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 familiarity with the fundamentals of Buddhism, but no worries if you’re rusty: you’ll get a refresher below.

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) (.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: The Sociology and History of Buddhism


There are two textbooks for this first part of the course:


Let us start off by reading Chapter 1 (“Towards a Definition”) of Aspects of Early Buddhist Sociological Thought to round off our discussion of how Buddhism can be defined as a “religion” and how it may relate to other concepts you’ve heard of.

  • For a refresher on the basics of Buddhism, I recommend skimming this Q&A with Thubten Chodron before we dive into the more detailed history below.

Supplementary Material to Robinson

As you read through Robinson et al’s Historical Introduction one chapter at a time, please also consider:

Parallel to Robinson Ch 1: Awakening
  • The Buddha was a real, historical figure, but many of the stories about his life are myths still expanding today.
  • What do the ancient texts say about the Buddha?
  • Here, the Buddha tells his own story, and encourages us to also seek the deathless.
  • If the language of this translation is too archaic for you, no worries! It’s included here just to give you a taste of the ancient texts.

Aspects (of Early Buddhist Sociological Thought) Chapter 2: Dhamma, Medicine and Sociology

  • This chapter introduces us to the central metaphor of Buddhism as a medical science, and the social implications of that framing.
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.
  • They’re beautiful, aren’t they? But what do they mean?
  • While the Christians have the cross and the Jews the star, the Buddhists have the wheel as the symbol of their religion. But where did this wheel come from and what does it mean?

Aspects (of Early Buddhist Sociological Thought) Chapter 3: Significance of Buddhist Chanting

  • Even in the Buddha’s time, monks would recite the teachings verbatim to acclimate to them and keep them in mind. Over time, this chanting became seen as apotropaic and was therefore ritualized quite early on. Today, chanting features prominently across Buddhist traditions and practices.
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.
  • One such object which became notably ubiquitous across Buddhist cultures is the lotus flower. This article explores the ancient origins and meaning of this potent symbol.
  • And this essay commends the virtues of offering flowers: a lovely practice still common across Buddhist Asia

Aspects Chapter 5 (we’ll come back to 4 later): Buddhist Art Symbols For Religious Edification

  • Art, offerings and other public devotions provided early (and current) Buddhists with an effective, yet soft, way to spread the religion.
Chapter 4: “The Rise of Mahayana”
  • In this essay, Bhikkhu Bodhi explores the Bodhisattva ideal from the perspective of the Theravada and Mahayana.

Aspects Chapter 4 (as promised): Aesthetics

  • Aesthetics was actually a major point of departure for the Early Mahayana, who rejected the cold austerity of the Abhidhamma in favor of more beautiful expressions of enlightened wisdom.
Chapter 5: “The Pantheon”
  • 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) that came to be repeated ad-infinitum in texts (such as the Karma-Vibanga) and in Buddhist art (such as, here, at Borobudur) for millennia, perpetuating a (mis)understanding of Karma which has persisted to today.
  • But, as Buddhism became more popular and spread around and out of India, it also picked up an artistic and mythological richness that textured and enlivened the tradition. Indeed, Buddhism’s ability to embrace and contextualize local mythology has long been a key to its ability to spread peacefully.
  • The story behind this ancient, Buddhist statue.
  • Such foreign converts often yearned for a solid connection back to the Buddha. One common expression of this was the creation and authentication of local “souvenirs” which also play a prominent role in popular Buddhism to this day.
  • In addition to new relics and stories explaining them, many new teachings were also introduced. Today, as all the remaining traditions have picked up their fair share of shady teachers, deity cults, and doctrinal confusion, Ajahn Geoff reminds us that we have to be discerning about where we place our faith.

Aspects Chapter 6: Socialization for Death

  • What effect does Buddhism’s encouragement to reflect on death and impermanence have on how Buddhists perceive the cosmos, life, and the religion itself?
After Chapter 6 of Robinson on “Vajrayana”
  • Taking an important role during the later development of Buddhist art and esoterica, mudras such as the “Anjali” of respect are now ubiquitous in the Buddhist cultural sphere, and are nearly synonymous with Buddhism itself.
  • 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.

Aspects Chapter 7: Social Conflict

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

As we transition to more contemporary forms of Buddhism, let us set aside Aspects of Early Buddhist Sociological Thought for now, and take a brief listen to two Buddhists (one Sri Lankan and the other Chinese) chanting themselves to bed. Though not typical of their traditions’ evening services, these two rare recordings capture, for me, something of their beauty:

  • First, we have this extraordinary recording of a boy in Sri Lanka spontaneously remembering how he chanted Pāli in a past life.
  • A monk at a lonely temple, deep in the mountains of Taiwan, says goodbye to the day with drum and bell.
Robinson Chapter 9: Korea and Vietnam
  • What does a Chinese monk’s pilgrimage to Sri Lanka have to do with Korea?
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.

Aspects (of Buddhist Sociological Thought) Chapter 8: Women’s Social Role

  • We (finally) return to Aspects’ final chapter for a look at how the Buddha originally taught women.
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.

And with that, we’re now finished with Part 1 of our course! History is now yours 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.
  • A video about a community coming together to make ten thousand Buddha statues by hand.
  • 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.
  • An inspiring talk to a group of monastics, encouraging them to set a good example for their guests.

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:

  • 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


A period of disorientation or depression is a small price to pay for more accurate knowledge.

The brahmins would indeed take umbrage at being closely associated with the officiant, because the very fact of his being there as an officiant means that he is doing a paid job and so lowers his status below theirs. [The brahmins, in contrast,] have no duties; they are gracing the occasion.

the evidence found in early printed liturgical booklets that promote Buddha-vandanā points to a different kind of modernization. This article reveals how Buddhist activists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries made use of the capabilities presented in the colonial context, including print technology, to promote this devotional ritual practice as a principal marker of a newly constructed Buddhist identity.


Textual fundamentalism requires texts.

Are there such things as “evil beings” in Buddhism?

A talk delivered at the Bodhi Tree in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka on the importance of symbols in Buddhism.

A community of American Chinese Buddhists honors their past master by replicating one of his signature feats.

To understand Buddhism, one must understand the tension between the knowledge of impermanence and the love of the Dharma. This sense of loss has defined Buddhism from the Buddha’s Parinirvana through to the present day.

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

Don’t try to be someone else


This book is intended to provide an introduction to the teachings of the Buddha which will shed some light on a subject that, to non-Buddhists, can appear both unexpectedly rational and exotically strange.

Canonical Works

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




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

When examined closely, the doctrines of the schools cannot be explained away as simplistic errors or alien infiltrations or deliberate corruptions. It would then follow that more sympathetic and gentle perspectives on the schools are likely to be more objective

Advanced Courses

The Function of Buddhism
What does the Buddhist life have to do with the path, anyway? How does the form support its function? Bhikkhus Cintita and Yuttadhammo guide us through these questions and more in this course introducing the heart of the Buddha-Dharma.
or feel free to check out any of our University's other fine offerings.