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Siddhārtha Gautama, a prince born between 5th and 4th century BCE, left his palace in present day Nepal with a search for meaning – 2,500 years later, around 7% of the world’s population follow his teachings and for many, Buddhist practices offer a path to a sense of belonging. Despite never developing a missionary approach to his teachings, Buddhism spread throughout Southeast Asia through parts of Central Asia to China and East Asia, through to Tibet whilst continuously expanding its presence in Central Asia. The Buddha’s teaching spread peacefully throughout Asia and whilst it has adapted depending on different local customs, the overarching message of being at peace with one’s self has remained consistent.
The initial expansion of Buddhism was a direct consequence of Gautama’s first-hand experience which he shared with anyone who listened. The intention was not to establish a religion or to convert others, the intention was to help others in understanding and overcoming their suffering. After his death, others were encouraged to follow in his footsteps and as his message began to spread, so did the formation of Buddhism. Often, the organic spread was accelerated due to the influence of royalty, for example the Mauryan King Ashoka who championed the teachings which further increased the awareness of Buddhism.
The different Buddhist Schools were formed after Gautama’s death, where a unified vision of what he had taught, after sometime became fragmented by differing views on the true teachings. Nevertheless, throughout its history and over the centuries, two major schools of Buddhism have formed: Theravada and Mahayana.
Theravada Buddhism, also known as the School of the Elder Monks, is a prominent school based largely throughout Southeast Asia and is behind modern mindfulness and insight practises. Insight practises are geared towards challenging one’s own delusion of permanence, suffering and a separate existence. As a result of being focused towards insight practises, Theravada Buddhism is less ritualistic, aesthetic and devotional. Theravada Buddhism is considered by many the oldest form of Buddhism and as a result is considered by the school, the closest to the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama.
Theravada Buddhists strive to become Arhats, an individual who has gained an insight into the true nature of existence thus achieving enlightenment and reaching Nirvana. As a result, it is not surprising that Theravada Buddhism is more about the personal journey; which incorporates meditation and mindfulness, recognising the Four Noble Truths, applying the Eightfold Path – and thus reaching Nirvana, simultaneously becoming an Arhat.
Mahayana Buddhism, also known as the Great Vehicle, is the most widespread form of Buddhism today and also acts as an umbrella term for other forms of Buddhism such as Pure Land, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism tends to be more teacher based and a more ritualistic, aesthetic and devotional form of Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhists believe that all humans are inherently Buddha by nature and by attaining a higher awareness, one becomes a Bodhisattva, which is an individual who is able to become an Arhat but delays doing so in order to help others reach Nirvana.
Simply put, the goal of Theravada Buddhism is to break free from the cycle of re-incarnation i.e. become an Arhat. Whereas the goal of Mahayana Buddhism is to get close to breaking free from the cycle of re-incarnation, however before reaching Nirvana, stop to help others to reach the same state i.e. becoming a Bodhisattva. Today, Theravada Buddhism is practised largely in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos – where Mahayana Buddhism is practised largely in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Mongolia. Nevertheless, all forms of Buddhism have one thing in common, to end suffering and eventually reach Nirvana, albeit through different routes.
Naturally, it is impossible to tell which of the different schools is closet to Siddhārtha Gautama’s vision, however the key message of embarking on a path towards a sense of peace of mind remains consistent. No matter which school one chooses to follow, the Buddhist belief is based on compassion, to end suffering and to move towards a more wholesome existence. To this respect, each school works towards a common goal and whilst the choice of path can be personal, it can also be argued as irrelevant.
Naturally with any form of History there is an element of opinion, fact and accordingly differential interpretations. Saying that, one must always consider various sources of information to determine what is the truth or at least the closest to the truth. Nevertheless, given the undocumented and documented nature of Buddhism, whilst interpretation can vary, the key message surrounding suffering has remained consistent. I hope this series was educational and has enabled readers understand a little bit more about a different faith, practise and culture. Thank you for reading this series on Buddhism!
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