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"Thus have I heard"
Buddhism incorporates three traditions: Theravada or the Southern Tradition (spread in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Burma/Myanmar), Mahayana or the Northern Tradition (Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Mongolia) and Vajrayana also known as the Tibetan Tradition.
We would be focusing mainly on studying several aspects of the Theravada and Mahayana schools. Each of these two- although both strongly rooted in the fundamental teachings of Buddha Siddhartha and focused on the liberation of an individual from the circle of Samsara (birth, death, rebirth)- contains methods and practices different from one another. To best illustrate the connections between the two traditions and also to see where exactly they take different paths, we would be following the trajectory of the beliefs, of the monastic and meditative life of the monks and nuns, as well as paying attention to the specific texts and teachings.
Theravada, which is also called "the Doctrine of the Elders," represents a Buddhist school with teachings based on the Pali Canon and it is considered to be the school comprising the earliest surviving records of the sermons passed on by Buddha himself. Following his death, five hundred of the senior monks (including Ananda, Buddha's cousin) took the role of reciting and verifying the teachings they had heard during Buddha's forty five years of preaching. That is why most of these sermons start by the words "Evam me sutam" meaning "Thus have I heard." By 250 BCE members of the Sangha (monks and nuns) had already compiled the teachings as follows: Vinaya Pitaka (the 227 monastic rules of discipline), Sutta Pitaka (the actual preaching and discourses of Buddha and his closest disciples) and Abhidamma Pitaka (a deeper and profound psycho-philosophical analysis of the teaching). These three together form the Tipitaka ("the Three Baskets"). In the 3rd century BCE the monks from Sri Lanka began writing a series of commentaries to these texts, which were later on studied and translated into Pali started the beginning of the 5th century AD. The original Tipitaka texts along with the subsequent addendums (comments, chronicles and others) constitute the body of teachings of the Theravada literature.
Traces of the Mahayana Buddhism can be found back in 410 BCE when the Buddha's monastic order, after his passing on, had divided into two groups. While the first, known as Theravada, followed a more realistic path and sustained the idea of human trying to access Arahantship and free himself from the perpetual suffering, the second group, the Mahasanghikas, opposed in thinking with the idea that following the Buddhist path, one becomes transcendental and above regular people, not being underlined by any defilements. It also believed that, in its essence, the mind is pure and only contaminated by passions. It's from the doctrine of these Mahasanghikas that the Mahayana Buddhism will further evolve. Those who are believed to have set the path for this tradition are Nagarjuna (who lived somewhere between the 1st and 2nd century AD and established the Middle Way (Madhyamika) philosophy) and Maytreyanatha (who lived in the 3rd century AD and who's philosophy was further developed by two brothers and bears the name Yogacara). Nagarjuna spoke about the lack of an actual reality or non-reality, but focused its teaching on the existence of relativity. His philosophy was a counteract to the Sthaviravadas (Theravada disciples) who believed that every existing phenomena, even the parts of a whole are on a continuous flux of becoming. Nagarjuna introduced the concept of Sunyata (Emptiness) and the idea that all the elements (Dharmas) are impermanent and don't have an existence of their own. But the Madhyamika doesn't explain the exact nature of such a system; it admits though Sunyata as being the absolute reality and also that there is no difference between Samsara (a world of phenomena) and Sunyata (supreme reality).
Another important concept assigned to Nagarjuna is the teaching upon the relative truth (Samvrit) and the absolute truth (Paramartha), whereas the first represents a truth experimented by feelings and the last can only be reached by transcending human concepts of things through insight introspection. The Yogacara School further develops these ideas by accepting not only a non-existence of the self, but of the things in the world as well. It admits that the presence of the elements derives from the mind. This particular school acknowledged the supreme truth only being obtained through a vigorous life of meditation. The study of the Dharma can only help in acquiring a relative form of the truth because it's subjected to constant changes and improvements.
Therefore, while Madhyamika teaches about the relative and supreme truth, the Yogacara is proposing three forms: the illusory truth (a false attribution given to an object according to causes and conditions), an empiric truth (which takes into account the knowledge gained due to causes and conditions) and last, the absolute truth- highest form. These two schools represent the roots of what will be known as the Mahayana Buddhism.
Consequently, both Theravada and Mahayana Schools contain Buddha's fundamental teachings, but what is regarded by many as a separation point represents the achievement of the ideal. Theravada proclaims the pursuing of the path of an Arahant by freeing one self from Samsara through following the doctrines and Good Conduct, meditation (Samadhi) and a transcendental vision of things (Prajna). It also considers this objective to be obtained, at least in the beginning, at an individual level, which led to misconceptions upon this idea and its selfishness. The Mahayana teaches about the importance of obtaining the Bodhisattva ideal and according to this concept, a follower postpones his illumination until all the other beings have also been "saved." Even though we are facing here different concepts, we must still be aware of the existing superposition: the enlightenment is both for the benefit of the disciple as well as for the benefit of others.
But what exactly does obtaining Arahantship and Bodhisattva presumes? According to the Theravada teachings, an Arahant is a person who has achieved the forth and ultimate stage of enlightenment. All those who get to this point are considered worthy. The same teaching talks about three divisions of those who have reached this stage: the Buddhas, the Pacceka Buddhas and the Arahants, also known as Savakas or Disciples. The last are parted into Aggasavaka, Mahasavaka and Pakatisavaka. All these categories include illuminated beings with different grades of enlightenment. Highest are the Buddhas, followed by the Pacceka and last, the Arahants. The Buddhas are those who help humans in their salvation by guiding them, but the Pacceka are not able to do the same because they are solitary Buddhas and don't have to teach. The Arahants can and do help in the "salvation" of humans, but the number is less small when compared to the ones helped by the Buddhas. The Theravada Buddhism isn't constraining its disciples into following solely the Buddhahood path, but offers the possibility of a choice between the three. Therefore, a follower may aspire and ultimately reach the Buddhahood, by submitting to Paramis (necessary qualities for the Buddha state) or can opt for the Pacceka Buddha or any of the other Arahant stages. The reason why the Theravada Buddhism encourages the path of the Arahants resides in the fact that obtaining Buddha requires a much longer period of time and a great deal of suffering. Also, there can only be one Buddha in the world at the same time so, the path of the Arahants is easier and more accessible.
In the tradition of the Mahayana, following the Buddhas, are the Bodhisattvas, beings who have taken an oath to work for the salvation of every human being, not just their own. They take the vow not to reach Nirvana until everyone has been helped into enlightenment: "Beings are numberless; I vow to free them. Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them. Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them. The Awakened way is unsurpassable. I vow to embody it." Buddhist art and literature abounds in representations of transcendental Bodhisattvas. Among them, five are most common: Bodhisattva of Compassion (Avalokiteshvara- the Lord Who Looks Down in Pity or The One Who Hears the Cries of the World), Bodhisattva of Wisdom (Manjushri- He who is Noble and Gentle- representing insight and awareness), Savior of Beings in Hell (Kshitigarbha- in Sanskrit meaning "Womb of the Earth"), the Power of Wisdom (Manasthamaprapta -- One who has obtained great power) and Lord of Truth (Samantabhadra- He who is all Pervadingly Lord).
As we have seen, Buddhism is not the representation of one religion, it isn't considered to be one at all; according to the followers, the purpose of the teaching is to offer some guidance to those interested and wise enough to renounce the circle of misfortune. Finally, we can draw the conclusion…