Cultures & Traditions


Buddhism emerged in India in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E. It was founded by Siddhārtha Gautama, who was called the Buddha or “Awakened One” once he attained spiritual enlightenment. The Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, which are the foundation of Buddhism, as his first sermon after reaching enlightenment. These four truths are: all existence is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire, to renounce desire is to renounce suffering, and one can achieve renunciation by following the Noble Eightfold Path. This path includes right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Central to Buddhism is the concept of the cycle of rebirth (samsara), and the ultimate goal of most forms of Buddhism is to attain nirvana or enlightenment and escape from this cycle.

By the 13th century, Buddhism was nearly extinct in India; however, through missionary activity it had spread to Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Far East. Over time, diverse interpretations of the Buddha's teachings led to a variety of philosophies, doctrines, and practices which fall within one of its three main branches: Theravada (Doctrine of the Elders), Mahayana (Great vehicle), and Vajrayana (Thunderbolt vehicle). Theravada Buddhism emphasizes meditation and deems monasticism necessary for spiritual attainment. In Mahayana Buddhism, the figure of the bodhisattva emerges as an ideal. A bodhisattva is an individual who has escaped the cycle of rebirth but chooses to remain in the world to help others achieve enlightenment. Whereas the historical Buddha is central in Theravada, Mahayana expanded the Buddhist pantheon to include innumerable bodhisattvas and buddhas. Vajrayana, which developed out of Mahayana in the 6th century C.E., further expands the pantheon and employs esoteric practices to reach enlightenment in one lifetime.

Adapted from

  • Andrea Lesovsky, DMA unpublished material, 2013.

  • "Palden Lhamo," DMA Connect, 2012.

Related Multimedia

Gallery talk by Bromberg, Anne R., The Cecil and Ida Green Curator of Ancient and Asian Art, DMA;
lecture in conjunction with Himalayan Gilt Bronzes from Nepal and Tibet, May 17-September 13, 1998 [not in calendar]
Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology with Dr. Monica L. Smith, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California-Los Angeles, explores the origins of Buddhism and its effects on the people of India and Nepal.

Web Resources