[–] Skanda 0 points 10 points (+10|-0) ago 

I'll do an ELI5, TL;DR version. I won't try to be academically exact, just to convey the differences in a very accessible way to those who aren't familiar with the Buddhist tradition. First let's start with the following distinctions, there are three yanas, three vehicles, Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Two things to note here: "Hinayana" is a somewhat pejorative terms used by Mahayanists to describe Theravadins; Hinayanists call themselves "Theravada" instead. Second: Vajrayana is not really a separate vehicle, it's part of Mahayana, but sometimes it's called a separate vehicle.

Now let's go to Theravada (Hinayana): this it he kind of Buddhism you have in Sri Lanka, Thailand, etc. to simplify, this Buddhism stresses the monastic order, following monastic discipline, calming (shamatha) and insight meditation (vipassana), and teaches the basic Buddhist doctrines that all Buddhist schools share: Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination, etc. One thing to note is also that this school follows only the Pali Canon which is probably the closest to what the historical Siddharta Gautama taught. However, do not assume this means they are "closer to original Buddhism", that would be incorrect, because they also rely on philosophical commentary on Siddharta's teaching, called Abidhamma, and especially Buddhaghosa's elaboration. This path stresses the ideal of an arhat, a liberated person who reached Nirvana.

Enter Mahayana. The main thing about Mahayana is that they criticize the "Hinayana goal" of arhatship as too limited and even self-centered. This idea can be explained in many ways. One way is on a very abstract level: if we take the absence of self doctrine of Buddha seriously, we have to arrive at the conclusion that there is no self to gain enlightenment (this is what the Diamond Sutra teaches). So a bodhisattva is someone who does not entertain the idea of having a self, and therefore does not seek "personal enlightenment". Moreover, this idea is extended further in the Prajnaparamita Sutra so that not only people lack a self, but all things lack a self - meaning, a permanent substance. In other words, all things are analyzable to other things, and so they are empty. Since all things are empty, so is "enlightenment" and "nirvana" (which leads the great Mahayana philosopher, Nagarjuna, to conclude that samsara and nirvana are ontologically identical). A bodhisattva is therefore someone who has this paradoxical task to save all sentient beings while realizing that sentient beings ultimately do not exist. He has to save everyone while simultaneously realize there is nobody to save to begin with. As this emptiness teaching sounded too negative, the Mahayana came up with a corrective teaching that employed more positive language to state the same. And so it employed the language of potential for Buddhahood. Everyone has the seed, the potential to realize Buddhahood, and this is called Buddha-Nature. In Zen literature, it is also called the True Self, the Pure Mind, the One Mind, etc. How this is consistent with universal twofold emptiness is for another thread.

So now you have the big Mahayana family with all that they share: the bodhisattva ideal that works for universal enlightenment of all sentient beings (not only for his own enlightenment), the emptiness teaching, and the seed of buddhahood in everyone (everyone has the potential for buddhahood). Now the question is, how do we get from point A (from foolish unenlightened being) to point B (Buddhahood - the goal of Mahayana) - which is where various schools differ. I will list the Mahayana schools and the main strategies they employ to arrive at Buddhahood.

Zen - in Zen, the sudden enlightenment is stressed, which is an instant realization and instant Buddhahood. In the Caodong/Soto tradition, this is more something arrived at inwardly, through silent contemplation, while in the Rinzai/Linji lineage, a Zen master can trigger this event by such unconventional methods as kicks, shouts, etc. which may seem aggressive but is just a form of compassion from the master. Moreover, this lineage sometimes employs reflection on koans: cases, dialogues, exchanges that seem nonsensical but when made the object of contemplation can trigger sudden insight. For instance, a monk asks a student, what is Buddha, and the master replies something like "three pounds of flax", or "dried shit-stick". These are two popular Chinese koans.

Tiantai - Huayan - these are Chinese philosophical schools that developed Mahayana to the highest level from a philosophical PoV, very scholastic and complex systems of thought and practice. I cannot go into their theories here but suffice to say they both developped ideas of interpenetration; how each phenomenon is penetrated by all other phenomena. In a particle of dust there is a Buddha, and so on - their theories were very influential on Zen and all other schools. They almost disappeared because of persecution and their focus on study. Focus on study of arcane theories cannot become popular among the masses. Also, it was easier for anti-Buddhist emperors to destroy these schools because if you're based on text, you only need to burn the text to destroy the school. But in the case of Zen and Pure Land, it's impossible because they're based on practice, not texts.

Pure Land - Most popular school in China & Japan today. Unlike Zen, it's based on reliance on Other Power - this path is for those who, upon deep reflection, seeing how hard the path of Mahayana is (saving all sentient beings, practicing the Six Perfections), realize that they cannot possibly achieve the goal of Buddhahood in a single lifetime, and so rely on the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life to be reborn into his Land from where they will return and become great Bodhisattvas. It may sound other-worldly and anti-Buddhists but actually, paradoxically, by giving up they realize the goal because once you give up completely, even give up meditation (as in the case of the extreme Japanese Pure Land), you reach a settled mind, a peace of mind that is unshakable.

Tantra - Vajrayana, Shingon, Tibetan Buddhism, all fall into this category. Here we have to mention skillful means: another important idea of Mahayana is that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas use skillful strategies to enlighten sentient beings. Think of it as "spiritual technology" that enables people to quickly realize certain truths that would otherwise take much longer to be grasped... This is the the reason behind the Zen kicks, shouts, and unconventional method to convey enlightenment. If it's an expedient, skillful mean employed by a master to enlighten a student, it is legitimate and approved. Tantra goes to the extreme here, employing all kinds of stuff from Indian folk religion, deity worship, sacrifice, exactly the stuff that is denied by conventional Buddhism, using colors, rituals, charms, spells, even sex and various "sins" (not liberally, and not for enjoyment - just as a teaching method) - all to create short-cuts in the student to reach enlightenment as quickly as possible, in a single lifetime. In this vein of Buddhism, having a master, a guru, is crucial. Unlike some forms of Buddhism which can be practiced alone (like Pure Land), this one requires a personal guru and devotion to the guru as the guide. The guru is to be seen as if he was Buddha himself. This can be very powerful but also dangerous. Read some stories about Chogyam Trungpa and you will find out why: sex orgies, alcohol addiction, HIV infection ... if the guru is perfect and beyond all criticism and reproach, this obviously opens the gates to all kinds of problems.

Nichiren: This exists only in Japan and it's basically a school that is similar to Pure Land in practice (repeating the Name) but venerates a text instead of a Buddha. The text is the Lotus Sutra. They have many new religion offshoots that some call "cults" (I think that's exaggerated) like the Soka Gakkai. Nichiren saw himself as a prophet and also attributed a special place in history for his nation, Japan, which he saw as carrying the banner of the Lotus Sutra for the whole world. The main teaching of the Lotus Sutra is that Siddharta Gautama - Buddha - was not just a mortal guy, but he is actually an eternal entity that got enlightened in the remote past, aeons ago. Just like their theory, their practice is also a mix of many things: they repeat a sentence (Namu-Myoho-Renge-Kyo; similar to Pure Landers who repeat Namu-Amida-Butsu) but they chant to a mandala (which is more Tantric).

To answer your question: are the differences enough to warrant breaking off?

A Theravadin monk follows hundreds of rules and won't even stay close to a woman. He has his head shaved, follows a strict diet, and lives a life that by our standard would be considered absolutely ascetic and isolated, contemplative. Compared to him, take a Japanese Pure Land priest. He eats meat, drinks alcohol moderately, has wife and kids, doesn't meditate. He only repeats "Namu Amida Butsu!" in gratitude, but that is not meditation according to Shin Buddhism. The difference is great, and I would say it does warrant separate religious bodies.

Disclosure: I wrote this as quickly as I could, and from a specific PoV (Mahayana / Pure Land). I do not claim it is objective of exact. It's possible that my bias influenced my descriptions.


[–] Pyrrho 0 points 2 points (+2|-0) ago 

This answer is an excellent summary. I'm still going to cavil a bit; maybe it'll produce some balance.

Regarding Theravada being closest to early Buddhism, these links may help with that evaluation https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Buddhism https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Early_Buddhist_schools https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pre-sectarian_Buddhism

It seems to me you've somewhat overstated the dangers of Tantra. It's somewhat misleading to try to summarize the Trungpa controversy in two sentences.

Certainly there's much controversy surrounding Trungpa, but some of his students still defend his actions to this day. In particular, and addressing your devotion point, Reginald Ray says in several places that Trungpa always encouraged critical thinking and an egalitarian spirit with his students. I see nothing inherently harmful about sex or drinking alcohol. Reginald Ray responds to this criticism by saying that Trungpa was so open and transparent about it that no one felt particularly misled or betrayed. The HIV thing was Trungpa's successor.

You didn't mention Mahamudra or Dzogchen which are considered the pinnacle of the Vajrayana. Also, you didn't mention that 'Tantra' is a general term (used by Westerners) that refers to esoteric texts. There are myriad Buddhist tantras, extant in several languages, separated into several classes. They're very difficult to summarize.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outer_Tantras https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_Tantras

It's also important to identify the roots of Buddhist Tantra in Indian Tantra and the siddhas. While it's true they could be called 'extreme' they could also be called radically egalitarian: they were welcoming of women, laity, and people of all castes.

Speaking so much of Reginald Ray, here's a summary table of the Three Yanas from one of his books. Ya'll might find it helpful here http://veuwer.com/2olv.png


[–] Skanda 0 points 1 points (+1|-0) ago  (edited ago)

Thank you for your quality comment. Just some clarifications:

It seems to me you've somewhat overstated the dangers of Tantra.

Zen has the same danger, and all other Mahayana schools that stress a master/disciple relationship. Some other forms of Mahayana, like Pure Land, do not have this danger. In guru practice however, as I understand it, one is to see her guru as if he was Buddha himself. I know of many abuses that enter into this kind of situation. I know people personally who were in such relationship, and all of the people I know were betrayed or disappointed after the thing turned into sexual. Rarely it goes as planned, especially in our era where quality teachers are rare and quacks are many. It's not just in Buddhist Tantra, it tends to happen whenever a man is given a superhuman aura in relationships. Another example is with Catholic priests.

Certainly there's much controversy surrounding Trungpa,

This website explores the controversies and some of the more sinister aspects of his mission in America. I think it's a little naive to believe he drank because he was exploring the "illumination of drunkenness" - he was clearly alcoholic who drank from morning to evening and died because of his alcoholism. If one can see this alcoholism as a form of "crazy wisdom" - then what is the limit of "crazy wisdom"? Obviously for Trungpa & co, unprotected promiscuous sex was another form of "crazy wisdom". Those two are clearly in contrast to what the Buddha taught in the Five Precepts - no alcohol drinking, no sexual immorality.

I see nothing inherently harmful about sex or drinking alcohol.

Well, the historical Buddha saw something harmful in alcohol (see: Fifth Precept). You can say "Vajrayana is beyond that basic stuff, so the prohibitions can be suspended". My question would be: where does one stop? If drugs, sex & rock'n'roll can be an acceptable vehicle of spiritual practice, can violence be? Apparently yes: in the link above, Trungpa did commit some acts which could be described as violent (forcing people to strip?) - Is heroin addiction also OK, if alcoholism is? Could rape be a vehicle of spiritual practice, if forcing people to strip is? What is the essential difference between heroin addiction and alcohol addiction?

but some of his students still defend his actions to this day

Osho Rajneesh was an Indian "guru" who planned and executed a terrorist attack and he is still revered, defended by his students who are still posting his material, spreading his ideas and following him like a saint. So that's no guarantee of anything.

You didn't mention Mahamudra or Dzogchen which are considered the pinnacle of the Vajrayana.

True. Thank you for correcting my mistake.


[–] Tat_Tvam_Asi 0 points 1 points (+1|-0) ago 

I like you. That is all.


[–] Skanda 0 points 0 points (+0|-0) ago 

I'm trying to edit my own comment to improve upon it and fix some things but it won't let me...

My edits aren't saved. Something's up with VOAT today.


[–] silly_buddha 0 points 7 points (+7|-0) ago  (edited ago)

I'm only answering this question because no one else has yet. I don't know how fast this verse moves so some one else may come along and provide a better answer for you.

Mahayana, Theraveda, Hinayana, Vajrayana, and probably other terms too are ways of classifying different approaches to Buddhism adopted by various schools all with many more individual names. Zen might best be described as an example of Mahayana Buddhism. There's a lot of overlap between the schools and to be honest if you're practicing mostly alone in the West there's probably no good reason to limit yourself to one ideology. Unless you're practicing under a teacher you'll probably pick things up from different sects without realizing it anyway. In my opinion the point of Buddhism is to rise above modes of thought that involve a need to classify and distinguish things from each other, though I think I understand where you're coming from, you're looking for a starting point.

To try and answer your question, generally Mahayana puts emphasis on understanding and Theraveda emphasizes practice. Tibetan schools I'm less familiar with but are related to Vajrayana and also Mahayana. Theraveda is common in South East Asian countries like Thailand, Mahayana is more common elsewhere.

Shunryu Suzuki is well respected in the West and was one of the first to write about practicing Buddhism in English. He talked about having a Mahayana Mind and Hinayana Practice, because different sects have different strengths.


[–] Shakyamuni 0 points 3 points (+3|-0) ago 

Wikipedia has good articles if you're looking for a basic understanding of Buddhism's structure. I recommend you begin here: Schools of Buddhism.

In addition to what /u/silly_buddha and /u/Skanda have listed, I would like to emphasize the historical order of the schools' development.

Theravada is the oldest school, and can reasonably claim to trace all the way back to the Buddha himself.

Mahayana followed afterwards, and was enriched as Buddhism spread eastwards across Asia.

Tibetan Buddhism is an offshoot of Mahayana tradition that sort of rapidly evolved on its own into a very unique school.

Chan (China) and Zen (Japan) developed relatively later as refinements (in the simplifying sense, not making a value judgment here) of Mahayana Buddhism.

That's REALLY simplifying things, but puts some chronology out there.

Are the differences large enough? Answering as the mod of /v/theravada, I'd say absolutely! As an example, Theravadans and Mahayanans take a very different approach to Boddhisatvas! Another example is Guanyin aka Avalokitesvara who is an extremely important figure to Mahayanists and entirely absent from Theravadan tradition.


[–] Zardoz 0 points 0 points (+0|-0) ago 

People will give you 'groupings' and in a way we need to use 'classification' just to make some sense of a topic but 'syncretism' runs through them, around them, outside them, in and out of them. Throughout Asia you will find Buddhism mixed with folk religions, Taoism, Christianity, those mixed and merged and melding and then those will evolve, mix, change and so on.

Just as in the West the Gnostics (again, could be many things, any varieties, syncretic itself) took Buddhist ideas and Hindu ideas and mixed and merged them as many Western Christians even absorb and meld some Buddhist ideas into their lives.

But anyways: syncretism.

*the bigger exceptions I see are in the West in California and college campuses or forums like this where in a real sense Buddhism is 'westernized' which is to say made to fit into categories, treated in a way like parallel to 'Christian structures' and tried to be made into stricter more organized schools of thoughts, rules, scriptures etc.

But in Asia I see far far less of that in the overall average.