Large Buddha Statue

Buddhism International Variants: A Brief History of the Culture and Teachings of the Buddha

Sun shining through Tian Tan Giant Buddha on hillside in Hong Kong

Buddhism is a widespread and ancient practice that dates back to 623 BCE, with the birth of Siddhartha Gautama, in modern day Lumbini, Nepal. Brought into this world as a prince or of a noble family, Siddhartha Gautama spends his life reflecting inward to understand the complexities of existence, eventually leading him to experience enlightenment and attain Nirvana. The belief system and practice of meditation, inward reflection, and renouncing earthly ties has spread well beyond the physical reach of Siddhartha Gautama. Providing both religion and way of life, Buddhism has become more than the following of one person, and truly found roots as a culture itself.


History of the Buddha

The Buddha’s life describes ways in which his experiences led him to uncover the truths of life. While disputed as to the actual social standing of his birth family, it is consistent that they were of a high rank. Growing up with the luxuries and peace that money allows, he had no awareness of life’s suffering. During an adventure outside of his home, he witnessed the atrocities of reality, seeing for the first time an elderly person, a sick person, and a corpse. Shortly after, he also saw a nomadic monk amongst the villagers. Recognizing that neither his family nor money would be able to withhold such suffering, Siddhartha Gautama decided to pursue the life of a monk, as he saw the existence of the man amongst those terrible things as a sign to search for a better life.

Following the nomadic monk, Siddhartha relinquished his earthly attachments and learned from many teachers. Such lessons did not provide him with the answers to life’s terrors, and he changed to pursuing a strict life of self-denial. In turn, this did not offer him any more answers than the monk had. Siddhartha instead looked to follow a path of his own, the “Middle Way”, one that would not require severe self-denial, but that would also not allow for the ignorance of a lavish life. It was at this time that he is described to have sat beneath the Bodhi Tree (meaning the “tree of awakening”) and through deep meditation, he found enlightenment. In him attaining this knowledge, Siddhartha was no longer just a human man, but became the Buddha. From this point forward, he pursued his understanding of the world as he continued his nomadic journey, sharing his knowledge along the way.

As an earthly being, the Buddha is believed to have lived about 80 years. During his time, there were no written texts of his experience or teachings. It wasn’t until many centuries later that accounts of his life were permanently placed on paper. Before this, they were simply memorized and passed through generations orally. The earliest references to his life in written records are within the “Pā-li”, written records of discourse, and the “Suttas”, monastery texts about expected discipline. There are many ideas that Buddhism is an offspring of Hinduism. However, scholars explain that these texts suggest Buddha was in existence before the development of Hinduism. Some scholars understand the historical context of these two religions to have grown almost parallel to each other, rather than from one another (Cantwell, 2010).


Buddhist Teachings

Throughout his life and expanded enlightenment, the Buddha shared his primary teachings. These are the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path, both understood through the Middle Way. This Middle Way “characterizes the Buddha’s life” in “represent[ing] a rejection of all extremes of thought, emotion, action and lifestyle” (Vail, Lise). This understanding of life led the Buddha to know the Four Noble Truths; the first Noble Truth (1) is that life is suffering, based on a combination of all life’s pleasures and pains intertwined into our existences. Secondly (2), life’s suffering comes from earthly cravings; third (3), this suffering has an end; and fourth (4), life’s suffering can be ended through enlightenment, which is obtained through the Eight-Fold Path and the Middle Way.

The Eight-Fold Path is often visually presented by a wheel with eight spokes, each spoke representing one of the the lived elements:

  • Right Views (or the Four Noble Truths)
  • Right Intention
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Endeavor
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

(If you’d like to know more about the Eight-Fold Path, check out this article.)

The Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path are the primary teachings, or Dhamma, of the Buddha. The Dhamma is taught through the Sangha, the followers of Buddha, specifically the monks and nuns that devote their lives to his teachings. The Dhamma, Sangha, and the Buddha are known as the Three Jewels of Buddhism. Along with these core beliefs, all Buddhists recognize the Buddha as their enlightened teacher and guide to Nirvana. The specifics of what the Buddha taught, however, are not agreed upon so easily. Prior to his earthly passing, the Buddha did not appoint any person as the successor of his teachings, thus leaving many questions of life unanswered. Instead, he “told the monks to be lamps unto themselves and make the Dhamma their guide.” (Vail, Lise)


Variations of Buddhism

Primary Branches

It is from these unanswered questions that Buddhism found friction. In the first century, the friction became a divergence of Buddhist teachings and practices. Two main branches of Buddhism grew from this divide, the Hinayana and the Mahāyāna. The Theravāda School was founded under the Hinayana Branch around the 4th century CE and is the last remaining school of this branch. With a translation meaning “Doctrine of Elders”, this following is known as the “orthodox school of Buddhism” ( Primarily in Sri Lanka, the practice holds to the Buddha’s teachings and does not fray into modern variations. The Sangha of this branch have a conservative spirit, relying on devoted lay people (non-practicing, ordinary individuals) for their earthly needs. This teaching also keeps with tradition in the continued usage of the Pāli language.

The other branch of Buddhism, Mahāyāna, fostered multiple schools of belief, three of which are still prominent today. These three school are Pure Land, Chanor Zen, and Tantra. The followers of the Mahāyāna branch believe Buddhism to be something that lay people are able to participate in, and that Nirvana is able to be reached through varying paths (the interaction of lay people in Buddhist practices is discussed further below).  They include in their understanding that life is, in a sense, a cycle. It is believed that people come from and look to reach a state of what is known as Buddha Nature, Buddha Mind or Emptiness. This is not so much emptiness in the sense of a void, but rather the “Source of All Existence”, a place where humans originate from and return to when Nirvana is reached.

In the belief of this Emptiness or Buddha Nature, the followers of the Mahāyāna branch understand the Buddha to be one of many physical manifestations of this “space”. Such manifestations of the Buddha Nature are believed to have also occurred in the past, before the Buddha’s existence, being that the Buddha is not the only one to have shared guidance from the Buddha Nature. There are also predictions for future manifestations as followers of this branch believe humans will have a continued need for guidance. Bodhi Sattvas are important manifestations of the Buddha Nature, in that they are earthly people who have reached Nirvana but returned to earth for the purpose of assisting others in their own path back to the Buddha Nature.



As the branches of Buddhism grew, so did the number of followers. The graphic above visually explains a recent population study from 2015 detailing the numbers of Buddhists in geographic regions. Being the birthplace of the religion, the Asian continent holds the majority of world’s population of Buddhists. These numbers decrease in size across the hemispheres, with Africa holding the smallest number of Buddhists. It is not a surprise between the origins of the religion and the vast population of the Buddhists that the Asian continent is also the primary source of international variants within the religion.

India sprouted a variation of Buddhism from that of the primary Mahāyāna branch, in which their main focus is helping as many people reach enlightenment as possible. Here, Mahāyāna is translated to “Great Vehicle”, reflecting their primary goal (outside of following the Buddha’s teachings). This branch also has a strong connection to the meditative practices of Zen. From here grew another bud of Buddhism, the Amitābha School. This school has a focus on the transformative ability of Buddhism as it interacts with new ideas and different religions. Because of this, it is best known for regularly converting the highest number of people. Amitābha became a popular form of Buddhism and it is still the most commonly practiced school in Korea, Japan, China, and Vietnam (

Tibet is primarily known for it’s interactions with Vajrayāna, translated to the “Diamond Vehicle”, to the point of Vajrayāna and Tibetan Buddhism being almost interchangeable for the same practices. This school grew as a rejection of the Mahātāna school, believing that the Buddha’s teachings were not things to be fitted with modern society, but rather strong lessons to cut through earthly experiences and expectations. These beliefs are reflected in it’s name, showcasing the strength and dedication to their more traditional beliefs.

The origins of the Buddha have also created various celebratory days. His day of birth has multiple names, including Vesak Day, Buddha Pernima, and Ikh Duichen. Each branch has its own specific day of celebration for this, but generally it is celebrated during the spring. Other celebratory days include Nirvana Day (in recognition of the Buddha’s death and reach of Nirvana) and Bodhi Day (when Siddhartha Gautama is believed to have become the Buddha). The calendar dates of these celebrations vary depending on the region or branch of Buddhism practiced, due to there being no written record of the Buddha’s timeline.

Silhouette of a woman meditating against a hazy blue and orange sky.

Secular Buddhism

Despite such divergences on the details of Buddhist teachings, the Three Jewels of Buddhism will always be agreed upon. It is from this central belief, as well as their gentile ways and respect for life, that Buddhists have yet to engage in disputes with each other or waged war on other religious groups. However, it is from this peaceful and solitary lifestyle that Buddhism is also decreasing world wide. A study conducted in 2015 shows that Buddhists make up 7% of the world’s population currently. This number is anticipated to fall to 5% by 2060. Such a decrease can also be attributed to how Buddhism is interpreted. Not so much with the religious specifics, but that the Buddha’s teachings are understood to be universal truths. Meaning, they should be applicable to all humans, not just those who follow and have faith in the Buddha.

Additionally, Buddhism can be described as an “insightful practice” (, being that it’s based on one’s own relationship with the world. This viewpoint places focus on the maintenance of a righteous life until Nirvana, rather than divinity or salvation. Many scholars recognize that a lot of people, particularly those in Asian countries, will be actively practicing Buddhism with traditions and rituals, bit will not consider themselves as part of the religion (Starr, 2015). This contributes to the decrease in international numbers, because one can incorporate Buddhist teachings into their lives without fully adhering to the Buddhist religion. This is furthered still in some variations of Buddhism, in which people believe the Three Jewels to be malleable so that they are able to fit into people’s lives and be diverse, rather than align to one set of standards.

The use of Buddhist practices without the belief elements produces something beyond religion, something that can be considered a culture itself. Author Robert Bogoda describes this in explaining that culture “gives expression to our nature in our way of living and of thinking, in art, religion, ethical aspirations, and knowledge.” Understanding cultures in that way, it is easy to see how Buddhism is very much a culture of it’s own. Particularly in regards to those who practice but are not Sangha, Buddhism becomes deeply embedded in their life without necessarily being a way of life. These elements are of course present within the lives of religious Buddhists, but they play more of a secondary role as a culture that supports such beliefs, rather than a religion that is the heart of the belief.

A gold painting of a Buddha statue used as house decor in a modern house.


The ability for Buddhism to be a secular practice also brings in questions of what secular practice is, and when does that become appropriation, Dr. Natalie Quli answers this question well. She states that “Cultural appropriation involves a dominant group taking elements from a marginalized group’s culture and adopting those elements as their own or using those elements in ways that disrespect or otherwise harm the minority culture.” As mentioned previously, Buddhism is often understood as universal truths that are applicable to all scenarios. In this, the issue of cultural appropriation then becomes not whether or not someone practices, but the ways that they go about it.

Dr. Quli shares some examples of this, such as when people make Buddhism seem exotic. This often manifests itself in micro-aggressions (subtle, perhaps unintended, though direct discrimination of a marginalized group) as people treat Buddhism and it’s followers as foreign and fascinating. Another form of appropriation Dr.Quli shares is fashion, in which many people find the Buddha as a form of decoration to adorn their outfits, rather than a respected role model and spiritual guide. Dr. Quli explains that secular Buddhists, specifically those in the West, need to be aware of such appropriation and pay attention to the ways that they interact with the religion and the culture.

“Resolutely train yourself to attain peace.” – The Buddha

While Buddhism continues to expand and interact with modern times, it is important to recognize the roots and modifications that have been part of the religion. Be it a secular practice of meditation or intense religious devotion to the Sangha, the Buddha is intended as a supreme role model that all can learn from. It is from this ability to be both secular and religious that Buddhism has grown beyond the beliefs of a wandering monk and into a culture itself. Through careful consideration and as to what a person says and does, they are able to learn many lessons from the Buddha and his insightful ways.


“Buddhism: The Basics.” Cantwell, Cathy. 2010. (2010).

“Bodh Gaya Journal; Where Buddha’s Path Crosses the Hindu Cosmos.” Gargan, Edward A. Just 3rd, 1992. The Time’s Print Archive. 

Vail, Lise F. “The Origins of Buddhism.” Center for Global Education.

“Buddhists Around the World.” 2015. Gordon Conwell Theology Seminary. 

Starr, Kelsey Jo. “5 facts about Buddhists around the world.” Pre Research Center. April 5, 2019. 

“Buddhism Religious Holidays.” Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

“Buddhist Traditions.” Nalanda Holistic Education for Integral Human Development. 2012.  

“Dhamma in Buddhism.” British Broadcasting Corporation. 

“The Sangha: The Buddhist Community.” The Pluralism Project, Harvard University.

“Buddhist Culture, The Cultured Buddhist.” Bogoda, Robert. 2005. The Buddhist Publication Society. 

“Lumbini, the Birthplace of the Lord Buddha.” United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. 

“The Buddha.” British Broadcasting Corporation. 

“Eightfold Path; Buddhism.” Lopez, Donald S. Britannica.

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