

Home Page

Copyright (c) 2007, 2009, 2011, 2018, 2020 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved