The religious philosophies and schools of thought in Buddhism have evolved since Buddha’s death into diverse, and complex traditions.
Three main schools
Buddhism has evolved into myriad schools that can be roughly grouped into three types: Nikaya, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Of the Nikaya schools, only the Theravada survives. Each branch sees itself as representing the true, original teachings of the Buddha, and some schools believe that the dialectic nature of Buddhism allows its format, terminology, and techniques to adapt over time in response to changing circumstances, thus validating dharmic approaches different from their own.
Although Buddhists concur that taking refuge should be undertaken with proper motivation (complete liberation) and an understanding of the objects of refuge, the Indian scholar Atisha identified that in practice there are many different motives found for taking refuge. His idea was to use these different motivations as a key to resolving any apparent conflicts between all the Buddha’s teachings without depending upon some form of syncretism that would cause as much confusion as it attempted to alleviate. The various motives for taking refuge are enumerated as follows, typically introduced using the concept of the “scope” (level of motivation) of a practitioner:
- Worldly scope: to improve the lot of this life – this is not a Buddhist motivation.
- Low scope: to gain high rebirth and avoid the low realms.
- Middle scope: to achieve Nirvana (liberation from rebirth).
- High scope: to achieve Buddhahood in order to liberate others from suffering, the basis of the Mahayana path.
- Highest scope is also sometimes included: to achieve Buddhahood as soon as possible – in this life – which is the scope of the highest teachings on the Vajrayana (tantric) path.
- The Theravada school, whose name means “Doctrine of the Elders”, bases its practice and doctrine exclusively on the Pali Canon, which is a collection of what are known as agamas or nikaya sutras. The nikaya sutras are generally considered by modern scholars to be the oldest of the surviving types of Buddhist literature, and they are accepted as authentic in every branch of Buddhism. Theravada is the only surviving representative of the historical Nikaya branch. Nikaya Buddhism and consequently Theravada are sometimes referred to by the Mahayana as Hinayana or “small vehicle”, although this is considered by some to be impolite. Native Theravada is practiced today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and portions of China, Vietnam, and Malaysia. The aim of Nikaya Buddhism is to achieve liberation from rebirth and thus Nirvana.
- The Mahāyāna (literally “Great Vehicle”) branch emphasizes universal compassion, or bodhicitta, and the selfless ideal of the bodhisattva, whose goal is to achieve Buddhahood in order to be of greatest benefit to other sentient beings. In addition to the Nikaya scriptures, Mahāyāna schools recognize all or part of a genre of scriptures that were first put in writing around 1 CE. These scriptures were written in some form of Sanskrit, except a few manuscripts in Prakrit, and are concerned with the purpose of achieving Buddhahood by following the path of the bodhisattva over the course of what is often described as countless eons of time. Because of this immense timeframe, some Mahāyāna schools accept the idea of working towards rebirth in a Pure Land. The Pure Land is normally conceived of as a state which is not enlightenment in itself but which is a highly conducive environment for working toward enlightenment, although some sources indicate that it is synonymous with enlightenment. Native Mahāyāna Buddhism is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, and most of Vietnam. The various sub-sects of Mahayana Buddhism include: various schools within Pure Land Buddhism (the dominant variety of Mahayana Buddhism) and Zen. Sub-sects within Mahayana are also due to the variations of local cultural interpretations. ie. Chinese Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, and Vietnamese Buddhism.
- The Vajrayāna or “Diamond Vehicle” (also referred to as Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Tantric or esoteric Buddhism) shares the basic concepts of Mahāyāna, but also includes a vast array of spiritual techniques designed to enhance Buddhist practice. Vajrayana Buddhism exists today in the form of two major sub-schools: Tibetan Buddhism and Shingon Buddhism. One component of the Vajrayāna is harnessing psycho-physical energy as a means of developing profoundly powerful states of concentration and awareness. These profound states are in turn to be used as an efficient path to Buddhahood. Using these techniques, it is claimed that a practitioner can achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime, or even as little as three years. In addition to the Theravada and Mahāyāna scriptures, Vajrayāna Buddhists recognise a large body of texts that include the Buddhist Tantras. Native Vajrayana is practiced today mainly in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kalmykia (in Russia), Siberia (in Russia), areas of India, and — among the Shingon (Zhènyān, 真言) and Tendai schools — in China and Japan.
- History of Buddhism
- History of Buddhist schools
- Timeline of Buddhism
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