Beings are numberless; I vow to save them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
Buddha’s Way is unsurpassable; I vow to become it.
Buddhism traces its origin to India in the fifth century BC and the experiences of the man, Siddhartha Gautama, through which he became known as the Buddha, The Awakened One. The events of his life provide the basic inspiration upon which all Buddhist communities have been built. The Buddhist community is known as the Sangha. The Sangha together with the Buddha (The Awakened One) and the Dharma or Dhamma (Teaching or Path) are known as the Three Jewels, the basic foundation of Buddhist belief. Through the efforts of disciples, Buddhism spread from India throughout most of Asia. Eventually, it came to North America and Europe, where it has grown tremendously in the past century. Today, at least six percent of the people on earth follow this many faceted faith. Their number is steadily increasing due to global migration patterns and interest by Westerners.
There are three major schools of Buddhism: The Theravada (Hinayana), The Mahayana and The Vajrayana.
- Theravadin Buddhism exists today in Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka and to some extent in Vietnam. You may sometimes see the term Hinayana used to refer to this school, but this is an outdated term, now considered to be pejorative. Theravada is a school that emphasizes the teachings of the early sutras and is predominantly a monastic school in its countries of origin, in that monks and nuns are the primary practitioners of the Eightfold Path itself, with lay practitioners focusing on the moral teachings and gaining merit through support of the monastic community. In the United States and Canada many Westerner lay practitioners follow a version of this practice focused on meditation and called Vipassana, Insight Meditation, or Mindfulness Practice.
- Mahayana flourished in China, Korea, and Japan and to some extent Vietnam. This stream of Buddhism originated in India, then moved to China where the Ch‘an and Pure Land sects originated. Ch‘an became Zen when it came to Japan, and Pure Land Buddhism is practiced as Jodo Shin or Shin Buddhism in Japan. Other Japanese Buddhist groups include Shingon and Nichiren. Zen and Nichiren are perhaps the best known Mahayana schools among Westerners, and Jodo Shin is the most popular among Japanese-American Buddhist communities.
- When Mahayana came from India to Tibet, it became flavored with indigenous elements of the Bon religion to produce a new school called Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, which is active in Tibet, Mongolia, Sikkim, Nepal and Bhutan. Vajrayana or Tibetan (as it is commonly known) practice is also quite popular among Westerners in Europe and North America.
An important teaching of the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions is that anyone can, over time (even many lifetimes) and with great effort and commitment, achieve Buddhahood or enlightenment, and not just ordained practitioners. In the stage prior to Buddhahood, one is known as a Bodhisattva. Different Bodhisattvas provide inspiration, guidance, and support to practitioners, mush as Bodhisattva of Compassion, known as Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig, Kuan Yin, Kannon or Kanzeon. The Dalai Lama is considered to be an incarnation of Chenrezig.
Buddhist moral understanding is not very different from that of other faiths. There are five moral teachings common to all Buddhist practitioners. There are ten in the Mahayana faiths, and many more specific moral teachings for those who are ordained. The basic five precepts or moral teachings of the Buddha are translated and interpreted in many different ways, but basically are: No killing; no stealing; no inappropriate sex; no lying and no intoxicants. Related to concern about morality is the Buddhist law of cause and effect. Every action causes some result, which in turn causes some action, which again causes a result. This endless chain is often referred to as karma, or kamma. Actually karma means volitional action (a choice we make), and the result or effect is known as the fruit of karma. Different Buddhist schools place different emphasis on karma, with some practitioners very focused on the karmic fruit of their own actions.
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