The Sects of Buddhism

*This post was originally published on October 17th, 2011

Today, I am going to offer a very brief overview about Buddhism, since I am currently in a predominantly Buddhist country and studying Buddhist theories at Samahita. Included are some images of the Buddha from my recent visit to the Big Buddha Temple in Koh Samui. I will preface this by sharing that I am by no means a scholar of Buddhism or biased toward any particular sect. Rather, I enjoy studying Eastern philosophy, and integrating various Eastern theories into my daily Western lifestyle. I believe there is much to be learned from some of these ancient teachings that may benefit us in a society that is so often disconnected from inner sources of consciousness.

Many people in the West have some familiarity with Buddhism, and a growing number are studying Buddhist teaching. Some refer to themselves as Buddhists.  There are also, however, several misconceptions in the West about Buddhism, such as that Buddhists do not believe in the existence of a material reality, or that they worship statues. Both of these perceptions are untrue. So, what is Buddhism? This is a huge topic, but let’s begin by taking a look at who the Buddha was.

A (brief) story of the life of Buddha

The original Buddha’s name was Siddhartha Gautama. We have documentation that Siddhartha lived around 543 BCE, although the exact span of his life is somewhat elusive. He was born in Lumbini, which is in modern-day Nepal, and he was the son of King Suddhodana. It was customary at the time for royalty to bring in revered “advisors” or teachers who would offer futuristic premonitions to parents after the birth of a child. It is said that Siddhartha’s father brought in 107 advisors, who all claimed that the infant would grow to be a great monarch. However, the 108th advisor that visited said that he would not become a monarch at all, but rather, will be a great spiritual leader. Siddhartha’s father feared his son becoming a spiritual leader, which typically meant that he would live in poverty (as most spiritual people of the time did). In attempt to prevent his son from living this lifestyle, he raised him in a sheltered environment within his kingdom, surrounding him with great riches, baths of beautiful women, and lessons with the greatest teachers. As Siddhartha grew into manhood, however, he became increasingly aware of his sheltered life and craved to see the outside world. At age thirty, he left the palace. In the outside world, he saw much suffering, such as disease, poverty, violence, and destitution. This realization was shocking to him, and he decided to renounce all of his worldly possessions in exchange for a life of simplicity. Along his travels, he saw a sage-like character and decided to live like him and dedicate his life to ending suffering. After six years travelling, Siddhartha concluded that attachment is the root cause of suffering in a life that is ever-changing and impermanent. In the succeeding centuries, his teachings were written in forty-five books of scriptures. Buddha literally means ‘a being that is beyond this body.’ Siddhartha received this prestigious title many decades after his death.

The sects of Buddhism

As with most religious and spiritual practices, there are various sects that developed over time in different cultures. This is the case with Buddhism. Although there are hundreds of varying “styles” of Buddhism, most fall under two primary categories: Theravada and Mahayana.

Theravada Buddhism

Theravada Buddhism is the oldest sect, and began to spread around various areas of Southeast Asia around 200 BCE. Theravada literally means “the way of the elders.” The beliefs were developed based upon the Pali Cannon texts, which were written between 400-100 BCE in Sri Lanka. Theravada Buddhism primarily focuses on the life of the original Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) and his teachings. This sect of Buddhism does not worship any deities, nor does it view the Buddha himself as being a god. Some consider this sect to be as much of a philosophy as a religion, because it is an atheistic belief system that honors the Buddha as the greatest and most venerated teacher who has lived. A strong emphasis in this sect is placed on renunciation. To free oneself of suffering, it is believed that one must give up earthly attachments and care for all living beings with respect. Theravada Buddhism is most commonly practiced today in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Cambodia.

Mahayana Buddhism

This sect emerged out of Theravada Buddhism around 200 ACE, and is documented in Sanskrit scriptures. Mahayana (meaning “the greater vehicle”) is the most widespread sect that is practiced in the world today. The primary sub-sects of Mahayana are Zen (or Chan in China) and Tantric Buddhism (Vajrayana). Siddhartha Gautama is revered as the original Buddha, but in the Mahayana belief system, many other Buddhas are celebrated as well, such as Amhitabha. Bodhisattvas are also honored. Bodhisattvas are considered enlightened beings who have renounced their Buddhahood to teach the path to freedom to beings on earth. There are dozens of Bodhisattvas that are honored in the Mahayana sect (although the term originated in the Theravada lineage, referring to the original Buddha). Emphasis is placed on wisdom and compassion. From this view, one does not necessarily need to renunciate anything, but should understand suffering and look at it clearly and realistically to break the cycle and find freedom. Mahayana teaches that humans have the ability to be enlightened both in this lifetime, as well as in succeeding lives. A strong emphasis is placed on karma. This sect of Buddhism is primary practiced in China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Bhutan, Singapore, and Mongolia.

Vajrayana Buddhism is a sub-sect of Mahayana that developed later, around the 8th century ACE, and traveled from India to Tibet and areas of Nepal. Many call this Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayana means “thunderbolt vehicle,’ or “diamond vehicle.” This sub-sect teaches that we do not necessarily need many lifetimes to reach nirvana, but rather, that we have everything we need in one lifetime to break the cycle of suffering and seek the wisdom to the path to freedom. Some call this form of Buddhism the “short path.”

So, this is my very brief overview of the primary sects of Buddhism. In Thailand, there is great importance placed on the day of the week one was born, and there is a different Buddha statue for each day of the week. Given that it is very late Monday evening here in Koh Samui, I am feeling rather like the Tuesday Buddha, which is the reclining Buddha…and, it will be Tuesday very soon. So, until next time, may you have enlightened days and blissfully reclining nights! Sa-wa-dee-ka.

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