Buddhism, Development of

Buddhism, Development of

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

When the Buddha preached his Deer Park Discourse and began to teach what he had discovered about the Middle Way, a group of disciples formed around him. At first these followers were men. But later on Buddha permitted women to join what became known as the Samgha, the order of monks.

The vow taken by these disciples consisted of "taking refuge" in the Three Jewels, sometimes called the Three Refuges. Monks would declare, "I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the dharma [Buddha's teaching]. I take refuge in the Samgha."

The life of a monk was regulated by ten rules. The rules prohibit:

Taking life Taking what is not given Sexual misconduct Lying Taking intoxicants Eating to excess and eating after the noon hour Watching or participating in dancing, singing, or shows Adorning oneself with decorations or perfumes Sleeping in a soft bed Receiving gold and silver The first five were for lay associates of the order. Monks practiced all ten.

After the death of a founder, religions seem to develop traditions and hierarchies. Just as Christianity would later divide into Catholic and Protestant, Buddhism separated into two great traditions, one of which would further divide, just as Protestantism did as the years went by.


Of the two present-day traditions of Buddhism, the largest is sometimes called Hinayana, a disparaging term meaning "lesser vessel," in contrast with the second major tradition called Mahayana, or "great vessel." The largest sect of Hinayana is Theravada.

Theravada means "path of the elders." It is the Buddhism of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. This is the Buddhism of monks with shaved heads wearing saffron-yellow robes. The Buddha is venerated with statues showing him in three positions, each pointing to a specific aspect of his presence.

When the Buddha is shown in the well-known lotus (seated) position, the image is reminding us of the Buddha in his enlightenment. This is the position of meditation, and it pictures Buddha under the Bo tree where he discovered his insight.

When Buddha is standing, he is being represented as a teacher. Rather than leave Earth, Buddha chose the path of the Bodhisattva. Although this is a Mahayana term, it is used to describe an enlightened one who chooses to remain and teach others his dharma, or doctrine.

When Buddha is shown reclining, it is an image of his entry into Nirvana. Other religious traditions sometimes picture their founder "going" somewhere accompanied by lights and celestial messengers. In Buddhism the understanding is somewhat different. Buddha did not so much venture outward as turn inward. Just as a star collapses in on itself, becoming a black hole that draws everything into the void, Buddha is now drawing all things into Nirvana, the place with no dimension and no mass, the place beyond all pairs of opposites, the eternal consciousness from which all things come and to which all things return. Buddha consciousness is present in everything and all people. People don't normally experience it without training, but Buddhism teaches that all are a manifestation of it and will eventually come to understand that the life people think they are living, though real, is ultimately an illusion. But after many lives of discovery, we, like the Buddha, will "recline" and be freed from samsara and the suffering of life.

Some forms of Theravada Buddhism practice archaic customs of initiation. Because initiation rites are part of prehistoric religions, these customs might point to ancient religious influences that have been absorbed into its culture. This type of rite is a common religious practice; both Christianity and Judaism show similar characteristics in their rites of baptism and circumcision.


The second great tradition of Buddhism is Mahayana, "Great Vessel." This is the Buddhism of China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Nepal, and Vietnam. Just as the Reformation quickly divided Protestants into different denominations, so Mahayana divided into different sects. They share a few aspects in common.

Foremost, Mahayana Buddhism emphasizes Buddha in his enlightenment, the presence of Buddha nature, and seeing the universe as Buddha came to see it.

The story is told that one day, soon after the Buddha's enlightenment, a man saw the Buddha walking toward him. The man had not heard of the Buddha, but he could see that there was something different about the stranger, so he was moved to ask, "Are you a god?" The Buddha answered, "No." The man asked, "Are you some kind of celestial being? An angel, perhaps?" Again the Buddha said, "No." "You're a magician, then? A sorcerer? A wizard?" the man queried. Once again the Buddha said, "No." "Well, then," the man asked, "what are you?" The Buddha replied, "I am awake."

Buddhism is full of such stories, illustrating that things are not necessarily as they appear to be.

Mahayana Buddhism calls the universe the Void because there is nothing in it that can be grasped. But "void" is only a metaphor. It doesn't mean that nothing exists; rather, it says that there is no standard of reality by which the universe can be understood. Samsara, the wheel of life, and Nirvana, the place beyond, are one and the same. One does not "go" to Nirvana. It is here, now. Everything is the same, but after enlightenment it is seen differently.

In his book Buddhism, Plain and Simple, Steve Hagen writes:

The Buddha never considered himself to be something other than a human being—only someone who was fully awake. He never claimed to be a god, or even to be inspired by God. He attributed his realization and understanding solely to human endeavor and human ability.

We call Gautama "The Buddha," but many other Buddhas, many other awakened human beings, exist, and have existed.... Buddha is not someone you pray to, or try to get something from. Nor is a Buddha someone you bow down to. A Buddha is simply a person who is awake—nothing more or less.

The story is told of a man who returned home from a trip only to find his house on fire. His children, as yet unaware of their danger, were playing inside. Not wanting to panic them and perhaps cause them to do something foolish in their distress, he yelled out, "I have presents!" Of course they came running out to him, away from the danger that was about to engulf them.

This story expresses the essence of Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddha saw fire engulfing the world and yelled to those who were not aware of their danger, "I have presents." The hope is that those who hear will come running out.

Four broad traditions, outlined below, have developed within Mahayana.

Mind-Only Buddhism

Mind-Only is perhaps best illustrated by the Buddhism of Tibet. Hindus called Tibet the land of Shiva. The Chinese called it Shangri-la. Sometimes Tibetan Buddhism is called Tantric Buddhism, or "Wisdom" Buddhism. But most know it as Vajrayana, the "Thunderbolt Vessel."

Legend relates how an ancient ruler sent his two wives down from the mountains to bring back information about the religions of the outside world. One went west to India and came back with a form of Hinduism. The other went east to China and came back with Buddhism. Thus it is that in Tibetan Buddhism we find a mixture of Buddhist philosophy and Hindu mysticism.

Vajrayana is the Buddhism of prayer wheels (spinning drums containing bits of sacred text) and the mystical chanting of "om," the primeval sound through which the world came into existence. Its most famous scripture is the Bardo Thodol, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, an account of the experiences of one who had died and is awaiting the next incarnation in a womb. Its clergy are called lamas, and the leading lama, the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, is called the Dalai Lama, one of the most respected religious leaders in the world. When the Chinese government invaded Tibet in 1951, forcing the fourteenth Dalai Lama into exile, his example of courage in the face of injustice and uncomplaining valor in the most pressing of circumstances proved to the entire world the value of his religious convictions. His acceptance of the world as it is rather than as he might want it to be spoke more powerfully than any sermon could have done.

Practitioners of Tantric Buddhism create reality out of their minds. There is only one reality, and that is Buddha nature. But we do not perceive it even though we are all buddhas. What we perceive is not the true nature of the universe. It is, therefore, an illusion.

When the Dalai Lama was asked how he could respond to Chinese brutality with such serene composure, he replied:

Oh, anger still comes. But only like lightning, only for an instant. Hatred, ill feeling, hardly ever. But there's an ill feeling against negative emotion because that is the root of all suffering. When you think of the suffering of Samsara, it's worse than the suffering of Tibet.... The enemy teaches you inner strength. Your mind by nature is very soft, but when you have troubles, your mind gets strong.

Tantric Buddhists often chant mantras over and over to focus concentration. Spun out thousands of times on prayer wheels or placed on prayer flags (strips of cloth containing sacred text or petitions), the mantra is continued in the blowing of the wind. A favorite is the phrase associated with Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of mercy: "Om mani padame hum." It stimulates awareness of the "jewel in the lotus of the heart," the treasure lying hidden within each of us.

Zen Buddhism

Another Mahayana tradition was transmitted to China around 50 CE. Known there as Ch'an, it migrated to Japan, picking up elements of Taoism along the way. This tradition is now known to the world as Zen Buddhism.

Tradition has it that as Buddha sat teaching his disciples he picked up a flower and smiled. Only one disciple, Kashyapa, smiled back and understood. The flower and the smile conveyed what words could not.

The "secret of the smile" was passed down through monks and eventually found its way to Japan, embodying the essential practice of Zen Buddhism. Zen tries to bring students to a sudden, intuitive grasp of Mahayana Buddhism, that is, the truth of non-dualism. Making distinctions keeps people from understanding that they, and everything else, are Buddha nature. Zen strives to bring a student to satori, a sudden, intuitive awakening to the fact that the mind has a non-self-conscious union with ultimate reality.

Through thinking and worrying and trying to figure everything out, we get in our own way. And how does the student strive to correct this? By not striving.

Zen meditation is often described as "sitting quietly, doing nothing." The mind is seen as a quiet pool of water. When it is still, it will reflect the reality all around it. When troubled, everything is distorted.

Zen masters developed many teaching devices, some of them quite brutal in their directness. Koans, unsolvable riddles, are often used. Probably the most famous is the one that, quite possibly, no master has ever used: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"

Modern Westerners unfamiliar with Zen might understand something about the purpose of Koans if they think about a computer analogy. Computers, like minds, can process information very quickly. But they don't understand any of it. They are not conscious. They are not purposeful. Human minds, however, are both conscious and purposeful. If the mind starts acting too much like a computer, perhaps the best way to deal with it is to jam it, to cause it to lock up. By contemplating a riddle with no solution, the conscious mind may, for an instant, lock up, allowing intuition and understanding to connect with ultimate reality. Words would not be able to describe the result. Trying to explain the unexplainable thing you have just experienced is impossible. If it could be explained, you wouldn't have to go through all the difficulty of Zen studies.

Someone once asked a Zen master, "What is the first principle of Zen?" The master replied, "If I told you, it would be the second principle."

Another teaching device is the Mondo. Mondos are dialogues or stories with a message, such as the following:

A senior monk and a novice were caught in a cloudburst as they walked along the way. After the storm had passed, the senior monk noticed a girl standing at the edge of a mud puddle that completely blocked the road. She was trying to find a way across. Without hesitating, he picked the girl up and carried her across, saving her from ruining her clothes. The two monks continued on together but the novice was shocked into complete silence. They were members of an order that forbade contact with women, and the novice didn't know what to think of the scene he had just witnessed. As the afternoon wore on, he finally could remain silent no more. "Master," he asked, "how could you have touched that girl when such an act is expressly forbidden by our order?" The Master replied, "Are you still carrying that girl around? I put her down hours ago!"

Zen practitioners have developed many ways of expressing purposefulness. One of the most beautiful is the form of poetry known as haiku. Haiku exhibits a rigid structure, usually consisting of three lines: the first line has five syllables, the second has seven, the third has five. But within this rigid structure lies a fragile beauty. A shimmering, transparent word picture is painted that can be grasped by the mind but never fully translated into words. The following comes from poet Joe Eldredge's "Island Haiku":

Tall rooms of damp fog Step softly ashore to dry In the July sun.

Zen in the Art of Archery, by Eugin Herrigal, has made famous the technique of "becoming one with the target." Olympic athletes now call it "visualizing."

The famous Japanese tea ceremony brings purposefulness into everyday life, creating an art form out of a daily ritual. The movie The Karate Kid II contains a beautiful "East meets West" scene in which the American hero is gently but firmly reminded, by a simple look accompanied by no words at all, that jokes have no part in an ancient ritual that has become a religious ceremony.

The point of these exercises is to experience what one is doing rather than just float on the surface of life. After satori, things appear the same to everyone else, but the enlightened one has broken through to see the reality. This notion is expressed by the seventeenth-century Zen master Shido Bunan, as quoted in The World of the Buddha:

The moon's the same old moon, The flowers exactly as they were, Yet I've become the thingness Of all the things I see.

Pure Land Buddhism

Even though Zen produced profound results, because its inner awareness is so all-consuming, it was difficult for laity to give the time and effort (the Zen master would probably prefer the word "non-effort") needed for its practice. Other forms of Buddhism arose in India and the Far East that had greater popular appeal. Pure Land Buddhism was one such tradition.

Amida Buddha (Amitabha in Sanskrit) is known as the "Buddha of Boundless Light." He is said to have promised the creation of a special place of bliss (the "Pure Land," sometimes called the "Western Paradise"), open to all who called upon his name.

Some visualize this Pure Land to be somewhat similar to the Western concept of heaven. Others see it as a metaphor for the mystical experience of enlightenment in this life.

However interpreted, in Pure Land we find parallels to the Christian concept of "dying" to this life and being "reborn" into a new one. Pure Land's symbol is the lotus, a beautiful flower growing from the muck and mire of suffering and human ignorance.

For great numbers of people in China and Japan, Amitabha has become "the Buddha." To them, he is, in effect, universal Buddha nature.


In contrast to the intensely personal nature of the three expressions of Buddhism explored so far, a thirteenth-century Japanese fisherman's son stressed the importance of social reform. The movement bearing his name is called Nichiren.

Nichiren emphasizes the Buddhist scriptures called Lotus Sutra. These are a large collection of teachings, parables, verses, and descriptions of those who supported the teachings of the World-Honored One, the Buddha. Particular attention is paid to the Bodhisattva of Superb Action, a Buddhist missionary devoted to spreading the Perfect Truth, and the Bodhisattva Ever-Abused, who was persecuted because he believed Buddha nature is found in everyone.

The mantra chanted by Nichiren and his followers in meditation, even today repeated for hours on end, is "Namu myoho rengekyo." This mantra refers to faith in the entire Lotus Sutra. As the phrase is slowly repeated, it works inwardly, revealing its depths to the practitioner in ways beyond thought and understanding.

Nichiren social activists have built seventy Peace Pagodas scattered throughout Japan, England, Austria, and the United States. All have been built with donated materials by resident monks, nuns, and local volunteers, and all are dedicated to world peace. Marches, sometimes cross-country treks, are held to draw attention to the peace movement. Participants bow to the Buddha presence of everyone they meet and spread joy through chanting, often accompanied by the beating of small drums.

In 1995 Nichiren activists traveled from Auschwitz to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. In the summer of 2002, a march from Washington State to Washington, D.C., in the United States drew attention to the cause of world peace as a response to terrorism.

Whether these many expressions of Buddhism are considered religions or philosophies, one thing is certain: Buddhism has demonstrated itself to be a lifechanging practice. The differing traditions emphasize the same underlying principle: human consciousness can be transformed from attachment to ego, suffering, and desire to the unattached bliss of Nirvana.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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