The religion of Buddhism was founded in India 2,500 years ago and remains the most dominant religion in the Far East. Buddhism is also becoming increasingly popular in the West. Over its long history, Buddhism has developed into a wide variety of forms, ranging from an emphasis on religious rituals and worship of deities to a complete rejection of the ideas of rituals and deities in upholding the constitution of the faith. No matter what form the religion takes however, all of its forms share a commonality in having great respect for the teachings of the Buddha, “The Enlightened One”.
An Indian prince who was called Siddhartha Gautama around the year 500 BCE founded Buddhism. According to the legend the prince lived a very rich and privileged life behind the walls of his palace. He was completely sheltered until one day he went on a journey beyond his normal boundaries and came cross an elderly, ailing man that was inches away from death. The image of the man shocked Gautama so much that he made it his mission to seek enlightenment through asceticism, inspired by all of the suffering in the world and determined to find a way to understand it.
Even the most extreme measures of asceticism failed to grant Gautama enlightenment. At a loss for alternatives, he sat beneath a tree and vowed not to move a single muscle until he had achieved the enlightenment that he sought. After days of sitting beneath the tree he achieved enlightenment and rose from his sedentary state as the Buddha, the “enlightened one”. For the remaining 45 years of his life he spent his time teaching the noble path of liberation to free one from suffering (the dharma) and establishing a community of monks (the sangha).
Different strokes; Theravada and Mahayana, Old School and New School
Buddhists beliefs vary very greatly among the different schools that teach it. Its important to note the difference between the Theravada (old school) and Mahayana (new school) castes of Buddhism. The original single concept of Buddhism was split into rifts when Siddhartha Gautama passed away. The Theravada school of Buddhism, strongest in Southeast As was angled towards only allowing those who practiced extreme asceticism the chance to ascend towards enlightenment, with a philosophy that encouraged breaking away from the mold of common society.
Mahayana Buddhism, however, was not oriented towards extreme asceticism or isolation, instead the new school thrived on the idea of integrating all walks of people into the path to becoming enlightened, and heavy encouraged societal engagement.
Give and Take
A good way to succinctly compare the mentalities of the two schools of Buddhism is that the old school of Theravada did not accept alms, but the new school of Mahayana did accept alms. Mahayana Buddhism is also heavy in the belief of several deities, celestial beings and other traditional religion elements. The path to enlightenment in Mahayana Buddhism may include religious ritual, devotion, meditation or a combination of all of the elements. Zen, Nichiren, Tendai, and Pure Land are the major forms of Mahayana Buddhism.
There are a vast number of Buddhist scriptures and religious texts that are commonly divided into categories of canonical or non-canonical. The canonical texts are called the Sutras and are believed to be the actual words of the Buddha. The latter are more or less commentaries on canonical texts, a collection of quotes and histories used to reflect on the words of the Buddha.
The Tripitaka (Pali Canon) is the earliest collection of Buddhist teachers and the only text that is recognized as canonical by Theravada Buddhist. Tripitaka means “three baskets”, based on the way that it was originally recorded on long, narrow leaves, which were sewn at the edges and then stored in baskets. The Mahayana Sutras revere the Tripitaka as a sacred text, but adds Sutras to reflect distinctly Mahayana concepts.
Today, over 360 million followers of the Buddhist way are alive. Although Buddhism is not anywhere to be found in its birthplace of India, it is extremely prevalent throughout China, Japan, and Southeast Asia. In the 20th century, Buddhism expanded to the West and even began to manifest in some western religions. There are over one million Buddhists living in America, some of which being “Jewish Buddhists”. Buddhist concepts have also been influential on western society in a general sense, particularly where nonviolence and meditation are concerned.