This Year in History

Know your History, It repeats itself! See also Timeline of the History of Computers and This Year in History

History in the year of:


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Bibliography Buddha-Dharma-Sangha Buddhist Ayurvedic Medicine History


Bibliography Buddha-Dharma-Sangha History – Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia and Dictionary

Buddha-Dharma-Sangha History

! Template Buddhist Authors

Bringing the Buddha Dharma to the West.

“” (RgWik)


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Buddha-Dharma-Sangha History

Walpola Sri Rahula

The seminal book of bringing the Buddha Dharma to the West called What the Buddha Taught was written in 1959 by Walpola Sri Rahula

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Angkor Wat Buddhist Temple Cambodia

Angkor Wat (/ˌæŋkɔːr ˈwɒt/Khmer: អង្គរវត្ត “Buddhist Monastery in the city”[2]) is a temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world by land area,[1] on a site measuring 162.6 hectares (1.626 km2; 402 acres).[3] Originally constructed as a Hindu temple[1] dedicated to the god Vishnu for the Khmer Empire.[4][5] It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II[6] in the early 12th century in Yaśodharapura (Khmer: យសោធរបុរៈ, present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple. Breaking from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. But towards the end of 12th century, it was converted into a Buddhist Temple, which continues to present day.[5] As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious center since its foundation. The temple is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. Today, it is one of the most important pilgrimage site for the Buddhists in Cambodia and around the world.[7] It has become a symbol of Cambodia,[8] appearing on its national flag, and it is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.[9]

Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the later galleried temple. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology within a moat more than 5 kilometres (3 mi) long[10] and an outer wall 3.6 kilometres (2.2 mi) long are three rectangular galleries, each raised above the next. At the centre of the temple stands a quincunx of towers. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Angkor Wat is oriented to the west; scholars are divided as to the significance of this. The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the numerous statues of Buddhas and Devas adorning its walls.” (WP)

“The sprawling temple complex at Angkor, in Cambodia, is originally known as a Hindu site. It was created under the patronage of the king Suryavarman II (ruled 1113–50). Dedicated to the Hindu god Viṣṇu, it was planned as a model of the cosmos, with Mount Meru at its center. Angkor Wat’s rising series of towers and courtyards are vertically dominated by a 213-foot lotus-blossom-shaped central tower. Angkor is probably the largest religious structure in the world.” (EoBDKJNK)

“One of the most impressive complexes at Angkor is Angkor Thom, literally “the great city,” the last capital of the Khmer empire and, during its peak, a sprawling city of nearly a million inhabitants. Within the city are the remains of dozens of structures, including Suryavarman’s palace and the Phimeanakas, the state temple. At the center of Angkor Thom rises the Golden Tower of the Bayon, a soaring Buddhist temple which is surrounded by more than thirty lesser towers and several hundred stone shrines which originally would have housed (based on inscriptional evidence) a vast array of Buddha and bodhisattva images, as well as images of Prajñāpāramitā, Tārā, and lesser Buddhist deities (most of these images were long ago removed from the temple). A particularly common image type seems to have been a seated Buddha sheltered by the nāga (serpent) Mucalinda. One of most well-known features of the site is the dozens of smiling faces that adorn the smaller towers surrounding the main structure. It is unclear who or what these images represent, although it is generally agreed that they are the compassionate bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, perhaps modeled on the face of Jayavarman VII himself. These massive faces, which are placed on each side of each of the smaller towers, look out to the four cardinal points and seem to signify the omnipresence of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, the one who sees all.” (EoBDKJNK)

“In part because it is laid out as a massive maṇḍala, the Bayon at Angkor Thom seems to be intended to represent a microcosm of the universe, divided into four parts by the main axes that run through the center of the complex. The temple is situated at the exact center of the axes and stands as the symbolical link between heaven and earth.” (EoBDKJNK)

“The temple itself, as it now stands, consists of three levels. The lower two are lined with bas-reliefs and the third includes a central sanctuary. It is a massive structure, with various courtyards, image niches (or galleries), towers, and terraces. The massive central tower rises to 130 feet. In addition to the images drawn from the Mahāyāna and Hindu pantheons – reflecting, perhaps, a religious syncretism on the part of the Khmer rulers – many of the bas-reliefs at the Bayon depict mundane scenes – fishing, festivals, the marketplace, and cockfights – as well as scenes of royal processions and large-scale military battles.” (EoBDKJNK)

See also: Art, Buddhist; Sacred places; Stūpa.



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Buddhism in Cambodia and Laos


“The logic of territorial contiguity, Buddhism, and politics both secular and related to Buddhism, defined the history of Cambodia. Hemmed in by Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, the south of Cambodia alone confronted the Gulf of Siam, making her open to Indic Hindu cultural and religious influences primarily via trade. The Khmers made up almost 90 percent of Cambodia’s ethnic population.” (EoBDKAWI)

“Before Theravāda Buddhism became predominant in the fourteenth century, Mahāyāna Buddhism and, as elsewhere in the peninsula, animism had taken strong root. Theravāda Buddhism made its presence felt in the reign of King Jayavarman VII, who reigned 1181–1201. The original Cambodian empire at the height of its power extended over parts of northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam, providing an aura of a golden age to later rulers. Later, however, Cambodia closer to modern times lost considerable territory to Vietnam, a neighbor she traditionally feared, and to Thailand. The French who became the paramount power in the region established a protectorate in Cambodia in 1863, and later in 1889 made all of Cambodia a French colony, increasing its size by successfully compelling Thailand in 1907 to return three Cambodian provinces Thailand had appropriated in the eighteenth century.” (EoBDKAWI)

“However, Cambodia’s relations with Thailand were closer on account of a strong common Theravāda tradition, in contrast to those with Vietnam. Thailand, with an older Buddhist tradition and unfettered by colonialism, extended a benign fraternal tutelage over Cambodia. An independent Theravāda Buddhist tradition was fostered by Cambodia’s rulers of the nineteenth century beginning with Duang (1848–60), and continued more forcefully by his successor Norodhom (1860–1914), whose reign broadly coincided with that of Mongkut in Thailand. A notable feature was the importation of the Dhammayuttika Nikāya (monastic group) that Mongkut had created in Thailand as a countervailing reformed sect to the older Mahānikāya sect. As rulers both Duang and Norodom espoused the Dhammayuttika sect, which received added legitimacy when, as a result of the efforts of Mongkut, five Cambodian monks went to Sri Lanka to return with Buddhist relics and saplings from the Bo tree in Anurādhapura.” (EoBDKAWI)

“With the death of Mongkut, Thai influences on Cambodia became perceptibly less. Chulalongkorn, though concerned with the condition of Buddhism in Cambodia, was by inclination cosmopolitan and secular. In any event, the differences between the newly established Dhammayuttika sect and the older Mahānikāya Order were more to do with style than substance.” (EoBDKAWI)

“Meanwhile the French colonial government adopted multiple strategies towards Buddhism. Unlike in Vietnam, there was no Mandarin class influencing court policies, a class the French used in ruling Vietnam. The French were faced with a problem in Cambodia. The Buddhist monks in spite of the absence of an organizational structure comparable with Thailand were potentially an imperium in imperio, given their ubiquity, universal presence and the reverence traditionally shown to Buddhist monks. At the end of the nineteenth century an official survey revealed the existence of well over 2,000 monasteries. The fluid political situation in countries across the borders of Cambodia, the politicization of the Cambodian monkhood or their manipulation, was a veritable sword of Damocles.” (EoBDKAWI)

“As if to give substance to official misgivings, the monks in Cambodia in the modern period from 1820 to 1916 led rebellions that, however, were suppressed without difficulty in spite of a conniving backdrop of peasant unrest fused with millennial ideologies. The latter had potential to latch on to the age-old visions of the glories of the Khmer empire dominated by powerful rulers. The French in a sense legitimized the phobias by forbidding Buddhist monks from learning martial arts or practicing indigenous medicines, which reputedly had talismanic powers making their users invincible. The king under French colonial rule was at best a ceremonial figurehead, the head of a spiritual Buddhist state, with its rituals and ceremonies of largely symbolic significance and as an entity running the affairs of Buddhism, but constrained to show deference to the policies of the colonial authority. The government contained the potential political danger of the monks by keeping in place existing regulations prohibiting monks from voting or holding office. The restrictive policies found favor with conservative Buddhist elements in Cambodia as in other Buddhist countries confronting modernization. Monks functioned best immured in monasteries and attending to the spiritual needs of the laity, avoiding both social and political involvement. Moreover the French placed restrictions on the construction of new monasteries, and insisted that monasteries be certified by the state following ordination.” (EoBDKAWI)

“More effective were French policies of restructuring the educational system with a view to undermining the traditional Cambodian penchant for looking to Thailand for higher monastic learning and thereby coming within the ambience of Thai cultural and covert political ideologies. Comparable importance was attached to changing the dependence on monasteries as the sole source of primary and secondary education, in a strategy to undermine the traditional Buddhist influence on education. At secondary and higher levels, two new institutions, while seeming to focus on scholarly Buddhist studies, encouraged the creation of secular intellectual elite. A mix of educational reform, modernization, and economic opportunities created the classic bifurcation characteristic of countries under the fiat of sustained Western colonization.” (EoBDKAWI)

“With the phasing out of French rule in 1953, there was a critical power vacuum in Cambodia. In 1946 when belatedly the right to form political parties was conceded, to the right of the political spectrum there was the Nagara Vatta, which enjoyed a measure of royal support and stood for liberal democracy basing its support on the middle class, but clearly lacked a rural base. Its rival UIF had the support of Buddhist monks and was strongly pro-communist. Popular support with no viable focal point to turn to rallied round Prince Sihanouk who had ascended the throne in 1941. His popularity with radical left forces was strong following his uncompromising stand against the American presence in Vietnam, and the forced use of Cambodian territory in the war against the Vietming. Above all he had led Cambodia to formal political independence in 1953. Sihanouk was aware of the rising tide of communist popularity in the rural areas, where communism appealed to an emasculated Buddhist monkhood with no point of legitimate political focus as well as to an impoverished rural mass. The king tried to popularize Buddhist Socialism, visualizing a society ethicized by Buddhist values that would avoid the greed of capitalism and the negative egalitarianism of communist redistribution of economic wealth and productive potential. The utopianism appealed neither to the wealth-producing bourgeoisie nor to the mass of the rural disadvantaged. Sihanouk conceded that he had failed, reflecting philosophically on the mismatch of idealism and limitations of human nature driven by selfinterest. He was ousted in a coup that brought in Lon Nol as head of a new Khmer Republic Lon Nol, who had the backing of the Americans, was pro-Buddhist and anticommunist. His notably brief tenure of office, marred by illness, failed to prevent the Khmer Rouge from taking complete control of Cambodia in April 1975 under the leadership of Pol Pot, who until he was deposed by Vietnamese forces in 1979, unleashed a reign of terror directed at Buddhism and the sangha, bringing both to the point of near extinction. Viscerally committed to Marxist ideologies in their most elemental forms, Pol Pot understood that the real obstacle to the establishment of a communist state was Buddhism, which in effect meant the traditional order of monks. Tactically, however, he made a distinction between Buddhism and its ethical positions, and the order of monks representing the latter as a parasitic class who used karma to legitimize their privileged position enabling them to live otiose lives of little utility to society at large. The nuance’s distinction appealed to rural youth and to younger monks at the lower end of the monastic hierarchy. Above all it legitimized the take-over of monasteries, putting them to secular uses, the expulsion of older monks, forcing them to work in the fields, the destruction of monasteries and stūpas, the decapitation of Buddha images and the cynical use of palm leaf manuscripts to roll cigarettes: acts which reverberated in the Buddhist world and may have overall had the ironical effect of undermining the communist appeal in South and Southeast Asia.” (EoBDKAWI)

“His successors in the post-Vietnamese era of healing were wiser and quick to learn from his mistakes, notably the People’s Republic of Kampuchea and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party. They understood the dialectic that those who aspired to usher in a new order of society would serve their interest best by recognizing the legacies of the past to make the new order a viable synthesis. The new dispensation made a commitment to Buddhism, gave the sangha recognition, and made provision for a king. It was clearly an emblematic gesture but counted in a society that attached great value to symbols, leaving the reality to be achieved at some future point.” (EoBDKAWI)

“Meanwhile the land-based kingdom of Laos in its pre-European phase was dominated by Thailand and Vietnam, especially the latter. Some of the territories appropriated by Thailand to the west of Laos became part of French Indo-China. Laos traditionally was a Buddhist country with strong links between Buddhism and the state. Successive rulers fostered Buddhism and the monastic order to legitimize their authority. In the rural areas, where the bulk of the population lived, the links between the monastic order and the laity were strong constantly reinforced by legitimizing rituals. Laos attracted foreign scholars and enjoyed a reputation as a center for Buddhist studies. The picture of stability and tranquility was shattered with the advent of France and the gradual expansion of French power in the nineteenth century. Although Laos was an appendage in the larger context of French interests in Vietnam and Cambodia, French power had far-reaching implications for Laos. It put an end to the idea of Laos being a Buddhist state, and sundered the links between the monastic order and the ruler and his claims to legitimacy, with the king becoming the titular head of a virtually non-existing Buddhist state, beholden to the French for the modicum of influence he exercised.” (EoBDKAWI)

“Less than a century of French colonial rule led to an irreversible bifurcation in Laotian society. French rule created a Europeanized elite susceptible to Western cultural mores and, more importantly, to ideologies of capitalism and liberalism. However, French rule also opened pathways to the mesmerizing influence of Marxist-Leninist ideologies that swept through Asia in the throes of decolonization. French rule, which formally ended in 1954, ushered in a prolonged period of acrimonious conflict between the RIG, the Royal Pathet Lao who stood for democratic forms of government and economic liberalism, and the PL, the communist Pathet Lao, inspired by literalist exegetical interpretations of Marxist-Leninism. In an expedient coalition which brought the two parties to work together, the ministry of religious affairs came within the control of a staunchly ideological communist who immediately and effectively followed policies of demolishing the traditional institutional infrastructures of Buddhism, eroding the power of the sangha in the rural areas. In any event the communist Pathet Lao which had long been active in the rural areas, was easily able to seize power in 1975 to establish the Lao People’s Republic. The Pathet Lao ideologues, sensing the importance of Buddhism and the tactical need to legitimize their authority, worked out an extraordinarily detailed and complex synthesis of Marxist-Leninist ideologies and Buddhism, committed in the process to one consistent principle that in situations where the two ideologies could not be harmonized, it was Buddhism that had to yield the point. In this way Laos earned the distinction of becoming the first Marxist state in the region.” (EoBDKAWI)

See also: Buddha and cakravartins; Politics; South and Southeast Asia, Buddhism in.



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Buddha-Dharma-Sangha History

Early Buddhist Symbols


“A notable feature of early Buddhist art is that it did not depict Gautama, or any previous Buddha, in a human form; even before his enlightenment, Gautama is only shown by symbols. This must have been because of the feeling that the profound nature of one nearing or attained to Buddhahood could not be adequately represented by a human form. Even contemporary Brahmanism only portrayed minor deities such as yakṣas (Pāli yakkhas) in non-symbolic ways; the major gods were represented only by symbols. Early Buddhism used a range of symbols to represent the Buddha and his nature, and these have continued in use even after portrayals of him in human form developed from the second century CE.” (EoBDKPHA)

Bodhi trees

“The most important focus of devotion in early Buddhism would have been the Buddha’s bodily relics within the ten original stūpas. More numerous than these, and second in importance, were trees grown from the cuttings or seeds of the three under which Gautama attained Buddhahood, and the original tree itself: bodhi (“awakening” or “enlightenment”) trees. These were greatly revered as tangible links with the Buddha’s great spiritual powers, like bodily relics. They were accordingly seen as having wondrous powers, as seen in the Mahāvaiṃsa chronicle (XVIII.38–44), which says that when Emperor Aśoka (Pāli Asoka, c. 268–239 BCE) wished to take a cutting of the original tree to send to Sri Lanka, a branch severed itself from the tree, floating in the air while it grew roots, and later emitted rays of light in six colors. Bodhi trees were also reminders and symbols of Gautama’s attainment of awakening and the awakened state itself, which role could also be fulfilled by any species of the same tree (aśvattha (Pāli assattha), pīpal or ficus religiosa) or depictions of such a tree.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In pre-Buddhist India, there was already a cult of sacred trees such as the aśvattha. They were often surrounded by a railing and had a mud platform at the base as a place to put offerings to the tree or to the minor deity seen as inhabiting it. When worshipped, they were seen as fulfilling wishes and granting fertility. The Buddha frequently recommended the roots of trees as places for his monks to meditate, and he meditated beneath one on the night of his enlightenment. According to Vinaya 1.1–4, the Buddha stayed near the bodhi tree for four weeks after his enlightenment. The Nidānakathā (p. 77) says that, for the second of these, the Buddha continually contemplated the tree with feelings of deep gratitude for its having sheltered him at his most important time.” (EoBDKPHA)

“As in pre-Buddhist worship of trees, devotion to bodhi trees was expressed by watering them, attaching flags to their branches, and placing offerings such as flowers on the platform at their base. Devotees would also perform the act of clockwise circumambulation or pradakṣiṇā (Pāli padakkhiṇā), literally “keeping to the right.” This action is a common one in the Buddhist tradition; it is also performed round a stūpa and, especially in Tibet, round any sacred object, building, or person. Keeping one’s right side towards someone is a way of showing respect to them: in the suttas, people are often said to have departed from the Buddha keeping their right side towards him. The precedent for actual circu-mambulation may have been the Brahmanic practice of the priest walking around the fire-sacrifice offerings or of a bride walking around the domestic hearth at her marriage. All such practices demonstrate that what one walks around is, or should be, the “centre” of one’s life.” (EoBDKPHA)

“Originally Buddhist tree-shrines were, like their predecessors, simply surrounded by a wooden railing (vedikā). During Aśoka’s time the increasing popularity of the religion led to the development of more elaborate enclosures known as “bodhi-houses” (bodhi-gharas). From their gallery devotees could circumambulate and water the trees without churning up a sea of mud.” (EoBDKPHA)

“On stone reliefs that embellished stūpas, the Buddha could also be symbolized by a bodhi tree, or his life could be symbolically depicted by a bodhi tree (awakening), Dharma-wheel (first sermon) and stūpa (parinirvāṇa at death). In a wider sense, these three symbols represent the Buddha’s nature as an Awakened One, as the teacher of a universal message and as passed into nirvāṇa. Past Buddhas could also be symbolized by their bodhi trees, said to be of a range of species (Dīgha Nikāya 2.2–8). Buddhists also prize the heart-shaped leaves of bodhi trees, especially of descendents of the original tree, an aged revered specimen of which grows on the putative spot where this grew, in Bodhgayā.” (EoBDKPHA)

The lotus

“One of the most common and important early Buddhist symbols is the lotus. In India this has always been looked upon as the most beautiful of flowers. Its bursting into blossom above the water made it a symbol for the birth of gods and the birth of the world. In the Brahmanical Rig Veda, the fire god Agni is said to have been born from a lotus; in the Brāhmaṇas and Āraṇyakas, the lotus was the seat of the creator Prajāpati or the base on which he placed the earth after he had dredged it up from the cosmic ocean. The lotus was particularly associated with the goddess Śrī or Śrī-Lakśmī, described in a late portion of the Rig Veda as “lotusborn” and holding a lotus in her hand. According to coomaraswamy, she and the lotus represented the earth, the waters (of life) and all the potential and creative energy latent in the waters: “that wherein/whereon there is or can be manifestation.”” (EoBDKPHA)

“In early art, medallions depicting a circle of open lotus petals were particularly common (Figure 6(b)), but motifs involving lotuses and Śrī-Lakṣmī were also used to depict the birth of Gautama. Yet the lotus did not just symbolize physical birth:” (EoBDKPHA)

“Just as, monks, a lotus, blue, red or white, though born in the water, grown up in the water, when it reaches the surface stands there unsoiled by the water; just so, monks, though born in the world, grown up in the world, having overcome the world, a Tathāgata abides unsoiled by the world.” (EoBDKPHA)

(Saṃyutta Nikāya 3.140; cf. Majjhima Nikāya 1.169)

“Just as the lotus blossom grows up from the mud and water, so one with an enlightened mind develops out of the ranks of ordinary beings, by maturing the spiritual potential latent in all. Like the Bodhi tree, the lotus is a symbol drawn from the vegetable kingdom. While both suggest spiritual growth, the lotus emphasizes the potential for growth, whereas the Bodhi tree indicates the culmination of this growth: awakening.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The fact that drops of water roll off a lotus (cf. “like water off a duck’s back”) gives this unsoiled flower an added symbolic meaning in Buddhism, as a simile for non-attachment. As Maudgalyāyana (Pāli Moggallāna) says of himself, “he is not soiled by conditioned phenomena as a lotus is not soiled by water” (Theragāthā 1180). Nirvāṇa is also likened to a lotus in being “unsoiled by defilements” (Milindapañha 318), as it is beyond attachment, hatred and delusion that worldly beings are involved in. Milindapañha 375 also shows other aspects of lotus symbolism: the “earnest student of yoga” must be like the lotus above water, for “having overcome and risen above the world, he must stand firm in the supramundane state”; like a lotus trembling in the slightest breeze, he or she must also “exercise restraint among even the slightest defilements; he should abide seeing the peril (in them).”” (EoBDKPHA)

The Dharma-wheel

“The Dharma-wheel (dharma-cakra, Pāli dhamma-cakka) has been one of the major Buddhist symbols since early times. A crucial key to the understanding of its meaning are the canonical stories of just and compassionate emperors of the past known as cakravartins or “wheel-turners,” for whom a glowing thousand-spoked “divine wheel” appears on a full moon night. The king anoints the wheel with water, setting it spinning. He then urges it to roll forth and accompany him in the peaceful conquest of the four directions of the whole world. The wheel is the first of the cakravartin’s seven “treasures,” and such a list, also beginning with the wheel, occurs in the Brahmanical Rig Veda as pertaining to Agni or Soma-Rudra; the Mahābhārata 1.18 also lists seven “treasures” which appear at the churning of the cosmic ocean, starting with the “mild moon of 1,000 rays”; five of the seven “treasures” are the same in all three lists if the moon disc is seen as a kind of wheel.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In Buddhist stories on the cakravartin, the wheel’s continuing presence is a sign that a compassionate ruler is still on his throne. The key aspect of its meaning is that it symbolizes the emperor’s just rule radiating outwards to all the lands of the earth. The commentator Buddhaghosa explains that on the exterior of the wheel’s rim are 100 parasols, each accompanied by two spear-heads. The latter symbolize the emperor’s power of peaceful conquest, while the parasols as emblems of royalty represent all the kings of the earth who come willingly to accept the righteous rule of the emperor (Dīgha Nikāya commentary 2.617–19).” (EoBDKPHA)

“The “treasure-wheel” and the Dharma-wheel are said, not surprisingly, to look exactly alike. For practical purposes each is depicted with fewer than 1,000 spokes and 100 parasols (Figure 6(a)). In time the spear-heads disappeared and the parasols degenerated into residual bumps. While the parasols on the cakravartin’s wheel stand for kings who come to accept his rule, on the Dharma-wheel they can be seen to represent the great beings who come to follow the teachings of the Dharma. These include kings, spiritually advanced teachers of other sects and also gods. The Buddha taught for the benefit of “gods and humans” and Śakra (Pāli Sakka), that is, Indra, the ruler of the Vedic gods, is said to have become a stream-enterer (Dīgha Nikāya 2.288), while a Great Brahmā deity, seen by brahmins as the overlord or “creator” of the world, is said to have requested the Buddha to teach the world (Vinaya 1.5–7). The protective parasols and sharp spears also suggest, respectively, the Buddha’s compassion and wisdom.” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 6(a) Wheel design from Sāñcī, first century CE.

Figure 6(b) Lotus medallion design from the railing on the Bhārhut stūpa (second century BCE).

“It is in the Buddha’s first sermon, “The Setting in Motion of the Dharma-wheel,” that the notion of the “Dharma-wheel” is rooted. In this, the wheel does not roll until the first member of the Buddha’s audience gains insight into his teachings, so attaining the “Dharma-eye” (Skt. dharma-cakṣu, Pāli dhamma-cakkhu), thus becoming a stream-enterer. At this the gods are said to have cried out, “The supreme Dharma-wheel rolled thus by the Lord in the deer park at Sārnāth cannot be rolled back by … anyone in the world.” By his act of teaching, so that there was the first experiential realization based on it, the Buddha inaugurated the “rule” or influence of Dharma in the world, paralleling how a cakravartin inaugurates his rule. This link is explicitly made when the Buddha says to Śāriputra (Pāli Sāriputta), “Just as the eldest son of a cakravartin ruler rolls on aright the wheel set rolling by his father, even so do you, Śāriputra, roll on aright the supreme Dharma-wheel set rolling by me” (Saṃyutta Nikāya 1.191).” (EoBDKPHA)

“In its simplest sense, then, the Dharma-wheel represents the transmission of Dharma in the first sermon. From this it naturally came to symbolize the Buddha as teacher, the Dharma as teaching, and the power of both to transform people’s lives. The two are, of course, intimately related, with the Buddha embodying the Dharma. As with most symbols, the meaning of the Dharma-wheel is multivalent. In Rig Veda 1.164, the sun is likened to a revolving wheel, “the immortal wheel which nothing stops, on which all existence depends.” Buddhaghosa likens the spokes of the Dharma-wheel to the sun’s rays and the hub to a full moon. It seems appropriate, then, to see the radiating spokes of the Dharma-wheel as suggesting that, like the sun, the Buddha shed the “warmth” of his compassion and the light of his wisdom on all who came to him.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In the Rig Veda, the solar deity Mitra is said to be the “eye of the world”: that is, the sun both illuminates and watches over the world. certain Dharma-wheels (Figure 7) are reminiscent of an eye in their appearance, and can thus be seen as symbolizing the spiritual vision of the Buddha at whose death certain followers said, “The eye has disappeared in the world!” (Dīgha Nikāya 2.158). The eye-like nature of the Dharma-wheel also links to its first “turning” when a disciple of the Buddha first gained the “Dharma-eye.” In all this there may well be a pun on cakra, wheel, and cakṣu, eye (Pāli cakka and cakkhu).” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 7 Symbolic portrayal of the Buddha giving his first sermon. The design is from a relief from a stūpa at Nāgārjunakoṇḍa (third century CE).

“In the Rig Veda, the wheel is a possession of the god Varuṇa, the “universal monarch” (sam-rāj) and lord of ṛta, cosmic order. The wheel is also a symbol of the regular course of things, and thus of cosmic order, in that the one wheel of the sun’s chariot is said to have twelve, five or 360 spokes, corresponding to the number of months, seasons or days in the year. In Buddhism, the cakravartin’s rule according to Dharma leads to peace and order in his realm. It thus seems appropriate to take the regularly spaced spokes of the Dharma-wheel as symbolizing the spiritual harmony and mental integration produced in one who practices the Dharma.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (2.5.15), all gods, worlds, and beings are said to be held together in the ātman (Self) like spokes in the hub and felly of a wheel; in Chāndogya Upaniṣad (7.15.1) all is said to be fastened on prāṇa, the vital breath, like spokes in a hub. In the Buddhist “wheel-turner” legend, the state of the empire depends on the emperor. The Dharma-wheel, then, with its spokes firmly planted in the hub, can be seen to symbolize that the Buddha, by discovering and teaching Dharma, firmly established its practice in the world. The radiating spokes can be seen as representing the many aspects of the path taught by the Buddha, though it should be noted that they do not just have eight spokes representing the factors of the Eightfold Path, the overall path consisting of many interrelated skillful qualities.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The spokes of the Dharma-wheel are not only fixed in but also converge on the hub. This can be taken to symbolize that the factors of the Dharma in the sense of path lead to Dharma in the sense of nirvāṇa. In this respect it is worth noting that the Buddha said that his “setting in motion of the Dharma-wheel” was the “opening of the doors” to the “deathless” (amata), i.e. nirvāṇa (Vinaya 1.6). When Dharma-wheels were placed above the gateways to stūpas, it may have been to symbolize that the Dharma offers an entrance to deathlessness.” (EoBDKPHA)

“As the centre of a spinning wheel is still, so the Buddha’s mind was seen as ever still, even when he was busy teaching. In line with this, the hubs of some Dharma-wheels are in the form of open lotuses, suggesting the non-attachment of the Buddha’s mind. As the centre of a wheel is an empty hole, so the Buddha’s mind was empty of any idea of an unchanging “I,” the root of all suffering.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In early Buddhist art, Dharma-wheels often appear on top of pillars, the most famous example being that at Sārnāth erected by Aśoka. It probably symbolized the power of both the Buddha and Aśoka, who may well have been inspired by the cakravartin ideal. As the legendary wheel remains aloft near the ruler’s palace while he rules but starts to sink down when he is near death (Dīgha Nikāya 3.59), it appears most appropriate to place it high up on a pillar, to symbolize the health of imperial rule or of the sovereignty of the Dharma.” (EoBDKPHA)

The “vase of plenty”

“An early Buddhist symbol of some importance which became one of the eight auspicious symbols in the Sinhalese and Tibetan traditions is the pūrṇa-ghaṭa (Pāli puṇṇa-ghaṭa) or pūrṇa-kumbha, the “vase of plenty.” It is also an auspicious symbol in Hinduism, probably equivalent to the golden kumbha containing amṛta, the gods’ nectar of immortality, which emerged at the churning of the cosmic ocean by the gods.”

“In Buddhism, water pouring out from an upturned kumbha is likened to a noble disciple getting rid of unskillful states (Saṃyutta Nikāya 5.48 and Aṅguttara-Nikāya 5.337), and a kumbha being gradually filled by drops of water is likened to a person gradually filling himself with evil or karmically fruitful qualities (Dhammapada 121–2). In this way the kumbha is generally likened to the personality as a container of bad or good states. Quite often, though, a full kumbha is used as a simile for a specifically positive state of being: a person who truly understands the four Ennobling Truths is like a full kumbha (Aṅguttara Nikāya 2.104); a person of wide wisdom (puthu-pañño), who bears in mind the Dharma he has heard, is like an upright kumbha which accumulates the water poured into it (Aṅguttara Nikāya 1.131).”

“The implication of these passages is that the full kumbha would be a natural symbol for the personality of someone who is “full” of Dharma: a Buddha or arhat. While the Hindu pūrṇa-ghaṭa contains amtṛa, the Buddhist one contains Dharma, that which makes life fruitful and brings a person to the Buddhist amṛta (Pāli amata), the “deathless”: nirvāṇa.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In early Buddhist art, the “vase of plenty” was often shown with a lotus or Bodhi tree sprouting from it, so suggesting spiritual growth from the reservoir of Dharma which it symbolized. Figure 8 shows two vases as part of a composite symbol. The upper vase has the disc of an open lotus shown at its lip. Above the lotus is a triśūla (Pāli tisūla) or trident which represents the three Buddhist “treasures” (tri-ratnas, Pāli ti-ratanas): the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 8 Composite symbol design from the railing of the stūpa at Sārnāth, early centuries CE.

Buddha footprints and feet

“Like relics and bodhi trees, footprints of the Buddha (Buddha-padas), in the form of depressions in rocks, are seen as tangible links with him that also act as reminders that the he actually walked on earth and left a spiritual “path” for others to follow. Whether they were part of the earliest Buddhist cult is unclear, but they were used in symbolic representations of his presence in scenes from his life.” (EoBDKPHA)

“One of the most famous “footprints” is the depression measuring 1.7 by 0.85 meters in the rock on top of Mount Siripāda (Adam’s Peak) in Sri Lanka. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Faxian records having seen it in 412 CE. The sixth-century Mahāvaṃsa (1.77–8), based on earlier chronicles, refers to the “footprint” as having been made by the Buddha when he once flew to Sri Lanka by means of his meditation-based psychic power.” (EoBDKPHA)

“Other than putative “real” Buddha footprints, large depictions of the Buddha’s feet also became important. By at least the second century CE, these were used as cult objects in the art of Amarāvatī and Gandhāra. On them were various symbols such as wheels, a type of mark of a great man said to have been on the body of Gautama from his birth, lotuses and svastikas, an ancient Indian auspicious sign, also used in Jainism and Hinduism, whose name derives from su + asti, well + be; its form was originally to suggest the rotation of the sun in the sky. Later art embellished such feet or footprints with up to 108 (= 22 × 33) auspicious signs such as the sun, moon and Mount Meru – a huge mountain said to be the centre of the world (seen as a flat disc): all marvelous things of importance, though shown as “lower” than the Buddha. Such symbols also sometimes adorn the feet of images of the Buddha reclining, while svastikas sometimes appear on the chests of Buddhas in East Asia.” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 9 Rāhula being presented to his father, the Buddha (second century CE stūpa railing at Amarāvatī).

Aniconic “bodies” of the Buddha

“In early Buddhist art, symbols were often combined to form aniconic “bodies” of the Buddha, so paving the way for the development of images of him in human form, as in Figure 9, where a Dharma-wheel stands for the Buddha’s head, a short pillar or column for his body and a throne, again suggestive of the Buddha’s sovereignty, for his legs. Sometimes, a column fringed by flames represents the body of the Buddha. Such flaming columns were no doubt intended to recall the story of the Buddha’s conversion of three fire-worshipping ascetics by overcoming, with his meditative psychic power, two venomous snakes by returning their heat and flames with his own (Vinaya 1.24–5). Flaming columns may also recall the “wonder of the pairs” at Śrāvastī (Pāli Sāvatthī) where the Buddha is said to have risen into the air with a mass of fire coming from the upper part of his body and a mass of water from the lower part (Dhammapada commentary 3.204–5 and Paṭisambhidāmagga 1.125). Again, flaming columns may symbolize the spiritual energy of the Buddha, later symbolized by flames arising from the crown of the head of Thai and some Sri Lankan Buddha images. As expressed at Dhammapada v. 387, “all day and night the Buddha shines in glory.”” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 10 A stūpa in Sri Lanka.

Figure 11 A stūpa in Chiang Mai, Thailand.


“The final and perhaps most important symbol of early Buddhism is the stūpa (Pāli thūpa) or “(relic) mound.” These are known in Sri Lanka as a dhātu-gabbha (Pāli), “womb/container for (relic)-elements,” which in Sinhala is dāgoba (Figure 10). The mispronunciation of this by Portuguese colonialists may be the origin of the word “pagoda,” now mainly used for the multi-roofed East Asian form of the stūpa. In Thai, the term used for a stūpa is cedi (from Pāli cetiya, Skt. caity: a shrine) (Figure 11), and in Tibetan mchod rten (pronounced chorten).” (EoBDKPHA)

“Stūpas became important in Buddhism because of the holy relics they contained, their symbolizing the Buddha and his parinirvāṇa (entry into nirvāṇa at death), and in some cases their location at significant sites. Relics placed in stūpas are said to have been those of Gautama, arhats and even of past Buddhas. Where funerary relics could not be found, hair or possessions of holy beings, copies of bodily relics or possessions, or Buddhist texts came to be used in their place. The stūpa is more than a symbol of the parinirvāṇa. It is a complete symbol-system incorporating many of the other symbols discussed above, representing the Buddha and the Dharma he embodied.” (EoBDKPHA)

“Though the development of the Buddha image provided another focus for devotion to the Buddha, stūpas remain popular to this day, especially in Theravāda countries. They have gone through a long development in form and symbolism, but this entry concentrates on their early significance.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The best-preserved ancient Buddhist stūpa, dating from the first century CE in its present form, is at Sāñcī in central India. It was built over one dating from the third century BCE, which may have been built or embellished by Aśoka. Its diagrammatic representation in Figure 12 gives a clear indication of the various parts of an early stūpa.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The four gateways (toraṇas) of this stūpa put it, symbolically, at the place where four roads meet, as specified in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 2.142). This is probably to indicate the openness and universality of the Buddhist teaching, which invites all to come and try its path, and also to radiate loving-kindness to beings in all four directions. In a later development of the stūpa in north India, the orientation to the four directions was often expressed by means of a square, terraced base, sometimes with staircases on each side in place of the early gateways. At Sāñcī, these gateways are covered with carved reliefs of Jātaka stories on the career of Gautama as bodhisattva and also, using symbols, of his final life as a Buddha. Symbols also represent previous Buddhas.” (EoBDKPHA)

Figure 12 The Great Stūpa at Sāñcī

“Encircling the Sāñcī stūpa, connecting its gateways, is a stone railing (vedikā), originally made of wood. This marks off the site dedicated to the stūpa, and encloses the first of two paths for circumambulation (pradakṣiṇā-pathas). The stūpa dome, referred to in Sri Lanka and certain early texts as the kumbha or “vase,” is the outermost container of the relics, which are housed in an inaccessible chamber near the dome centre in a series of containers, the innermost one often of gold. The dome is thus associated with the “vase of plenty,” and symbolically acts as a reminder of an enlightened being as “full” of uplifting Dharma. In the third century CE Divyāvadāna, the dome is also called the aṇḍa or “egg.” As the relics within are sometimes called bījas, “seeds,” this is all suggestive of stūpa-devotion as leading to a fruitful spiritual life, and to the production of new enlightened ones in the future. From above, the circle of the stūpa dome is also suggestive of a Dharma-wheel or an open lotus medallion, and inner radial walls in some stūpas enhance this imagery. In Burma, the tapering shape of their stūpas is also likened to that of a lotus bud.” (EoBDKPHA)

“On top of the Sāñcī stūpa is a pole (skt. yaṣṭi, Pāli yaṭṭhi) and discs, which represent ceremonial parasols. As parasols were used as insignia of royalty in India, their inclusion on stūpas can be seen as a way of symbolizing the spiritual sovereignty of the Buddha. The kingly connection probably derives from the ancient custom of rulers sitting under a sacred tree at the centre of a community to administer justice, with mobile parasols later replacing such shading trees. The parasol-structure on stūpas also seems to have symbolized the Buddhist sacred tree, which in turn symbolized enlightenment. This is suggested by a second-century BCE stone relief of a stūpa which shows it surmounted by a tree with parasol-shaped leaves. The structure at the base of the pole and discs (the harmikā, “top enclosure”) has also been found, on a number of stūpas, to have resembled the design of bodhi-tree enclosures.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The parasol pole was often mounted on top of an eight-sided axial pole inside the stūpa, sometimes called a yūpa. This was originally the term for a Vedic post where animals were tethered prior to being sacrificed. Some early Buddhist stūpas had a wooden axis, and these may have originally been Brahmanical sacrificial posts on a sacred site taken over by Buddhists. For Buddhism, the idea of “sacri-fice” suggested the self-sacrifices of the path: in the Kūṭadanta Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 1.144–7), the best “sacrifice” is explained in terms of the path, and at Dīgha Nikāya 3.76, a yūpa is where a future cakravartin ruler distributes goods to all and then becomes a monk. In the Milindapañha (21–2), the monk Nāgasena is described as:” (EoBDKPHA)

“bearing aloft the yūpa of Dharma … thun-dering out the thunder of Indra (the Vedic rain god) and thoroughly satisfying the whole world by thundering out sweet utterances and wrapping them round with the lightning flashes of superb knowledge, filling them with the waters of compassion and the great cloud of the deathlessness of Dharma. That is, Vedic symbolism is effectively put to Buddhist use.” (EoBDKPHA)

“Another term for the stūpa axial pillar is indra-kīla (Pāli inda-khīla), or “Indra’s stake.” This was a term for the huge stone pillars used to secure open the gates of cities in India and Sri Lanka. The term derived from Vedic mythology, in which the god Indra was seen to stabilize the earth by staking it down. In early Buddhist texts, the term is used as an image for the unshakeability of the mind of an arhat or stream-enterer (Saṃyutta Nikāya 5.444, Suttanipāta 229, Dhammapada 95, Theragāthā 663). The stūpa axis representing their unshakeable mind fits in well with the idea of the dome, as a kumbha, symbolizing the enlightened person as full of Dharma-related qualities.” (EoBDKPHA)

“The axial pillar is also linked to Mount Meru, home of many of the gods, with the base of the circular dome as like the circle of the earth, home to humans. Here, the stūpa superstructure, linked to the Bodhi tree, is suggestive of the Buddha, who stands above both humans and gods as their teacher.” (EoBDKPHA)

“In later stūpas the top part was fused into a spire, and several platforms were often added under the dome to elevate it in an honorific way. It then became possible to see each layer of the structure as symbolizing a particular set of spiritual qualities. In the Caityavibhāgavinayabhāva Sūtra and the Stūpalakṣaṇkārikāvivecana, respectively from the first and second centuries CE, a stūpa’s seven layers from the bottom up to the harmikā are seen to symbolize the seven sets of qualities making up the “thirty-seven factors conducive to awakening”: the four applications of mindfulness, the four right efforts, the four bases of success, the five faculties, the five powers, the seven factors of awakening (the dome), and the factors of the Eightfold Path (harmikā). The spire of the stūpa symbolizes the thirteen powers and ten knowledges of a Buddha. At Dīgha Nikāya 2.120, the Buddha, not long before his death, taught the seven sets as to be practiced to prolong the holy life. They can be seen to summarize the Dharma that he embodied.” (EoBDKPHA)

See also: Art, Buddhist; Bodhi tree; Bodhgayā; Buddha; Sacred places; Sāñcī; Stūpa; Stūpas of Sāñcī, Bhārhut, and Amarāvatī

“Overall, the stūpa can be seen to symbolize the Buddha and Dharma. Indeed, in some early Vinayas where a stūpa is seen as having its own property (land and offerings), it is sometimes seen as “the property of the stūpa” and sometimes as the “property of the Buddha.” That the stūpa’s basic configuration symbolizes the Buddha’s enlightened person is suggested by a simile at Saṃyutta Nikāya 4.194–5. This likens the body (kāya) to a city with six gates (the senses, including the mind), at the centre of which sits the “lord of the city” (consciousness), who receives a message (nirvāṇa), from messengers (calm and insight) from the four directions. He sits in the middle of the city, where four roads meet, representing the four great elements (mahā-bhūtas) that are the basis of the body. As a stūpa is also ideally at a crossroads, and the relics at its centre are also termed dhātus, another term for elements, it is akin to the “city” of the Buddha’s personality, centered on a consciousness that has experienced nirvāṇa.” (EoBDKPHA)



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Buddha-Dharma-Sangha History

Borobudur Stupa


“Borobudur is a massive pyramid-shaped stūpa located in a volcanic region on the Indonesian island of Java. It was built in the late eighth and early ninth centuries by the Sailendra kings of central Java, and was rather mysteriously abandoned only a century or so after its completion. The temple is built in the shape of a huge lotus, and is composed of six rectangular stories, with three circular terraces around a central stūpa. This is truly one of the most impressive monuments not only in Buddhism but in the world, presenting, essentially, a physical model of the entire cosmos, one that allows the worshipper to traverse the Mahāyāna path in a condensed manner.

The stūpa is nearly 100 feet tall, and the square base has sides which are nearly 400 feet long. The sheer number of artistic images at Borobudur is staggering: there are nearly 1,500 narrative panels, from the Jātakas, Avadānas, and other sources; there are over 1,200 decorative panels; the monument has some 500 Buddha images and nearly 1,500 stūpas.

Borobodur seems to present a microcosm, albeit a massive one, of the world, allowing the worshipper to go on physical pilgrimage that mimics the religious journey laid out by Buddhism. The lower part of the monument has five levels, diminishing in size as they go up. The sides of each of the first four levels have sculpture galleries around the sides, with stairs on all four sides, linking all levels of the monument. The worshipper begins by going through four galleries adorned with various images and Jātaka and Avadāna scenes, and then entering a terrace with seventy-two stūpas, each of which houses an image of the Buddha, arranged in three concentric circles surrounding the much larger central stūpa.

In much the same way that a maṇḍala offers a kind of visual pilgrimage, Borobudur – which is itself laid out as a kind of three-dimensional maṇḍala – can be seen as a physical monument that allows the pilgrim to follow the course of enlightenment. Thus as one slowly circumambulates the monument, moving around and up, the narrative panels allow one to visually move from the world of base desires and impulses, where humans are bound by their greed and lust; the pilgrim would then ascend to the next level, where there are images of the form realm where these desires are controlled but one is still bound to the material world; finally, in the next level of the monument, there are images of the formless realm, the realm of freedom from such hindrances. Indeed, of the nearly 500 panels on the upper three levels of the monument, about a third present scenes from the Gaṇḍavyūha. This important text, part of the larger Avataṃsaka (Flower Ornament) Sūtra, narrates the pilgrimage of a young man named Sudhana as he travels from teacher to teacher in search of enlightenment. Sudhana’s journey illustrates the importance of gaining wisdom and compassion before one is able to reach enlightenment. What one clearly sees at Borobudur, then, is the degree to which Buddhist art has not only a decorative function, but an instructive one – the panels, essentially, visually guide one on his or her physical and religious pilgrimage.”

See also: Buddhist Art; Sacred places.


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Buddha-Dharma-Sangha History

Buddhist Art


“The very nature of sculptural images in Buddhism is complex and often embedded in significant controversy, both within the tradition itself and within the scholarly world that interprets such images. Further, the conception and function of images varies considerably within the Buddhist world, not only over the course of history, but also according to the particular ritual, devotional, and decorative context in which any particular image is situated, and, necessarily, according to the image’s very particular cultural context. It is thus important from the outset to recognize that although it is possible to make general statements about the nature and function of sculptural and pictorial images in Buddhism, it is also nearly always possible to find examples that seem to contradict such generalizations.” (EoBDKJNK)

The Buddha’s followers began to depict the Buddha very early on in sculpture, perhaps even before he had died, although because no such images survive this point is ultimately only speculation. The Buddha himself is recorded in some commentaries on the Pāli suttas to have said that objects associated with him – corporeal relics, primarily, but also objects he came into contact with, such as his robe and begging bowl, as well representational images – would be permissible only if they were not actually worshipped, as such worship would necessarily be involved in attachment; rather, such images could, he said, provide an opportunity for reflection on the Dharma and for meditation.

In other places, however, the tradition records that the Buddha actually sanctioned his sculptural representation. For instance, there is an oft-repeated story about a king named Prasenajit – in many versions of the story his name is Udayana – which provides one of the clearest expressions of a reason for making images of the Buddha. The story, as recorded by the Chinese pilgrim Faxian in the fifth century, goes as follows:

When [the] Buddha went up to heaven for ninety days to preach the faith to his mother, King Prasenajit, longing to see him, caused to be carved in sandal-wood from the Bull’s Head mountain an image of [the] Buddha and placed it where [the] Buddha usually sat. Later on, when [the] Buddha returned to the shrine, the image straightaway quitted the seat and came forth to receive him. [The] Buddha cried out, “Return to your seat: after my disappearance you shall be the model for the four classes in search of spiritual truth.” At this, the image went back to the seat. It was the very first of all such images, and is that which later ages have copied.1

Whether this is in fact a very early story that was still popular in Faxian’s time, or whether it is a much later “explanation” for the existence of Buddha images, the image clearly is intended to “fill in” for the Buddha in his absence, to make him present in some sense. The nature of this presence, however, is extremely complex, and has been a matter of considerable debate, as will be explored later.

Although the Pāli texts and commentaries make mention of images that are contemporary with the Buddha himself, in fact the earliest surviving Buddhist sculpture dates to considerably later. The earliest Buddhist art coincides with the Mauryan dynasty (fourth to second centuries BCE), and is typically associated with the great figure of Aśoka and his active promulgation of Buddhism through the use of inscriptions on stone pillars, many of which were adorned with various potent Buddhist symbols. Aśoka is also credited with providing rock-cut dwellings for Buddhist monks, caves that were adorned with various artistic motifs, as well as with building thousands of stūpas (funereal monuments), many of which were quite elaborately decorated, thus establishing the use of visual images in the communication of certain basic Buddhist ideas.

Buddhist art really began to flourish in the second and first centuries BCE, under the patronage of the Śuṇga dynasty. It was during this period that large monastic complexes were established at Bodhgayā in northern India, at Bhārhut and Sāñcī in central India, at Amarāvatī and Nāgārjunakoṇḍa in southern India, and at Bhājā, Nāsik, Kārlī, and other cites in western India. Significantly, however, the Buddha himself is absent from these very early images. Instead of representing his physical form, early Buddhist artisans employed a range of visual symbols to communicate aspects of the Buddha’s teachings and life story: the wheel of Dharma (dharmacakra), denoting his preaching (“turning”) his first sermon, and also, with its eight spokes, the eight-fold Buddhist path; the Bodhi tree, which represents the place of his enlightenment (under a pipal ficus tree at Bodhgayā) and also serves to signify the enlightenment experience itself (as well as the very powerful moment of enlightenment, the beginning of Buddhism); the throne, symbolizing the Buddha’s status as “ruler” of the religious realm, and also, through its emptiness, his passage into final nirvāṇa; the deer, evoking both the place of his first sermon, the deer park at Sārnāth, and also the protective qualities of the Dharma; the footprint (or footprints), which denote both his former physical presence on earth and the reality of his temporal absence; the lotus, symbolic of the individual’s journey up through the “mud” of existence, to bloom, with the aid of the Dharma, into pure enlightenment; and the stūpa, the reliquary in which are contained the Buddha’s physical remains, a powerful symbol of both his physical death and his continued presence in the world. Later Buddhism added countless other symbols to this iconographic repertoire: in the Mahāyāna, for instance, the sword becomes a common symbol of the incisive nature of the Buddha’s teachings; in the Vajrayāna, the vajra, or diamond (or thunderbolt), is a ubiquitous symbol of the pure and unchanging nature of the Dharma.

Much of the very early Buddhist art produced in India is narrative in both form and function, presenting episodes from the Buddha’s life and scenes from his prior lives. At Bhārhut and Sāñcī, Bodhgayā, and Amarāvatī, huge stūpas were erected as part of the large monastic complexes that began to be built at these sites as early as the third century BCE, and on and around these stūpas, particularly on the railings that encircled the monuments themselves, elaborate carvings were made. Many of these were scenes from the Buddha’s prior lives, which were also verbally recorded in the Jātaka and Avadāna literature; there were representations of prior Buddhas; and there were also depictions of key events in the Buddha’s life, such as his miraculous conception, his birth, and his departure from the palace in search of enlightenment (again with the Buddha himself absent).

It has typically been assumed that because the earliest Buddhist artistic images did not depict the Buddha, there must have been a doctrinally based prohibition against such depictions. First articulated by the French art historian Alfred Foucher in 1917, this idea – generally referred to as the “aniconic thesis” – has deeply influenced our understanding of early Buddhist art. The basic assumption by those who adhere to this thesis has been that there must have been a prohibition against representing the Buddha in the early centuries after his death, perhaps because the Buddha had, at the time of his parinirvāṇa, passed for ever out of existence, and therefore could only be represented by his absence.2

Recently, however, scholars have begun to rethink this basic assumption, and to re-evaluate early sculptural images in Buddhism. They have argued that perhaps these early sculptures are not reflective of a theological position which prohibits the physical representation of the Buddha (much like the Jewish or Islamic or Protestant prohibition against representations of the divine), but instead frequently represent events that took place after the Buddha’s death, and scenes of worship at prominent places of pilgrimage linked to key events in his life – such as Bodhgayā, Lumbinī, Rajgirī – and are thus intended to serve as ritual records and blueprints, visual prompters for correct veneration.

Regardless of where one stands on this debate, it is fairly certain that early Buddhist artisans and their patrons did not have a single purpose in making artistic images. There is, in fact, a wide variety of forms in early Buddhist art: in some cases, they seem to represent scenes from the Buddha’s life simply without the Buddha present; in others, Buddhist artisans seem to have represented the Buddha’s absence with an empty throne, and often depicted the throne itself as an object of veneration; and in still other images, they represented the Buddha’s physical relics or a stūpa containing his relics being worshipped in place of the Buddha. Given this variety of forms in early Buddhist art, it seems clear, at any rate, that early Buddhists had a complex understanding of both the form and function of representations of the Buddha, and that any attempt to articulate a univocal theory of early Buddhist art – such as that put forth in the aniconic thesis – is probably misguided, precisely because of the complex interactions of original intent, ritual and aesthetic context, and individual disposition. Fundamentally, Buddhist images project a polyvalent potential.

Actual images of the historical Buddha began to appear some time around the turn of the first millennium, prominently in two regions: in Mathurā, near modern Agra, and in Gandhāra, in what is now modern Afghanistan. In Mathurā, large standing images of the Buddha were made in the red sandstone that was indigenous to the region. The Buddha in these images is typically standing, depicted as broadshouldered, wearing a robe, and marked by various lakṣaṇas, the thirty-two auspicious marks with which he was born and which are described in several early texts – these included the uṣṇīṣa, or protuberance atop the head, elongated earlobes, webbed fingers, dharmacakra on the palms, etc. In the Gandhāra region, in contrast to Mathurā, the Buddha was typically depicted in what appears to be a Greek style of representation, wearing a robe that resembles a toga, and with distinctly Western facial features, details that may be evidence that an iconographic exchange took place with the Greeks who inhabited the region at the time of Alexander the Great. Many of the Gandhāran Buddha images depict him seated, forming the dharmacakra mudrā – literally the “turning of the wheel of Dharma gesture” – with his hands. In other images he is presented in a meditational posture, his body withered by the years of extreme asceticism that preceded his enlightenment. These different iconic forms were employed by Buddhist artisans (and their royal, monastic, and lay patrons) to emphasize both different moments in the Buddha’s life story as well as to convey visually different aspects of the Dharma.

By the fifth century CE, the Buddha was represented in a large array of forms and sizes. Some of these representations were truly colossal, such as the recently destroyed images at Bāmiyān, in modern Afghanistan, cut out of cliffs, reaching upwards of 30 meters (100 feet), a practice that would continue throughout the Buddhist world for the next millennium. The sheer size of these images seems to have been intended to convey an understanding of the superhuman qualities of the Buddha, many of which were also expressed in contemporary biographical stories contained in various nikāyas, the Lalitavistara, Buddhacarita, and several other well-known texts. Further, such massive images would have served as a potent means to attract new followers.

As the various Mahāyāna schools emerged and developed in India, Tibet, and later in East Asia, the Buddhist pantheon expanded tremendously, and this expansion was reflected in art and iconography. In India, particularly in the northeast, there was a virtual icono-graphic explosion after the eighth century. Although images of various bodhisattvas had been produced in the early art of Gandhāra and Mathurā, they became particularly prominent in the Mahāyāna as it developed in India.

As Buddhism spread beyond India, an elaborate iconographic lexicon related to arhats, monks, and saints emerged. In China, the veneration and representation of important patriarchs became prominent; arhats were frequently represented, occasionally individually but more commonly in groups. In the Chan schools in particular, where monastic lineage was central, portraits of important patriarchs were common. Most prominent was Bodhidharma, who is typically depicted as an aged monk deep in meditation; sometimes he is depicted floating in the ocean atop a reed, representing his voyage from India to China. He is also represented in a kind of aniconic form, as an abstract face painted on papier mache or wooden balls, and occasionally as a lascivious old man, often in the company of courtesans, conveying Chan’s understanding that enlightenment can be found in the most mundane, and even the most conventionally polluting, of activities. In Tibet, images of Padmasambhāva, who is said to have introduced Buddhism and tamed the demons who inhabited the region, are common; he is frequently depicted as a robed monk, with a crown, often holding an alms bowl and vajra. Prominent monks such as Atīśa and Xuanzang are common in both the sculpture and painting of China and Japan. In Japan in particular, individual monks, often specific to a particular monastery, are presented in remarkably realistic images, sometimes life-size three-dimensional sculptures. As with images of Śākyamuni, such sculptures function as meditational aids to be emulated, pedagogical prompters, and outright objects of devotion (See Figure 2).

Figure 2 Buddha images, Gakyonsa Monastery, North Kyongsang, Korea

It is important to note, however, that although a wide variety of figures began to be represented in Buddhist sculpture by the first few centuries of the first millennium of the common era – bodhisattvas, monks, arhats, as well as an array of female figures – there is throughout Buddhist history a continued and consistent emphasis on the image of Śākyamuni, the “historical Buddha.” Thus despite the great variety of Buddhist schools, and their particular iconographic developments, among the most common artistic images in the Buddhist world are those associated directly with Śākyamuni’s life story – his birth, his attainment of enlightenment, his preaching of the first sermon, and his death.

Indeed, perhaps the most common artistic image in all of Buddhism is of the seated Buddha displaying the bhūmisparśa mudrā. What makes this iconographic form so important, and thus so ubiquitous, is that it marks the very beginning of Buddhism, as well as the Dharma’s tremendous power. Just at the point at which he is about to attain bodhi, Śākyamuni is confronted by Māra, who realizes that he is about to be defeated by this man who has discovered the means with which to cut through all artifice and to conquer death (Māra is the very embodiment of death). Māra, however, who is also the embodiment of illusion and subterfuge, creates all manner of illusion and temptation to distract and defeat the Buddha-to-be. He unleashes his various armies – appropriately named desire, discontent, hunger and thirst, craving – but Śākyamuni is unmoved. Māra then uses his own daughters to tempt Śākyamuni, to stir in him lust and desire, but again to no avail. So finally Māra assaults him verbally, and challenges his very right to be beneath the Bodhi tree, his right to achieve enlightenment. Śākyamuni responds that all of the millions of offerings that he has made in the past have given him the right to enlightenment. Māra, however, persists; he says there is no witness to support Śākyamuni’s claims. Śākyamuni’s response is the exact moment depicted in bhūmisparśa mudrā images: he reaches out his right hand and touches the earth. The bhūdevī, the goddess of the earth (who is also sometimes depicted in the images), is impartial and free from malice, and thus serves as the ideal character witness, creating a terrific earthquake to confirm the Buddha’s enlightenment. Māra, death (and hence rebirth) is thereby defeated.

Finally, although from the moment they appear in the Buddhist world visual images were intended to narrate aspects of the Buddha’s life and teachings and therefore function on the ground as visual texts to be read, they were also very much intended to be objects of ritual worship. A wide range of texts are available for making and consecrating Buddhist images, from locally produced manuals in the vernacular to pan-Buddhist iconographic manuals. Perhaps the most common form of worship in the Buddhist world is Buddha pūja, literally “honoring the Buddha.” This is a ritual that typically involves making some sort of offering to a Buddha image (or to a relic or a stūpa) – a flower, a small lamp, food, or even money. Many images, particularly the stelae that were abundantly produced in the medieval Indian milieu – although this is also an iconographic theme on some of the very earliest Buddhist images – actually depict such worship as part of the sculpture, usually along the base of the image, at what would, in a ritual context, be eye-level for the worshipper. The iconography in such cases, then, serves as a kind of visual guide to proper ritual action.

Buddhist iconography is also frequently intended to focus the mind of the worshipper on the Buddha and his teachings, to serve as a visual aid, and to help the practitioner engage in Buddha anusmṛti, or “recollection of the Buddha.” This important form of meditation involves contemplating the Buddha’s magnificent qualities and internalizing them, very often with the use of an image, either a sculpture or a painting. The iconography of such images, then, serves a mimetic function, in that the meditator is to emulate the iconographically presented Buddha, and in the process to create a mental image by internalizing the external iconographic form; in short, the practitioner is to become like the image, and in the process like the Buddha himself.


As with Buddhist artistic images, the variety of architectural forms in the Buddhist world is staggering. The most basic architectural form in Buddhism is the stūpa, the ubiquitous burial mounds that are found, sometimes in great abundance, throughout the Buddhist world – in monastic complexes, in villages and cities, and sometimes in extremely remote locations where Buddhists attempted to establish their religion. Originally intended to house the physical relics of the Buddha (dhātu, or śarīra), in its most rudimentary form the stūpa is a hemispherical dome or mound of varying height and diameter; some stūpas are only a few inches high, others rise to over 30 meters (100 feet). Although the earliest stūpas were quite simple, very early on in the history of Buddhism the stūpa became one of the physical foci of monastic and lay life, and developed into an elaborate symbolic structure, as evinced by the great Indian stūpas constructed at Sāñcī and Bhārhut and Amarāvatī in the early centuries of the first millennium, or, several centuries later, the magnificently complex structures at Borabadur in Indonesia, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Likewise, in Sri Lanka, several huge monastic complexes were constructed beginning as early as the fourth century BCE, such as the Thūpārāma at Anurādhapura, the Mahāthūpa, and the Abhayagiri dāgaba, structures that reached nearly 120 meters (400 feet) in height.

Typically, larger stūpas were (and continue to be) situated at the center of a temple complex, surrounded by railings, with gates at the four points of the compass where there were gateways (toraṇa) on which were frequently carved images of the Buddha, scenes from his life, Jātaka and Avadāna stories, etc. As Buddhism expanded across South and East Asia, temple structures took on decidedly local characteristics – the intricate pagodas of Japan, for instance, or the thousands of distinctly Burmese temples that stretch nearly as far as the eye can see at Pagan – although the basic model has always been the stūpa.

In the traditional Buddhist temple, clustered around the main stūpa are several monastic structures. The caitya hall, for instance, is the place where a range of rituals would take place, and where the monks in residence at the monastery, as well as laypersons in some contexts, would gather to hear Dharma talks. The first such halls may have been wooden, although the most famous examples of caityas are the elaborately carved cave structures located at Ajaṇṭā and Ellorā. In India free-standing caitya halls appeared as early as the third century CE. Traditionally the caitya was a rectangular hall with columns running down the walls, allowing for an open space in the center that was used for collective rituals; there was usually only one entrance (and thus only one source of light), at the opposite end of which was located a stūpa. Some caityas are elaborately decorated with images, while others are quite spare. As is the case with the development of stūpa architecture, caityas took on the specific stylistic character of their locales.

Vihāras, monastic dwellings, have taken many forms throughout the history of Buddhism. The earliest vihāras seem to have been simple cave dwellings. By the medieval period in India, however, vihāras had developed into complex temple structures. The sprawling medieval Mahāvihāra at Nālandā in northeastern India, for example, was in fact a huge complex of several different monasteries (constituted by different sectarian identities), with elaborate caitya halls, large stūpas, and multiple shrines. At Nālandā there were several stūpas that were surrounded by brick towers that were then decorated with a variety of stucco images set in individual niches. Likewise, at Pāhārpur, in modern Bangladesh, under the patronage of the Pāla kings a huge, three-leveled stūpa was erected, with terraces on which devotees could circumambulate the main structure, around which were built several smaller temples.

Perhaps the most famous of all Buddhist architectural structures is the Mahābodhi Temple at Bodhgayā. Dating probably to the Gupta period, although a structure may have been built at the site as early as the Mauryan period, under the patronage of Aśoka himself, the temple – which has been repaired and essentially rebuilt several times – remains the most venerated structure in all of Buddhism. The present-day temple at Bodhgayā consists of a large central structure that rises to some 50 meters (160 feet), above four smaller temples, around which is a high wall; image niches cover virtually the entire surface of the temple and the surrounding walls, along with several elaborately decorated gates. Inside the temple itself are several stories that house Buddha images. Around the central courtyard, within the confines of the outer walls, are dozens of images and smaller stūpas, many containing the remains of prominent monks. Because of its significance, marking as it does the place where Buddhism began, the Mahābodhi Temple has been replicated throughout the Buddhist world, both in large-scale monuments and in smaller, portable shrines.


1 H.A. Giles, trans., The Travels of Fa hsien (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923), pp. 30–1.

2 See Alfred Foucher, “L’ Origine grecque de l’image du Bouddha,” Annales du Musée Guimet (Chalon-sur-Saone: Bibliothèque de vulgarisation, 1913), pp. 231–72. In this highly influential article, Foucher first articulates the view that the origins of the earliest Buddha images were Greek; see also Foucher’s “The Beginnings of Buddhist Art,” in his The Beginnings of Buddhist Art and Other Essays in Indian and Central Asian Archaeology (Paris: Paul Geuthner, 1917), pp. 1–29. Perhaps the most vocal opponent of this theory was Ananda Coomaraswamy; see his “The Origin of the Buddha Image,” The Art Bulletin, vol. 9 (1927): 1–43; and also see his “The Indian Origin of the Buddha Image,” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 46 (1926): 165–70. For a more recent discussion of the issue, see Susan Huntington, “Early Buddhist Art and the Theory of Aniconism,” Art Journal, vol. 49 (1990): 401–7, a useful survey of the relevant points here. See also Vidya Dehejia, “Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems,” Ars Orientalis, vol. 21 (1992): 45–66; and S. Huntington’s response, “Aniconism and the Multivalence of Emblems: Another Look,” Ars Orientalis, vol. 22 (1993): 111–56 (and Dehejia’s brief response, on p. 157). Also see A.K. Narain, “First Images of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas: Ideology and Chronology,” in A.K. Narain (ed.) Studies in Buddhist Art of South Asia (New Delhi: Kanak Publications, 1985), pp. 1–21; see also John Huntington’s article, in the same volume, “The Origin of the Buddha Image: Early Image Traditions and the Concept of Buddhadarūpanapunyā,” pp. 24–58. One of the most fruitful discussions on this subject, and one that has been far too often ignored, is found in Paul Mus’ article, “The Iconography of an Aniconic Art,” RES, vol. 14 (1987): 5–28.

See also: Art, Gupta; Art, Mauryan; Art, Pāla; Art and ritual; Art and Zen; Art as ritual; Art in Sri Lanka; Art in Thailand; Sacred places; Stūpa; Tibet: an expanded pantheon; Tibet: maṇḍalas.”


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Buddha-Dharma-Sangha History


Philosophy (from Greek: φιλοσοφία, philosophia, ‘love of wisdom’[1][2][3]) is the study of general and fundamental questions, such as those about reasonexistenceknowledgeethics and morality, valuesmind, and language.[4][5] Such questions are often posed as problems[6][7] to be studied or resolved. The term was probably coined by Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495 BCE). Philosophical methods include questioningcritical discussionrational argument, and systematic presentation.[8][9][i] (WP)

“Philosophy is a study that seeks to understand the mysteries of existence and reality. It tries to discover the nature of truth and knowledge and to find what is of basic value and importance in life. It also examines the relationships between humanity and nature and between the individual and society. Philosophy arises out of wonder, curiosity, and the desire to know and understand. Philosophy is thus a form of inquiry-a process of analysis, criticism, interpretation, and speculation.

The term philosophy cannot be defined precisely because the subject is so complex and so controversial. Different philosophers have different views of the nature, methods, and range of philosophy. The term philosophy itself comes from the Greek philosophia, which means love of wisdom. In that sense, wisdom is the active use of intelligence, not something passive that a person simply possesses.

The first known Western philosophers lived in the ancient Greek world during the early 500’s B.C. These early philosophers tried to discover the basic makeup of things and the nature of the world and of reality. For answers to questions about such subjects, people had largely relied on magic, superstition, religion, tradition, or authority. But the Greek philosophers considered those sources of knowledge unreliable. Instead, they sought answers by thinking and by studying nature.

Philosophy has also had a long history in some non-Western cultures, especially in China and India. But until about 200 years ago, there was little interchange between those philosophies and Western philosophy, chiefly because of difficulties of travel and communication. As a result, Western philosophy generally developed independently of Eastern philosophy.

                The importance of philosophy 

Philosophic thought is an inescapable part of human existence. Almost everyone has been puzzled from time to time by such essentially philosophic questions as “What does life mean?” “Did I have any existence before I was born?” and “Is there life after death?” Most people also have some kind of philosophy in the sense of a personal outlook on life. Even a person who claims that considering philosophic questions is a waste of time is expressing what is important, worthwhile, or valuable. A rejection of all philosophy is in itself philosophy.

By studying philosophy, people can clarify what they believe, and they can be stimulated to think about ultimate questions. A person can study philosophers of the past to discover why they thought as they did and what value their thoughts may have in one’s own life. There are people who simply enjoy reading the great philosophers, especially those who were also great writers.

Philosophy has had enormous influence on our everyday lives. The very language we speak uses classifications derived from philosophy. For example, the classifications of noun and verb involve the philosophic idea that there is a difference between things and actions. If we ask what the difference is, we are starting a philosophic inquiry.

Every institution of society is based on philosophic ideas, whether that institution is the law, government, religion, the family, marriage, industry, business, or education. Philosophic differences have led to the overthrow of governments, drastic changes in laws, and the transformation of entire economic systems. Such changes have occurred because the people involved held certain beliefs about what is important, true, real, and significant and about how life should be ordered.

Systems of education follow a society’s philosophic ideas about what children should be taught and for what purposes. Democratic societies stress that people learn to think and make choices for themselves. Nondemocratic societies discourage such activities and want their citizens to surrender their own interests to those of the state. The values and skills taught by the educational system of a society thus reflect the society’s philosophic ideas of what is important.

                The branches of philosophy 

Philosophic inquiry can be made into any subject because philosophy deals with everything in the world and all of knowledge. But traditionally, and for purposes of study, philosophy is divided into five branches, each organized around certain distinctive questions. The branches are (1) metaphysics, (2) epistemology, (3) logic, (4) ethics, and (5) aesthetics. In addition, the philosophy of language became so important during the 1900’s that it is often considered another branch of philosophy.

Metaphysics is the study of the fundamental nature of reality and existence and of the essences of things. Metaphysics is itself often divided into two areas-ontology and cosmology. Ontology is the study of being. Cosmology is the study of the physical universe, or the cosmos, taken as a whole. Cosmology is also the name of the branch of science that studies the organization, history, and future of the universe.

Metaphysics deals with such questions as “What is real?” “What is the distinction between appearance and reality?” “What are the most general principles and concepts by which our experiences can be interpreted and understood?” and “Do we possess free will or are our actions determined by causes over which we have no control?”

Philosophers have developed a number of theories in metaphysics. These theories include materialism, idealism, mechanism, and teleology. Materialism maintains that only matter has real existence and that feelings, thoughts, and other mental phenomena are produced by the activity of matter. Idealism states that every material thing is an idea or a form of an idea. In idealism, mental phenomena are what is fundamentally important and real. Mechanism maintains that all happenings result from purely mechanical forces, not from purpose, and that it makes no sense to speak of the universe itself as having a purpose. Teleology, on the other hand, states that the universe and everything in it exists and occurs for some purpose.

Epistemology aims to determine the nature, basis, and extent of knowledge. It explores the various ways of knowing, the nature of truth, and the relationships between knowledge and belief. Epistemology asks such questions as “What are the features of genuine knowledge as distinct from what appears to be knowledge?” “What is truth, and how can we know what is true and what is false?” and “Are there different kinds of knowledge, with different grounds and characteristics?”

Philosophers often distinguish between two kinds of knowledge, a priori and empirical. We arrive at a priori knowledge by thinking, without independent appeal to experience. For example, we know that there are 60 seconds in a minute by learning the meanings of the terms. In the same way, we know that there are 60 minutes in an hour. From these facts, we can deduce that there are 3,600 seconds in an hour, and we arrive at this conclusion by the operation of thought alone. We acquire empirical knowledge from observation and experience. For example, we know from observation how many keys are on a typewriter and from experience which key will print what letter.

The nature of truth has baffled people since ancient times, partly because people so often use the term true for ideas they find congenial and want to believe, and also because people so often disagree about which ideas are true. Philosophers have attempted to define criteria for distinguishing between truth and error. But they disagree about what truth means and how to arrive at true ideas. The correspondence theory holds that an idea is true if it corresponds to the facts or reality. The pragmatic theory maintains that an idea is true if it works or settles the problem it deals with. The coherence theory states that truth is a matter of degree and that an idea is true to the extent to which it coheres (fits together) with other ideas that one holds. Skepticism claims that knowledge is impossible to attain and that truth is unknowable.

Logic is the study of the principles and methods of reasoning. It explores how we distinguish between good (or sound) reasoning and bad (or unsound) reasoning. An instance of reasoning is called an argument or an inference. An argument consists of a set of statements called premises together with a statement called the conclusion, which is supposed to be supported by or derived from the premises. A good argument provides support for its conclusion, and a bad argument does not. Two basic types of reasoning are called deductive and inductive.

A good deductive argument is said to be valid–that is, the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. A deductive argument whose conclusion does not follow necessarily from the premises is said to be invalid. The argument “All human beings are mortal, all Greeks are human beings, therefore all Greeks are mortal” is a valid deductive argument. But the argument “All human beings are mortal, all Greeks are mortal, therefore all Greeks are human beings” is invalid, even though the conclusion is true. On that line of reasoning, one could argue that all dogs, which are also mortal, are human beings.

Deductive reasoning is used to explore the necessary consequences of certain assumptions. Inductive reasoning is used to establish matters of fact and the laws of nature and does not aim at being deductively valid. One who reasons that all squirrels like nuts, on the basis that all squirrels so far observed like nuts, is reasoning inductively. The conclusion could be false, even though the premise is true. Nevertheless, the premise provides considerable support for the conclusion.

Ethics concerns human conduct, character, and values. It studies the nature of right and wrong and the distinction between good and evil. Ethics explores the nature of justice and of a just society, and also one’s obligations to oneself, to others, and to society.

Ethics asks such questions as “What makes right actions right and wrong actions wrong?” “What is good and what is bad?” and “What are the proper values of life?” Problems arise in ethics because we often have difficulty knowing exactly what is the right thing to do. In many cases, our obligations conflict or are vague. In addition, people often disagree about whether a particular action or principle is morally right or wrong.

A view called relativism maintains that what is right or wrong depends on the particular culture concerned. What is right in one society may be wrong in another, this view argues, and so no basic standards exist by which a culture may be judged right or wrong. Objectivism claims that there are objective standards of right and wrong which can be discovered and which apply to everyone. Subjectivism states that all moral standards are subjective matters of taste or opinion.

Aesthetics deals with the creation and principles of art and beauty. It also studies our thoughts, feelings, and attitudes when we see, hear, or read something beautiful. Something beautiful may be a work of art, such as a painting, symphony, or poem, or it may be a sunset or other natural phenomenon. In addition, aesthetics investigates the experience of engaging in such activities as painting, dancing, acting, and playing.

Aesthetics is sometimes identified with the philosophy of art, which deals with the nature of art, the process of artistic creation, the nature of the aesthetic experience, and the principles of criticism. But aesthetics has wider application. It involves both works of art created by human beings and the beauty found in nature.

Aesthetics relates to ethics and political philosophy when we ask questions about what role art and beauty should play in society and in the life of the individual. Such questions include “How can people’s taste in the arts be improved?” “How should the arts be taught in the schools?” and “Do governments have the right to restrict artistic expression?”

The philosophy of language has become especially important in recent times. Some philosophers claim that all philosophic questions arise out of linguistic problems. Others claim that all philosophic questions are really questions about language. One key question is “What is language?” But there are also questions about the relationships between language and thought and between language and the world, as well as questions about the nature of meaning and of definition.

The question has been raised whether there can be a logically perfect language that would reflect in its categories the essential characteristics of the world. This question raises questions about the adequacy of ordinary language as a philosophic tool. All such questions belong to the philosophy of language, which has essential connections with other branches of philosophy.

                Philosophy and other fields 

One peculiarity of philosophy is that the question “What is philosophy?” is itself a question of philosophy. But the question “What is art?” is not a question of art. The question is philosophic. The same is true of such questions as “What is history?” and “What is law?” Each is a question of philosophy. Such questions are basic to the philosophy of education, the philosophy of history, the philosophy of law, and other “philosophy of” fields. Each of these fields attempts to determine the foundations, fundamental categories, and methods of a particular institution or area of study. A strong relationship therefore exists between philosophy and other fields of human activity. This relationship can be seen by examining two fields: (1) philosophy and science and (2) philosophy and religion.

Philosophy and science. Science studies natural phenomena and the phenomena of society. It does not study itself. When science does reflect on itself, it becomes the philosophy of science and examines a number of philosophic questions. These questions include “What is science?” “What is scientific method?” “Does scientific truth provide us with the truth about the universe and reality?” and “What is the value of science?”

Philosophy has given birth to several major fields of scientific study. Until the 1700’s, no distinction was made between science and philosophy. For example, physics was called natural philosophy. Psychology was part of what was called moral philosophy. In the early 1800’s, sociology and linguistics separated from philosophy and became distinct areas of study. Logic has always been considered a branch of philosophy. However, logic has now developed to the point where it is also a branch of mathematics, which is a basic science.

Philosophy and science differ in many respects. For example, science has attained definite and tested knowledge of many matters and has thus resolved disagreement about those matters. Philosophy has not. As a result, controversy has always been characteristic of philosophy. Science and philosophy do share one significant goal. Both seek to discover the truth–to answer questions, solve problems, and satisfy curiosity. In the process, both science and philosophy provoke further questions and problems, with each solution bringing more questions and problems.

Philosophy and religion. Historically, philosophy originated in religious questions. These questions concerned the nature and purpose of life and death and the relationship of humanity to superhuman powers or a divine creator. Every society has some form of religion. Most people acquire their religion from their society as they acquire their language. Philosophy inquires into the essence of things, and inquiry into the essence of religion is a philosophic inquiry.

Religious ideas generated some of the earliest philosophic speculations about the nature of life and the universe. The speculations often centered on the idea of a supernatural or superpowerful being who created the universe and who governs it according to unchangeable laws and gives it purpose. Western philosophic tradition has paid much attention to the possibility of demonstrating the existence of God.

The chief goal of some philosophers is not understanding and knowledge. Instead, they try to help people endure the pain, anxiety, and suffering of earthly existence. Such philosophers attempt to make philosophic reflection on the nature and purpose of life perform the function of religion.

                Oriental philosophy 

There are two main traditions in Oriental philosophy, Chinese and Indian. Both philosophies are basically religious and ethical in origin and character. They are removed from any interest in science.

Traditionally, Chinese philosophy has been largely practical, humanistic, and social in its aims. It developed as a means of bringing about improvements in society and politics. Traditionally, philosophy in India has been chiefly mystical rather than political. It has been dominated by reliance on certain sacred texts, called Vedas, which are considered inspired and true and therefore subject only for commentary and not for criticism. Much of Indian philosophy has emphasized withdrawal from everyday life into the life of the spirit. Chinese philosophy typically called for efforts to participate in the life of the state in order to improve worldly conditions.

Chinese philosophy as we know it started in the 500’s B.C. with the philosopher Confucius. His philosophy, called Confucianism, was the official philosophy of China for centuries, though it was reinterpreted by different generations. Confucianism aimed to help people live better and more rewarding lives by discipline and by instruction in the proper goals of life. Candidates for government positions had to pass examinations on Confucian thought, and Confucianism formed the basis for government decisions. No other civilization has placed such emphasis on philosophy.

Other philosophic traditions in China were Taoism, Mohism, and Realism. Beginning in the 1100’s, a movement known as Neo-Confucianism incorporated elements of all these doctrines.

We do not know exactly when Indian philosophy began. In India, philosophic thought was intermingled with religion, and most Indian philosophic thought has been religious in character and aim. Philosophic commentaries on sacred texts emerge during the 500’s B.C. The Indian word for these studies is darshana, which means vision or seeing. It corresponds to what the ancient Greeks called philosophia.

In India, as in China, people conceived of philosophy as a way of life, not as a mere intellectual activity. The main aim of Indian philosophy was freedom from the suffering and tension caused by the body and the senses and by attachment to worldly things. The main philosophies developed in India were Hinduism and Buddhism, which were also religions. Yet some Indian philosophers did develop a complex system of logic and carried on investigations in epistemology. Some Indian philosophic ideas have been influential in the West. One such idea is reincarnation, the belief that the human soul is successively reborn in new bodies.

                The history of Western philosophy 

The history of Western philosophy is commonly divided into three periods-ancient, medieval, and modern. The period of ancient philosophy extended from about 600 B.C. to about the A.D. 400’s. Medieval philosophy lasted from the 400’s to the 1600’s. Modern philosophy covers the period from the 1600’s to the present.

Ancient philosophy was almost entirely Greek. The greatest philosophers of the ancient world were three Greeks of the 400’s and 300’s B.C.-Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Their philosophy influenced all later Western culture. Our ideas in the fields of metaphysics, science, logic, and ethics originated from their thought. A number of distinctive schools of philosophy also flourished in ancient Greece.

The pre-Socratics were the first Greek philosophers. Their name comes from the fact that most of them lived before the birth of Socrates, which was about 470 B.C. The pre-Socratic philosophers were mainly interested in the nature and source of the universe and the nature of reality. They wanted to identify the fundamental substance that they thought underlay all phenomena, and in terms of which all phenomena could be explained.

Unlike most other people of their time, the pre-Socratic philosophers did not believe that gods or supernatural forces caused natural events. Instead, they sought a natural explanation for natural phenomena. The philosophers saw the universe as a set of connected and unified phenomena for which thought could find an explanation. They gave many different and conflicting answers to basic philosophic questions. However, the importance of the pre-Socratics lies not in the truth of their answers but in the fact that they examined the questions in the first place. They had no philosophic tradition to work from, but their ideas provided a tradition for all later philosophers.

Socrates left no writings, though he was constantly engaged in philosophic discussion. Our knowledge of his ideas and methods comes mainly from dialogues written by his pupil Plato. In most of the dialogues, Socrates appears as the main character, who leads and develops the process of inquiry.

Socrates lived in Athens and taught in the streets, market place, and gymnasiums. He taught by a question-and-answer method. Socrates tried to get a definition or precise view of some abstract idea, such as knowledge, virtue, justice, or wisdom. He would use close, sharp questioning, constantly asking “What do you mean?” and “How do you know?” This procedure, called the Socratic method, became the model for philosophic methods that emphasize debate and discussion.

Socrates wanted to replace vague opinions with clear ideas. He often questioned important Athenians and exposed their empty claims to knowledge and wisdom. This practice made him many enemies, and he was put to death as a danger to the state. He thus became a symbol of the philosopher who pursued an argument wherever it led to arrive at the truth, no matter what the cost.

Plato believed that we cannot gain knowledge of things through our senses because the objects of sense perception are fleeting and constantly changing. Plato stated that we can have genuine knowledge only of changeless things, such as truth, beauty, and goodness, which are known by the mind. He called such things ideas or forms.

Plato taught that only ideas are real and that all other things only reflect ideas. This view became known as Idealism. According to Plato, the most important idea is the idea of good. Knowledge of good is the object of all inquiry, a goal to which all other things are subordinate. Plato stated that the best life is one of contemplation of eternal truths. However, he believed people who have attained this state must return to the world of everyday life and use their skills and knowledge to serve humanity. Plato also believed that the soul is immortal and that only the body perishes at death. His ideas contributed to views about the body, soul, and eternal things later developed in Christian theology.

Aristotle, Plato’s greatest pupil, wrote about almost every known subject of his day. He invented the idea of a science and of separate sciences, each having distinct principles and dealing with different subject matter. He wrote on such topics as physics, astronomy, psychology, biology, physiology, and anatomy. Aristotle also investigated what he called “first philosophy,” later known as metaphysics.

Aristotle created the earliest philosophic system. In his philosophy, all branches of inquiry and knowledge are parts of some overall system and connected by the same concepts and principles. Aristotle believed that all things in nature have some purpose. According to his philosophy, the nature of each thing is determined by its purpose, and all things seek to fulfill their natures by carrying out these purposes.

Aristotle’s basic method of inquiry consisted of starting from what we know or think we know and then asking how, what, and why. In his metaphysics, he developed the idea of a first cause, which was not itself caused by anything, as the ultimate explanation of existence. Christian theologians later adopted this idea as a basic argument for the existence of God. Aristotle taught that everyone aims at some good. He said that happiness does not lie in pleasure but in virtuous activity. By virtuous activity, he meant behaving according to a mean between extremes. For example, courage is the mean between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. The highest happiness of all, Aristotle believed, was the contemplative use of the mind.

Stoic philosophy and Epicureanism were the two main schools of Greek philosophy that emerged after the death of Aristotle in 322 B.C. Both schools taught that the purpose of knowing is to enable a person to lead the best and most contented life.

Stoic philosophy was founded by Zeno of Citium. He taught that people should spend their lives trying to cultivate virtue, the greatest good. The Stoics believed in strict determinism-the idea that all things are fated to be. Therefore, they said, a wise and virtuous person accepts and makes the best of what cannot be changed. Stoicism spread to Rome. There, the chief Stoics included the statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, and the teacher Epictetus.

Epicureanism was founded by Epicurus. Epicurus based his philosophy on hedonism-the idea that the only good in life is pleasure. However, Epicurus taught that not all pleasures are good. The only good pleasures are calm and moderate ones because extreme pleasures could lead to pain. The highest pleasures, Epicurus said, are physical health and peace of mind, two kinds of freedom from pain.

Skepticism was a school of philosophy founded by Pyrrho of Elis about the same time that Stoic philosophy and Epicureanism flourished. Pyrrho taught that we can know nothing. Our senses, he said, deceive us and provide no accurate knowledge of the way things are. Thus, all claims to knowledge are false. Because we can know nothing, in this view, we should treat all things with indifference and make no judgments.

Neoplatonism was a revived version of some of Plato’s ideas as adapted by Plotinus, a philosopher who may have been born in Egypt in the A.D. 200’s. Neoplatonism tried to guide the individual toward a unity-a oneness-with God, which is a state of blessedness. Plotinus believed that the human soul yearns for reunion with God, which it can achieve only in mystical experience. Neoplatonism provided the bridge between Greek philosophy and early Christian philosophy. It inspired the idea that important truths can be learned only through faith and God’s influence, not by reason.

Medieval philosophy. During the Middle Ages, Western philosophy developed more as a part of Christian theology than as an independent branch of inquiry. The philosophy of Greece and Rome survived only in its influence on religious thought.

Saint Augustine was the greatest philosopher of the early Middle Ages. In a book titled The City of God (early 400’s), Augustine interpreted human history as a conflict between faithful Christians living in the city of God and pagans and heretics living in the city of the world. Augustine wrote that the people of the city of God will gain eternal salvation, but the people in the city of the world will receive eternal punishment. The book weakened the belief in the pagan religion of Rome and helped further the spread of Christianity.

A system of thought called Scholasticism dominated medieval philosophy from about the 1100’s to the 1400’s. The term Scholasticism refers to the method of philosophic investigation used by teachers of philosophy and theology in the newly developing universities of western Europe. The teachers were called Scholastics. The Scholastic method consisted in precise analysis of concepts with subtle distinctions between different senses of these concepts. The Scholastics used deductive reasoning from principles established by their method to provide solutions to problems.

Scholasticism was basically generated by the translation of Aristotle’s works into Latin, the language of the medieval Christian church. These works presented medieval thinkers with the problem of reconciling Aristotle’s great body of philosophic thought with the Bible and Christian doctrine. The most famous Scholastic was Saint Thomas Aquinas. His philosophy combined Aristotle’s thought with theology, and it eventually became the official philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church.

The great contributions of the scholastics to philosophy included major development of the philosophy of language. The Scholastics studied how features of language can affect our understanding of the world. They also emphasized the importance of logic to philosophic inquiry.

Modern philosophy. A great cultural movement in Europe called the Renaissance overlapped the end of the Middle Ages and formed a transition between medieval and modern philosophy. The Renaissance began in Italy and lasted from about 1300 to about 1600. It was a time of intellectual reawakening stemming from the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture. During the Renaissance, major advances occurred in such sciences as astronomy, physics, and mathematics. Scholars called Humanists stressed the importance of human beings and the study of classical literature as a guide to understanding life. Emphasis on science and on humanism led to changes in the aims and techniques of philosophic inquiry. Scholasticism declined, and philosophy was freed of its ties to medieval theology.

One of the earliest philosophers to support the scientific method was Francis Bacon of England. Most historians consider Bacon and Rene Descartes of France to be the founders of modern philosophy. Bacon wrote two influential works, The Advancement of Learning (1605) and Novum Organum (1620). He stated that knowledge was power and that knowledge could be obtained only by the inductive method of investigation. Bacon imagined a new world of culture and leisure that could be gained by inquiry into the laws and processes of nature. In describing this world, he anticipated the effects of advances in science, engineering, and technology.

Rationalism was a philosophic outlook that arose in the 1600’s. The basic idea of Rationalism is that reason is superior to experience as a source of knowledge and that the validity of sense perception must be proved from more certain principles. The Rationalists tried to determine the nature of the world and of reality by deduction from premises themselves established as certain a priori. They also stressed the importance of mathematical procedures. The leading Rationalists were Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.

Descartes was a mathematician as well as a philosopher. He invented analytic geometry. Descartes’s basic idea was to establish a secure foundation for the sciences, a foundation of the sort he had found for mathematics. He was thus much concerned with the foundations of knowledge, and he started philosophy on its persistent consideration of epistemological problems. Descartes was a mechanist-that is, he regarded all physical phenomena as connected mechanically by laws of cause and effect. Descartes’s philosophy generated the problem of how mind and matter are related.

Spinoza constructed a system of philosophy on the model of geometry. He attempted to derive philosophic conclusions from a few central axioms (supposedly self-evident truths) and definitions. Spinoza did not view God as some superhuman being who created the universe. He identified God with the universe. Spinoza was also a mechanist, regarding everything in the universe as determined. Spinoza’s main aim was ethical. He wanted to show how people could be free, could lead reasonable and thus satisfying lives, in a deterministic world.

Leibniz believed that the actual world is only one of many possible worlds. He tried to show how the actual world is the best of all possible worlds in an effort to justify the ways of God to humanity. Thus, he attempted to solve the problem of how a perfect and all-powerful God could have created a world filled with so much suffering and evil. Leibniz and Sir Isaac Newton, an English scientist, independently developed calculus. Leibniz’s work in mathematics anticipated the development of symbolic logic-the use of mathematical symbols and operations to solve problems in logic.

Empiricism emphasizes the importance of experience and sense perception as the source and basis of knowledge. The first great Empiricist was John Locke of England in the 1600’s. George Berkeley of Ireland and David Hume of Scotland further developed Empiricism in the 1700’s.

Locke tried to determine the origin, extent, and certainty of human knowledge in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Locke argued that there are no innate ideas-that is, ideas people are born with. He believed that when a person is born, the mind is like a blank piece of paper. Experience is therefore the source of all ideas and all knowledge.

Berkeley dealt with the question “If whatever a human being knows is only an idea, how can one be sure that there is anything in the world corresponding to that idea?” Berkeley answered that “to be is to be perceived.” No object exists, he said, unless it is perceived by some mind. Material objects are ideas in the mind and have no independent existence.

Hume extended the theories of Locke and Berkeley to a consistent skepticism about almost everything. He maintained that everything in the mind consists of impressions and ideas, with ideas coming from impressions. Every idea can be traced to and tested by some earlier impression. According to Hume, we must be able to determine from what impression we derived an idea for that idea to have meaning. An apparent idea that cannot be traced to an impression must be meaningless. Hume also raised the question of how can we know that the future will be like the past-that the laws of nature will continue to operate as they have. He claimed that we can only know that events have followed certain patterns in the past. We cannot therefore be certain that events will continue to follow those patterns.

The Age of Reason was a period of great intellectual activity that began in the 1600’s and lasted until the late 1700’s. The period is also called the Enlightenment. Philosophers of the Age of Reason stressed the use of reason, as opposed to the reliance on authority and scriptural revelation. For them, reason provided means of attaining the truth about the world and of ordering human society to assure human well-being. The leading philosophers included Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. They also included Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and other members of a group of French philosophers called the Philosophes.

Locke’s philosophic ideas were characteristic of the Age of Reason. Locke sought to determine the limits of human understanding and to discover what can be known within those limits that will serve as a guide to life and conduct. He tried to show that people should live by the principles of toleration, liberty, and natural rights. His Two Treatises of Government (1690) provided the philosophic base for the Revolutionary War in America and the French Revolution in the late 1700’s.

The philosophy of Immanuel Kant, a great German philosopher of the late 1700’s, became the foundation for nearly all later developments in philosophy. Kant’s philosophy is called Critical Philosophy or Transcendental Philosophy. Kant was stimulated by the Skeptical philosophy of Hume to try to bring about a synthesis of Rationalism and Empiricism. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), Kant tried to provide a critical account of the powers and limits of human reason, to determine what is knowable and what is unknowable. Kant concluded that reason can provide knowledge only of things as they appear to us, never of things as they are in themselves. Kant believed that the mind plays an active role in knowing and is not a mere recorder of facts presented by the senses. The mind does this through basic categories or forms of understanding, which are independent of experience and without which our experience would not make sense. Through such categories and the operations of the mind, working on sense experience, we can have knowledge, but only of things that can be experienced.

Kant criticized the traditional arguments for the existence of God. He argued that they are all in error because they make claims that go beyond the possibility of experience and thus go beyond the powers of human reason. In his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), Kant argued that practical reason (reason applied to practice) can show us how we ought to act and also provides a practical reason for believing in God, though not a proof that God exists.

Philosophy in the 1800’s. Kant’s philosophy stimulated various systems of thought in the 1800’s, such as those of G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx of Germany. Hegel developed a theory of historical change called dialectic, in which the conflict of opposites results in the creation of a new unity and then its opposite. Hegel’s theory was transformed by Marx into dialectical materialism. Marx believed that only material things are real. He stated that all ideas are built on an economic base. He believed that the dialectic of conflict between capitalists and industrial workers will lead to the establishment of communism, which he called socialism, as an economic and political system.

Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher, was an atheist who proclaimed in Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-1885) that “God is dead.” Nietzsche meant that the idea of God had lost the power to motivate and discipline large masses of people. He believed that people would have to look to some other idea to guide their lives. Nietzsche predicted the evolution of the superman, who would be beyond the weakness of human beings and beyond the merely human appeals to morality. He regarded such appeals as appeals to weakness, not strength. He felt that all behavior is based on the will to power–the desire of people to control others and their own passions. The superman would develop a new kind of perfection and excellence through the capacity to realize the will to power through strength, rather than weakness.

The dominant philosophy in England during the 1800’s was Utilitarianism, developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. The Utilitarians maintained that the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people is the test of right and wrong. They argued that all existing social institutions, especially law and government, must be transformed to satisfy the test of greatest happiness. In The Subjection of Women (1869), Mill wrote that the legal subordination of women to men ought to be replaced by “a principle of perfect equality.” That idea was revolutionary in Mill’s time.

Philosophy in the 1900’s saw five main movements predominate. Two of these movements, Existentialism and Phenomenology, had their greatest influence in the countries on the mainland of western Europe. The three other movements, Pragmatism, Logical Positivism, and Philosophical Analysis, were influential chiefly in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Existentialism became influential in the mid-1900’s. World War II (1939-1945) gave rise to widespread feelings of despair and of separation from the established order. These feelings led to the idea that people have to create their own values in a world in which traditional values no longer govern. Existentialism insists that choices have to be made arbitrarily by individuals, who thus create themselves, because there are no objective standards to determine choice. The most famous of the Existentialist philosophers is the French author Jean-Paul Sartre.

Phenomenology was developed by the German philosopher Edmund Husserl. Husserl conceived the task of Phenomenology, hence the task of philosophy, as describing phenomena-the objects of experience-accurately and independently of all assumptions derived from science. He thought that this activity would provide philosophic knowledge of reality.

Pragmatism, represented in the 1900’s by William James and John Dewey of the United States, maintains knowledge is subordinate to action. The meaning and truth of ideas are determined by their relation to practice.

Logical Positivism, developed in Vienna, Austria, in the 1920’s, believes philosophy should analyze the logic of the language of science. It regards science as the only source of knowledge and claims metaphysics is meaningless. It bases this claim on the principle of verifiability, by which a statement is meaningful only if it can be verified by sense experience.

Philosophical Analysis generally tries to solve philosophic problems through analysis of language or concepts. Some versions of this philosophy attempt to show that traditional philosophic problems dissolve-that is, disappear-on proper analysis of the terms in which they are expressed. Other versions use linguistic analysis to throw light on, not dissolve, traditional philosophic problems. The most influential philosophers practicing Philosophic Analysis have been Bertrand Russell of England and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was born in Austria but studied and taught in England.”

Contributor: Marcus G. Singer, Ph.D., Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin, Madison.


Who are considered the cofounders of modern philosophy?

How do mechanism and teleology differ?

Who were the Scholastics?

Which branch of philosophy concerns human knowledge?

What is a priori knowledge? Empirical knowledge?

How did traditional Chinese and Indian philosophy differ?

What have been the main philosophic movements in the 1900’s?

How do a society’s philosophic ideas influence education?

In Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought, who was the superman?

What is the Socratic method?

                Additional resources

Blackburn, Simon.The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford, 1994.

Edwards, Paul, ed.The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 8 vols. 1967. Reprint. Macmillan, 1972.

McLeish, Kenneth, ed.Key Ideas in Human Thought. Facts on File, 1993.

Parkinson, G. H. R., ed.The Handbook of Western Philosophy. Macmillan, 1988.


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Mongolia (/mɒnˈɡoʊliə/ (listen), Mongolian: Монгол Улс, transcription: Mongol UlsTraditional Mongolian: ᠮᠤᠩᠭᠤᠯ ᠤᠯᠤᠰ, transliteration: Mongγol ulus) is a landlocked country in East Asia. Its area is roughly equivalent with the historical territory of Outer Mongolia, which is sometimes used to refer to the current state. It is situated between Russia to the north and China to the south, where it neighbors the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Mongolia does not share a border with Kazakhstan, although only 37 kilometers (23 miles) separate them.

Mongolia’s area is 1,564,116 square kilometres (603,909 square miles), and with a population of just 3.3 million, makes it the 18th-largest sovereign state and one of the most sparsely populated.[6][13] It is the world’s second-largest landlocked country, behind Kazakhstan, and the largest landlocked country that does not border a closed sea. Mongolia contains very little arable land, as much of its area is covered by grassy steppe, with mountains to the north and west and the Gobi Desert to the south. Ulaanbaatar, the capital and largest city, is home to about 45% of the country’s population.[14] It is also ranked the coldest capital city alongside MoscowOttawa, and Nur-Sultan.[15][16][17]

Approximately 30% of the population is nomadic or semi-nomadic; horse culture remains integral. Buddhism is the majority religion, with the nonreligious being the second-largest group. Islam is the second-largest religion, concentrated among ethnic Kazakhs. Most citizens are ethnic Mongols, with roughly 4% of the population being KazakhsTuvans, and other minorities, who are especially concentrated in the west.

What is now Mongolia has been ruled by various nomadic empires, including the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, the Rouran, the First Turkic Khaganate, and others. In 1206, Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire, which became the largest contiguous land empire in history. His grandson Kublai Khan conquered China to establish the Yuan dynasty. After the collapse of the Yuan, the Mongols retreated to Mongolia and resumed their earlier pattern of factional conflict, except during the era of Dayan Khan and Tumen Zasagt Khan.

In the 16th century, Tibetan Buddhism spread to Mongolia, being further led by the Manchu-founded Qing dynasty, which absorbed the country in the 17th century. By the early 20th century, almost one-third of the adult male population were Buddhist monks.[18][19] After the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Mongolia declared independence, and achieved actual independence from the Republic of China in 1921. Shortly thereafter, the country became a satellite of the Soviet Union, which had aided its independence from China. In 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was founded as a socialist state.[20] After the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989, Mongolia conducted its own peaceful democratic revolution in early 1990. This led to a multi-party system, a new constitution of 1992, and transition to a market economy.”


“Mongolia, pronounced mong GOH lee uh, is a country in east-central Asia. It lies between Russia and China. Ulan Bator is the capital and largest city.

Plateaus and towering mountain ranges cover much of Mongolia. The Gobi, a bleak desert area, blankets much of the southeastern part of the country. Mongolia’s little rainfall occurs in a few summer storms.

Many Mongolians raise livestock for a living. But industry employs an increasing number of people.

Mongolia is the original home of an Asian people called Mongols. The Mongols built the largest land empire in history during the 1200’s. They conquered an area from eastern Asia to eastern Europe. China ruled Mongolia from 1691 to 1911. Mongolia was then called Outer Mongolia. A Mongol region to the south, called Inner Mongolia, is still part of China.

Communists gained control of Mongolia’s government in 1921. In 1924, they established the Mongolian People’s Republic. Their party, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), became the country’s only political party. In 1990, the MPRP gave up its monopoly on power, and many new parties were formed. Free elections were held in June of that year.

Government. Mongolia’s president is elected by voters to a four-year term. The president is the head of the armed forces and nominates the prime minister, who carries out the day-to-day operations of government. The prime minister is usually the leader of the party or coalition with the most seats in the legislature. The prime minister nominates the ministers who make up the Cabinet.

Mongolia’s people elect members of a national legislature that is called the State Great Hural. The members are elected to four-year terms. The 76-member State Great Hural makes decisions regarding domestic and foreign affairs. The legislature also appoints (approves) the prime minister and Cabinet.

For administrative and judicial purposes, the country is divided into 18 provinces, which are called Aimags, and three independent cities. These cities are Darhan, Erdenet, and Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator.

The people. Nearly all the people of Mongolia are Mongols. Kazakhs make up the largest ethnic minority. Some Chinese and Russians also live in Mongolia.

The official language, Mongolian, has several dialects. Most of the people speak Khalkha Mongolian, which is the official dialect. Mongolian may be written in two ways. It is written in the Uyghur script, a traditional Mongolian alphabet borrowed centuries ago from the Uyghur Turks and written in vertical columns. It is also written in a special form of the Cyrillic alphabet, the alphabet of the Russian language.

Tibetan Buddhism (archaic term is Lamaism), which is a form of Buddhism, and Shamanism are the chief religions in Mongolia. The practice of religion was discouraged under Communist rule, but Mongolia’s democratic government permits greater religious expression.

Many of Mongolia’s people live on livestock farms. The farms are like huge ranches with small towns in the center. The central buildings include houses, offices, shops, and medical posts for the people and animals.

Few Mongolians still follow the traditional way of life of nomadic herders. Those who do, journey from place to place with their animals. They live in felt tents called ger or yurts, which help protect them from the intense heat and cold. The government is gradually settling the nomads on farms.

The Mongolian State University was founded in Ulan Bator in 1942. The country has teacher training colleges and technical schools where students study such subjects as agriculture, economics, and medicine.

Land. No part of Mongolia lies less than 1,700 feet (518 meters) above sea level. The Altai Mountains in western Mongolia rise to more than 14,000 feet (4,270 meters). A high plateau lies between the Altai Mountains and the Hangayn Mountains in central Mongolia. This plateau has many lakes. Uvs Lake, the largest, covers about 1,300 square miles (3,370 square kilometers). Dense forests cover the Hentiyn Mountains, northeast of Ulan Bator. Eastern Mongolia is a lower plateau of grassland. It becomes less fertile as it nears the Gobi, a bleak desert area that stretches from southeastern Mongolia into Inner Mongolia.

Climate. Mongolia has long, cold winters and short, hot summers. Temperatures ranging from -57 to 96 °F (-49 to 36 °C) have been recorded in Ulan Bator. Mongolia’s coldest temperatures usually occur in the northern part of the country during the winter. Summer temperatures in the dry Gobi area in the south can be extremely high. Snowfall and rainfall in Mongolia are usually light. Heavy rains may occur in July and August. Violent earthquakes sometimes shake the country.

Economy. Under Communist rule, the state owned and operated most factories and farms in Mongolia. But since Communist rule ended, Mongolia has worked to reduce government control of industry. Livestock-raising is the backbone of the economy. Herders keep over 30 million animals, nearly half of them sheep. Other animals include camels, cattle, goats, and horses. Cattle make up about 35 percent of the country’s exports, and wool about 40 percent. Mongolia also exports dairy products, furs, hides, and meat.

Manufacturing and construction are of major importance to the Mongolian economy. Building materials, furniture, glass and china, matches, processed foods, soap, tent frames and felts, and wool and woolen fabrics rank among the chief manufactured products. Mongolia has rich deposits of coal, copper, gold, iron, molybdenum, and petroleum.

Mongolia’s main railroad connects Ulan Bator with Russia’s Trans-Siberian railroad in the north and with Chinese railroads in the south. The country has about 47,000 miles (75,600 kilometers) of roads. Most of these are dirt roads. Mongolia and Russia trade goods over Hovsgol Lake and the Selenge River. Air service links Ulan Bator with other countries and with provincial capitals in Mongolia.

Mongolia’s leading daily newspaper is Odriin Toli (Daily Mirror). The country also has a number of other newspapers and periodicals.

History. Various groups of Mongols were united under Genghis Khan in the early 1200’s. Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan extended the Mongol Empire from Korea and China westward into Europe. The empire broke up in the late 1300’s.

Mongol princes reunited Mongolia in the late 1500’s and converted the people to Tibetan Buddhism. In 1634, the Manchu rulers of Manchuria gained control of Inner Mongolia. The Manchus conquered China in 1644 and seized Outer Mongolia in 1691. Mongolia, like China, had little contact with other nations during the 1700’s and the 1800’s.

The Mongolians drove Chinese forces out of Outer Mongolia in 1911. They appointed a monk, called the Living Buddha, as ruler, and appealed to Russia for support. In 1913, China and Russia agreed to give Outer Mongolia control over its own affairs. Legally, Outer Mongolia remained Chinese territory. But, in fact, it came largely under the control of Russia. In 1920, during Russia’s civil war, anti-Communist Russian troops occupied Outer Mongolia and ruled it through the Living Buddha. Mongolian and Russian Communists gained control of Outer Mongolia in 1921. They established the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924, after the Living Buddha died.

The Soviet Union was formed in 1922 under Russia’s leadership, and it existed until 1991. Mongolia supported the Soviet Union in the Soviet-Chinese dispute for leadership of the Communist world.

In the late 1980’s, reforms resulted in more freedom for people in the Soviet Union and Communist countries of Eastern Europe. Influenced by these changes, people in Mongolia held demonstrations in early 1990 for more freedom. As a result, the country’s ruling Communist party, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), gave up its monopoly on power. The country adopted a multiparty system and also began moving toward creating a free-enterprise economy.

In 1990, the MPRP won the legislative elections. In February 1992, a new democratic constitution went into effect. In elections held in June, the MPRP again won the majority of legislative seats. In 1996, a coalition of democratic parties, the Democratic Union Coalition, won the largest number of legislative seats. In legislative elections in 2000, the MPRP returned to power.”

Contributor: Morris Rossabi, Ph.D., Professor of History, City University of New York.


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Taiwan (traditional Chinese: 臺灣/台灣; simplified Chinese: 台湾; pinyinTáiwān),[II] officially the Republic of China (ROC),[I][f] is a country in East Asia.[16][17] Neighboring countries include the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the northwest, Japan to the northeast, and the Philippines to the south. The main island of Taiwan has an area of 35,808 square kilometers (13,826 sq mi), with mountain ranges dominating the eastern two-thirds and plains in the western third, where its highly urbanised population is concentrated. Taipei is the capital as well as the largest metropolitan area of Taiwan. Other major cities include New TaipeiKaohsiungTaichungTainan and Taoyuan. With 23.57 million inhabitants, Taiwan is among the most densely populated countries.

Austronesian-speaking Taiwanese indigenous peoples settled the island of Taiwan around 6,000 years ago. In the 17th century, partial Dutch colonization opened the island to mass Han Chinese immigration. After the brief rule of part of southwestern Taiwan by the Kingdom of Tungning, parts of the island were annexed in 1683 by the Qing dynasty of China, and ceded to the Empire of Japan in 1895. The Republic of China, which had overthrown and succeeded the Qing in 1911, took control of Taiwan on behalf of the World War II Allies following the surrender of Japan in 1945. The resumption of the Chinese Civil War resulted in the ROC’s loss of mainland China to the Chinese Communist Party and retreat to Taiwan in 1949. Although the ROC government continued to claim to be the legitimate representative of China, since 1950 its effective jurisdiction has been limited to Taiwan and numerous smaller islands.

In the early 1960s, Taiwan entered a period of rapid economic growth and industrialisation called the “Taiwan Miracle“. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the ROC transitioned from a one-party military dictatorship to a multi-party democracy with a semi-presidential system. Taiwan’s export-oriented industrial economy is the 21st-largest in the world by nominal GDP, and 20th-largest by PPP measures, with major contributions from steel, machinery, electronics and chemicals manufacturing. Taiwan is a developed country,[18][19] ranking 15th in GDP per capita. It is ranked highly in terms of political and civil liberties,[20] educationhealth care[21] and human development.[g][25]” (WP)

Taiwan, pronounced ty wahn, is a mountainous island in the South China Sea, about 90 miles (140 kilometers) off the Chinese coast. In Chinese, Taiwan means terraced bay. The island’s wild, forested beauty led Portuguese sailors in 1590 to name it Ilha Formosa, meaning beautiful island.

After the Chinese Communists conquered mainland China in 1949, the Chinese Nationalists moved to Taiwan. Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek declared Taipei the capital of the Republic of China and refused to recognize China’s Communist government. The Nationalist government also controls several islands in the Taiwan Strait, which separates Taiwan and China. These islands include the Quemoy, Matsu, and the Pescadores groups.

Government. The Chinese Nationalist government is based on a Constitution adopted in 1946 on the mainland. It provides for five branches of government-executive, legislative, judicial, control, and examination. Each branch is headed by a yuan (council).

The president is Taiwan’s most powerful government official. The president is elected by the people to a four-year term. The president appoints a prime minister to head the Executive Yuan, which carries out the operations of the government. The Legislative Yuan makes most of Taiwan’s laws. The National Assembly is elected and convened only when the Legislative Yuan proposes amending the Constitution, impeaching the president, or altering the boundaries of the country.

After moving to Taiwan in 1949, the Nationalist legislative bodies were made up of members who had been elected on the mainland in 1947 and 1948. The members were allowed to keep their seats indefinitely and became known as “life-term” members. Beginning in the 1960’s, some elections were held for new members. A 1990 judicial decision declared the system of life-term members unconstitutional. All remaining life-term members retired at the end of 1991.

Members of the Legislative Yuan serve three-year terms. Most are directly elected, but some are elected by proportional representation. This system gives a political party a share of seats in the legislature according to its share of the total votes cast in an election. When the National Assembly is convened, its members are appointed by proportional representation based on the latest legislative election.

The Judicial Yuan is Taiwan’s highest court. The Control Yuan reviews activities of government officials and has power of impeachment. The Examination Yuan gives tests for hiring and promoting government workers.

Although Taiwan is the seat of the Chinese Nationalist government, it is administered as a province of China. The president appoints a provincial governor who serves an indefinite term. The people elect the members of a provincial Assembly to four-year terms. The people also elect county and city government officials.

Taiwan’s leading political parties are the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The KMT was Taiwan’s only legal party until 1989.

People. Almost all the people of Taiwan live on the coastal plain that makes up the western third of the island. Most Taiwanese are Chinese whose ancestors came to the island from Fujian (also spelled Fukien) and Guangdong (Kwangtung) provinces on the mainland. More than 11/2 million more people fled to Taiwan from the mainland after the Communist take-over in 1949. A small percentage of the population are non-Chinese native peoples, sometimes called aborigines, related to Indonesians and Filipinos.

Almost all the people of Taiwan live on the coastal plain that makes up the western third of the island. Rapid industrial development in this region has led to problems with air and water pollution. Most of the native peoples live on reservations in the mountains.

About 70 percent of Taiwan’s people live and work in urban areas. Most city people wear Western-style clothing. About 10 percent of Taiwan’s people farm the land. Farms on the island average only 2 or 3 acres (0.8 to 1.2 hectares) in size. Most of the farmhouses are made of brick, with tile roofs and central courtyards of packed earth or cement. A typical Taiwanese meal includes rice, served with vegetables and chopped meat or fish. Farmers and others who work in the hot sun wear cone-shaped straw hats.

The Taiwanese people speak various Chinese dialects. But almost all the people also use Northern Chinese (Mandarin), which is the official Chinese dialect. Most adults can read and write. The law requires children to have six years of elementary school and three years of high school.

About half the people practice a local traditional religion that involves the worship of special gods and goddesses. Buddhism and Taoism are also popular. A small fraction of the people follow Christianity or I-Kuan Tao, another traditional religion.

Land and climate. Taiwan, including the Pescadores islands, covers about 13,900 square miles (36,000 square kilometers). This area does not include the Quemoy and Matsu island groups, which are part of Fujian province. Thickly forested mountains run from north to south and cover about half of Taiwan. The highest peak, Yu Shan (Mount Morrison), rises 13,113 feet (3,997 meters) above sea level. On the eastern coast, the mountains often drop sharply to the sea. Short, swift rivers have cut gorges through the mountains. In the west, the mountains slope to gently rolling hills and level land.

Taiwan has a subtropical climate, with hot, humid summers and an average annual rainfall of more than 100 inches (250 centimeters). Temperatures average about 80 °F (27 °C) in summer and 65 °F (18 °C) in winter. Summer monsoons bring strong winds and rain to Taiwan. In winter, monsoons bring rain and cooler weather to the north. Typhoons occur almost every year.

Economy. Taiwan has few natural resources except its forests. Cedars, hemlocks, and oaks are the most valuable timber trees. Other forest products include bamboo, camphor, paper, and plywood. Taiwan’s economy relies heavily on manufacturing and foreign trade. Factories produce cement, clothing and textiles, computer equipment, furniture, iron and steel, plastic goods, processed foods, ships, shoes, sports equipment, sugar, televisions, radios, and toys. Many manufactured goods are exported, especially clothing and textiles, electronics, plastic goods, plywood, and toys. Taiwan’s main trading partners include Germany, Japan, and the United States. Taiwan also trades with Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China.

Only about a fourth of Taiwan’s land can be farmed. The farmers have terraced many hills to provide more fields for growing rice. By using fertilizers, farmers are able to harvest two or three crops a year from the same field. The chief crops include asparagus, bananas, citrus fruits, corn, mushrooms, peanuts, pineapples, rice, sugar, sweet potatoes, tea, and vegetables. Farmers also raise hogs, chickens, and ducks. The fishing industry catches such ocean fish as shrimp, snapper, and tuna. Carp, eels, and other fish are caught in inland ponds.

Coal is Taiwan’s most important mined product, but the island has only small deposits. Copper, limestone, natural gas, petroleum, salt, and sulfur are also mined.

Taiwan has a good network of roads, including an expressway that connects Taipei and Kaohsiung. The country has an average of about 1 car for every 30 people. Bus service is excellent. The government operates several railroad lines. Kaohsiung and Chilung are Taiwan’s chief seaports. Taiwan has two international airports, one near Taipei, another in Kaohsiung.

About 30 daily newspapers are published in Taiwan. Most families own a TV set and one or more radios.

History. Aborigines were the first inhabitants of Taiwan. Some Chinese came to the island from the mainland as early as the 500’s, but large settlements did not begin until the 1600’s. Dutch traders occupied a Taiwanese port from 1624 until 1661. Koxinga, a Chinese Ming dynasty official, drove them out. Manchu conquerors had overthrown the Ming dynasty in mainland China, and Koxinga hoped to restore the dynasty to power. He wanted Taiwan as a base from which to attack the Manchus. However, the Manchus conquered Taiwan in 1683.

In 1895, Japan gained control of Taiwan as a result of the first Chinese-Japanese War. The Japanese developed Taiwan’s agriculture and industry and expanded its transportation networks. Chinese Nationalists took control of the island after World War II ended in 1945. Their harsh rule led to violent resistance by native Taiwanese. Troops arrived from the mainland and put down the revolt in what came to be known as the White Terror.

In 1949, the Chinese Communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces and took control of the mainland. Chiang moved his government to Taiwan on Dec. 8, 1949.

After the Korean War began in 1950, the United States said it would protect Taiwan against possible attack from mainland China. It sent air and naval forces to patrol the Taiwan Strait (then called the Formosa Strait). The U.S. and Chinese Nationalist governments signed a mutual defense treaty in 1954. The Chinese Communists repeatedly shelled Matsu and Quemoy during the 1950’s. Taiwan received about $11/2 billion in U.S. economic and technical aid up to 1965. That year, Taiwan said its economy could stand on its own. But it continued to receive U.S. military aid.

In the early 1970’s, Taiwan expressed concern over improved relations between the United States and Communist China. In 1971, the United States announced it favored United Nations (UN) membership for Communist China. But the United States also said that Nationalist China-a charter member of the UN-should retain its UN seat. In October 1971, the UN expelled the Nationalists and admitted Communist China.

During the 1970’s, a number of nations ended their diplomatic relations with Taiwan and established ties with Communist China. The United States ended its diplomatic relations with Taiwan at the end of 1978 and established diplomatic relations with Communist China at the start of 1979. The mutual defense treaty between the two countries was ended on Dec. 31, 1979. But the United States agreed to continue to give Taiwan some military aid. Also, the two countries agreed to carry on unofficial relations through nongovernmental agencies.

President Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975. Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo had become prime minister in 1972. He became the country’s most powerful leader after his father died. He was elected president of Taiwan in 1978 and was reelected in 1984. Chiang died in 1988. Vice President Lee Teng-hui succeeded him as president.

Also in the 1980’s, the government began political reforms that increased democracy in the country. In 1987, it ended martial law, which had been in effect since 1949. Under martial law, the military had some legal and political powers. Until 1989, the Nationalist Party had been the country’s only legal political party. Opposition parties were legalized that year. Multiparty elections were held in 1991 for the National Assembly and in 1992 for the Legislative Yuan. The Nationalist Party won a majority of seats in both elections. It thus remained in control of the government.

In 1995 elections for the Legislative Yuan, the Nationalists won a slim majority. In 1996, for the first time, Taiwanese voters directly elected their president. In the past, the National Assembly had elected the president. Voters elected President Lee Teng-hui to a four-year term.

In 2000, Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected president, ending 50 years of Nationalist Party rule. Chen had always advocated Taiwanese independence, and Chinese officials warned that any moves toward independence would provoke war. In elections in 2001, the DPP took control of the Legislative Yuan.”

Contributor: Murray A. Rubinstein, Ph.D., Professor of History, Bernard M. Baruch College, City University of New York.

                Additional resources

Chao, Linda, and Myers, Ramon H. The First Chinese Democracy: Political Life in the Republic of China on Taiwan. Johns Hopkins, 1998.

Copper, John F.Historical Dictionary of Taiwan. 2nd ed. Scarecrow, 2000.

Insight Guide: Taiwan. 4th ed. Houghton, 1998.

Republic of China Yearbook. International Pubns. Service, published annually.

Russell, William.Taiwan. Rourke, 1994. Younger readers.

Storey, Robert. Taiwan. 4th ed. Lonely Planet Pubns., 1998. A travel guide.


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Vietnam (also written as Viet NamVietnameseViệt Nam[vîət nāːm] (listen)), officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam[9] (VietnameseCộng hòa Xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam), is a country in Southeast Asia and the easternmost country on the Indochinese Peninsula. With an estimated 96.2 million inhabitants as of 2019, it is the 15th most populous country in the world. Vietnam shares its land borders with China to the north, and Laos and Cambodia to the west. It shares its maritime borders with Thailand through the Gulf of Thailand, and the PhilippinesIndonesia and Malaysia through the South China Sea.[n 5] Its capital city is Hanoi, and its most populous city is Ho Chi Minh City, also known by its former name of Saigon.

Archaeological excavations indicate that Vietnam was inhabited as early as the Paleolithic age. The ancient Vietnamese nation, which was centered on the Red River valley and nearby coastal areas, was annexed by the Han dynasty in the 2nd century BC, which subsequently made Vietnam a division of Imperial China for over a millennium. The first independent monarchy emerged in the 10th century AD. This paved the way for successive imperial dynasties as the nation expanded southward until the Indochina Peninsula was colonised by the French in the late 19th century. Modern Vietnam was born upon the Proclamation of Independence from France in 1945. Following Vietnamese victory against the French in the First Indochina War, which ended in 1954, the nation was divided into two rival states: communist North and anti-communist South. Conflicts intensified in the Vietnam War, which saw extensive US intervention in support of South Vietnam and ended with North Vietnamese victory in 1975.” (WP)

“Vietnam, pronounced vee eht NAHM or vee eht NAM, is a country in Southeast Asia with its eastern coast on the South China Sea. Vietnam is bordered by China to the north and Laos and Cambodia to the west. The Gulf of Thailand lies to the southwest. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly named Saigon, is the largest city.

The population of Vietnam is concentrated in the Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong River Delta in the south. Central Vietnam is less heavily populated than either the north or the south because it has mountainous terrain. Although Vietnam has a number of ethnic groups, most of the people are classified as Kinh-that is, ethnic Vietnamese.

Most Vietnamese are farmers who live in small villages. Rice is the main crop. But manufacturing has become an increasingly important economic activity.

People have lived in what is now Vietnam since prehistoric times. Ethnic Vietnamese developed a culture in the Red River Delta 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. Through the centuries, this group expanded its control of what is now Vietnam. At the same time, the Vietnamese fought many foreign invaders, frequently the Chinese.

The French governed Vietnam from the mid-1800’s until Japan occupied it during World War II. After Japan’s defeat in 1945, France tried to regain control of Vietnam. But the Vietminh, a group headquartered in the north and headed by the Vietnamese patriot and Communist leader Ho Chi Minh, resisted the French. In 1954, the fighting between the French and the Vietminh ended with a French defeat in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

An international peace conference, held in Geneva, Switzerland, decided to divide Vietnam temporarily into two zones-Communist North Vietnam and non-Communist South Vietnam. Elections were supposed to be held to reunite the country, but they were continually postponed and never took place. In 1957, fighting broke out between revolutionaries in the South and the South Vietnamese government. The fighting eventually developed into the Vietnam War, which Vietnamese call the American War. The United States became the chief ally of the South. It backed the South’s war effort with supplies and hundreds of thousands of troops.

In 1973, the participants in the war agreed to a cease-fire, and the United States withdrew its last combat troops. But the fighting soon resumed. In April 1975, the Communists defeated South Vietnam. In 1976, they unified North and South Vietnam into a single nation, which they named the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

This article discusses VIETNAM (History).


According to the Vietnamese Constitution, which was adopted in 1980 and extensively revised in 1992, Vietnam is a socialist nation. It is governed by a single political party-the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). The party is the leading force in the state and society. Political power in Vietnam is based on the principle of democratic centralism. Under this principle, authority and power originate at the highest levels of the CPV and flow downward through a rigid political structure.

National level. The National Assembly is the highest legislative body in Vietnam. The 450 delegates to the Assembly are elected by the people to a maximum term of five years. No candidate can run for the Assembly without the approval of the Communist Party. All Vietnamese 18 years of age or older are allowed to vote.

Vietnam’s highest government officials are the president and the prime minister. The National Assembly elects one of its own members to serve as president. The president directs members of the Assembly to appoint the vice president, prime minister, chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court, and head of the Supreme People’s Organ of Control. As head of state, the president acts as official representative of Vietnam, has overall command of the armed forces, and chairs the National Defense and Security Council. As chief executive, the prime minister manages the government, assisted by deputy prime ministers and cabinet ministers.

Local level. Vietnam is divided into 57 tinh (provinces) and four municipalities-Da Nang, Haiphong, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City. Each tinh and municipality has a legislature called a People’s Council and an executive body known as a People’s Committee. The people elect the members of each People’s Council, who then elect the members of the People’s Committee.

Courts. The judicial system of Vietnam consists of two main divisions: the People’s Courts and the People’s Organs of Control. The People’s Courts include the Supreme People’s Court, local courts, and Military Tribunals. The People’s Organs of Control monitor the bodies of government.

Armed forces of Vietnam consist of a main force and paramilitary forces. The main force includes an army of about 412,000 members and a small navy and air force. The paramilitary forces include local urban and rural militias and border defense forces. About 40,000 people serve in the paramilitary forces.


Ancestry. Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups. Over 85 percent of the people of Vietnam are Kinh-that is, ethnic Vietnamese-who are spread throughout the country. Minority ethnic groups live mainly in the mountain areas of the country. The largest groups are the Tay, who live to the north and northeast of the Red River Delta; and the Tai, who live in scattered villages in valleys of the Red and Black rivers, in the northwest and north-central interior. Other large minority groups include the Hmong, the Khmer, the Muong, and the Nung. A number of ethnic Chinese people, known as the Hoa, live mainly in the cities.

Language. Vietnamese is the most widely spoken language in Vietnam. However, minority peoples speak their own language and may have only limited knowledge of Vietnamese. In urban areas, English is the most widely spoken foreign language, but Chinese, French, and Russian are also spoken.

                Way of life 

Rural life. Most Vietnamese live in small villages in the countryside. Most rural Vietnamese are farmers who organize their lives around the cultivation of crops, especially rice. In general, the family and the village are the centers of social life in rural areas.

Houses in the villages vary. Some have tile roofs and walls made of clay or brick. Others have thatched roofs and walls made of woven bamboo. In the mountains and in areas that flood, houses often stand on stilts.

City life. Many villagers have migrated to the cities in search of jobs and a higher standard of living. However, urban development has not kept pace with immigration from the countryside. As a result, the cities of Vietnam are densely packed and face serious housing shortages. In many cases, two or three generations of a family share a one-room apartment.

Vietnam’s cities bustle with traffic. Bicycles are a popular means of transportation. Cities also have numerous motorcycles and cyclo taxis-three-wheeled, pedaled cycles with a seat in front for carrying passengers. Cafes, food stands, and stalls that sell craftworks, books, clothing, and other items line many urban streets. Architecture in the cities ranges from simple wooden dwellings for the urban poor to elegant colonial villas built by the French to modern high-rise office and apartment buildings.

Urban Vietnamese work in a variety of occupations. For example, some are employed as public officials or work in factories, hotels, or restaurants. Others are merchants who own their own business.

Clothing. The Vietnamese typically wear lightweight clothing. Rural women wear loose-fitting dark pants and blouses that are often embroidered in brilliant colors. Conical hats called non la shield their faces from the sun. In cities, many girls and women wear the traditional ao dai, a long tunic worn with loose-fitting pants. However, a growing number of urban women now wear dresses and skirts. Rural and working-class men typically wear simple shirts and trousers. City men generally wear Western-style clothing.

Members of minority groups often dress in traditional costumes. For example, Hmong women wear blouses and skirts or baggy shorts, with embroidered belts and aprons or long vests. Some roll their hair into a turban, but most wrap their heads with a cloth. Hmong men wear skullcaps, loose trousers, shirts, and a long vest.

Food and drink. The national dish of Vietnam is a noodle soup called pho. This dish consists of long rice noodles and fresh vegetables in a broth with meat or seafood. Many Vietnamese also eat boiled rice with vegetables, tofu (soybean curd), seafood, chicken, pork, or duck. A fish sauce called nuoc mam is used as a seasoning in many dishes. People in central Vietnam often eat beans, corn, cassava, sweet potatoes, or other starchy foods instead of rice.

Green tea is the most popular beverage. Fruit and sugar cane juices, coconut milk, and soft drinks are widely available. In urban areas, cafes and restaurants serve local and imported beer, wine, and liquor. Coffee and long loaves of bread called baguettes, both of which were favorites of the French, are still popular in Vietnam.

Recreation. The Vietnamese, especially children, enjoy swimming in the country’s many lakes and rivers, and in the sea. Vietnamese children also engage in lively games of soccer. Many people play chess or tennis. Competitions involving judo and the martial arts of tae kwon do and kung fu are also popular. Families who can afford to do so vacation at seaside resorts.

Religion. Most Vietnamese practice a combination of the Three Teachings-that is, Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. The country also has a small number of Christians and Muslims. In the south, a religion known as Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao Buddhist sect, both of which originated in Vietnam, have numerous followers. Some people, especially in villages, worship the spirits of animals, plants, and other parts of nature.

Education. Nearly all Vietnamese 15 years of age or older can read and write. For the literacy rate, see LITERACY (table: Literacy rates for selected countries). Children ages 6 through 10 are required to attend school. Schools of higher education in Vietnam include universities, agricultural colleges, technical institutes, and private business academies. The largest are Hanoi University of Technology, Vietnam National University, and Can Tho University. Vocational training is available to adults.

The arts. Traditional Vietnamese forms of art include woodblock printing, woodcarving, lacquerware, ceramics, jade carving, silk painting, and basketry. The Vietnamese are also known for their fine embroidery.

In 1925, the French opened the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine (School of Fine Arts of Indochina) in Hanoi, and Vietnamese artists began to study European-style painting. They started using such materials as oil paints and canvas, painting portraits and scenes of everyday life, and adopting such styles as Cubism and Impressionism. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, a number of artists created works that focused on the resistance to French colonial rule. From the mid-1950’s to the 1970’s, Socialist Realist artists in the North created paintings that celebrated combat and glorified work.

After the reunification of Vietnam in the mid-1970’s to the mid-1980’s, art continued to serve mainly a social and political purpose. Since the mid-1980’s, however, Vietnamese art has become more open, and paintings now include a variety of styles and subjects. The country’s best-known artists include Bui Xuan Phai, known for his Hanoi street scenes; Nguyen Tu Nghiem, whose subjects come from mythology and folklore; Nguyen Sang, who creates paintings of village people; and Do Quang Em, noted for his realistic still lifes and portraits.

Traditional Vietnamese musical instruments include a variety of string, wind, and percussion instruments. Among them are the dan nhi, a kind of two-stringed fiddle; the dan tranh, a 16-string zither; the dan nguyet, a long-necked lute; the dan ty ba, a pear-shaped lute; the dan tam, a three-stringed banjo; the sao, a bamboo flute; the trong com, a barrel-shaped drum; and the chieng, a gong.

Vietnam has a long tradition of oral literature. The nation’s first great writer was Nguyen Trai, who lived in the late 1300’s and early 1400’s. He became famous as a pioneer of chu nom-a form of Vietnamese written in modified Chinese characters. Literature written in Vietnamese began to appear around the 1600’s. Truyen Kieu (The Tale of Kieu), a long poem written by Nguyen Du in the early 1800’s, ranks as one of the greatest works in the Vietnamese language. Although a love story, the poem also reflects the struggles of the society of Nguyen Du’s time.

Authors of the late 1900’s and early 2000’s include Duong Thu Huong, known for her novels Paradise of the Blind (1988) and Novel Without a Name (1991); Bao Ninh, whose most famous work is the novel The Sorrow of War (1991); and the short-story writer Nguyen Huy Thiep, some of whose works have been collected in The General Retires and Other Stories (1988).

                The land 

Vietnam is an S-shaped country that occupies the rugged eastern Indochinese Peninsula. Four-fifths of the country is covered by hills, plateaus, and mountains. The coastline borders on the South China Sea and extends more than 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Gulf of Thailand. Geographers typically divide Vietnam into three regions: northern, central, and southern.

Northern Vietnam extends from the border with China in the north to about Thanh Hoa in the south. This region is dominated by the Red River Delta, the most densely populated center of agricultural production in Vietnam. The triangular delta is the heartland of Vietnamese civilization, and the capital city of Hanoi is there.

Northern Vietnam also includes the mountains of the north and northwest. Vietnam’s highest mountain is Fan Si Pan, also spelled Phan Xi Pang. It rises to 10,312 feet (3,143 meters) in northwestern Vietnam.

Central Vietnam is the most mountainous of the country’s three regions. The Annamite Range, also known as the Truong Son mountains, dominates this area. The Central Highlands lie to the south. Poor soil makes farming difficult in central Vietnam. However, rich soil is available in the lowlands along the coast and a few plateaus in the Central Highlands.

Southern Vietnam. The Mekong River in the southern part of Vietnam forms the country’s largest network of agricultural plains. As a result, the Mekong Delta is often referred to as the “rice bowl” of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly named Saigon, is the region’s major urban center and the country’s economic hub.


Vietnam has a tropical climate with high humidity. Monsoons (seasonal winds) affect the weather throughout the year. The summer monsoon brings heavy rains from the southwest. The winter monsoon brings lighter rainfall from the northeast. Most of Vietnam has two seasons-a wet, hot summer and a drier, slightly cooler winter.

In Hanoi, in northern Vietnam, the average temperature is about 63 °F (17 °C) in January and about 85 °F (29 °C) in June. From May to October, the Red River Delta has high temperatures, heavy rains, and some typhoons, which sweep across the Gulf of Tonkin. Hanoi receives about 68 inches (173 centimeters) of rainfall a year.

In southern Vietnam, most rain falls in summer. The Ho Chi Minh City area receives about 70 inches (180 centimeters) of rain between May and October. From November through February, the weather is cooler with little rain. Average temperatures there range from about 79 °F (26 °C) in December to about 86 °F (30 °C) in April.

Central Vietnam has the greatest temperature range and includes the driest and the wettest regions of the country. Typhoons often strike the central coast. Mountain areas generally have lower temperatures and less rainfall than the delta regions and the coastal lowlands.


From 1976 to 1986, the state owned all banks and factories in Vietnam and controlled nearly every sector of the economy. During that period, the economy steadily declined. In 1986, however, Vietnamese leaders began adopting a series of far-reaching economic changes known as doi moi (renovation). These changes were designed to restore some economic power to the private sector. Under doi moi, for example, farmers who had satisfied their obligations to the state were allowed to produce for the market. Some state-run industries that had operated at a loss for a decade or more were dismantled. Vietnam also began to welcome foreign investment in the form of direct loans and joint ventures.

Agriculture is the leading economic activity in Vietnam. Rice is the chief crop. Most Vietnamese farmers practice wet-rice agriculture, in which rice is grown on irrigated paddies. This farming method requires much labor but produces high yields. Vietnamese farmers also cultivate cashews, a root crop called cassava, corn, peanuts, and sweet potatoes. Bananas, coconuts, melons, and other fruits are also grown. Many farmers raise animals, especially chickens, ducks, and hogs. Industrial crops, such as coffee, rubber, sugar cane, tea, and tobacco, are cultivated on large plantations.

Manufacturing. Textile production is the leading manufacturing industry in Vietnam. The country also produces cement, chemical fertilizers, glass, shoes, steel, and tires. Factories manufacture various household goods, including bicycles and televisions. Most of Vietnam’s industrial development is in the south. Ho Chi Minh City has a number of high-tech industries.

Mining. Vietnam is rich in mineral resources. Its coal fields, most of which are in the north, have tremendous reserves. The country also has large deposits of chromite, copper, gold, iron ore, lead, phosphate, tin, and zinc. Bauxite, the basic ingredient of aluminum, is also mined. An abundance of limestone contributes to a thriving cement industry. Vast deposits of silica supply the basis for the manufacture of glass. The country also has extensive reserves of petroleum and natural gas, mainly offshore.

Fishing industry. With Vietnam’s long coastline and many lakes and rivers, fishing has always played an important role in the economy. Vietnamese fishing crews catch a variety of fish and shellfish. Seafood processing is normally carried out in large plants. Vietnam is rapidly becoming one of the world’s leading producers of processed shrimp.

Service industries are those industries that provide services rather than produce manufactured goods or agricultural products. Many Vietnamese work in service industries as barbers, clerks, computer technicians, construction workers, drivers of cyclo taxis, hairdressers, housekeepers in hotels, and waiters in restaurants.

International trade. Vietnam’s chief exports include clothing and textiles, coffee, fish and shellfish, petroleum, rice, rubber, shoes, and tea. Its main imports include cotton, fertilizer, machinery and equipment, motorcycles, petroleum products, and steel products. Vietnam’s chief trading partners are Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan.

Transportation and communication. Bicycles and motorcycles are popular forms of transportation in Vietnam. Many people also ride buses. The nation’s rivers are widely used to transport goods and people. Vietnam has about 62,000 miles (100,000 kilometers) of roads, though only about a fourth of them are paved.

A railroad network connects the major cities of the Red River and Mekong deltas and cities along the coast. However, much of the system was damaged by bombs during the Vietnam War and remains in disrepair. Vietnam’s chief ports include Da Nang, Haiphong, and Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have international airports.

Several daily newspapers are published in Vietnam. The government controls all newspapers, magazines, and television and radio broadcasts.


People have lived in what is now Vietnam since prehistoric times. Archaeologists have discovered remains of a stone age culture dating back about 500,000 years in the province of Thanh Hoa. Agriculture developed in northern Vietnam more than 7,000 years ago.

About 5,000 years ago, a kingdom called Van Lang emerged in the Black and Red river valleys under the rule of the Hung kings. One of the most important cultures of Van Lang, the Dong Son civilization, flourished in the valleys of the Red and Ma rivers from about 800 to 300 B.C. This civilization is known mainly for its elaborately decorated bronze drums.

Nam Viet. In 258 B.C., a leader named An Duong founded the kingdom of Au Lac. In 207 B.C., an official of China’s Qin dynasty named Zhao Tuo (Trieu Da in Vietnamese) founded the kingdom of Nam Viet. Nam Viet included Au Lac and several other kingdoms in what is now northern Vietnam. In 111 B.C., the Chinese Han dynasty conquered Nam Viet. Through the centuries, many Vietnamese resisted Chinese rule. But not until A.D. 939, as a result of a rebellion led by Ngo Quyen, did the Vietnamese gain independence.

Despite the centuries of Chinese occupation, many aspects of Vietnamese culture remained in place, but new patterns also emerged. Specifically, the rise of a mixed Chinese and Vietnamese ruling class ensured the lasting importance of Chinese writing, even though the Vietnamese continued to speak their own language. Chinese ideas of historical writing also had an enormous impact on how Vietnamese historians represented their past. Vietnamese officials sometimes adopted Chinese administrative practices. The Three Teachings-Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism-are another legacy of Chinese rule.

Independence. After Ngo Quyen’s death in 944, Vietnam was troubled by succession disputes and the competition of war lords. These troubles ended with the establishment of the Dinh dynasty in 968, though the dynasty lasted only 12 years. The succeeding dynasty, established in 980, lasted only until 1009. Two long-lasting dynasties, the Ly (1009-1225) and the Tran (1225-1400), stabilized politics.

In 1400, Ho Quy Ly seized the Vietnamese throne, and in 1407, the Ming Chinese invaded the country and took control. In 1428, Le Loi drove out the Chinese rulers and established the Le dynasty. Under the Le rulers, the Vietnamese empire continued the process of Nam Tien (Advance to the South). During the 1400’s, for example, the Vietnamese conquered Champa, a rival kingdom in what is now central Vietnam.

In 1527, the Mac dynasty overthrew the Le dynasty, and, in 1540, was formally recognized by the Ming Chinese. Le forces regained control over central Vietnam in 1545 and northern Vietnam in 1592. However, Mac forces continued to fight against the Le for more than 35 years.

During the mid-1500’s, Vietnamese politics became further fragmented as the Trinh and Nguyen families, the two clans closest to the Le court, drifted apart. By 1600, the country was effectively divided, and the Le kept control in name only. Even though the Ming Chinese had recognized the Le dynasty as ruler of Vietnam, the Trinh lords actually governed the north and the Nguyen lords were in charge of the south. In the 1600’s, the rivalry between these two clans occasionally erupted into armed conflict.

The Nguyen lords continued their expansion to the south until 1771. That year, three brothers from the region of Tay Son in central Vietnam began a series of successful attacks against Nguyen rule. This upheaval, known as the Tay Son Rebellion, resulted in the collapse of Nguyen power in the south, Trinh power in the north, and, in 1788, the end of the Le dynasty. After defending Vietnam against an invasion of Qing Chinese troops in 1789, the Tay Son dynasty tried to consolidate its rule over all of what is now Vietnam.

In 1802, Nguyen Anh became the first emperor of the Nguyen dynasty. He took the reign name of Gia Long. He united the country and called it Vietnam. The Nguyen dynasty, Vietnam’s last, established its capital in Hue. It formally ended in 1945.

French rule. In 1858, French warships captured the city of Da Nang. The French claimed that they were protecting Jesuit missionaries and Vietnamese who had converted to Roman Catholicism. By continuing the armed attacks and through diplomatic pressure, France succeeded in taking control of the southern part of Vietnam, known then as Cochin China, in the 1860’s. In the 1880’s, France took control of the northern (Tonkin) and central (Annam) parts of Vietnam. With the conquest of Cambodia in the 1860’s and of Laos in the 1890’s, French control of Indochina was complete.

The French were principally interested in Vietnam and the surrounding area as a base for trading with China. They also hoped to exploit the mineral wealth of Vietnam and to establish plantations for coffee, rubber, and tea. To help carry out these plans, the French built roads and railways, which linked the lowlands, the midlands, and the mountains. They also expanded port facilities.

Under French rule, the traditional Vietnamese ruling class withdrew from public life, and a new French-Vietnamese ruling class emerged. The romanized written version of Vietnamese known as quoc ngu also became more prominent in private and public affairs.

Through the years, Vietnamese resistance to French rule grew. Various nationalist associations and societies emerged, as did a number of political parties. These parties included the Vietnamese Nationalist Party, Indochinese Communist Party, and the New Vietnamese Revolutionary Party.

The August Revolution of 1945. In August 1940, during World War II (1939-1945), France’s wartime Vichy government granted Japan permission to use northern Vietnam for military operations. When Japanese troops advanced into other Southeast Asian colonies of European powers, they took control over the colonial governments. In Vietnam, the Japanese at first allowed French officials to continue to carry out their administrative duties. In March 1945, however, the Japanese ousted the French officials.

Initially, most Vietnamese had welcomed the Japanese, expecting that they would free Vietnam from French rule. When it seemed that Japan was also a threat to their independence, however, many Vietnamese reconsidered their plans to join with the Japanese to fight the French. One result of such reconsideration was the creation of an organization called the Vietminh in 1941. Established by Ho Chi Minh and other leaders of the Indochinese Communist Party, the Vietminh was designed to encourage national unity and independence.

Japan agreed to surrender on Aug. 14, 1945. Within days, anticolonial activists in Vietnam staged the August Revolution. On September 2, Ho recited Vietnam’s declaration of independence, in which he quoted directly from the American Declaration of Independence. Ho and other revolutionary leaders expected that the United States would support the new postcolonial state-the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). They believed that they would receive such support for a number of reasons. For instance, the United States had gained its own independence through a revolution. The United States had also criticized European colonialism for most of the 1900’s. In addition, the Vietminh had cooperated with U.S. diplomatic and military personnel during World War II. However, the DRV never received U.S. support, mainly because of U.S. opposition to Communism.

The First Indochina War. After World War II, France tried to reclaim its former colonies in Southeast Asia. In 1946, war broke out between France and the Vietminh. Throughout the war, the French controlled cities in north and south Vietnam. The revolutionaries, based in the mountains of the north and northwest, controlled most of the countryside. Many southern Vietnamese rejected the idea of a Communist-dominated government and sided with the French. By mid-1949, the French had formed the Associated State of Vietnam to oppose the Vietminh. Bao Dai, the last of the Nguyen emperors, headed the government of the Associated State. The fighting in Vietnam ended in May 1954, when the Vietminh overwhelmed the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.

Fearing the growth of Communism, the United States began in 1948 to channel aid to the countries of Western Europe to help them rebuild after the devastation of World War II. The assistance provided by the Marshall Plan made it possible for France to rebuild and to continue fighting the war in Vietnam. Further expressing its support for the French attempt to reconquer Vietnam, the United States formally recognized the Associated State of Vietnam in 1950.

During the final stages of the First Indochina War, negotiators representing nine countries-Cambodia, China, France, Laos, the United Kingdom, the United States, the Soviet Union, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and the Associated State of Vietnam-assembled in Geneva, Switzerland. In July 1954, the representatives produced a series of agreements known as the Geneva Accords. One of these agreements provided that Vietnam be temporarily divided into northern and southern zones at the 17th parallel. Another agreement called for an election in 1956 to unify the country. Fearing that Ho Chi Minh would win such an election, however, southern Vietnamese, with U.S. support, refused to participate. The election was never held.

The Vietnam War began in 1957. It is sometimes called the Second Indochina War, and Vietnamese know it as the American War. Communist-supported rebels in the South began a revolt against the government of Ngo Dinh Diem, who was backed by the United States. United States military and civilian advisers then rushed to aid South Vietnam. Through the years, South Vietnam received extensive assistance from the United States, including cash, military equipment, and more than 500,000 troops. Despite this aid, South Vietnam failed to shape itself into a popularly supported, non-Communist state. In April 1975, the People’s Army of North Vietnam launched an offensive that resulted in the complete collapse of Southern power.

The Vietnam War caused enormous destruction. In its attempt to block the transfer of supplies from the North to the South, the United States dropped tons of chemicals on the jungles and forests of central Vietnam. Parts of the country remained barren of vegetation for many years afterwards. The U.S. forces also destroyed many rice fields and villages. The Vietnam War resulted in the deaths of millions of Vietnamese, many of them civilians. More than 58,000 American military personnel also lost their lives. For a detailed discussion of the war, see VIETNAM WAR.

Postwar Vietnam. In April 1976, national elections determined the nearly 500 members of the new National Assembly for a reunited Vietnam. In July, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was officially proclaimed. In the process of establishing a single state, leaders of the new government sought out supporters of the former South Vietnamese government. According to official sources, more than 1 million southerners were subjected to some form of “reeducation” in the political culture of the North. For most of these people, this process took several days or weeks. But thousands of others, viewed as greater threats, spent a decade or more in labor camps.

Following reunification, thousands of northerners resettled in the south. As a consequence, the northern dialect of Vietnamese is now regarded officially as standard Vietnamese. In addition, the government has taken thousands of Kinh from the deltas and relocated them in the highlands and mountains.

With the collapse of the Southern regime, many Vietnamese fled the country. They settled in the United States, Canada, and Australia, or joined earlier generations of exiles in Belgium and France. Following the government’s nationalization of industries, tens of thousands of ethnic Chinese also left the country.

Many refugees left Vietnam in small boats, risking drowning and pirate attacks in the South China Sea. These refugees became known as boat people. They went to other countries in Southeast Asia, where they stayed in refugee camps until they could be relocated. Many later moved to the United States. In the mid-1990’s, the United Nations and countries that housed or helped pay for the camps closed nearly all of them. Most of the remaining refugees were sent back to Vietnam.

Invasion of Cambodia. In 1978, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. It replaced Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge Communist government with a pro-Vietnamese Communist government. The Khmer Rouge and non-Communist groups then fought against the government and the Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. Vietnam gradually withdrew its troops in the 1980’s, and the war ended in 1991.

Recent developments. In the late 1980’s, the Vietnamese government began a program of economic restructuring known as doi moi. This program encouraged some forms of private enterprise and competition as well as foreign investment. In early July 1995, Vietnam and the United States established diplomatic ties. Later that month, Vietnam became a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional organization that promotes political, economic, cultural, and social cooperation among its members. In July 2000, Vietnam and the United States signed a trade agreement. This pact cleared the way for normal trade relations between the two countries for the first time since the Vietnam War.”

Contributor: Patricia M. Pelley, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History, Texas Tech University.


What is considered the leading force in the state and society in Vietnam?

What are the Three Teachings?

What nation controlled Vietnam during World War II?

How did the opening of the Ecole des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine affect Vietnamese art?

What was the importance of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu?

What is the chief crop of Vietnam?

What are the largest minority groups in Vietnam?

Why did Ho Chi Minh and other Vietnamese leaders expect the United States to support the Democratic Republic of Vietnam?

What is pho? Nuoc mam? Doi moi?

What area is the heartland of Vietnamese civilization?

                Additional resources

Cole, Wendy M. Vietnam. Rev. ed. Chelsea Hse., 1999. Younger readers.

Duiker, William J. Historical Dictionary of Vietnam. 2nd ed. Scarecrow, 1998.

Kamm, Henry. Dragon Ascending: Vietnam and the Vietnamese. Arcade, 1996.

Larimer, Tim, and Forbes, Andrew, eds. Insight Guide: Vietnam. Rev. ed. APA Pubns., 1998.

Sar Desai, D. R. Vietnam: Past and Present. 3rd ed. Westview, 1998.


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Buddha-Dharma-Sangha History


Confucianism, also known as Ruism, is a system of thought and behavior originating in ancient China. Variously described as tradition, a philosophy, a religion, a humanistic or rationalistic religion, a way of governing, or simply a way of life,[1] Confucianism developed from what was later called the Hundred Schools of Thought from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE).” (WP)

“Confucianism is a Chinese religion based on the teachings of Confucius, a philosopher who died about 479 B.C. Confucianism has no organization or clergy. It does not teach a belief in a deity or in the existence of life after death. Confucianism stresses moral and political ideas. It emphasizes respect for ancestors and government authority and teaches that rulers must govern according to high moral standards.

Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism have been the major religions in China. However, Confucianism has had the greatest impact on Chinese society. Confucianism was the state religion of China from the 100’s B.C. until the A.D. 1900’s. Chinese rulers approved of its emphasis on respect for authority and dedication to public service. Confucian scriptures called the Five Classics and Four Books served as the foundation of the Chinese educational system for centuries. Candidates applying for government jobs had to pass examinations based on these scriptures.

Beginning in the 1000’s, a more philosophical approach to Confucianism known as Neo-Confucianism became widely popular. Neo-Confucianism also influenced Japanese moral codes and philosophy from the 1600’s through the 1800’s.

In 1949, the Chinese Communists gained control of China. The government officially condemned Confucianism, as well as other religions. As a result, most followers lived outside mainland China, especially in Taiwan. In the late 1970’s, however, the Communist government relaxed its policy against religion, and so Confucianism has enjoyed a revival on the mainland.”

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