Buddhism’s Buffet

If we’re talking Buddhism there are 2 major schools and the rest fall under these big 2.  Which two, Theravada and Mahayana.  Like most major collection of human belief there come issues that causes a division.  In order to accommodate both, what once was one becomes 2 separate things.  The issue that brought division was, “What in the hell are we gonna do now that B-dog is gone.”  Aside from obviously pouring out a portion of your 40, what would you do?  It boiled down to who to follow.  The Buddha was obviously a tough act to follow as this world system hadn’t before met a truly, Enlightened being.  So the thought was “What if we just follow the stuff our dude said?”

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So was born the Theravada school,when translated it’s “the school of the elders”.  You may also hear the term hinayana, don’t use it.  It translates to the lesser vehicle (as an antonym for Mahayana, or greater vehicle) and using is tantamount to a dick move.  No one will fight you, except Western Buddhists, the usage just isn’t appreciated.  The Theravada school traces it’s lineage back to the original teachings (according, of course, to it’s own measure).  Which is funny considering there is a gap of about 300 years from the Buddha’s death to the first written Sutra.  As we know the telephone game doesn’t always yield the greatest degree of accuracy.  That being said it is still considered to be the authority on, as well as the keeper of, Buddhist orthodoxy.  To create the oral traditions that became the basis of Thervada thought, a council was convened after the Buddha’s death.  Notable disciples like Ananda, Sariputra, and, Subhuti, all attended and rendered all the teachings they had witnessed, that’s why the sutras all start with “Thus have I heard…”.  If you’ve never heard of those guys they were in the Buddha’s inner circle, they learned directly from him, as well as traveled by his side.  The original texts are all written in Pali, a language that is for the most part dead save for the rituals and texts that feature it.  Theravadins, like old school rap fans, believe the old school had it goin’ on.  And much the same as new school fans Mahayana practioners believe the old school just laid the foundations of what was to come.

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Mahayana school is a little bit different, the focus on “scripture” is almost low to nil.  The most well-known Mahayana schools are Zen, Tibetan, and, Cha’an.

Zen practice is centered around the practice of zazen, which is a meditative style with strict form and the occasional koan.  Koans are like riddles that contain no logical resolution, the idea is to have you think outside of the box until you get punched in the face with Enlightenment.  Zen is also the school where the master will come by and pop you with his bamboo ‘no selfie’ stick called a keisaku.  If you fall asleep the master comes over to pop you one… that’s a paddlin.

Tibetan Buddhism has as it’s figure head the Dalai Lama.  Dalai Lama, like buddha, is a title not an actual name.  The term translates to great teacher.  Until recently the Dalai Lama was both the spiritual and political figure head of the country he gave up the political status to better act in the spiritual respect.  Some of you groaned a bit just then…  since 1950 the country has been occupied by the Chinese and the Dalai Lama fled the country in 1959.  The Dalai Lama is the 14th in a lineage that traces back to the original Lama Padmasambhava who is credited with bringing the practice to the region, and the lineage goes further back to Amitabha-buddha.  Amitabha, the Dalai Lama, and really any one willing to take the vow, are Bodhisattvas.  Bodhisattvas are a unique being featured in the Mahayana tradition, the term translates to “wisdom being”.  The vow to become one is simplified to an affirmation that the practitioner will not enter Nirvana until all existent beings have made they attainment.  They vow to return to our world (Samsara) continuously until all are free.  This is why some take this school to be a more merciful form of Buddhism.

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Cha’an ( has nothing to do with the actor Jackie Chan) is a Chinese school of Mahayana Buddhism that applies a higher level of focus on the philosophies and experiential wisdom that is part and parcel a more traditional buddhist thinking i.e. The 4 Noble Truths, The Eight-fold Path, The 5 Aggregates, and, so on.  The biggest standout idea of Cha’an is the idea that your practice is not to attain Enlightenment but rather a function of your Enlightenment.  Most simply stated, there’s no need to strive for Enlightenment as you are already Enlightened.  This is just a taste of the Buddhist buffet.

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The idea behind this article is to get you a little more inspired to do your own research and find the one that fits you, or, better yet, find the parts that make the most sense to you.  The ones you can apply to your daily grind so you can come through the other side like a polished diamond.  That’s the greatest part of the Dharma is it is meant to be tested as vigorously one can.  Remember it’s your practice own it!

4 thoughts on “Buddhism’s Buffet

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  1. Thank you, J Martin. I’m very happy, and relieved, to find ‘The Unusual Buddha’, it’s very helpful to me, they way it’s written, especially the above article about the ‘two’ major schools. Making ‘my way’ easier to proceed – appreciated.

  2. I like to call the oldest teachings “First Turning Buddhism” instead of “Hinayana”. It’s said that there were originally 18 original schools before the rise of Mahayana Buddhism and of those only Theravada survived.

    1. Theravada was first hence the name(the school of the elders) the others arise from there. But yeah “the lesser vehicle” can evoke feelings…

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