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The number of Buddhists in the world today is estimated at 300 to 350 million - a huge number, when one realizes that there exists considerable controversy concerning whether it is a religion or not! However, many facts are known with certainty: Buddhism is based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, a.k.a. Siddhartha Buddha, in the fifth century B.C.
Although born into royalty and possessing the idealism common to such offspring, he came upon four different types of men which shattered his picture of the world: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a wandering holy man. He then left his family and began a life of ascetic wandering, dedicated to his spiritual development. However, he soon realized that this harsh existence was based on self-hatred; thus, he began a marathon meditation session, along with Anapanasati (constant awareness of breathing in and out), vowing not to stop until he had found The Truth. After 49 days of continuous meditation, he attained bodhi (called "Awakening" or "Enlightenment" in the West), developing a path of moderation that Buddhists call the Middle Way.
Gautama did not claim to be divine, and he did not receive revelation from a higher being. In fact, "Buddha" means "Enlightened One". The absence of a central dogma or symbolism has enabled Buddhism to diverge into various sects which emphasize different aspects of the original Buddha's teachings.
Buddhism is divided into two basic traditions: Theravāda and Mahayana. All of the other types of Buddhism - Tibetan, Zen, etc. - are subgroups of these two major divisions, the differences between which are quite profound. A very good discussion, contrasting these two doctrines, is found on the Religious Tolerance site; a table from the site that summarizes these contrasts and similarities is reproduced below.
For those interested in a thorough treatment of Theravāda Buddhism, there is an excellent treatise on the web that covers all of the major features of this important Buddhist sect. In fact, there are instructions for downloading the entire website, which is a little over 10Mb in size.
The huge number of Buddhists throughout the world is, to my mind, a reflection of its great variability in type of discipline, so that whatever features one might seek in a spiritual structure can probably be found in one of the Buddhist sects. Zen Buddhism, for instance, has very little of what most would regard as religious features. One need only peruse the table above to see the stark contrast in emphasis between the Theravāda and Mahayana schools of Buddhism.
Probably the best known icon of Buddhism is the Dalai Lama, who is the spiritual leader of the Tibetan Buddhists. According to doctrine, the current Dalai Lama (his official portrait is to the left) is the 14th in a succession of reincarnations of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who lived in the 1300's. ("Bodhisattva" is defined differently, depending on the Buddism sect, ranging from someone on a spiritual path to nirvana (regardless of the degree of enlightenment he may have achieved) to an enlightened being who has reached the pinnacle of spiritual accomplishment.) Typically, when a Lama dies (the Dalai Lama is not the only Lama, and they all are continuously reincarnated), the elders of the church hierarchy go on a worldwide search for his reincarnation. Often, but not always, as the Lama is dying, he is able to provide a clue as to where his reincarnation will be found. The search typically takes about two years.
When a child that seems to fit the criteria for the reincarnated Lama is located, a series of tests are administered which are designed to confirm unequivocally the child's identity. For instance, a collection of the dead Lama's childhood toys is placed before the candidate, mixed in with a number of similar toys that the prior Lama did not own. If the child is the reincarnate, he will unerringly pick out the Lama's toys, usually announcing something like "These are mine! Mine!". After a day's worth of similar tests, which would seem impossible to fake, the other Lamas confer until a unanimous decision is reached that the new Lama has been found.
As many people know, in 1951, when he was 16 years old, the Chinese army occupied Lhasa and forced Tibet to sign a treaty with Beijing recognizing China's rule. Under the treaty, Tibet became a "national autonomous region" ruled by a Chinese commission, with the Dalai Lama as a figurehead ruler. However, after many years of pretending that it supported Tibet as an independent state, China dropped all pretense of such an arrangement, and in 1966, during the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guard attacked monks and nuns, wrecked and looted monasteries, and destroyed priceless religious relics. The government of Mao Zedong banned the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, a ban that would last until 1976.
Although the Dalai Lama made several impassioned speeches to the United Nations, asking that China release its political and military hold on Tibet; all these efforts came to naught. By the 1990s, he had softened his demands, first dissolving his "government in exile", then requesting only a form of self-rule that would satisfy Tibetans. He also accused the Chinese of cultural genocide.
The Dalai Lama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for advocating "peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect in order to preserve the historical and cultural heritage of his people." It was hoped that the stature afforded by such recognition would render the Chinese more prone to release its grip on Tibet somewhat, but this did not occur.
Most recently, while on a 10-day tour of Italy, the Dalai Lama said that China is hardening its stance on Tibet, pushing many Tibetans to search for greater support abroad. While in Italy, the Dalai Lama was unable to fulfill a promise to his people to meet with Pope Benedict XVI. Although the two leaders met last year, the Vatican is trying to strengthen ties with China, and it was surmised that such a visit under these circumstances would anger Beijing.