A while ago I posted this, where I tried to explain some of the misconceptions about Buddhism that are commonly held in the West. Since then I've had people asking me a few questions that I think would be interesting to look at in some depth here.
In this piece I'll be trying to address four major points:
- The differences between the branches and traditions of Buddhism
- What distinguishes Tibetan Buddhism from other Buddhist traditions
- Do Buddhists believe in God?
- What's this whole Book of the Dead thing?
The differences between branches/traditions of Buddhism
Traditionally, there are three broad branches of Buddhist tradition:
- Theravada (School of the Elders)
- Mahayana (Great Way)
- Vajrayana (Diamond/Thunderbolt Way)
The differences between the three traditions is broadly speaking, based more on emphasis within the teachings and practice, but there also exist some very important differences in philosophy and belief/view. The cultures within which each branch evolved are also of importance, as Theravada teaching is conventionally kept in the Pali language, while Mahayana has a long tradition with the Chinese languages, and Vajrayana is probably most well-known for its voluminous teachings in the Tibetan language, which is the largest tradition of Vajrayana to survive to the present day, although Shingon, a Japanese form of Vajrayana, is currently undergoing something of a revival.
Theravada's teachings are, in fact, still the basis for the philosophies of the other two branches of Buddhism. Theravada's philosophical background comes directly from the spiritual tradition that Siddharta Gautama himself was a part of at the time, the Śramaṇa tradition of ancient India. The Śramaṇa monks (bhikkus) were men and sometimes women who had cast of domestic life and were addressing the primary existential question of spirituality and religion of the time: Is there a way out of samsara?
Samsara is a term used in many religions with a belief in reincarnation/rebirth and translates to English roughly as "wandering about" or "keeping going". It refers to the uncontrolled way in which we pass from one life to another, pointlessly passing from one life only to be compelled into the next. A lot of people today would say the idea of rebirth or reincarnation is just a way to assuage fears of death, but in fact, this was not at all the case. Ancient India was a culture with many monks, yogins, and Brahmins (the priestly caste of society), and many people reported greater or lesser degrees of past-life awareness as a result of meditation practice. This was, believe it or not, not in itself a source of solace regarding the mortality of mankind, but something of an existential problem.
You see, on first inspection, it might seem wonderful to imagine that life just keeps going on and on and on in form after form after form, but is it really? You are then actually confronted with the fact that each life will be plagued with both joy and suffering, gain and loss, praise and censure, status and disgrace. This is the nature of Samsara, which is often depicted as a wheel turned by our base instincts of desire, ill-will and ignorance, and a cycle of people climbing only to fall again. Moreover, at the conclusion of each life, one is forced to give up everything one loves, ones' family, ones' possessions, ones' very body, and this is, as we all know, a painful experience to bear. While definitely not from the Theravadin tradition, the Tibetan Book of the Dead reminds us "This is what death is". Certainly, being spiritual and believing in some form of afterlife doesn't in itself liberate one from the pains of death. To throw a third spanner into the works, the Śramaṇa monks had reformulated the law of karma (kamma in Pali) from the "significant action" preached by the Brahmins to incorporate all decisions and actions taken by a person, no matter how petty or how grand - indeed, karma itself translates literally as "action", and in Buddhist thought refers to anything performed with mind, speech or body. A human or animal lifetime would almost certainly rack up some negative karma, how could it not? We've all done things we regret. People yearned after a spiritual or religious teaching that could guide them to abandoning the accumulation of negative karma and to help them gain positive karma, often referred to as "virtuous action" or "merit". However, it was recognised that positive karma would only help one to take a happy rebirth in one's next life, or later in this life, it could not in itself free one from samsara.
This existential understanding of life was not something seen as blissful by people; indeed it was responsible for the rise of the Śramaṇa movement to begin with, especially as the social changes of the time started to diminish peoples' faith in the Brahmin caste which seemed to many primarily out to maintain its privileged status in society and maintain the caste system itself (which, by heredity, they were on top of), rather than to pursue and teach anything of real spiritual value (I think a lot of people today can relate to this looking at mainstream religious institutions). Vedic religion of the time was therefore in rapid decline, and this, in time, gave birth to the three main modern Indian religions that have survived to this day: Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The primary, overarching spiritual concern of the Śramaṇa movement was the discovery of a path that led to salvation from samsara, usually referred to as "liberation" - one is liberated both from the intense sufferings of this life (not by becoming dissociated from life, but from merely being able to accept them as a part of it), and from having to go through them all over again and again and again.
While this might seem a bit of a history lesson, it's important cultural context as the Buddha himself was initially a part of this Śramaṇa movement, seeking liberation from samsara and enlightenment. Additionally, his first followers, as well as his closest disciples throughout his life, were all Śramaṇa bhikkus and bhikkunis (fem.). It is from this very Indian tradition that the Theravada tradition springs and has done for 2,500 years. For laypeople and ordained monks/nuns alike, the Theravada tradition (as well as the Jain tradition) keeps the Śramaṇa movement's spirit alive into the modern day in its approach to human spirituality, but being the Buddhist middle-path, softens out all of the harsh ascetic practices that are advocated by some branches of Śramaṇa. Its scriptures are primarily accounts of events in the Buddha's life and his teachings, called Suttas, and are recorded in the Pali language, which is almost certainly the closest modern language to that which Siddhartha Gautama himself spoke. The final goal of a Theravadin practitioner is to reach the level of an Arhat, one who is liberated from rebirth and redeath.
The Mahayana tradition is thought to have begun as a distinct tradition around 100 years after the Buddha's death, when philosophical disagreements regarding the preferred goal of the path led to a schism following the Second Buddhist Council. On the one hand, the Theravardins preferred the path towards arahantship - simply liberation from rebirth in samsaric realms, while practitioners of what became Mahayana preferred the path of the Bodhisattva, a being that continues to be reborn again and again within samsara until reaching full Buddhahood. The emphasis in the Mahayana's Bodhisattva path is on the cultivation of compassion and wisdom across potentially many lifetimes, until attaining full Buddhahood. In the Mahayana tradition, accomplished Bodhisattvas and those who achieve Buddhahood within their lifetime often fulfil a similar role to saints in the Christian tradition, and are commonly, but not always, renowned teachers whose teachings or feats were recorded or memorised by disciples who create an oral lineage, which takes us onto...
Vajrayana Buddhism is sometimes viewed as a sub-sect of Mahayana Buddhism, but is, in fact, a distinct tradition derived from the Mahayana. Vajrayana Buddhism is most widely practised around the Himalayas where it takes the form of Tibetan Buddhism, and Mongolia, as well as a tradition from Japan named Shingon which is currently undergoing a revival in the US.
Vajrayana is sometimes "interpreted" into English as Esoteric Buddhism, Tantric Buddhism, and even "Mystical" Buddhism, the correct translation is "Diamond Way" or "Thunderbolt Way". Although clearly and self-admittedly a development on the Mahayana/Bodhisattva path, there are several distinctions from conventional Mahayana practice.
Firstly, the emphasis here is on the student-teacher relationship, here usually described as the lama and the disciple. Although this exists in some form in all branches and sects of Buddhism, the student-teacher relationship as well as the blessings and empowerments given from student to teacher in Vajrayana Buddhism is the basis of the lineage. This is something that has to be transmitted from generation to generation, orally, as the innermost secret teachings in Vajrayana are given only within the context of this relationship. There is usually a structure of teaching and practice, from outer, to inner, to secret, that also follows a progressively deeper understanding of a scripture or teaching beyond its literal, face-value interpretation. Outer teaching can generally be almost entirely learned from primary scripture and commentary, although a teacher's guidance can still be invaluable. Inner teaching is often written in more esoteric texts and will almost invariably require oral guidance to assist in interpretation, and secret teaching is entirely passed orally from teacher to student, although literature may reference its contents, and the broad scope of the contents may be widely known. Additionally, most branches of Vajrayana Buddhism have a form of meditation called Guru Yoga, which involves meditating on a past or present spiritual teacher.
Vajrayana practice and philosophy is not so much distinct from Theravada or Mahayana as much as it builds even further upon them. Vajrayana Buddhists believe there to have been three distinct "Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma" during the historical Buddha's (Siddhartha Gautama) lifetime. The first focused on cause and effect (karma) and the need for personal discipline to attain enlightenment (Theravada), the second focusing on universal compassion and emptiness (Śūnyatā) (Mahayana), and the third focused on Buddha's "Diamond" or "Thunderbolt" (Vajra) teachings which were a continuation of the Mahayana, but using particularly effective practices and ideas that are impossible to grasp without the pre-requisite understanding of the first two schools of thought (Vajrayana).
What distinguishes Tibetan Buddhism?
Tibetan Buddhism is a form of Vajrayana, and was first introduced to Tibet by Padmasambhava, an Indian Buddhist saint, in the 8th Century. Padmasambhava is also referred to as "Guru Rinpoche" by Tibetan Buddhists, which roughly translates as "Most precious guru", and is seen as a second Buddha. Padmasambhava converted the indigenous Tibetan shamanic deities to Buddhism and gave them roles in the Buddhist religion. This means that Tibetan Buddhism is actually essentially a fusion of Buddhism with Shamanism. In essence, Buddhism itself actually evolved out of polytheistic shamanism - the Vedic religion of India. From my own view, Tibetan Buddhism takes Buddhism back towards its shamanic roots, which are all but lost in some other variants of Buddhism - although it's likely all meditation practice began as a form of shamanic practice.
Do Buddhists believe in God?
If your conception of God is a creator deity that made the world and the universe exactly the way it is and all life as it is then no, Buddhists don't believe in anything like this. Buddhists believe we live in a cosmos of minds, from deities and devas down to humans and animals, all the way down to hell. Tibetan Buddhists believe all minds and matter exist primordially, since beginningless time. Mind is also a creative and destructive force in itself, so there's no need in this view of reality for an ultimate creator deity to do it all.
On the other hand, Tibetan Buddhists do believe in something called the Primordial Buddha, a mind that has been pure since beginningless time. This is not a creator god that one day decided "let there be light". This is where Tibetan Buddhist philosophy gets very abstract and something you have to reflect upon beyond the mere meaning of the words, because Tibetan Buddhism explicitly describes such things as mere linguistic reflections of the ineffable.
The Primordial Buddha is often described as the Clear Light of the substratum of the mind. While the Primordial Buddha has existed in this form of light for all time and has seen infinite passings of the expansion and collapse of the cosmos, they did not create it. Furthermore, the nature of mind found in each individual sentient being, from gods, to hell beings, to humans and animals, asuras and ghosts, is the reflection of this mind, the Clear Light or Buddha Nature. Since all thoughts, actions and words of sentient beings emanate from this essence or substratum, everything can be considered to emanate from the Primordial Buddha. Mind itself is the creative force of the universe, there is no need here for a creator deity.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead and teachings about death and rebirth/reincarnation
All major Buddhist traditions teach that after death, an individual undergoes reincarnation or rebirth. In most Mahayana and all Vajrayana Buddhist schools, there is a literal consciousness or, from the Western conception, "soul", that transmigrates between existences.
One of Padmasambhava's major original works was a text known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thodol in its original Tibetan. This book aims to describe the experiences encountered by each individual in the run-up to the moment of death, death itself, and the after death state until taking a new incarnation. Its purpose is to be either learned during life and remembered during the bardo, the states of consciousness between lives, or read for a person on their deathbed and after death. People who studied the text during life will also often request that it be read for them after death to assist them in remaining mindful during the bardo state, which, understandably, can be terrifying for an individual.
The Bardo Thodol describes three essential states of consciousness, or bardos, at and after death:
- The bardo of the moment of death (occurring at the moment of death and lasting "up to the time taken to eat a meal". Consciousness becomes naked and unsupported by the brain and sense inputs, and while at this time it usually remins inside the body, the body's support for the consciousness shuts down and the subtle energies that supported the consciousness within the body break down. Consciousness experiences itself as Clear Light, which in those with negative karma will cause them to faint and enter a coma-like state, while those with good karma, and particularly those who are spiritually experienced, can abide in this state. After 3 and a half days, the consciousness emerges from the body, preferably through the crown of the head.
- The bardo of the intermediate state of reality, during which the individual encounters archetypal beings (deities) emerge from their own consciousness. These beings are manifestations of the being's own mind, but can be confused as being from "outside" themselves. The second half of this bardo is dominated by the appearance of so-called "wrathful deities", which are manifestations of the enlightened nature of one's negative emotions, but which are difficult and terrifying for those who don't understand what they are.
- One experiences a scene of judgement by Yama, the Lord of Death, who is also a manifestation of our own minds. Our good and bad consciences plea on our behalf and for our prosecution, respectively, as Yama piles up white pebbles for our good deeds in life, and black pebbles for our evil deeds. He pities those destined for hell, but reminds them that nobody is responsible for this lot but themselves. After our meeting with Yama, we are pushed forwards by our own impulses towards the bardo of rebirth. If we are destined to be born a human, we will have visions of our karmic attachments which draw us to locations, people, things. Our status among the world of the living is dictated by our karma on a more subtle level than that which dictates which of the six realms we enter - one must already have pretty good karma to be reborn human. At the end of the bardo of rebirth, after up to 7 weeks, one has visions of all of one's potential parents in sexual union, and can choose between them. While not entirely conscious but certainly governed predominantly by our subconscious and an element of our own choice, a Tibetan Buddhist would reject the saying that nobody chooses their birth. Once parents are chosen, the consciousness enters the man's body and follows the sperm down their path towards the egg, and enters the egg with the sperm.