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Theravadin, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism and Buddhism in the West
Theravadin Buddhism (The Hinayana)
Buddhism started in India, and within a generation or so of the Buddha's death, several different "schools" or groups of Buddhists had developed. There were eighteen of these different schools. Only one of these schools of Buddhism has survived to this day. This school is called the Theravadins, the "school of the elders". This school was mainly based in Southern India, in Sri Lanka. Its scriptures are in the language of Pali; as such they are called the Pali Canon.
Theravadin Buddhism stresses the keeping of the precepts, and the study of the scripture, and the practice of meditation to achieve Bodhi or wisdom. The Theravadins believe that to achieve Buddhahood, one has to be a full time Buddhist, so that a person can devote themselves to study and meditation. It is more difficult for people who wish to maintain their jobs and family commitments to achieve enlightenment. However, they can practice the precepts and through good actions achieve punya or merit, which is understood as good Karmic tendencies. The role of the laity, the community of Buddhists who are not monks, is to support the monks. In turn the monks teach the laity, provide advice on practice and carry out ceremonies such as naming ceremonies and marriages.
The ideal for the Theravadin is the Arhat, the person who through their own efforts, the practice of ethics and meditation, has developed wisdom or understanding. The Arahat renounces Samsara, the world full of its pain and problems, and seeks Nirvana.
Around the time of the Christian era a new development of Buddhism emerged. This movement called itself the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle. It referred to the Buddhism of the schools, such as the Theravada, as the Hinayana, or the Little Vehicle.
The movement that referred to itself as the Mahayana was critical of what its saw as the limitations of the Theravada and other schools that it collectively called the Hinayana or "little way". It was critical of the over insistence of the monastic way of life and the downgrading of the place of the laity. For the Mahayana what matters is commitment to practice the Buddha's teaching and not what particular lifestyle you adopt (provided it is ethical). It was also critical of the Hinayana ideal of the Arahant, someone who, through his or her own efforts achieves wisdom or liberation. The Mahayana emphasised a more altruistic element, and introduced the Bodhisattva ideal, someone who dedicates themselves to the achievement of Enlightenment for the sake of all beings, and to help all beings to achieve Bodhi. The Mahayana was also critical of what it saw as the Hinayana's obsession with scholarship and study and its emphasis of wisdom and understanding. The Mahayana said that the other aspect of Enlightenment, which is in separable from wisdom, is Karuna or Compassion. It thus stressed the need to address the emotional life and development of Maitri or love. Philosophically the Mahayana stressed the notion of Shunyata, or emptiness, the fact that all things are empty of any real nature. The Mahayana also emphasised that there is not a difference between Samsara and Nirvana, that Nirvana is not a separate place, or some kind of Buddhist heaven, rather it is a state of mind, a different way of perceiving the reality that is all around, as if you are finally opening your eyes and seeing what is really there.
There are different strands of Mahayana movement. The Pure Land school of East Asia stresses the notion of Buddha-nature, that rather as seeing the Buddhist path as one of trying t develop the qualities of enlightenment, instead we are actually all possess Buddha-nature, the essence of enlightenment already. The point is that we have to realise this and uncover our own true Buddha-nature.
There is also the Ch'an or Zen schools of China and Japan which stress the importance of meditation and simplicity and the danger of getting caught up in concepts and words, that stop one simply seeing what reality is really like.
The third wave of Buddhist development occurred around 500 AD. This movement is called the Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism. The main surviving example of this kind of Buddhism is that of Tibet. Tantric Buddhism views the universe as consisting of energy, and Buddhist practice therefore is about the transformation and refinement of energy. This is achieved though the practice of Yogic exercises (asana or posture, yogic breathing etc.), visualisation meditation, ritualistic ceremony including chanting of mantras or sound symbols, the use of mudra or symbolic gesture, and the visualisation of various deities or archetypes which embody different qualities of the enlightened mind.
Vajrayana Buddhism is very complicated and colourful, and it stresses the need for the guidance of a teacher, or Guru (the Tibetan term is Lama), who can adapt the teaching to the temperament of the student, and explain and pass on the teachings. Due to the Chinese Communist invasion of Tibet in the 1950's, many Tibetan teachers came to the west, with the result that the Vajrayana is one of the main types of Buddhism that has established itself in the west.
Buddhism in The West
Buddhism is the fastest growing religion in the west. There are many reasons for this. It is debateable whether Buddhism is a religion at all, and it's the fact that it is atheistic makes it attractive to people who cannot accept the idea of a creator and judge God figure. Buddhism is not a highly organised and centralised "religion"; it stresses personal responsibility and judgment. Its emphasis on non-harm and the practice of ethics, that should apply to all beings and to the environment is attractive to people concerned about animal rights and the environment.
The fact that Buddhism tends to reject metaphysical speculation about what happens after death etc. and is more concerned with how one lives one's life in the here and now, and its emphasis on human growth and development, and the techniques of meditation and yoga have made it very attractive to westerners who reject both the religious traditions of the west and the new religions of materialism and the obsession with production and wealth. Some westerners follow particular teachers from Tibetan or Thai or Burmese traditions. Other westerners are more eclectic, borrowing from different Buddhist traditions, and forming their own groups. Some are quite loose knit, others, like the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order are highly organised.
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