Early Buddhism developed 18 different schools,
mostly based on minor distinctions regarding the Buddha’s teachings. They were primarily monastic and scholastic,
though there are also forest traditions, which still exist today, with wondering monks adhering to the early model of
Since the Buddha did not write down his teachings,
there was a council established by all of his followers (Sangha) after his death to determine what he said, what credible
people reported that he said, and what was just hearsay or false teachings. His cousin, close friend, and attendant Ananda,
known for his prodigious memory, was able to recite his most important teachings in detail.
More councils were held in a span of
a few hundred years. They debated monastic rules and finer points of doctrine, as well as establishing metaphysical formulations
to explain the Dharma (Abhidharma). Buddhism had schisms at this point due to disagreements over rules and doctrine. A
reform movement eventually led to an emphasis on universal salvation in Indian Buddhism, both devotion in monasteries
to the path of the Bodhisattvas, and later lay devotion to Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. New sutras (or new interpretations) emerged,
starting in south India, and later in the north, along with new forms of practice.
These Buddhists called these approaches “Mahayana”
(great vehicle) to distinguish themselves from the “Hinayana” (narrow vehicle). Today Mahayana is an umbrella
of sects to the north and east of India,
including Vajrayana (Tantra) in Tibet, Cha’n and Pure
Land in China and
Vietnam, Nichiren, Shin, Shingon and Tendai in Japan, and
versions of Cha’n in Korea (Seon) Vietnam (Thien)
and Japan (Zen). Philosophical and devotional forms of Mahayana exist with rich cosmologies,
iconography and art, and a variety of meditation techniques/objects. Both Chinese and Tibetan
sects have a thorough record of the Agamas (early texts) as well as later sutras written in Sanskrit.
The original 18 schools in India
eventually disappeared, except one. A modified form moved south to Sri Lanka
and became known as the “Theravada” (way of the elders). Theravada is now found mainly in Southeast
Asia, and has preserved the Agamas and other teachings written in Pali, a folk language, which
sounds similar to Sanskrit, the standard language used in Indian religion (except in the south). The Pali Canon is divided
into three baskets: doctrine (Suttas, or the discourses of the Buddha), rules and precepts (Vinaya), and the Abhidharma.
and Mahayana have both lay-practitioners and monks (and some nuns). Some Mahayana sects, particularly in Japan, have
lay priests, and Zen, like Theravada, is primarily monastically based. All genuine vehicles of Buddhism see the
Dharma, as the Buddha did, as founded upon wisdom and compassion. Theravada tends to focus on moral renunciation, concentration,
insight, and jhana meditation (the eightfold path) as a precondition for awakening and virtue. Mahayana tends to focus
on compassion, insight into emptiness, and the reality of our inherent Buddha-nature, as the precondition for awakening.
While there is rarely any serious discord between Theravada or Mahayana vehicles,
misunderstandings can arise, so this is my attempt to defend both points of view in light of common critiques.
Defense of the Theravada View
“Heroic emphasis on enlightenment
can lead to a separation from this life and its active responsibilities and a radical undervaluing of the sacred wisdom of
ordinary human life. . . . We can no longer afford this flight into transcendence because it is part of the
reason why no one has intervened to stop the ruin and devastation of nature.”
– Andrew Harvey
Most spiritual paths that I know of begin
with some form of renunciation. This is not just done to earn merit from a cosmic Lord by denying
ourselves pleasure, although it sometimes is, but is also born out of a practical need to shift our lifestyle and priorities,
for the good of all.
Let’s apply this to the environmental
situation, in response to Harvey’s critique. Inaction did not cause devastation
of the ecosystem, action did. That means we should act as quickly as possible to correct it, right? A quick response is required,
yes, but not a careless one. Complex problems deserve more than superficial answers. There is a danger of getting lost in
armchair theorizing and tedious planning committees if we adopt this attitude, but the best minds in the field are already
providing us with solutions. What we need, first and foremost, is to not act.
What could I possibly mean by that? I mean
restraint. Reassess your relationship to the environment. Don’t buy disposable junk you don’t need. Don’t
pollute – body, mind, or environment. Don’t burn more fossil fuels. Don’t continue to fund unscrupulous
corporations. Don’t make your carbon footprint any larger. In short, disengage, as much as is realistically possible,
from the consumer tread-mill, if it is unsustainable.
Inaction is not the sole means of solving
the eco-crisis. Spiritual paths usually involve some form of positive action; mindful action in which we contribute something
useful to our world. Instead of throwing away our garbage, we can recycle. In addition to not cutting down more trees, we
can plant new ones. There are many things we can do. But without restraint from that which is harmful, the benefits of these
actions will be canceled out.
Defense of the Mahayana View
“If… you see emptiness
as the ground of being to which we’re all going to return, then what need is there to train the mind in concentration
and discernment, since we’re all going to get there anyway? And even if we need training to get back to our ground of
being, what’s to keep us from coming out of it and suffering all over again? So in all these scenarios, the whole idea
of training the mind seems futile and pointless.”
– Thanissaro Bhikkhu
The Bhikkhu makes a compelling case in his
essay on emptiness that treating it as a mere idea (rather than a direct realization) does not properly train the
mind the way Buddhism is supposed to. In a similar essay, he argues that nirvana should not be understood as a place,
but rather as the end of a process – clinging to phenomena, and with it the creation of karma. By
the same token, although “samsara” is often used interchangeably with “the world,” it is actually
a series of actions.
Here he deconstructs the distinction made
in Mahayana philosophy between “nirvana-with-remainder” (the private release from samsara by the Arhat)
and “nirvana-without-remainder” (full realization beyond duality, the collapse of samara into nirvana understood
by the Bodhisattva).
According to some Mahayana philosophers, nirvana-with-remainder is an impermanent state. Thus it’s a mistake to
aim for liberation for oneself while neglecting the liberation of other sentient beings, according to them. Thanissaro rebuts
that if we define nirvana, as the Buddha did, as liberation from clinging to, or identifying with, manifestation
at all, then it could never be incomplete. From this point of view, it’s illogical to assume that there could be two
types of nirvana, or that samsara and nirvana could merge into one reality.
I think the issue is even more subtle
than that, though. In response to the question of what’s to keep one from leaving nirvana and suffering all over
again, the answer is: nothing. It does not follow, however, that the spiritual journey is pointless. Total liberation
means we are not just free to enjoy this gift by ourselves, but are free to share it with others. If we decide not to permanently
disappear into a “ground of being,” so be it. The unbound mind, or Buddha-nature, does not cease to be available
to us. This is the “name that calls” in Shin Buddhist affirmation.
My first Buddhist teacher, Thich Tri Hoang,
pointed out that the statue of the Bodhisattva of Mercy (in Chinese, the goddess Kuan Yin) looks sad, as she is involved with
the suffering of all beings. Although we may not notice it, on the inside she is smiling. Compassion and wisdom are mutually
The Buddha himself spent 40 years teaching
the Dharma (even though he was initially tempted to not share it, due to the possibility that no one else would understand),
not only with his teachings, but through his own example. Why presume that his enlightened state – if it is
the same potential in all of us – is limited?
Enlightenment can be contagious, and there are many vehicles to spread it.
The Parable of the Poison Arrow
Thanissaro Bhikkhu has demonstrated that
emptiness in Buddhism is not merely a metaphysical doctrine, but a mode of perception. Hold nothing, material or mental,
as “I,” “me,” or “mine” and you will be freed. This is not just a theory, it is a practice.
The Buddha himself stressed the need
for practicality on the path. In answer to a student who said he would only join his sangha if he told him whether the universe
was created or uncreated, stable or impermanent, he replied with a parable. Suppose a man was shot with a poison arrow.
If he insisted on not being treated by a physician until he knew what town the doctor was from, what material of the arrow
is made of, or other questions unrelated to the task of removing the arrow, he would die before getting his answers. Similarly,
we should focus on how to attain freedom, rather than speculate on what it is intellectually.
However, this oft cited parable does not mention
what the man does after the arrow is pulled out. Wouldn’t it be natural to show gratitude toward his helpers?
And should he not gain insight from this experience of salvation?
To me, this is what the religious and philosophical
aspects of Mahayana are all about – gratitude, and sympathetic resonance – a sense of inter-relatedness
with all of our fellow beings. This, from the Mahayana point of view, is where real wisdom comes from, apart from the discernment
developed in contemplation, however necessary. The trajectory of life goes on, and we can be grateful awakening is possible whenever
we lose ourselves in samsara.