Religious schools and traditions

Buddhism evolved in northern India during the fifth century BCE. Siddhartha Gautama is regarded as its founder. In its early stages, it was essentially an ascetic movement. It advanced first across the Indian subcontinent, from where it spread to Central, East, and South-East Asia. Today, Buddhism is classed as a ‘world religion’ that embraces a great variety of teachings, schools, and religious communities that focus on the teachings of the Buddha. ‘Buddhism’ as a term was not coined until the nineteenth century when the concept of ‘world religions’ first arose. Before that, it was known as ‘the teachings of the Buddha’ (dharma) or ‘the way of the Buddha’.

From the point of view of believers, the Buddhist teachings have always existed because ultimately they represent the recognition of truth. As human society keeps forgetting it, however, a buddha needs to assert it anew in every cosmic era.


«The definition of Buddhism, I think, is in the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. […] Now, you could still be a Buddhist without that kind of practice. It is not necessary to have a comprehensive understanding of the in-depth meaning of the teaching of the Four Noble Truths to be a simple, ordinary Buddhist. One could simply take refuge in Buddha, dharma [teaching] and sangha [community of practitioners], do simple practices, and be categorized as a simple Buddhist practitioner. But to become a genuine Buddhist practitioner in the true sense, it is important to have an in-depth understanding of the teachings of the Four Noble Truths. And for that pursuit, it is important to have a clear idea of nirvana and enlightenment.»1

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, 2013


«Problems […] confront us as soon as we try to define what Buddhism is. Is it a religion? A philosophy? A way of life? A code of ethics? It is not easy to classify Buddhism as any of these things, and it challenges to rethink some of these categories. What, for example, do we mean by religion?»2

Damien Keown, Buddhism, 2013


1 Amy Edelstein, Interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama on 3 August 2013,, last accessed 24. 09. 2018.

2 Damien Keown, Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. OUP, Oxford, 2013, p. 10.