The Diversification of Buddhism

There is no one Buddhism, no essential Buddhism that can be taken apart from its tradition. In fact, the term “Buddhism” is a relatively recent invention, first being coined by scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Prior to this Buddhists were called “followers of the Buddha.” Western interest in Buddhism began when archeologist W. C. Peppe unearthed a soapstone urn with the inscription, “a receptacle of relics of the Blessed Buddha of the Sakyas.”

The first serious Buddhist scholarship appeared in 1844 by Eugen Burnouf who observed that religious traditions far flung across Asia came from a common source in India and concluded they were a “family of religions each with its own integrity.” According to contemporary Buddhist scholars Robinson, Johnson, and Thanissaro, it might be better to think of “Buddhist religions” rather than a single Buddhist religion. These are the Three Vehicles.

Buddhism is not based on one central text, such as the Bible, Koran, or Torah. In fact, there was nothing written at all for 400 years, as the teachings were passed down through oral recitation. So over the years, a multitude of guidelines for practice came into being and Buddhism became diversified.

There are three vehicles of Buddhism, meaning three schools of Buddhist thought. The word vehicle comes from the Sanskrit word vada, meaning “ferryboat.” Think of the image of the river crosser and his raft; these vehicles can ferry you across the river of samsara to nirvana.

There is no one authority on Buddhism — there is no pope, no president, no leader of the Buddhist people. There is no central office, no definitive source. Buddhism is alive in many forms, with many voices today. Within the three vehicles there are Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Pure Land, Yogacara, and more. But all these forms can fit within the three vehicles, and some would agree that they could even fit within the two main vehicles — Theravada and Mahayana.

Theravada Versus Mahayana

Mahayana Buddhism emerged as a reaction to early Buddhist orthodoxies in the first century, although the term “Mahayana” does not appear until the sixth century C.E. Mahayana took root in northern India and made its way east and north to Tibet, Mongolia, China, and Japan. Mahayana diverges philosophically with Theravada and claims to be based on texts attributable to the Buddha that are not in the Pali Canon and were not discovered until centuries after the death of the Buddha.

According to Buddhist scholar Mark Blum, in the Mahayana, “faith in the power, omniscience, and eternal spiritual assistance of the Buddha assumed a new sense of importance and Buddhism now took on a decidedly more devotional form.” The Buddha was now a cosmic being. If a form of Buddhism that feels more religious is congenial to you, you will find the Mahayana forms such as Chan, Zen, Tibetan, and Pureland Buddhism more interesting.

On the one hand, Mahayana offers the possibility of becoming a buddha to everyone, and on the other hand elevates the Buddha from a compassionate teacher to a celestial guru. Such “buddha realms” or “pure lands” may be taken literally or metaphorically to represent certain states of being. Devotion to your teacher is also a key feature of Mahayana traditions such as Zen and Vajrayana, where your teacher is seen as the living embodiment of Buddha, providing you with the opportunity to become buddha too. Consequently, there is more emphasis on lineage.

The Mahayana placed more emphasis on the bodhisattva and deemphasized the historical Buddha and also the Four Noble Truths. The Buddha became more of a god than a man. But the Mahayana didn't invent the bodhisattva concept. The Jataka tales speak of the Buddha's past lives and that presumes the idea of the bodhisattva. What is a bodhisattva? A bodhisattva vows to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. It's an explicit commitment towards awakening with an added dimension, predicated on the idea of rebirth, to keep taking a human life to be of benefit to others.

To accomplish this formidable goal the bodhisattva must undertake six (or ten) paramitas (perfections). The six paramitas are generosity, morality, patience, vigor, meditation, and wisdom. The expanded list of ten paramitas includes in addition to the six: skillful means, conviction, strength, and knowledge. The bodhisattva also pursed the five margas (paths) and the ten bhumis (grounds or stages of spiritual attainment).

The ten bhumis are: joy, purity, brightness, radiance, difficult to conquer, facing nirvana, far-going, immovable, spiritual intelligence, and dharma cloud. There is a belief that supernatural powers emerge as one progresses on this bodhisattva path. At advanced stages a bodhisattva can appear anywhere at will and appear simultaneously. Imagine what that could do for your multitasking efforts!

Before the Mahayana, enlightenment was not discussed in the explicit selfless terms of the bodhisattva. Instead, there was the path of discipline (shravakayana) and the solitary buddha (pratyekabuddha). The Mahayanists looked down upon this approach as inferior (hina); and you'll see Theravada referred to as Hinayana Buddhism versus Mahayana (great vehicle). Such comparisons seem inherently anti-Buddhist. While the bodhisattva path is seen as complete and perfect buddhahood (samyaksambuddha), there seems to be nothing inferior in the earlier approaches merely because the attainment of buddhahood for the benefit of all was not explicitly emphasized. This would be like saying the Buddha didn't get it right. It appears that he was silent on the issue rather than encouraging a selfish form of enlightenment.

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