This is not the post I wanted, but it seems to be the post I need to write. Basically I want to set out some of the background and context for talking about Buddhism, because a lot of people actually don’t know that much about it, or what they do know is limited to one specific form of Buddhism. That latter point is probably the number one source of issues I have discussing Buddhism, people don’t realize that Buddhism comes in many forms, and will try to correct me because they learned (a little) about another form. (Also, this may be overly simplified or generalizing at points, but remember this is just for a 101 blog post, there are great massive texts that explain this in more detail, I’m doing it in 1600 words)
So to start off I’ll present the historical story of Buddhism, and discuss the three main forms of Buddhism briefly (they are known as vehicles). This will be more about the history of the Buddhisms, and less about what makes them distinct from each other
Around 2,500 years ago in a Hindu kingdom that is now most likely Nepal a prince was born. He was Siddartha Gautama of the Shakya clan. After living a life of luxury until he was 29, he became disillusioned with the world and ran away to become a monk, hoping to understand the nature of things. He tried for years, and eventually found the way, he sat down and meditated for 49 days straight and became Enlightened, he became the Buddha. Buddha just means Enlightened One, or Awakened One.
Buddha taught you could become Enlightened by following the 8 fold path. Skipping details, but basically living a certain life without killing, stealing, lying, etc, and renouncing the world. This was the original form of Buddhism, it’s become Theravada Buddhism (The Way of the Elders) or Hinayana Buddhism (The Lesser Vehicle) now a days with a few changes, but admittedly it’s the closest of the Buddhisms to what the Buddha taught. It’s also in some ways the strictest, you couldn’t become enlightened if you owned property, or worked, or lived in the world, you had to remove yourself from it, meditate, and work on it and you’d realize there is no real you, and all things as transient and impermanent. It was non-monastic too, you ran off into the wild to do it, lived on the fringes of cities. It was a tradition based on awareness, insight, and wisdom. Eventually it shifted to a more monastic style, where you had proper monks and monasteries and you could practice in relative comfort. The forest monk path is still done though, but is the minority.
The idea of compassion that people associate with Buddhism didn’t really take a strong hold until about four or five hundred years later and you have another form of Buddhism developing, what’s now called Mahayana, the Greater Vehicle. While Theravada focused on renunciation, meditation, and insight, Mahayana was a more “worldly” Buddhism. It didn’t require the renunciation of everything, but stressed a need to be unattached, that clinging to something, to anything, is what creates the continual discontentment with reality. There were still renunciants, but it was no longer a requirement. Now though the focus shifted to universal compassion. Wisdom and insight were still important, but compassion for all beings took centre stage. Rather than working toward enlightenment directly, you seek to become a Bodhisattva, which is someone who is almost a Buddha, but not quite, basically you have one foot in enlightenment, but you’ve promised not to cease incarnating until all beings everywhere are enlightened.
Because there was now this Bodhisattva ideal, the door was opened for there to be other figures in Buddhism.
Classically Buddhism was non-theistic, not atheistic, as several early schools still recognized the existence of gods, but had no place for them, and never recognized a supreme creator god. Mahayana began to recognize other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by the bucket loads. Still no supreme creator, but you got Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, who largely became interchangeable with, and to an extent served the same purpose as gods and major spirits in other religions. Dzambala rules wealth, Kurkulla rules love, Bhaishagye Guru heals you, etc etc. And gods were recognized, but it was understood that gods are mortal and can and will die eventually, and that gods aren’t enlightened, so you can’t trust on them to really help you.
So now you have a semi-theistic religion that focused on wisdom and compassion, and the idea of helping all other sentient beings.
Not long after this, about a century or two after Mahayana’s appearance, came the next vehicle, the Vajrayana. Vajra is a complex Sanskrit word, it means, diamond, indestructible, lightning bolt and a few other things. So Vajrayana is often called the Diamond Vehicle. It is a lot more similar to Mahayana than Mahayana is to Theravada. The inclusion and emphasis on other figures became more prominent, even more Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were pulled out of the woodworks into the faith. Another thing that made Vajrayana distinct was its inclusion of tantric practices. Now trying to explain tantra would be another post altogether, and it might end up as one… First off tantra isn’t about sex, it /can/ include sex, but there is a lot more to it than sex.
Tantra is a more active way of engaging the system, and it is about using rather than avoiding. A common analogy in Vajrayana is when a Theravadan encounters a poisoned plant, representing attachment and ignorance, they avoid it altogether. When a Mahayanist encounters the plant they strive to pull it out by the roots. When a Vajrayanist encounters the plant they take the poison from it and make medicine from it. So while other forms of Buddhism may avoid sex, alcohol, dead bodies, and a variety of other things, in Vajrayana they are embraced consciously as ways of obtaining enlightenment. So while sex can be a distraction, it can also be a tool for awakening, if used properly. Alcohol can be a distraction, but again if it’s used carefully and properly it can be a tool for awakening. It’s like the Dark Side in Star Wars, you progress quicker, but it’s more dangerous…and you can shoot lightning from your hands, totally true about tantric Buddhism. (Actually it’s closer to Vaapad in Star Wars, but that’s a far geekier reference lost on most people)
Eventually this form of Buddhism moved into the Himalayan regions. It was largely wiped out in India during the 8-9th century in the Islamic conquest, but it thrived untouched in areas like Tibet. So what is thought of as Tibetan Buddhism actually is just Buddhism from Northern India.
Now there are other forms of Buddhism beyond this three major forms, or vehicles, Zen being the most prominent of them. Without trying to minimize the role of forms like Zen though, I believe you can understand all these other forms of Buddhism as branches off of these three major vehicles.
This evolution of Buddhism, and understanding of the different types of Buddhism is important to keep in mind, because to a lot of people Buddhism is a singular system, but it is not. In fact I would argue that the differences between Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism are more like the difference between Judaism and Islam, than the difference between Catholics and Protestants. When Europeans first encountered Vajrayana they called it “Lamaism” because they couldn’t tell it was Buddhism, or rather believed those silly Tibetans didn’t know what they were talking about.
If you ever took a world religions class in high school, or maybe even university, or you watched a documentary on Buddhism, chances are it discussed Theravada Buddhism, even if it didn’t explain that’s what it was focusing on. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s like learning about modern Christianity by reading the letters of the Church fathers from 1600 years ago.
Mahayana Buddhism, which is the more worldly form dealing with compassion as a focus, is the most common form of Buddhism. (It’s the type primarily practiced in China) Estimates range from about 50-70% of all Buddhists are Mahayana Buddhists. So what most people know about Buddhism, through Theravada, while much of it still applies to Mahayana is technically about an earlier form of Buddhism. For comparison estimates range from about 10-35% of all Buddhists are Theravadan. (Also, yes, these estimates are over wide ranges, but the distinction between Buddhisms isn’t always clear cut and I’m using several sources to cover my bases.)
Now Vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism, the form I practice is the smallest of the major vehicles, with 2-6% of all Buddhists practicing it. What is funny in an odd way, is visually when most people think of Buddhism they think of Vajrayana. They might not think of our weird gods and arcane ritual tools, but the monks, and temples, and statues they think of are from Vajrayana. This is in large part because the Dalai Lama is such a public figure. Two quick facts about the Dalai Lama: First he is not the Buddhist pope, because he’s only a religious figure in the smallest of the major vehicles; second he’s not the Vajrayana Buddhist pope (or whatever) because he’s only the head of a specific sect within Vajrayana. His role and importance in Buddhism is vastly inflated in the Western understanding.
This is will probably be the first of several posts on Buddhism, so if there is anything you want to ask, something you want clarified, or whatever, comment below and ask, and I’ll see if I can work it into other posts.