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What Buddhists Believe

What Buddhists Believe

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The real followers of the Buddha can practise this religion without
adhering to any school or sect.

A few hundred years after the Buddha’s passing away, there

arose eighteen different schools or sects all of which claimed

to represent the original Teachings of the Buddha. The

differences between these schools were basically due to various

interpretations of the Teachings of the Buddha. Over a period of

time, these schools gradually merged into two main schools:

Theravada and Mahayana. Today, the majority of the followers of

Buddhism are divided into these two schools.

Basically Mahayana Buddhism grew out of the Buddha’s

teaching that each individual carries within himself the potential

* For a short, excellent exposition on this topic, read Dr. W. Rahula, ‘ Theravada and Mahayana
Buddhism’ published by The Buddhist Missionary Society.

94 ! WHAT BUDDHISTS BELIEVE

for Buddhahood.*

Theravadins say that this potential can be

realised through individual effort. Mahayanists, on the other hand,

believe that they can seek salvation through the intervention of

other superior beings called Bodhisatvas. According to them,

Bodhisatvas are future Buddhas who, out of compassion for their

fellow human beings, have delayed their own attainment of

Buddhahood until they have helped others towards liberation. In

spite of this basic difference, however, it must be stressed that

doctrinally there is absolutely no disagreement concerning the

Dharma as contained in the sacred Tripitaka texts. Because

Buddhists have been encouraged by the Master to carefully inquire

after the truth, they have been free to interpret the scriptures

according to their understanding. But above all, both Mahayana

and Theravada are one in their acceptance of the Buddha and His

teachings as the only method to attain the supreme bliss of

Nirvana.

The areas of agreement between the two schools are as follows:

1.Both accept Sakyamuni Buddha as the Teacher.

2.The Four Noble Truths are exactly the same in both schools.

3.The Eightfold Path is exactly the same in both schools.

4.The Pattica-Samuppada or teaching on Dependent

Origination is the same in both schools.

5.Both reject the idea of a supreme being who created and

governed this world.

6.Both accept karma as taught by the Buddha.

*Also refer to the sections entitled “Salvation through Arahantahood” and “Bodhisatva” in
Chapter 1 of this book.

Buddhism: Essence and Comparative Approaches ! 95

7.Both accept Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta and Sila, Samadhi, Pañña

without any difference.

8.Both reject the belief in an eternal soul.

9.Both accept rebirth after death.

10.Both accept Devaloka and Brahmaloka.

11.Both accept Nirvana is the final goal or salvation

Some people are of the view that Theravada is selfish because it

teaches that people should seek their own salvation. But how can a

selfish person gain Enlightenment? Both schools accept the three

Yana or Bodhi and consider the Bodhisatva Ideal as the highest. The
Mahayana has created many mystical Bodhisatvas, while the

Theravada believes that a Bodhisatva is not a supernatural living

being but a person amongst us who devotes his or her entire life

for the attainment of perfection, and ultimately becomes a fully

Enlightened Buddha for the well-being and happiness of the world.

The terms Hinayana (Small Vehicle) and Mahayana (Great

Vehicle) are not known in the Theravada Pali literature. They are

not found in the Pali Canon (Tripitaka) or in the Commentaries

on the Tripitaka.

Theravada Buddhists generally follow orthodox religious

traditions that prevailed in India two thousand five hundred years

ago. They perform their religious services in the Pali language. They

also expect to attain the final goal (Nirvana) by becoming a Supreme

Enlightened Buddha, a Pacceka Buddha, or an Arahant. The majority

of them prefer the Arahantahood. Buddhists in Sri Lanka,

Myammar, and Thailand belong to this school. Their practices are

in accordance with the customs and traditions of the countries

96 ! WHAT BUDDHISTS BELIEVE

where they live. Mahayanists perform their religious services in their

mother tongue. They expect to attain the final goal (Nirvana) by

becoming Buddhas. Hence, they honour both the Buddha and

Bodhisatva (one who is destined to be a Buddha) with the same

respect. Buddhists in China, Japan and Korea belong to this school.

Most of those in Tibet and Mongolia follow another school of

Buddhism which is known as Vajrayana. According to Buddhist

scholars this school inclines more towards the Mahayana sect.

It is universally accepted by scholars that the terms Hinayana

and Mahayana are later innovations. Historically speaking, the

Theravada already existed long before these terms came into being.
That Theravada, considered to include the original teaching of the

Buddha, was introduced to Sri Lanka and established there in the

3rd century B.C., during the time of Emperor Asoka of India. At

that time there was nothing called Mahayana. Mahayana as such

appeared much later, about the beginning of the Christian Era.

Buddhism that was introduced to Sri Lanka, with its Tripitaka and

Commentaries, in the 3rd Century B.C., remained there intact as

Theravada, and did not become involved in the HinayanaMahayana
dispute that developed later in India. It seems therefore not legitimate

to include Theravada in either of these two categories. However,

after the inauguration of the World Fellowship of Buddhists in

1950, well-informed people, both in the East and in the West, use

the term Theravada, and not the term Hinayana, with reference to

Buddhism prevalent in South-east Asian countries. There are still

outmoded people who use the term Hinayana. In fact, the Samadhi

Nirmorcana Sutra (a Mahayana Sutra) clearly says that it is

Buddhism: Essence and Comparative Approaches ! 97

SravakayanaTheravada and the Mahayana constitute one Yana
(ekayana) and that they are not two different and distinct ‘vehicles’.

It must be emphasised here that although different schools of

Buddhism held different opinions on the teaching of the Buddha,

they never had any violence or bloodshed and have co-existed

peacefully for more than two thousand years. Certainly neither party

conducted a religious war or any other kind of aggression against

the other throughout history. This is the uniqueness of Buddhist

tolerance.

BASIC DOCTRINES

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