Friday, 1 April 2016

Schools of Buddhism

I have been studying and practicing Buddhism on and off since my teenage years. As a child one of my family members was interested in Vajrayana (Kagyu) Buddhism and so inevitably I was exposed to this form of Buddhism first. Later, when I was in my mid to late 20s I became quite devout for a number of years but found myself most drawn to Theravada Buddhism. Subsequently I developed a renewed interest in Vajrayana Buddhism and explored the Gelugpa and then Nyingma schools within the Vajrayana tradition but stopped a couple of years ago – somehow Vajrayana Buddhism just didn’t seem to be quite working out for me, despite my continuing respect for its teachings. In recent years I have developed an interest in Nichiren Buddhism, a Mahayana lineage from Japan. In an attempt to make sense of these many paths I want to try to summarise the core teachings of Buddhism, as recognised by a number of the most prominent schools, and then look a little at the different practices associated with various lineages. What I am hoping to find is that despite the different styles of Buddhism that have developed in different parts of the world there is nonetheless an identifiably common thread that runs through them all.

The common thread of Buddhism

Given the antiquity of Buddhism and the huge geographic spread it encompasses it is unsurprising that the practice and emphasis varies so much from region to region and lineage to lineage. What is shared, with varying degrees of emphasis, between all the schools of Buddhism is:
  • Reverence for the teachings of Gautama Buddha, who founded Buddhism circa 2,500 years ago on the Indian subcontinent.
  • Belief that suffering can be transcended. Traditionally this is expressed via belief in the Four Noble Truths, a foundational teaching of the Gautama Buddha. They are (1) the truth that suffering is inherent to ordinary existence; (2) the truth of the origin of suffering (sometimes said to be grasping and ignorance and failure to accept that everything changes; however this is a complex area and interpreted somewhat differently across lineages); (3) the truth that suffering can be transcended (note that in this context suffering is not the same as pain, for suffering is not only pain but also the grasping emotional experience that we project onto pain, thus Buddhism does not promise that pain can cease, but rather that suffering can); and (4) the truth of the Eightfold Path which leads to the cessation of suffering. The Eightfold Path encompasses right view, right thinking/intention, right speech, right action/discipline, right way of life/livelihood, right endeavour/effort, right mindfulness, and right meditation/concentration.
  • Belief in multiple realms of existence, which may be understood as being physically real as well as (or alternately) metaphorical states of mind; belief that unless we become enlightened, as the Buddhas have, we are destined to continually manifest in each of the suffering realms. The suffering realms include the Deva/Godly/Heavenly realms (where there is very little suffering), the Titan/Demi-God realms, the Human realms, the Animal realms, the Hungry Ghost realms and the Hell realms.
  • Belief in karma – actions born of a cause and leading to an effect. Our karma determines which realm of existence we end up in and for how long. Wholesome/skillful karma leads to happiness, unwholesome/unskillful karma leads to suffering. We are both the heirs and the active forgers of our karma. Note that karma is not synonymous with divine retribution or reward (and there is no sin in Buddhism), rather it pertains to the complex interaction of causes and consequences that occur in every moment.
  • Aspiration to attain enlightenment/Buddhahood. Belief that Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment = liberation from samsara (the cycle of suffering); thus freedom from suffering; and the belief that the Buddha’s teachings can guide us to also attain Buddhahood (as have others before us). To this end all Buddhists revere and take refuge in the Three Jewels, which are (1) the Buddha; (2) the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings: the mystic law of the universe); and (3) the Sangha (Buddhist community who keep the teachings alive).
If we want to be really succinct we could say that the essence of the Buddhist path is contained in verse 183 of the Dhammapada (Skt. Dharmapada), one of the earliest and most widely read Buddhist texts: 
To avoid all evil [or unwholesome actions], to cultivate good [or virtue], and to cleanse [or tame or awaken] one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
It is the means by which we awaken/cleanse/tame the mind that differs most between the different traditions. Another notable point of difference between the various schools are ideas about enlightenment, or Buddhahood. Theravada teachings tend to emphasise the importance of individual effort to bring about your own enlightenment and entry into the state of nibbana (nirvana) – for they say the Buddhas can only light the way. Meanwhile, the Mahayana approach strongly emphasises the interconnectedness of all things and thus the need to work for the enlightenment of all beings – this is conceived of as being more important than attaining nirvana for oneself. Mahayana Buddhists emphasise that we all have Buddha nature; and many Mahayana lineages teach that there are numerous Buddhist deities (called Bodhisattvas) who can help us to discover our Buddha nature, especially if we chant their mantra (eg, Om Mani Padme Hum is associated with Avalokitesvara). Ultimately, the end goal in Mahayana Buddhism is, in practice, to become a Bodhisattva (rather than to attain nirvana) – this is not dissimilar to the Catholic aspiration to become a Saint. Thus the approach to enlightenment for Mahayana Buddhists is arguably more collective, while also emphasising the importance of individual effort. However, Theravada Buddhism also emphasises the importance of community and teaches the interdependent nature of cause and effect (kamma or karma). Meanwhile, both traditions acknowledge the existence of numerous deities (especially nature spirits)* and the value of ritual practice, which includes shrine offerings.

* Atheistic Buddhists in the West tend to deliberately ignore or reinterpret Buddhist deities as merely symbols of particular states of mind, however after all I have read and experienced I have no doubts about the polytheistic nature of Buddhism, in fact it is through Buddhism that I came to accept the possibility that multiple Gods exist and the viability of a polytheistic spiritual path.


Theravada monk Pandit Bhikkhu.
Theravada Buddhism is mostly found in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. It has a strong emphasis on monastic life. Lay Buddhists support these monks (there are very few Theravada nuns), especially through food offerings, and believe that doing so positively affects their karma/kamma. In turn senior monks offer regular teachings to people in the lay community – traditionally on the days of the full moon, new moon and quarter moons (called Uposatha days), though in my experience these teaching days vary so that instead this takes place every Wednesday evening in one centre I know of and in another on Sunday mornings. On these days lay-Buddhists are encouraged to adopt the Eight Precepts (though only the most devout do so), which are:
  1. Abandon destruction of life – be merciful and compassionate towards all living beings.
  2. Abandon taking that which is not given – dwell with an honest heart devoid of theft.
  3. Abandon sexual relations and observe celibacy.
  4. Abandon false speech (eg, lies and exaggeration) – speak the truth, be trustworthy and reliable and not deceptive.
  5. Abandon alcoholic drinks and intoxicants as they cause negligence, deluded thoughts and indolence (use of medication, so long as it does not inebriate or strongly sedate, is acceptable).
  6. Eat only one meal a day, at an hour between sunrise and noon. After noon water, tea (without milk), honeyed water and fruit juice without pulp may be consumed. 
  7. Abstain from dancing, singing, music, unsuitable shows, self-adornment, cosmetics and perfume.
  8. Abandon the use of high and luxurious beds and seats.
Alternately, many contemporary Theravada Buddhists occasionally attend meditation retreats for days or weeks at a time. Thus lay-Buddhists gain for themselves a taste of monastic life. Meanwhile, on all other days lay-Buddhists try to abide by the Five Precepts, which are the same as the first five of the Eight Precepts described above, with the exception that sexual relations are permitted, though "sexual misconduct" is not. What constitutes sexual misconduct is open to interpretation, although at the very least it is clear that adultery, promiscuity and sexual relations with children fall under this umbrella.

Maintaining a shrine is another common feature of Theravada Buddhism, with each part of the shrine representing a core Buddhist teaching. Thus the statue of Buddha represents the teachings, candle flames symbolise the light of wisdom, the fragrance of incense represents the spread of virtue, water symbolises clarity and calmness, fruit is a reminder of the law of karma/kamma (for fruit emerges from a seed), flowers represent impermanence, and so on.

Perhaps the most notable practice within the Theravada tradition is vipassana meditation – for monks at least. This is classic sitting meditation, which uses the breath as the object to concentrate on while meditating. The technique can also be adapted to walking meditation. When I was into Theravada Buddhism I spent a lot of time trying learn and practice it – I found it extremely hard and ultimately it was my difficulties with this kind of meditation, as well as my struggles to avoid killing insects, that made me lose interest in Theravada Buddhism (ie, I found it too hard). I note however that it seems that plenty of people seem to find vipassana meditation beneficial, so I conclude only that vipassana meditation is not for me, though it may be good for others. Chanting Buddhist scripture in Pali (the language of the Theravada canon – Sanskrit is the more usual language of the Mahayana canon) is another feature of Theravada Buddhism, oftentimes it precedes group sessions of mindfulness meditation. 


The cast of hit show "Monkey Magic", based on Mahayana
classic "Journey to the West". Source:
Mahayana Buddhism is mostly found in NE Asia and Vietnam, though it was once widespread across south Asia, especially in NE Afghanistan, which was a centre of Buddhist learning. Many of its teachings are very similar to the Theravada canon, with the addition of other teachings not recognised by Theravada scholars. In practice some, but not all, Mahayana schools have a more relaxed attitude to abiding by the various  precepts such as those described above. However it is impossible to generalise – in fact the many Mahayana lineages can vary considerably from each other, while all sharing the same internal thread of Buddhism as described above, as well as a commitment to the aspiration to become a Bodhisattva and work for the enlightenment of all beings.

Vajrayana Buddhism (also known as Tibetan Buddhism)
The branch of Mahayana Buddhism commonly found in Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia and Tibet is known as Vajrayana Buddhism (within which there are four major lineages – Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug). As with Theravada, sitting meditation is also practiced in this tradition, though meditators are encouraged not only to use breath as an object of meditation but also sound, visual objects, scent, emotion, and so on. Vajrayana meditation usually involves leaving the eyes slightly open, whereas in Theravada meditation the eyes are usually closed. Another key feature of Vajrayana practice is the chanting of mantras, which are like spiritually purifying prayers. Chanters may use a 108 bead mala to count each chant – thus reciting the mantra 108 times in each set. I came to find this style of practice highly beneficial. In my case I recited the mantras of Green Tara and Padmasambhava – doing so seemed to calm the mind and allow one to rest in the present moment with a heightened sense of awareness. I also found short sessions of meditation using sound as the object of meditation, following the recitation of a mantra 108 times, to be beneficial. Just as chanting mantras and sitting meditation are important features of Vajrayana practice so too is the maintenance of a shrine – however they are more likely to be made and maintained in reverence of a Bodhisattva than to the original Gautama Buddha.

Nichiren Buddhism
Nichiren Buddhism originated in Japan but, like many other Buddhist lineages, is now global. The key practice in Nichiren Buddhism is to chant Nam Myoho Renge Kyo, which means “I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra”, as well as other key passages from the Lotus Sutra (a key Mahayana text), while sitting in front of the Gohonzon, which is mandala representing the Buddha, the Buddhist teachings and the universe in its entirety. Studying the writings of Nichiren and thereby understanding and trying to live according to the philosophy of the Lotus Sutra, which Nichiren Buddhists believe is the most important of all of Gautama Buddha’s teachings, is also encouraged. My experience is that Nichiren Buddhism is an inspiring and deeply Mahayana lineage; it strongly emphasises that all living beings equally and without exception possess Buddha nature and that enlightenment is for everyone. This approach appeals to me because in the past I have occasionally struggled with a sense that I am not good enough to become enlightened, or that the possibility of my enlightenment is numerous lifetimes away, which has left me with a tangible sense of futility in terms of practicing Buddhism. Nichiren Buddhism also advocates a deliberately relaxed approach to the precepts which are so strongly emphasised in some other lineages – having tried to abide by them on and off for years I have to say this feels liberating. Constantly trying to live life by a strict rule book can leave one with a sense that Buddhism is just too restrictive, too austere and ultimately impractical. Nichiren Buddhism’s strong focus on daily chanting, as well as studying the teachings and actively participating in a Buddhist community (eg, by regularly attending Buddhist meetings), is built around the conviction that if one does these things then all the other things that are core to Buddhist practice – virtuous conduct, compassion, wisdom, courage, and ultimately enlightenment – will come naturally of their own accord.

Other Mahayana schools
Unfortunately I lack sufficient real world knowledge of the other major branches of Mahayana Buddhism, such as Pure Land Buddhism and Zen Buddhism (also known as Chan or Thien Buddhism), to write about their practices with any confidence. Book learning informs me that Pure Land Buddhists tend to focus on chanting and the performance of virtuous deeds as a means to reach a Buddhist Pure Land, which may be a literal place where we may go after death or a metaphor for a higher state of consciousness. Meanwhile Zen, while it is a Mahayana lineage, seems to have much in common with Theravada; notably it maintains a strong focus on sitting meditation, however its core sutras (Buddhist texts) are unquestionably Mahayana and, as for Nichiren Buddhists, the Lotus Sutra is regarded as the supreme teaching of the Gautama Buddha. An excellent introductory book to Zen Buddhism that I can recommend is The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh.


As much as I have tried to be unbiased, I don’t think any writer exploring Buddhism has managed to conceal their own leanings. Currently I feel the pull of Nichiren Buddhism, but in the past I have been strongly drawn to Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism, and my own experience demonstrates that both of these traditions are excellent. I have enjoyed good mental health while I immersed myself in these respective traditions and saw the benefits of my practice deteriorate as I practiced less. I honestly think the key is just to practice (chanting / meditating, studying the teachings, regularly hanging out with other Buddhists, trying to incorporate Buddhist philosophy into daily life, etc). The purpose of Buddhism, as I see it, is to give people tools that they can use to transcend suffering, but these tools may not work for everyone, for we all come from a different place with different spiritual needs (this is a core teaching of the Lotus Sutra), and ultimately it is up to each of us to find a path that fits.

Sources: most of this post was written ad lib. However, I spot-checked my facts via;;;; and the following books: In the Buddha's Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Ed); The First Discourse of the Buddha by Dr Rewata Dhamma; Buddhism Explained by Laurence-Khantipalo Mills and Rigpa Study and Practice Programme: Student’s Manual, Introduction to Buddhism (2007). Note that this post is adapted from a post that originally appeared on another (discontinued) blog of which I am the author.

Written by M. Sentia Figula.

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