Early Buddhism was for monks only; that's what most of the participants decided at the First Buddhist Council, held perhaps in 483 b.c. (datings vary) soon after the death of Gautama. The classic goal was to achieve nirvana through ascetic self-effort based on monastic vows. Early Buddhists were to detach themselves from sensual and impure desires and thoughts and replace those with a meditative state of concentration and joy-but that's just the beginning. The goal was to lose every emotion and become indifferent to everything, moving beyond any sense of satisfaction, pain, or serenity.
That appealed to some intellectuals, but Buddhism's equivalent of a church-growth movement 2,000 years ago ran into a wall. Many people did not want nonattachment if it meant a farewell to love. Even those who made spiritual progress were supposed to realize that how far they could go toward nirvana would depend on what had transpired in previous lives. In practice, even Buddhist monks often found they made little progress toward eliminating desire. Ordinary people could make even less. Besides, even a person who grasped Buddhist truth would still need seven rebirths-and then what? This faith had limited appeal.
Buddhism 2,000 years ago was in trouble, but around a.d. 100, some Buddhists stemmed that downslide with a theological innovation. They came up with the concept of bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who could have attained nirvana but purposefully chose to put it off in order to help others reach nirvana far more quickly than they otherwise would. In a karmic system grace plays no part and "merit" is all, but bodhisattvas had so much accumulated merit that they could give great amounts to others and thus let them move up. Among the many bodhisattvas, Maitreya Buddha was the most popular early on; this Buddha was expected to descend to earth some day when Buddhist teachings had largely been forgotten, and then redeem the world.
Revised Buddhism told how bodhisattvas take vows such as this one: "I take upon myself ... the deeds of all beings, even of those in the hells, in other worlds, in the realms of punishment.... I take their suffering upon me.... I bear it, I do not draw back from it, I do not tremble at it.... I have no fear of it.... I do not lose heart.... I take upon myself all the sorrows of all beings. I resolve to bear every torment in every purgatory of the universe. For it is better that I alone suffer than the multitude of living beings. I give myself in exchange. I redeem the universe from the forest of purgatory, from the womb of flesh, from the realm of death."
Do those ideas seem familiar? A.L. Basham, in The Wonder That Was India, noted that "The idea of the Suffering Savior might have existed in some form in the Middle East before Christianity, but features like this are not attested in Buddhism until after the beginning of the Christian era. The Suffering Bodhisattva so closely resembles the Christian conception of the God who gives His life as a ransom for many that we cannot dismiss the possibility that the doctrine was borrowed by Buddhism from Christianity."
"Cannot dismiss the possibility"-but can't prove it either. Christianity's arrival in India may have been by way of doubting Thomas, the apostle said to have arrived in a.d. 52. Some say he preached for 16 years and established many churches before he was killed near Madras in a.d. 68. The gospel may have arrived in some other way. Pending further research, perhaps the most that can be said definitively is what historian Romila Thapar puts forth in A History of India: "Aspects of Mahayana Buddhism appear to have had their origin outside India. Among these is the idea of ... 'the suffering savior'-the bodhisattva who redeems humanity through his own suffering: evidently the new beliefs current in Palestine were known to the Buddhists by this time."
The new understanding had some obvious flaws, one being that bodhisattvas were only imagined saviors, not a real person like Jesus who lived at a specific time. Furthermore, bodhisattvas such as the one who would become the most popular later on, Dharmakara (who took on the name Amida) were said to help others not so much by dying for them but by practicing Buddhist virtues for eons and in the process accumulating enough merit to fill the universe. Amida then altruistically made this surplus of merit available to anyone who would think of him 10 times.
Another flaw was that the goal of bodhisattvas was to help people attain nirvana faster, but nirvana-the extinction of personality-was not necessarily a destination that had wide appeal. In any event, pressure from the bodhisattva enthusiasts led to a split in Buddhism. The Fourth Buddhist Council, held in Kashmir in the early second century a.d., recognized that most Buddhists had turned away from the early doctrine. The council labeled the new majority Mahayana ("greater vehicle") Buddhists and condemned over 20 sects that remained faithful to early Buddhism with the name Hinayana ("lesser vehicle").
Buddhists today who stick to the early concepts-their strongholds are in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam-call themselves Theravada (traditional elders) Buddhists. Mahayana Buddhism spread north into China and then east to Japan.