Buddhism The Concept of Life Term Paper

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It is through the process of death and rebirth that the knowledge is gained which will finally liberate the individual being from the central cause of all suffering itself - the cycle of death and birth. Essentially, it is only through knowledge that this can be achieved in most Buddhist schools of thought.

The rationale behind the importance of reincarnation as a process that is required to escape the centrality of suffering is discussed by Keown as follows. "... The Buddha was pointing out that human nature cannot provide a foundation for permanent happiness.... Suffering is thus engrained in the very fabric of our being.... until the condition is recognized there can be no hope of a cure.

Keown 47)

2.4. The development of the types of Buddhism

The early more conservative and doctrinaire form of Buddhism was known as Theravada Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism literally translated means Old (Thera) Way (vada).

The Pali Canon is its main source of authority,

Theravada was closely aligned to the words and thought of the Buddha and interpreted them in a strict and formalized way. It is also known as the "lesser Vehicle." "...also pejoratively referred to as Hinayana -- the Lesser Vehicle -- for it emphasizes personal liberation/salvation in contrast to the collective liberation of Mahayana Buddhism (the "Greater Vehicle")."

From its origins Buddhism began to spread to other parts of India. As it expanded it encountered and took cognizance of new customs and ideas. The early Theravada view was therefore challenged by numerous issues - the central issue being the elitist or non-populist idea that only a few of the elect could achieve enlightenment and not the majority of people. This also became a central criticism of the Theravada school of thought as it was seen as being less compassionate or concerned with the suffering of others. This was eventually to lead to the establishment of the Mahayana school of thought.

In the end opinion polarized on a range of issues and the two groups went their separate ways in what became known as the 'Great Schism'. In due course both the Elders and the Universal Assembly fragmented into a number of sub-schools. All of these have now since died out, with the exception of the Therav-da, which is descended from the Elder tradition. However, many of these early schools left a legacy in the contribution they made to a revolutionary new movement which became known as the Mah-y-na.

However, both the Hinayana and Mahayana schools are based on the essential Four Noble truths and the Eightfold Path attributed to the Historical Buddha.

The Mahayana means the 'Great Vehicle', which refers to its concern with universal salvation. The formative years of this movement are estimated to be around the time of Christ or roughly between 100 BC and AD 100.

The highest ideal in the Mahayana tradition is an aspirant dedicated to the salvation of the world. This is different to the emphasis on personal salvation in the Theravada. Importantly this ideal finds expression in bodhisattva. The bodhisattva is "... someone who takes a vow to work tirelessly over countless lifetimes to lead others to nirvana. Everyone who subscribes to the Mah-y-na technically becomes a bodhisattva, but for most this is just the starting point of their long course of spiritual development.

The central course in the development of Mahayana Buddhism, as has been suggested was when a number of groups began to question the Theravada perspective on the Buddha's teachings. Mahayana Buddhism was uncomfortable with the Theravada emphasis on desire for personal enlightenment, what is sometimes referred to as the arahant or 'saintly' ideal. If Buddhism was to be driven by compassion then to strive for one's own enlightenment could be seen as selfish; true Buddhism would be more concerned about enlightenment for all. It was for this reason that this Buddhist tradition referred to itself as 'the greater vehicle' and referred to the Buddhism that preceded it as the Hinayana or ' lesser vehicle'

The above is of course a very cursory overviewed of the two schools. There are many other important aspects. For example, the Mahayana school also covers a variety of schools ranging from Pure Land Buddhism to Zen.

Major differences between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism.

As has already been referred to in the above section, the two Buddhist schools of Theravada and Mahayana can be differentiated by their central differences on certain issues. However the core difference between these two school of thought lies in the emphasis on liberation or enlightenment for all mankind in Mahayana thought; while "... In Theravada, supreme attainment is represented by the arhat, a spiritual master who has achieved enlightenment by his own efforts."

The essential difference in the Mahayana is a central and prominent emphasis on compassion for others and a concern for saving the entire world and not just oneself.

A the Mahayana school promises salvation to all who sincerely seek it -- monk and laity alike. The Mahayana tradition embodies the Bodhisattva Ideal -- the desire to liberate all beings from suffering. For this purpose, the Mahayana school posits the existence of numerous Bodhisattva, the "compassionate ones," who act as universal saviors of the common people.

In crude terms one could say that Mahayana is more democratic in a spiritual sense, while the Theravada view is elitist and more selective. This central difference has important ramifications for spiritual elements, such as the view of Nirvana and life after death, as it relates to enlightenment in Buddhism.

This difference is clearly seen in the ideal of the Bodhisattva, or spiritual hero, in Mahayana.

Bodhisattva is a being, divine or human, who, upon reaching the threshold of enlightenment, chooses instead to remain behind, enduring the endless cycles of life, death, and rebirth (samsara) in order to help all other beings achieve enlightenment. In an act of self-sacrifice, delaying personal liberation, the Bodhisattva takes a mighty vow of dedication to this truly superhuman goal. The celestial Bodhisattvas are among the stars of the pantheon of Mahayana Buddhism, the best known of them the objects of profound devotion. But the path of the Bodhisattva is open to human beings as well, who may also take the great vow and dedicate themselves to the benefit and liberation of all beings.

The concept and cult of the Bodhisattva is a therefore central to an understanding of Mahayana. It should also be noted that it would be incorrect to assume "Theravada does not also uphold the ideal of compassion and they believe that one gains merit from acts of mercy, kindness and generosity."

One of the central criticisms of Theravada from purely religious point-of-view is that it is not "selfless" enough and that the elitist philosophy shows signs of the retention of elements of self and ego. However, this critique is argued against by the proponents of Theravada who emphasize that "...their religion does not recognize a self at all -- famously, as noted in the canonical Dhammapada, verse 279, sometimes translated as "all phenomena are not-self."

There are also other differences between the two schools of thought. While the Theravada only accepts the Pali Canon, the Mahayana " goes beyond the core doctrine contained in the Theravada Tipitaka in several important respects. It accepts as canonical other sutras not in the Tipitaka; this literature is known as the Buddhavacana (Revelation of the Buddha). The most notable Buddhavacana texts are the Saddharmapundarika Sutra (Lotus of the Good Law Sutra, or Lotus Sutra), the Vimalakirti Sutra, the Avatamsaka Sutra (Garland Sutra), and the Lankavatara Sutra (the Buddha's Descent to Sri Lanka Sutra), as well as a collection known as the Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom).

There is also an essential difference between the two schools in the way in which they view the Buddha. While the Theravada sees the Buddha as a man who was been supremely enlightened, the Mahayana views the Buddha as a manifestation of a divine being.

This view was formalized as the doctrine of the threefold nature, or triple body (trikaya), of the Buddha. The Buddha's three bodies are known as the body of essence (dharmakaya), the sum of the spiritual qualities that make him Buddha; the body of communal bliss, or enjoyment body (sambhoga-kaya), a godlike form revealed to the Mahayana initiate during contemplation; and the body of transformation (nirmana-kaya)

Mahayana therefore believes in an infinite number of transformation bodies of the essential Buddha. However, these and other differences also tend to revolve around the central aspect of the idea of personal and selective enlightenment as opposed to enlightenment for all.

A further complex area of differentiation is the important Mahayana doctrine of the emptiness (sunyata) of all things. This is an area which is strictly outside the scope, or space, of this dissertation but forms an essential aspect to be considered in Mahayana thought. According to the…[continue]

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