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7.2: A Survey of the Different Ways in Buddhism

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    Buddhism as we find it today is divided into two main branches or lineages, Theratiuia (the "way of the elders")2 and Mahayana (the "greater vehicle"). From Mahayana many other branches or lineages have grown, some considerably different from others, whereas Theravada has remained fairly constant in its essentials where it has taken root in one culture and another, though it varies in style and nuance of practice. Sometimes a third branch, Vajrayana (the "diamond vehicle"also called Mantrayana, the "mantra vehicle," and Tantrayana, the "vehicle of esoteric ritual-meditations and shamanic powers"), is distinguished, but its teachings overlap substantially with those of Mahayana and it is often conceived as a subtradition of Mahayana. There is no commonly accepted collection of authoritative texts (or canon) of scripture between them, though a large fund of texts is common to all versions. All three branches originated in India over several centuries of evolution of Buddhism from its historical founder, Siddhartha Gautama (563-483 B.C.E.), although there remain relatively few Buddhists in India today. (During the first centuries of Buddhism there is evidence that some eighteen different schools existed, but either they did not last or they were absorbed into these three.) The history of Buddhism's spread and evolution to the present day is an involved and interesting story that won't be rehearsed here. Good accounts are readily available.3

    The central story of Buddhism is the story of Siddhartha Gautama's life or, more specifically, the story of his search for Enlightenment (Buddha means "enlightened one"), his breakthrough to Enlightenment, and his teaching designed practically to help others attain it. The state of Enlightenment (nirvana in Sanskrit or nibbana in Pali) is variously characterized, but mostly by saying what it is not or by what it transcends. It is alleged to be a deliverance beyond all of the suffering, dis-ease, and ego-centeredness that plagues human life-an attainment of the pure bliss of at-onement with an ultimate, unconditioned realityo transcending all definite reference and finite description (hence not a reality among realities in any usual sense at all4). All ways of being religious in Buddhism are ways of drawing near to, of participating in, and of being grounded in this state. It is the Buddhistultimate realityo. All forms of Buddhism in different ways revolve around the story of Siddhartha Gautama and its elaborations-some of which concern other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas ("Buddhas-to-be"), for the Buddha Gautama is not regarded as unique. While there is little doubt there was a historical founder of Buddhism named Siddartha Gautama, the central story is thus not essentially historical, for in its essentials it could have happened at any time and place and, according to Buddhists, it has happened in innumerable times and places in the infinite reaches of time and space. The life of a Buddhist monk or nun in its most important aspects reenacts and emulates the key features of the story in pursuit of Enlightenment. Lay Buddhists too, to the extent that they are able, seek to follow the path and implement the teachings. And they, along with nuns and monks, in worship give honor and respect (in varying degrees) to the Buddha's attainment, the principles embodied in his person, his compassion, and his teaching.

    This page titled 7.2: A Survey of the Different Ways in Buddhism is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.