Buddhism is one of the most tolerant of religions – everywhere it went it adapted to local conditions, yet the basic tenets have remained the same and all schools are bound together in their faith in the value of the teachings of Shakyamuni. The Buddha is the archetype of the enlightened consciousness who, by attaining his own awakening as the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, proved that enlightenment bodhi was possible for all sentient beings. In brief, Buddhism teaches that all life is essentially suffering, an endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth that can only be broken by attaining Nirvana. This can only be achieved by loosing desire for all things of the world. Nirvana means cessation or to extinguish – liberation from the cycle of rebirth and should not be equated with a western ‘heaven’ concept. An essential concept is the interconnectedness of all things; the Buddha concept of the universe is often depicted as a net of jewels: each jewel endlessly reflecting the totality of reality.
There are two principal schools of Buddhism.
The Hinayana or Theravada (Thailand, Lao, Cambodia, Burma, Sri Lanka) originated in Sri Lanka. The earliest available teachings of the Buddha are to be found in Pali literature and belong to the school of the Theravadins, who may be called the most orthodox school of Buddhism. This school admits the human characteristics of the Buddha, and is characterized by a psychological understanding of human nature; and emphasizes a meditative approach to the transformation of consciousness. The teaching of the Buddha according to this school is very plain. He asks us to ‘abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify our mind’. These can be accomplished by The Three Trainings: the development of ethical conduct, meditation and insight-wisdom.
The Mahayana (Nepal, China, Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan, Japan) elevates compassion to an all important ideal and teaches that perfection for the individual is not possible without perfection for all, and that many of those who have already attained enlightenment would remain in the world as bodhisattvas to help others. Over time bodhisattvas came to be ascribed miraculous powers and were worshipped in a manner very similar to traditional ancestor worship.
The Mahayana is more of an umbrella body for a great variety of schools, from the Tantra school (the secret teaching of Yoga) well represented in Tibet and Nepal to the Pure Land sect, whose essential teaching is that salvation can be attained only through absolute trust in the saving power of Amitabha, longing to be reborn in his paradise through his grace, which is found in China, Korea and Japan. Ch’an and Zen Buddhism, of China and Japan, are meditation schools. According to these schools, to look inward and not to look outwards is the only way to achieve enlightenment, which to the human mind is ultimately the same as Buddhahood. In this system, the emphasis is upon ‘intuition’, its peculiarity being that it has no words in which to express itself at all, so it does this in symbols and images. In the course of time this system developed its philosophy of intuition to such a degree that it remains unique to this day.
It is generally accepted, that what we know today as the Mahayana arose from the Mahasanghikas sect who were the earliest seceders, and the forerunners of the Mahayana. They took up the cause of their new sect with zeal and enthusiasm and in a few decades grew remarkably in power and popularity. They adapted the existing monastic rules and thus revolutionized the Buddhist Order of Monks. Moreover, they made alterations in the arrangements and interpretation of the Sutra (Discourses) and the Vinaya (Rules) texts. And they rejected certain portions of the canon that had been accepted in the First Council.
According to it, the Buddhas are lokottara (supramundane) and are connected only externally with the worldly life. This conception of the Buddha contributed much to the growth of the Mahayana philosophy.
Mahayana Buddhism is divided into two main systems of thought: the Madhyamika and the Yogacara. The Madhyamikas were so called on account of the emphasis they laid on the middle view. Here, the middle path stands for the non-acceptance of the two views concerning existence and non-existence, eternity and non-eternity, self and non-self. In short, it advocates neither the theory of reality nor that of the unreality of the world, but merely of relativity. It is, however, to be noted that the Middle Path propounded at Sarnath by the Buddha had an ethical meaning, while that of the Madhyamikas is a metaphysical concept.
The Yogacara School is another important branch of the Mahayana. It was so called because it emphasized the practice of yoga (meditation) as the most effective method for the attainment of the highest truth (Bodhi). All the ten stages of spiritual progress of Bodhisattvahood have to be passed through before Bodhi can be attained. The ideal of the Mahayana school, therefore, is that of the Bodhisattva, a person who delays his or her own enlightenment in order to compassionately assist all other beings and ultimately attains to the highest Bodhi.
Buddhism in Tibet
Tibetans first came into contact with Buddhism when they occupied the oasis cities of Central Asia. In the 8th century, the first of many missionary monks (Padmasambhava/Guru Rinpoche) arrived and the country's first monastery was established in 787. However, despite some early success Buddhism soon went into decline due to opposition from Bon, the indigenous religion, and political turmoil. In the 10th century monks from India and Tibetans going to India re-introduced the religion together with many aspects of Indian civilization and it soon began to flourish. As Tantra was the main type of Buddhism in India at the time, it was that which became established in Tibet.
From the 7th century a new tradition of Buddhism began to develop that was in several important respects radically different from the earlier traditions. This new tradition incorporated Tantric elements and is known as Vajrayana (diamond or thunderbolt vehicle). Tantrayana is characterized by an emphasis on the value of magic and the propitiation of the bodhisattvas and gods in the quest for Nirvana. It is an esoteric and ritualistic doctrine that incorporates the use of rituals, sacred gestures, symbols, mantras and visualization to achieve realization. The key is to channel the energy of all varieties of emotions, both positive and negative, into the quest for sacred consciousness. It has also developed a rich and complex variety of meditation techniques. Tantrayana developed in Bengal and Orissa and flourished during the period of Buddhism's decline in India. (8th - 13th centuries). It had a significant following in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand where it was later replaced by Theravada. In Indonesia it was superceded by Islam and in both China and Japan it became moribund. It spread from India to Tibet from the 8th century onward, flourishing and developing there until its destruction in the 1950s. Today Tantrayana thrives amongst Tibetan refugees in India and has become perhaps the most successful Buddhist tradition in the West.
The fundamental precepts of Tibetan Buddhism are:
Refuge in the ‘Three Precious Jewels’ - the Buddha (Shakyamuni), Dharma (his teaching) and Sangha (the monastic community)
‘Bodhicitta’ – the fervent wish for the salvation of all living things and the desire to free them from their worldly suffering.
‘Altruism’ – a dedication to bring happiness to others