What is the Form of Buddhism?

The Form of Buddhism is the “religious” side of Buddhism: the history, institutions, rituals and externalities that socially define the religion.

Whether Buddhism even is a “religion” at all is, of course, a matter of some controversy. Is it a philosophy? A movement? A practice? An aesthetic? Who even counts as “a Buddhist”?

In defining the bounds of “who is Buddhist”, some “middle way” may be desirable, between:

  1. The conservative, “prescriptive” definition (the Buddha once said that only enlightened beings count as his followers!)
  2. And the completely liberal, “historical” definition (the Buddha’s life has materially impacted everything from ancient trade routes, to Islamic art, Christian conflicts, IKEA designs, software engineering practices… nearly every human life today)

In searching for such a middle way, I take on Bhante Yuttadhammo’s definition of Religion here, and say that “Religion is whatever you take seriously.”

The forms of Buddhism, then, are the various ways that people have looked back to the Buddha for guidance and inspiration, and the many ways they have found to reshape their lives in response to what they’ve seen.


This course assumes some familiarity with the fundamentals of Buddhism.

Course Outline

This course proceeds in three parts: history, community, and practice.

The history portion of the course is the longest and describes the entire history of Buddhism. The second section analyzes this history to highlight the role of the monastic community, and the third section zooms all the way in to the individual practices.


On forms and the formless.

On Science Religion and Culture – Bhante Yuttadhammo (pdf)
  • Here we get Bhante Yuttadhammo’s definition of religion which I referenced earlier, and his introductory thoughts on the cultural forms of Buddhism.
  • Bhante Yuttadhammo then gives us his thoughts on the essence of Buddhism.

Part 1: History


Your main text for this third of the class is the excellent book by Robinson et al:

The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction – Richard Robinson, Willard L. Johnson, and Ajahn Geoff Ṭhānissaro

Note: there are a few editions of this book. I have taken my chapter numbers below from the fourth edition. My apologies if your chapter numbers vary from mine and I hope you can figure out the mapping anyway.

Supplementary Material to Robinson

As you read through Robinson, please also consider the following:

Parallel to Robinson Ch 1: Awakening

  • The Buddha tells the story of his own quest for Awakening, and encourages us to seek that which is not subject to death.
  • The language of this translation is old, and the myth even older. If it is too archaic for you, no worries! It’s included here just to give you a taste of the ancient texts.

Parallel to Robinson Ch 2: Teacher

  • An Introduction to Buddhist History
  • “Stupas” are mentioned as sites of worship even in the earliest texts and archeology as the burial sites of great leaders. This paper shows what those looked like, from ancient India to modern Burma.

Parallel to Robinson chapter 3: “Development”

  • Buddhism is not an especially evangelical religion. This paper explores the unique (compared to other religions) way that Buddhism spread.
  • The early Buddhists of ancient India did not represent the Buddha with anthropomorphic statues as is ubiquitous now. This essay explores the symbols and objects that were venerated in the early period after the Buddha’s death.

Chapter 4: “The Rise of Mahayana”

  • In this essay, Bhikkhu Bodhi explores the Bodhisattva ideal from the perspective of the Theravada and Mahayana.

Chapter 5: “The Pantheon”

the deed in the early text [MN135] is simply stated to be the killing, or refraining from killing, of living beings, and so on. The specific types of actions, and their approval are not mentioned. In the [later] Sanskrit text we get a list of normally around ten causes that lead to the result, many of which are illustrated

In the centuries after the Buddha, many of the subtleties of karma were simplified for didactic expedience. This led to a formulaic, “if you do this, this will happen to you” understanding of karma (which the Buddha himself rejected as fatalistic). This model came to be repeated ad-infinitum in texts (such as the Karma-Vibanga) and in Buddhist art (such as at Borobudur) for millennia, perpetuating a simplistic, “popular” understanding of Karma which persists today.

when counterfeit dhamma appears, the true Dhamma disappears, in the same way that when counterfeit money appears, true money disappears.

As Buddhism spread around Asia, many new teachings were introduced, and some of them miss the mark. Today, as all remaining traditions have their share of shady teachers, deity cults, and doctrinal confusion, Ajahn Geoff reminds us that we have to be discerning where we place our faith.

After Chapter 6 of Robinson on “Vajrayana”

  • One story, five countries.
  • Shows how each nation where Buddhism spread adapted the Indic mythology to explain their own local conditions, and gives us a fascinating window into the spread of Buddhism across Asia.

Parallel to Robinson Chapters 7 and 8 on Sri Lanka and China

Let us now take a brief listen to two Buddhists (one Sri Lankan and the other Chinese) chanting themselves to bed. Though not typical of evening services, these two rare recordings capture, for me, something of the beauty of these two traditions:

  • First, we have this extraordinary recording of a boy in Sri Lanka spontaneously remembering how he chanted Pāli in a past life.
Drums and Bells – Qing De Monastery (mp3)
  • A monk at a lonely temple, deep in the mountains of Taiwan, says goodbye to the day with drum and bell.

Robinson Chapter 10: Japan

From the iconic period to the modern day in a few minutes. A very short introduction to Buddhist Art.

Robinson Chapter 11: Tibet

  • Now that we’ve covered all the “traditional” forms of Buddhism, we can take a closer look at one particular element of cultural Buddhism that has been surprisingly ubiquitous across Buddhist cultures: misogyny.
  • Allison Goodwin gives a brief outline of the discrimination faced by women in Buddhism, and a thoroughly cited argument for rejecting sexist views, even those that appear in the Buddhist Canon.

Robinson Chapter 12: “Buddhism Comes West”

  • A brief look back at Altruism, and one tiny example of Western Philosophy grappling with Buddhism.
  • As the Dhamma comes West, and globalization connects us all, we have a unique opportunity now to bridge the gaps that history and geography created… but only if we choose to do so.

In conclusion: History is now ours to make!

Part 2: The Sangha

Zooming in slightly from the historical perspective, we next turn our attention to the dynamics of individual Buddhist communities.


  • Bhante Sujato starts by asking why Buddhism died out in India, and what factors will lead to the end of our own (present day) “Buddhist Utopia”
  • Joseph Goldstein reads the Buddha’s own take on “the entire spiritual life.”
  • A beautiful sermon on the value of monasticism.
  • Thanissaro Bhikkhu explains the relationship between the monastic sangha and the laity in brief.
  • A paper on how the flourishing of the monastic community affects everyone around them.

Main Text

The Monastic Sangha is both training ground and dwelling place for the Noble Sangha, much like a university is both a training ground and a dwelling place for scholars.

Given the thousands of years separating us from the Buddha, Bhikkhu Cintita asks the excellent question of how it is that Buddhism has survived so well across time and cultures, and then uses this theory to ponder how modern, Western practitioners should approach this question of “Sasana.” An excellent and rare introduction to the sociology of Buddhism “from the inside,” this book is a must-read.

Part 3: Personal Practice

The last third of our class tackles the more prescriptive, “micro” question of our own, individual practice: What should one do to be a Buddhist?


A straightforward and practical guide, this book gives detailed descriptions and explanations for the most important religious practices for lay Buddhists. Good reading for anthropologists of Buddhism, for those who have recently converted, or those who are thinking about it, this book is absolutely essential and remains my first recommendation for learning how to be a Buddhist.


We have two supplements for Khantipalo:

Taking Refuge

Listen to this alongside the section of Khantipalo about refuge and the triple gem:

Becoming Buddhist – Bhante Yuttadhammo (m4a)
  • Bhante Yuttadhammo talks about what it means to be a Buddhist, and how to think about “taking refuge”
Practicing Restraint

A few more words are also due on the subject of restraint, beyond the five precepts. Please consider this alongside the section on “practice”

  • Explains the three primary duties of a monk: guarding the senses, moderation in eating, and the devotion to wakefulness.
  • What monastic behaviors and vows do you know about already? How do the monastic and “eight precept” observances help with these three duties? What do you think is their benefit? Can lay Buddhists practice these? Should they?

Praxis Conclusion

Conclusion to the Class

  • Ajahn Brahm reminds us, in his light-hearted way, that for all the traditions and books, real knowledge comes from meditation (or, as Bhikkhu Cintita put it, the joke is passed on to make us laugh).
  • It’s common in many Buddhist cultures to end a meritorious event or auspicious occasion with a short dedication. Here is a typical such prayer from the Tibetan Tradition.

Further Reading


Just as the sun is valued not only for its own intrinsic radiance but also for its ability to illuminate the world, so the brilliance of the Buddha is determined not only by the clarity of his Teaching but by his ability to illuminate those who came to him for refuge


You will experience many sensual pleasures in your life: food, music, sex and zombie movies. You should become aware as well of the great joy, a pleasure beyond the sensual, that comes with generosity. Become aware that this joy is greatest when your intentions are purest, when the recipients of your generosity are worthy and when the manner of giving is proper. This joy is the direct experience of the merit you have earned.

Canonical Works

beings are intoxicated with life and engage in misconduct by body, speech, and mind. But when one often reflects upon [death], the intoxication with life is diminished.

And how is a mendicant not skilled in characteristics? It’s when a mendicant doesn’t understand that a fool is characterized by their deeds



On separating out early from later Buddhism and why it matters.


There’s always something we can do to progress towards Awakening. And it’s something that has benefits all along the way.

or check out our other courses to continue your studies!