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Buddhist Schools: Theravada, Mahayana & Vajrayana

Buddhist Schools: Theravada, Mahayana & Vajrayana

Since the death of the Buddha in present day India in the 5th B.C., Buddhism has spread around the world. It is not surprising that it has changed over time by coming into contact with all kinds of peoples and cultures. As the Buddha teaches, everything is subject to change.

As a philosophy, religion, spiritual path or whatever you want to call it, the Dhamma is able to show the way to liberation for everyone, regardless of origin or background.

That is the great power of the truth that leads to liberation.

Now, 2500 years later, we can discern three major schools within Buddhism: Theravāda, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna.

Theravāda, the school of the Elders, began to take shape around 250 BC. It is considered the most orthodox form of Buddhism and has followers mainly in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. The vipassanā movement (and by extension the mindfulness hype) is a modern day school within Theravāda Buddhism.

Mahāyāna, the Great Vehicle, slowly came into being around the 1st century B.C., with contemporary followers mainly in China, Japan and Korea. Famous schools within Mahāyāna Buddhism include Zen (Chen) and Pure Land.

Vajrayāna, or Diamond Vehicle, arose around the 5th century A.D. as an extension of Mahāyāna. Tibetan Buddhism derived from this school around the 7th century AD.

Before we continue, it is good to realize that even after all these centuries, there are many similarities between these different Buddhist schools. You could say that the foundations of they have always remained the same.

The Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path consisting of the trainings in morality, concentration and wisdom. The doctrine of Dependent arising and karma (kamma). The pursuit of Nibbāna and a deep respect for the Buddha can always be found.

This core remains unchanged, even in the present.

Whether you look at the Pali Canon or the Chinese Agamas, most of the suttas (teachings of the Buddha) are the same. It is more the form that has adapted to the environment, shaped according to the tendencies and circumstances of the practitioners.

In all countries where Buddhism was introduced one sees resistance from the originally indigenous religion, followed by assimilation. Gradually more subgroups are formed within the major schools, and again groups within these groups.

The overview below (with thanks to Wikipedia) shows this somewhat graphically. Note that the width of the bars does not reflect the size of the schools. In the present Mahāyāna is estimated to have about 185 million followers, Theravāda 125 million and Vajrayāna 20 million:

In this text we will briefly dwell on the history of Buddhism and its division into these major branches.

These branches may differ in philopshy and practice but misplaced arrogance among practitioners of any current toward another, in the sense that “what I do is better/higher/more advanced than what you do” is nothing more than a manifestation in one’s own mind of dosa (anger, aversion) toward others and lobha (desire, clinging) to one’s own views and beliefs.

It is therefore not the intention of this text to show what is best.

Follow the practice that you love, that suits you, that is most important.

It is also clear that entire books are filled with the history and schools of Buddhism. In that light, this text can be nothing more than a superficial summary for the beginning student.

Prerequisite Knowledge about the Arahant

An Arahant is an awakened being, one who has destroyed desire, anger and ignorance and has acquired Nibbāna (Nirvana) in this life from personal experience.

The Buddha was also an Arahant. However, unlike the other Arahants, the Buddha discovered the path himself, without instructions. In other words, the Buddha was the first Arahant.

However, there are more differences than just being the first to discover the path. For the Buddha was not only the first but also the highest among the Arahants.

This difference is not a mater of degree of liberation, which does not differ, but is formed by the other mental qualities and abilities. For example, the Buddha could adapt his message to his listeners like no other.

A difference can also be made between Arahants. The difference lies in how many of the six abhiññā’s, forms of higher knowledge (or mental powers) are acquired by a disciple on the basis of concentration.

The sixth of these abhiññas is the most important, the knowledge of mental poisons. Whoever has this knowledge frees himself from suffering and attains arahantship.

Among the other five abhiññas, for example, is the power of knowing the mind of another.

When the Buddha lived, it was always clear who was Arahant and who was not. The Buddha gave this acknowledgement verbally, as we can read in the sutta.

If there was a lack of clarity among followers regarding the stage of enlightenment a disciple had reached, the Buddha could always be asked about it for a definitive answer.

Therefore, during the timeof the Buddha there was no doubt about the qualities of a monk who was Arahant.

With this pre-requisite knowledge we can continue. Let’s start with the end of the Buddha’s life.

The death of the Buddha

The exact year the Buddha died is not certain. Modern historians place the death around the end of the 5th century BC.

After the death there were monks who, free of desire, calmly reflected on the passing away of the Buddha: “Transient are all conditioned things. How could this have been any other way?”

And there were monks who were deeply saddened, who regretted and wept. The Venerable Anuruddha said to these monks: “Enough friends, don’t be sad! Didn’t the Blessed One say time and again that all things one loves are subject to change and loss?”

Later, in homage to the body of the Buddha, the Venerable Subaddha, who had only become a monk in old age, said, “It is good that we are rid of the great ascetic. For too long, my friends, we were oppressed by his words: ‘This is not fitting behavior for you; this is not fitting behavior for you.’ Now we can finally do what we want, and what we don’t want to do we won’t do.”

The Venerable Maha Kassapa addressed this monk directly and severely. However, the words of Subaddha clearly indicate that not every disciple was a Noble disciple who had penetrated reality through his own experience, that not every disciple was willing to keep to the rules.

In these words lies the beginning of the first division.

The First Schism

Shortly after the death of the Buddha, 500 Arahants gathered and formed the 1st council meeting led by the Venerable Maha Kassapa, the oldest among them, to repeat the teachings of the Buddha and record them in memory.

In the first years after the Buddha’s death there were still disciples who had awakened directly under his guidance.

There were still great Arahants, such as the Venerable Maha Kassapa, who had been acknowledged to have the power of being able to know the mind of others, so that in case of doubt it could still be seen whether someone had achieved liberation or not.

As the years passed, these disciples died, and the disciples after them died. It became more and more difficult to be sure if someone had reached arahantship. There were people who became Arahant, who had directly seen reality,  but did not forexample have the ability to see another person’s mind.

Sometimes monks, not necessarily due to wrong intentions, incorrectly thought they were Arahant. The Commentaries of the Pali Canon give the example of monks at that time who thought to be Arahant for 60 years until one of them actually achieved arahantship in combination with the mental power to know the mind of others. This young Arahant saw the mental shortcomings of his former teachers who turned out not to be Arahant at all.

There were also monks who falsely claimed to be Arahant because it brought more prestige and offerings. This is of course a breach of one of the more important monastic rules in which it is forbidden to (deliberately) make such a claim unjustly, but verifying such claims had become extremely difficult.

Because of this there were so-called Arahants living in society who did not meet the qualities possesed by a true Arahant by a long shot. This caused unrest among the lay population and monks.

You see, moral corruption increased early after the death of the Buddha.

Halfway through the 4th century BC, less than 100 years after the death of the Buddha, discord arose within the Sangha (the order of monks). The primary cause is not clear. Probably there was a difference of opinion with regard to the Vinaya, the moral rules of conduct for monks, but even that is not certain.

This disagreement was reason for a 2nd council meeting.

The Mahasanghikas, led by Mahadeva, seem to have been in favour of less moral rules and held the opinion that an Arahant still had mental limitations, because this is what could be seen in many so-caled Arahants, and the ultimate goal for a monk should therefor be to become a Buddha.

The Sthaviravadins, seem to have wanted more or stricter moral rules and stuck to arahantship as the ultimate goal of the Buddha’s path, declaring that those who claimed to be Arahants but still had mental (or mainly moral) limitations were not really Arahant at all.

Whatever way you look at it, in the end, the corruption of some disciples was the underlying problem that led to the split.

Whether one wanted to remove rules from the Vinaya or the other wanted to add new ones is an ongoing academic discussion. From that moment on, however, there are two movements with two slightly different Vinayas, the Sthaviravadins and the Mahasanghikas.

The idea of striving for Buddhahood instead of Arahant was born.

After this first split, slowly but surely more Buddhist subgroups emerged. The divide was not exclusive, monks and nuns meditated and lived in each other’s monasteries and discussed the Dhamma with each other.

However, for the first time the Dhamma had adapted to the tendencies of different people.

Asoka the Great and the Birth of Theravāda

From 268 to 232 B.C. Asoka the Great of the Maurya Dynasty ruled over almost the entire Indian subcontinent. The story goes that Asoka fought a bloody war in Kalinga in 260 BC. He conquered Kalinga, but seeing the mass slaughter brought him to his senses.

He converted to Buddhism and focused on ahimsa, non-violence. Asoka is seen as a great, tolerant and respectful leader, an example for kings that came after him. Under his reign there was unity and harmony, between people and animals as well.

He spent his wealth for his people and for the Sangha. With this, however, he also created a problem.

Greedy and immoral people infiltrated the Sangha to take advantage of his charity. They were not interested in liberation, only in the offerings provided and the associated status and therefore held wrong views, which resulted in a decrease in the respect for the Sangha.

When Asoka heard of this corruption, he organized a 3rd council meeting in 250 BC to purify Buddhism and record the true Dhamma.

The Venerable Moggaliputtatissa chaired the 9-month long 3rd council meeting. The Venerable Moggaliputtatissa belonged to the Vibhajjavada school, the doctrine of analysis, a descended from the Sthaviravadins.

The Dhamma that was recorded during the 3rd council meeting and supported by Asoka was the Tipitaka (the three baskets). The followers of this movement called themselves Theriya’s ‘elders’ and in this way Theravāda was born.

A detail to note is that in this council the Theravāda Abhidhamma was recorded as well, the ‘Katha Vatthu’ (points of controversy) contains a collection of questions and answers by the Venerable Moggaliputtatissa.

During this council meeting many monks were questioned. Whoever gave an answer that was not in accordance with the Dhamma was expelled from the monastic order.

Thus Asoka purified the Sangha.

The most important thing about this council meeting is that Asoka sent monks into the world to spread Theravāda. They went to Greece, the Himalayas, Myanmar and perhaps most importantly, to Sri Lanka.

It was none other than Asoka’s son, the Venerable Mahinda, who traveled to Sri Lanka to join the Sangha. Buddhism, or rather Theravāda Buddhism, flourished in Sri Lanka.

The Theravāda Tipitaka as recorded in the 3rd Council meeting was first written down in Sinhala in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BC.

In the 5th century A.D., the great Venerable Buddhagosa, coming over from mainland India, wrote down the doctrine in Pali, the ancient language of Dhamma, along with a whole series of oral comments from the great masters of the centuries before.

Since then the Pali Canon, the Pali version of the Tipitaka, has existed. Since the 3rd Council meeting of 250 BC no more teachings have been added or removed from the main texts.

However, more Commentaries and Sub-Commentaries have been written. However, these are always seen as para-canonical, and therefore not taught directly by the Buddha. Buddhagosa himself wrote the Visuddhimagga, a monumental summary of the Tipitaka.

The Infinite Compassion of the Buddha and the Emergence of Mahāyāna

The origin of Mahāyāna Buddhism is much more difficult to attribute to a specific moment in time; indeed, there does not seem to have been a separate Mahāyāna current in ancient times.

Mahāyāna in the beginning was much more of a metaphysical philosophy, an overarching idea prevalent among several followers of early Buddhist schools.

We have written above how the Mahasangikas around the 2nd council meeting (4th century B.C.) began to find the goal of becomming an Arahant inadequate. This opened the way to Buddhahood as an alternative, which seems to have been a first point of departure.

Around the 3rd council meeting 250 B.C. there were 18 different Buddhist schools. It cannot be said that one particular school was the forerunner of the Mahāyāna, the situation resembled more that combinations of schools seem to have had an influence on the development of the Mahāyāna religion such as the Sarvastivadas (a separation of the aforementioned Sthavrivavadins) together with the Mahasangikas.

An important question that touches on the core of the origins of Mahāyāna is about the compassion of the Buddha.

In short the reasoning was: If the Buddha really had infinite compassion, he would never abandon the beings in the universe. That means that the Buddha would never enter Nibbāna (Nirvana) as was taught until then, for from that Nibbāna he can no longer do good for other beings. Therefore, there must be some aspect of the Buddha that is still present in the here and now as an expression of his infinite compassion.

This kind of reasoning was elaborated upon and ways were sought to achieve the same Buddhahood in order to make a lasting contribution to the well-being of all beings.

One of the oldest texts writing down this line of thought is the Prajnaparamita sutta from around the 1st century BC.

In the centuries that followed more and more texts were written that shaped and deepened the underlying body of thought.

A summary of the then prevailing views within Mahāyāna is difficult to give. That said, an especially important aspect is the striving for Buddhaship by following the Bodhisatta-path.

The emphasis is on the striving for enlightenment of all beings and not only yourself. From this follows the teaching on Buddha-nature (Tathāgatagarbha) that is present in everyone. That is, everyone essentially has the opportunity to become a Buddha if the clouds of ignorance that obscure the inherent Buddha nature in you are removed by your own effort.

A striking phenomenon, possibly resulting from this, is a new Buddhist cosmology with different Buddhas and Bodhisatta’s living in different worlds (realms) who are still able to manifest themselves in our world for the good of beings.

The path that slowly but surely took shape was seen by the followers as superior to the early Buddhist schools, and that of course gave rise to criticism. The greatest criticism is that the Mahāyāna suttas were not taught directly by the Buddha but were conceived by later disciples.

Probably partly in response to this criticism, the Mahāyāna texts are frequently written about the great spiritual advantage one gains by just reading thes sutras. The ancestors of the Mahāyāna invoke secret teaching in which the Buddha did preach the Mahāyāna sutras, it is just that not everyone was able to understand these sutras and therefore they were only passed on to specific disciples.

The Mahāyāna school spread around Central Asia via the silk route around the 1st century A.D.

The term Mahāyāna as the name for this movement is first found in the 2nd century AD.

In the following centuries several sub-branches soon followed, for example Madhyamaka, Yogachara, Pure Land and Chan (Zen).

Unlike Theravāda, the great corpus of texts of Mahāyāna is not fixed, not closed, but dynamic. It adapts to the cultures it comes into contact with and here and there assimilates the indigenous folk religion.

Although the various Mahāyāna schools have different teachings and practices, they are relatively consistent as far as the underlying Vinaya is concerned.

Mahasiddhas, Vajrayāna and Tibetan Buddhism

The Vajrayāna, as a relatively late branch from the Mahāyāna, seems to have started somewhere around the 5th century AD.

Possibly its origins lay in a search for a faster way to reach Buddhahood, possibly it was a reaction to the changing environment on mainland India where Jainism and Hinduism became more prevalent and the Huns regularly went on raids with devastating consequences for monastic communities.

The beginning of this movement is attributed to a group of mahasiddha’s (great masters), a kind of magicians who lived in India and seem to have complemented the teachings of the Buddha with esoteric rituals.

They are seen as highly gifted tantra practitioners. Tantra’s are a combination of mantras (protective verses), actions and visualizations that accelerate the path to enlightenment.

Vajrayāna entered Tibet around the 8th century A.D. where it partly merged with the indigenous bön-religion and thus gave shape to sub-branches as Dzogchen for example.

Some Other Influences on the Different Buddhist Schools

Even today people with more or less the same opinions are drawn to each other. It is therefore not surprising that a geographical gradient emerged in India.

The predecessors of Mahāyāna were located more in the north of India, the predecessors of Theravāda in the south.

During the reign of the great king Asoka in India, who saw Theravāda as the main current, monks from this latter current were also sent to Sri Lanka.

From the 5th century AD, the Huns invaded India and destroyed many Buddhist monasteries. In the 12th century A.D. the Muslims conquered the Indian subcontinent.

During the conquest they destroyed all the Buddhist monasteries they encountered. Buddhism virtually disappeared from India at that time.

In addition to the invasion of India, almost every country where Buddhism found its way has changes with the dynamics of power. In Sri Lanka Buddhism was fought when a king with a different religious vision took office, just like in Tibet, China, Myanmar and so on.

In Sri Lanka, for example, at a certain point Buddhism had to be reintroduced from Myanmar because there were no more monks alive. In Tibet the Dhamma survived mainly in the households where people practiced in secret. In China it was the reason for picking up martial arts among the monks.

The geographical distribution also influenced the form of practice, together with the influences of indigenous traditions.

Whether it is the isolated Tibetan Buddhism high in the Himalayas, the practice of Theravāda on the remote island of Sri Lanka, the spread of Dhamma among the nomadic peoples of the gigantic Central Asia, or the merging of peoples and Buddhist schools in Myanmar.

You can see by these kinds of influences, for example, that in Tibet the originally non-monastic (practiced at home by lay people) Nyingma school is the oldest surviving tradition. With this you can also explain why the Vinaya eventually changed more strongly.

Today, for example, a very big difference between Theravāda and the other schools is that the monks within Theravāda are always supposed to live celibate while this is not always the case within schools of the other schools.

Are the Differences Big or Not?

The adaptability of the Dhamma can be seen as weakness. Those who look deeper, however, see the preserved core and realize that the truth, the reality that Dhamma is all about, is essentially impossible to put into words.

It is an experience resulting from deep and long lasting development of the mind through morality, concentration and wisdom.

Aren’t the differences very big then?

Who will say? You can only say something about what you are practicing. Ahba has repeatedly said that you should not think that what you do is better than what someone else does. For what do you really know about another person’s practice? About the depth that can be achieved through years of effort within that system?

Ahba himself makes no statements about the Nibbāna of the Mahāyāna or the existence of the Bodhisattas.

All he has ever said is that reaching the highest stage of enlightenment (arahantship) when you have a wife (or husband) is not possible because you still have desire. It is precisely for destroying this desire that the Buddha has taught his way. But this does not mean that everybody should become a monk, just that you should not fool yourself and know the results of the choices you make.

If you meditate for a long time, it can happen that you recognize experiences written about within other systems.

If you meditate on buddho then you may recognize experiences from Dzogchen or Zen.

Meditating on the qualities of the Buddha is preserved in all systems. For example, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a great Tibetan master, teaches that all Buddhas from the past have meditated on the qualities of the Buddha.

Much of the meta-philosophy in which the currents differ is perhaps not so important for everyday life. When you purify your behaviour and mind by developing morality and concentration, then wisdom arises and you become a ahppier and better person.

Does it matter whether you do this with the intention of becoming a Buddha or an Arahant?

If you practice a specific system long enough, you will experience for yourself that there are things that you hadn’t thought possible beforehand. That there are paths you haven’t read about in books.

In the end, I think Buddha’s own words provide a cautious framework in which the variety of practice and interpretations can be seen (SN 56:31):

At one point, the Blessed One stayed in Kosambi, in the Samsapa forest. There he picked up a handful of Simsapa leaves and asked the monks:

“What do you monks think, what are there more, these few Samsapa leaves in my hand or the leaves above our heads in this forest?”

“The leaves in the hand of the Blessed are but few, sir. The leaves above our heads in this Samsapa forest are many more.”

“In the same way, monks, those things that I know from direct knowledge but have not taught are much more than what I have taught. And why haven’t I taught them? Because they are not related to the goal, are not of importance for holy life, are not of importance to the release of desire, to give up passions, to stop, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awareness, to liberation. That’s why I didn’t teach them.”

“Therefore it is your task to consider, ‘this is suffering… this is the cause of suffering… this is the end of suffering. Your task is to consider, ‘This is the path of practice that leads to the cessation of unsatisfaction.'”

Reality has many aspects, make an effort to develop morality, concentration and wisdom and who knows, maybe you will be able to see for yourself.

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Buddha, Dhp 276