One of the two largest Buddha statues in Japan, in Kamakura near Tokyo (photo by Jamie Marconi).

Buddhism, a system of beliefs, meditation and ethics, is considered a major world religion, but in some senses is better described as a philosophy or a transformative teaching. Unlike many religions, Buddhism does not acknowledge a god or gods, an eternal human soul, or a need for salvation; rather, it is essentially concerned with helping its followers attain freedom from the cycle of suffering (called “samsara”). Many adherents hold to Buddhist beliefs alongside other religious or philosophical teachings (such as Taoism, Confucianism or Shintoism). Today, Buddhism is broadly divided into two or three main branches, but within those branches there are many different traditions and practices, due largely to the way Buddhism developed in different countries and cultures over hundreds of years.

Origins and Teachings of Buddhism

Buddhism began in India around 500 BC with Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a ruler, who sought spiritual enlightenment or awakening. First he studied with various religious teachers, and then followed an ascetic life of extreme deprivation; but neither led to an end of the suffering Gautama recognized as central to human existence. Renouncing these earlier approaches, Gautama began to follow the “middle way” and achieved enlightenment, becoming Buddha the Awakened One.

The “middle path” of moderation in all things is an important aspect of Buddhism, as are the “four noble truths”: suffering exists; suffering is caused by desires; suffering will cease when desires cease; and there are eight ways to end desires and therefore suffering, achieving nirvana. These eight ways are the path of the Buddha and include purposeful ways of thinking, speaking and acting. The Buddha himself, his teachings (dharma, literally “support system”) and the community of his followers (sangha) are the “three jewels” that are foundational for the guidance of Buddhists.

Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism

After Gautama Buddha’s death, his teachings spread, but different interpretations and traditions arose. Theravada Buddhism is one of the main branches of Buddhism; it focuses on following the spiritual practices that led Gautama to awakening, and is prevalent in Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, as well as being followed by a minority of Buddhists in other areas. It was founded in India and is the oldest surviving school of Buddhist thought. Mahayana is another main branch; it stresses the experience of awakening and compassion. It spread from India to Central Asia and China, and from there to Korea, Vietnam, Japan and other East Asian countries as well as to Tibet and Mongolia. Within both branches there are many different traditions. Mahayana Buddhism, for example, includes Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren and Tibetan Buddhism, among others. Vajrayana, which is practiced especially in Tibet and Mongolia, is sometimes considered a variation of Mahayana Buddhism, but is classified by some as a third major branch of Buddhism.

Buddhism in Canada

The first Buddhists in Canada were likely Chinese workers in the 19th century, while Japanese immigrants established Buddhism in Canada during the late 1800s, founding the first temple in Vancouver in 1905. These Buddhists followed the Japanese Jodo Shinshu (or Shin) school of teaching, part of the Mahayana Pure Land tradition, which became a dominant form of Buddhism in Canada and gave rise to the largest Buddhist organization in the country and to multiple temples and dojos from British Columbia to Québec. The first Theravada Buddhist temple in Canada was established in Toronto in 1978.

Today, Buddhists represent a small but growing segment of the Canadian population, made up of Asian immigrants, Canadian-born Buddhists of Asian descent and Canadians of other (non-Asian) ethnic backgrounds. Although there are many Buddhist temples and centres across Canada, and several umbrella organizations that provide connections between Buddhists of various traditions, Buddhism is essentially a de-centralized system. There are many small Buddhist groups in Canada that do not participate in larger, “institutionalized” Buddhism. There are also many individuals who may visit temples and participate in some religious activities, but choose not to join any specific group.

Many Buddhist societies and temples in Canada have their roots in a particular ethnic group, with temples often serving as both religious institutions and community centres. Different groups have different types of leaders (including teachers, ministers and monks), and Buddhist celebrations and observances also vary greatly, as different groups often follow the traditions of their country of origin.

An influential event in the history of Buddhism in Canada was the removal of Japanese Canadians from British Columbia, many to Alberta, before and during the Second World War. This relocation led to the founding of 13 temples in southern Alberta, which became a dynamic centre of Buddhism in Canada. The discipline of Buddhist studies in North America originated in Alberta, with scholars who went on to establish programs at major American universities. Programs in Buddhist studies now exist at many North American post-secondary institutions.

Buddhism has attracted growing interest from the western world, including Canada, and aspects such as meditation, vegetarianism, and the principles of interdependence and non-violence have influenced both new religious movements and culture in general. The Dalai Lama, an influential Tibetan Buddhist leader, was given honorary Canadian citizenship in 2004.

Learn more:
Buddhism in The Canadian Encyclopedia
Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temples of Canada