Buddhism 101: The Origin, Teachings and Schools of Buddhism

With estimates ranging from 200 to 600 million, the Buddhist population places the faith among large religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Buddhism is the predominant religion in many countries of the Far East, and it is gaining popularity in the West.

Buddhism was started sometime between 500 and 600 B.C. in what is now southern Nepal. The founding of the religion is credited to Siddhartha Gautama, the designated heir in a rich family.

Living in luxury, Gautama began to view his life as frivolous and repressive. He abandoned his family at a young age and became a wandering ascetic searching for the truth to life and death.

Legend has it that several years later, while Gautama was sitting under a lotus tree, a sudden realization came to him. This enlightenment brought the explanation of human suffering to him.

He was given the name Buddha, “the awakened one,” and thereafter he dedicated his life to spreading his teachings for the next 45 years.

Because Gautama wrote nothing during his life, his teachings are the interpretations of those who recorded them after Gautama?s death.

Common to all Buddhist beliefs are the Four Noble Truths: Life is painful. Desire causes pain. The cessation of desire will lead to the end of suffering. And the cessation of desire can be achieved by following the Eightfold Path?a list of practices that cultivates wisdom, morality and mental discipline.

The Buddha also saw the planet as an interconnected world of cause and effect in the form of karma. Suffering is cyclical through rebirths and can be ended only through Nirvana.

Although it gradually faded in India, Buddhism spread quickly to the rest of Asia by trade, travel and conquests. By adapting to local culture, the various sects of Buddhism survived and flourished.

All Buddhist sects can be categorized into three major schools?Theravada (or Hinayana), Mahayana and Tibetan (or Vajrayana).

Most scholars of Buddhism believe that Theravada adheres more closely to the original teachings of the Buddha. Theravada is the predominant religion in Cambodia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Often referred to as the “little boat” school of Buddhism because of its inaccessibility to the average person, Theravada requires followers to lead a monastic existence. Wisdom is the prime attribute of enlightenment, and attaining Nirvana is an around-the-clock endeavor.

In Theravada, the Buddha is seen as a supreme sage instead of a god. There is no transcendent metaphysical being to help the layman to end his suffering, and it is up to the individual to understand Buddha?s teachings and reach Nirvana. Also, Nirvana is not viewed as salvation or deification, but as the end to the cycle of suffering.

Mahayana, the “big boat” counterpart to Theravada, makes Buddhism more accommodating. A monastery life is not required, and faith is the main vehicle in reaching Nirvana. It embraces the metaphysical and speculations about the afterlife.

The Buddha is viewed as a god, and Nirvana is often portrayed as salvation and paradise. Many of those enlightened delay reaching Nirvana and remain in the material world to help others attain enlightenment.

Mahayana includes both the Zen and Pureland schools. Tibetan Buddhism is often considered to be one form of Mahayana. The main religion in China was Mahayana before communism. It is still practiced in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam.

Tibetan Buddhism absorbed many of the shamanistic practices of the local religions and became very ritualistic. The lama, or teacher, is the key figure in the religion. The spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, is part of the lineage of reincarnates of the founder.

Two key Tibetan beliefs are that perception of reality is skewed because man is ignorant, and one must eliminate the false idea of self before enlightenment is possible.

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