A) The Three Main Vehicles
Today in the West, through Western converts to Buddhism and Asian immigrant communities,
we have an unprecedented opportunity to experience every kind of Buddhism, and furthermore, to bring to our understanding
an educated, historical perspective of the whole sweep of Buddhist activity. For an introduction to Buddhism, we offer the
most generalized, commonly accepted, main "yanas" or vehicles of the Buddha's teachings which have come to be known
as Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana.
Mahayana (The Great Vehicle)
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 are found in China, Korea and Japan. Chan 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
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
revolutionised 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 which 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 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 emphasised 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.
Theravada (The Teachings of the Elders)
In the Buddhist countries of southern
Asia, there never arose any serious differences on the fundamentals of Buddhism. All these countries - Sri Lanka, Cambodia,
Laos, Burma, Thailand, have accepted the principles of the Theravada school and any differences there might be between the
various schools is restricted to minor matters.
The earliest available teachings of the Buddha are to be found
in Pali literature and belongs 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 characterised by a psychological understanding of human nature;
and emphasises 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 philosophy of this school is straight forward. All worldly phenomena are subject to three characteristics
- they are impermanent and transient; unsatisfactory and that there is nothing in them which can be called one's own, nothing
substantial, nothing permanent. All compounded things are made up of two elements - the non-material part, the material part.
They are further described as consisting of nothing but five constituent groups, namely the material quality, and the four
non-material qualities - sensations, perception, mental formatives and lastly consciousness.
When an individual
thus understands the true nature of things, she/he finds nothing substantial in the world. Through this understanding, there
is neither indulgence in the pleasures of senses or self-mortification, following the Middle Path the practitioner lives according
to the Noble Eightfold Path which consist of Right View, Right Resolve, Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Occupation, Right
Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. She/he realises that all worldly suffering is caused by craving and that
it is possible to bring suffering to an end by following the Noble Eight Fold Path. When that perfected state of insight is
reached, i.e.Nibanna, that person is a worthy person an Arhat. The life of the Arhat is the ideal of the followers of this
school, a life where all (future) birth is at an end, where the holy life is fully achieved, where all that has to be done
has been done, and there is no more returning to the worldly life.
Also commonly called Tantric Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism is the "Diamond Vehicle."
It developed out of the Mahayana teachings in northwest India around 500 B.C.E. and spread to Tibet, China and Japan. Today
it is practiced mainly in the Himalayan regions and involves esoteric visualizations, rituals, and mantras which can only
be learned by study with a master. In the Vajrayana path, all situations can be used as a spiritual path. It teaches not to
suppress energy, but rather to transform it. There is no external "good" reference point. For this reason, the role
of the teacher is especially important in the Vajrayana. Without a clear motive to help others and a strong grounding in meditation,
practicing tantra is dangerous and ultimately self-destructive. This necessary practice of complete devotion to the teacher
is known as "guru yoga."