The Two Schools of Buddhism: Mahayana & Theravada

Many do not know that there are two major schools of thought within Buddhism.  Just as Christianity is split into different sects such as Catholicism and Protestantism, so too is the Buddhist Religion.  These two differing schools are known as Theravada and Mahayana.

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Theravada Buddhism is a school of thought that stresses the need to follow the teachings of elders.  They believe that the longer practicing monks have gained more wisdom; therefore their teachings should be very highly regarded.  Younger Theravada monks are passed on with teachings of those that came before them.  The main goal of those who practice Theravada Buddhism is to become free of suffering.  Shedding the chains of suffering is the ultimate attainment in their eyes.  Typically Theravada is practiced in more eastern areas of Asia such as Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma.

Mahayana Buddhism on the other hand stresses the importance of following the Buddhas teachings to go out into the world and spread the Dharma to others.  They are much more teaching oriented, believing that one’s own worship is just as important as spreading wisdom on to others.  Mahayana literally translates to mean ‘the Great Vehicle’ which is metaphor for the spreading of Buddhist teachings throughout the world.  Mahayana monks are a vehicle for knowledge, passing that knowledge unto others.  These monks are known as Bodhisattvas.  Mahayana Buddhism is mostly practiced in countries such as China, Tibet, Vietnam, and Japan.

Although these schools of thought originate and are practiced widely in the Far East, both schools have made their way into the west.  Many westerners may choose one school over the other in their practice, or take principles and examples from both.  Both schools are centered around the same teachings but hold special importance on ways to live and practice, one focusing more on individual practice, and the other more on teaching to others.

Buddha as Wandering Ascetic & His Path to Enlightenment

After leaving his Fathers kingdom behind him in renunciation of his former plentiful life as a prince, Siddhartha Gautama began to drift from place to place as a devoted wanderer.  In search of the ultimate meaning of life he found and studied with the wisest men of the time.  But to his disappointment, no matter how far he traveled, not one knew the answer to ending the suffering that had so greatly affected him.

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As his frustration grew, Siddhartha turned to asceticism, an extreme life of deprivation, in hopes that he might find the answers he was looking for.  For six years Gautama starved and deprived his soul in search for meaning, hoping that these extreme measures may hold the truth.  But soon he found that this new extreme, a life of complete scarcity, nor his previous life of opulence held the answers he was so determined to find.  Gautama then decided to take the middle ground.  He began to eat and nourish himself again but sought a new path to enrich his soul.

One full moon day within the month of May, Gautama sat beneath a Bodhi tree in a state of deep and unhindered meditation.  He decided he would not leave his position beneath the tree until he was able to find the answers he had spent so long seeking.

He was tested constantly by the evil Mara who tried to steer him from his concentration and ultimate goal.  Mara sent upon him the temptation of women, the torment of torrential rain and lightning, and armies of weapon clad warriors.  But not one was able to sway him from his mission.  As he sat beneath the Bodhi tree, Gautama eventually realized the cause of suffering and how to remove it from one’s life.  It was then that he became the Buddha, or the Awakened one.

After reaching enlightenment, the Buddha sought to teach his ultimate wisdom to others so that they too may be free of suffering.  He went to five holy men and explained his realization, making them his most devoted disciples in spreading his knowledge upon the world.  For the next forty five years the Buddha and his disciples traveled throughout India teaching the Dharma to all those who would listen.

The Noble Eightfold Path

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After achieving enlightenment, one of the first teachings of the Buddha was what he referred to as the Noble Eightfold Path or the Wheel of Dharma.  For those not yet familiar, this concept can be envisioned as a great wheel containing eight distinctive spokes.  All 8 spokes lead into one central hub in the middle just a a wheel on a bike.  The spokes represent the teachings and practices that will lead to this one central core, or enlightenment, and therefore the end to suffering.  These 8 central teachings are as follows:

1-      Right View- One must try to see the world through the same lenses of the Buddha, with compassion and deep rooted wisdom.

2-      Right Thought- One must live by the notion that every thought affects our well-being.  We must train our minds to think clearly and with the intention of doing good in order to build strong and resolute character.

3-      Right Speech- We must speak kindly and lovingly to every living being.  We must speak to every living being with respect and trust, regardless of their position or current state.

4-      Right Conduct- We must conduct ourselves in a manner of extreme integrity.  Our behavior should stand as mirror to our character and our intentions must match our actions.

5-      Right Livelihood- We must choose a profession that does good upon others, not harm.  We must not engage in activities that do not benefit the greater good of society.

6-      Right Effort-  We must put our best foot forward at all times and make a sincere effort to do our best in everything that we aim to accomplish

7-      Right Mindfulness- We must make it a constant habit to be aware of all our thoughts, words, and actions.

8-      Right Concentration- We must try to put our full attention on only one thing at a time, paying undivided attention to everything we do.

It is said that if one follows these eight noble truths we may learn the way to enlightenment just as the Buddha once did.  By doing so we have a chance at everlasting and complete happiness.

“However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them?” Buddha

The Five Precepts of the Buddha

As with all the major religions, Buddhism provides some basic principles to follow in ones everyday living.  These principles need not solely apply to practicing Buddhists, but can be beneficial for every living being to keep in mind as they interact with the world.  After enlightenment, the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama,  wrote out some basic rules to be followed in daily practice which he called “The Five Precepts”.  The five precepts are as follows:

1)      No Killing- One must always have a divine respect for every living being.  Life in all its forms is something to be cherished and respected.  As the Buddha said:

“Life is dear to all beings.  They have the right to live the same way as we do.”

This even applies to those pesky mosquitoes that may spoil our outdoor activities.  Even the smallest being has a right to life.

2)      No Stealing- One must live their live with superior integrity with respect for every living beings property.  We would not want others to steal from us, so following the same principle we should not take from others what is not our own.

3)      No Sexual Misconduct- We must try to live with a pure intentioned nature, valuing our bodies and those of others with the utmost care and respect.  Our bodies are our temples and a gift from our ancestors.  Virtue is something to be cherished.

4)      No lying- We must always speak with right speech, as the noble eightfold truths hold.  This means speaking with honesty without blemishing the truth.  The Buddha believed if we all spoke only the honest truth, the world would be much more peaceful.  This even applies to correcting others when a misunderstanding may occur.

5)      No Intoxicants- The Buddha held dearly living a life of pure mind, body, and soul.  Subjecting oneself to intoxicants would obviously taint both our minds and bodies, therefore we must try not to put anything into our bodies that may hinder us.

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For practicing Buddhists, following the precepts to the tee can sometimes be a difficult task.  We must learn to put our best intentions forward and give them our best effort.  The precepts are not supposed to be easy, but challenge us in our paths to enlightenment.  For many this is a lifelong struggle, and learning experience.  The purpose of the precepts is not to enforce perfect behavior, but to learn from our mistakes and put forth our best effort to follow his teachings.  In doing so, we can grow ever closer to our most awakened selves.

Early Life of the Buddha

Buddhism, one of the world’s major religions, began over 2,500 years ago with the birth of a prince by the name of Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha as we simply know him today.  Gautama was born in a small kingdom of Kapilavastu to father King Suddhodana and mother Queen Maya.   Upon his birth many sages predicted his likelihood of becoming a Buddha.  When the King heard word of this he vowed to do everything in his power to keep his son within his palace so that he may never venture away.

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By the time Gautama reached the mature age of sixteen he was married off to a gorgeous princess and showered in expensive gifts and palaces by his father.  But Gautama dreamed about life on the outside, dissatisfied with life inside his confinement.  He proceeded to sneak out of the confines of the greater palace on multiple occasions and it was on these ventures outward that he witnessed four things that would change his life forever.

When he ventured out the first few times, Gautama saw for the first time to effects of old age, sickness, and death.  His lavish lifestyle in his princely world began to disgust him as he realized all the suffering happening elsewhere.  On his fourth trip out he came across an aesthetic monk who had renounced all his worldly possessions in favor of learning the secrets and meaning to life.  Siddhartha Gautama decided he wanted to do the same.  He left his kingdom walls one final time in order to become a wandering monk himself.