Buddhism was the largest religion in the world before the First World War; however, especially following the shift in the political system of China and its neighbouring countries, it became the fourth largest religion after Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. It counts around 520 million followers worldwide.
The word “Buddhism” comes from the word “Buddha”, which in turn comes from the words “buddhi” and “bodhi”. In the ancient Indian language Pāli and Sanskrit, this word literally means “intellect”, “intelligence”, “wisdom” or “supreme knowledge”. However, it mostly refers to the intelligence and supreme knowledge that a Buddha possesses due to the understanding of the Four Noble Truths.
Buddhism is usually metaphorically translated as “enlightenment” or “awakening”, and the word Buddha as “enlightened” or “awakened”.
The founder of Buddhism was Siddhattha Gotama, known as the Buddha, who was awakened (enlightened) about 2,500 years ago at the age of 35. He taught for forty-five years and died at the age of eighty.
Many people are wondering what Buddhism is. Buddhism is treated as a religion by those who perceive it as a religion and as a philosophy by those who perceive it as a philosophy. In fact, Buddhism is more akin to philosophy, but it is much more complete. Philosophy primarily deals with theoretical knowledge rather than practice; whereas Buddhism places particular emphasis on the direct realisation of knowledge through practice.
Thus, according to the teachings of the Buddha, Buddhism is a contemplative and practically attainable way of life that leads man to realise true knowledge and the supreme Truth, thus leading him to liberation from all forms of existential misery.
Man achieves this only through his own effort, without relying on supernatural or metaphysical forces outside of him. Man is the master of himself and only he, by his actions in the present, can determine and rule his future.
Are There Different Types of Buddhism?
Today, there are many different types of Buddhism due to the misrepresentation, falsification and distortion of the original Teaching of the historical Buddha Gautama (Gotama) by the subsequent generations, as the Buddha himself, the founder of Buddhism, predicted in Sutta SN Saddhammappatirūpakasuttaṃ.
The main types of Buddhism are Theravada (Theravāda), Mahayana (Mahāyāna) and Vajrayana (Vajrayāna). Theravada means “School of the Elders”, Mahayana means “Grand Vehicle” and Vajrayana means “Diamond Vehicle”. Mahayana and Vajrayana were developed several centuries after Theravada.
Theravada has mainly predominated in South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, while Mahayana has predominated in China – where the Chan tradition is also present – in Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea and Japan – where the Zen tradition also exists. Vajrayana is a form of Buddhism found in Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, Sikkim and Nepal and is strongly influenced by Hinduism, Tantrism and Shamanism – a system of doctrines and magic rituals based on the faith in the power of shamans. It includes occult inner (Tantric) teachings and other forms of devotion through music, chanting, mantras, mudras, mystical charts, worship of deities, etc. Although Vajrayana accounts for only 5% of Buddhists worldwide, it is very popular and better known than the other two schools in the West. The main reason is that following the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, many Tibetans took refuge in exile in India and then various Lama and monks ended up in the West, gaining thousands of followers. The Dalai Lama is the most well-known Vajrayana representative in the world.
All the schools of Buddhism accept that the Pāli Canon contains the authentic written teachings of the Buddha, although some of these schools do not grant them the necessary importance, but rely on controversial and subsequent teachings influenced by Hinduism, tandra and shamanism, attributing metaphysical and theological qualities to the Buddha.
Theravada is the most ancient school and only accepts the teachings of the Pāli Canon as authentic, approaching the Buddha without attributing metaphysical and theological qualities to him, as happened subsequently. Mahayana and Vajrayana have included teachings that appeared later than the Pāli Canon, the authenticity of which is disputed by Theravada and accredited scholars and researchers.
At a scientific level, the authenticity of the Pāli Canon has been demonstrated on the basis of the archaeological studies of the pillars of Ashoka, the great Indian Buddhist emperor who ruled from 268 to 232 BC. 200 years after the death of the Buddha, Ashoka ordered hundreds of columns to be erected throughout his empire, engraved with the teachings of the Buddha in various Indian dialects, in Greek and in Aramaic. Archaeologists and researchers compared these texts with the texts of the Canon and proved the authenticity of the Pāli Canon.
All the other texts of Mahayana and Vajrayana were written at a later date and their authenticity has not been proven, especially regarding the points that contradict or do not appear in the Pāli Canon. Most of these texts are written in Sanskrit, not in the traditional language but in a hybrid type of Sanskrit, in Chinese and Tibetan. They contain many elements that did not exist in the older writings, such as many stories about various Buddhas, as many as the grains of sand in the Ganges, which are said to have lived for countless millions of years, and each one was or is the leader of his own Buddhist world. They also state that the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas (i.e. the beings that are going to become Buddhas) live scattered across different moments in time and levels of existence as transcendental and supernatural beings in which one must believe and worship, in order to gain their “divine grace”. These texts are characterized by contradictions, unbridled imagination, vivid figures and countless repetitions.
Vajrayana is sometimes called Mantrayāna (Mantra Vehicle), because its main feature is the use of mantras, i.e. a series of syllables with or without meaning, which are recited for a long time. It is also called Tantrayāna (Inner Vehicle), because it is distinguished by a strong inwardness and occultism, which emphasizes the use of rituals, prayers, magic, sexual acts, and spiritual acts of worship towards the guru. It is deeply influenced by Shivism, the worship of the Hindu god Shiva. In order to learn the intricate rituals, it is necessary to be trained by the so-called Lamas, the most famous of whom are the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. When a Lama dies, they seek to find a child who is said to be the reincarnation of the Lama, in order to replace him as the spiritual leader. The Lamas also acted as teachers, doctors, feudal lords and politicians. That is why Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism is also called Lamaism. In recent decades, there has been a rift in Vajrayana between the followers of the Dalai Lama and the followers of Dorje Shungten, a protective deity of the Gelugpa sect. This schism, which is primarily a matter of political power, has preoccupied the international media and has divided the Tibetan community all around the world. Many economic and sexual scandals committed by both sides have been published and communicated by the BBC, the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph and other international media.
The Mahayana of Chan Chinese Buddhism (Zen in its Japanese version), although closer to the authentic teachings than Vajrayana, is less prevalent in the West for the reasons mentioned above. Mahayana does not recognize many of the teachings of Vajrayana.
Mahayana and Vajrayana, in turn, are divided into numerous groups and sects, many of which are also strongly influenced by the local culture and tradition. As a result, these subsequent developments have so much “baggage” that the original Teaching has disappeared, except for a few remnants that have persevered to this day. They have taken Buddhism miles away from the model originally conceived by the Buddha that was recorded in the Pāli Canon.
The Buddha had said that the true Teaching (saddhamma) disappears when the misrepresentation, falsification and distortion of the true Teaching (saddhamma-paṭirūpaka) appears in the world. And he stressed that: “It is not the elements of earth, water, fire and air that are forcing the true Teaching to disappear. It is the foolish people that show up and force the real Teaching to disappear. ” (SN Saddhammappatirūpakasuttaṃ).
The misrepresentation, falsification and distortion of the actual Teaching consists of texts and writings that differ from the authentic Buddha Teaching as it appears in the Pāli Canon and as it is endorsed by the three Ancient Buddhist Councils – in the first Council three months after the Buddha’s death, in the second Council after 100 years and in the third Council 300 years after his death. All the Councils agreed on the authenticity and accuracy of his Teaching.
The Pāli Canon
The Pāli Canon is the most complete surviving Buddhist Canon and constitutes the official collection of writings in the Buddhist tradition of Theravada, as preserved in the ancient Pāli Indian language. The version of the Sri Lankan Canon is the most complete.
The Pāli Canon consists of texts that the school of Theravada accepts as the true Teaching (Saddhamma) of the Buddha and as the authentic sacred texts. These consist of about 40 printed volumes, which are classified into three categories called Tipitaka (Tripitaka in Sanskrit), i.e. “the Three Baskets”. The Vinaya-piṭaka (the Basket of Discipline) mainly deals with principles and rules – personal and communal – for male and female monks. The Sutta-piṭaka (the Basket of Discourse) contains speeches, teachings, dialogues, meditation instructions, a code of ethics and advice on worldly and spiritual progress, provided by the Buddha and his leading disciples. Finally, Abhidhamma-piṭaka (the Basket of Higher Doctrine) contains the most detailed explanation for the analysis and structure of the mind and matter, for their dependent nature, but also for their transcendence. It is the first time in the history of human thought that such a project has been undertaken in a comprehensive and realistic manner, without the interference of superstition, metaphysics, occultism, mysticism and mythology.
Shortly before his final rest in Nibbana (parinibbāna), the Buddha made a famous statement in which he explicitly stated that there was no “inner”, “apocryphal”, “secret” or “hidden” teaching, by saying: “I have taught the Teaching (Dhamma) without distinguishing between internal and external. A Buddha has no close-fistedness ( ācariyamuṭṭhi ) as far as their teachings are concerned. (Dīgha Nikāya, Sutta 16).
Buddha also stated that: “What I have taught and explained to you as Dhamma Vinaya will be your Teacher when I am gone.” (Dīgha Nikāya, Sutta 16).
In Sutta Piṭaka, Aṅguttara Nikāya, Sutta 4.180, the Buddha said that if one claims that: “This is the Teaching (Dhamma), this is the Vinaya, this is the Master’s message”, his words should neither be accepted nor rejected. Instead, they should be compared to the Buddha’s Suttas (Discourses) and Vinaya (Discipline). Only when they are in accordance with the Suttas and the Vinaya can it be claimed that they are the teaching of the Buddha. If not, they must be rejected.”
From the above, we can clearly see that Dhamma only refers to the Suttas of the Buddha and not to any other Teacher. The Buddha foresaw this danger when he proclaimed in Aṅguttara Nikāya, Sutta 5.88, that even someone who has learned the scriptures and is well known, famous, with a large commoner and monk following, may still have wrong views. Thus, the words of others must always be compared to the Suttas and the Vinaya of the Buddha.
In Saṃyutta Nikāya, Sutta 20.7, the Buddha also foresaw that in the future, there will be disciples who will not listen to, study or comprehend his Suttas (Discourses). On the contrary, they will prefer to listen to, study and comprehend the discourses of non-Buddhists, thus causing the disappearance of the Buddha’s Dhamma. This is a clear piece of advice by the Buddha, showing that if one wants to call oneself a Buddhist, one must listen to, study and comprehend the Suttas and not other teachings which, although they might be called Buddhist, are essentially a mixture of different local religions and concepts.
Here, we can view the evolution of Buddhism as a river with its source at the top of a mountain. The water at the source is clean, but as it flows on the slope of the mountain towards the valley, it becomes increasingly impure, because it gathers dirt, sand, mud, grass, leaves, etc. Whoever wants to drink the clean water has two options: either go to the source, or filter the water that is found away from the source, removing the dirt and impurity.
Similarly, whoever wants to “drink” the pure Teaching of the Buddha has two options: either to go to the source which is the Pāli Canon, or to filter the Teaching that is found away from the source by removing the impurity that has accumulated over hundreds of years, which is painstaking, difficult to achieve and requires great ingenuity.
When asking how the teaching derives its authenticity in relation to others, the answer is simple: One has to consider when the teachings were first written, by whom, if there have been references to the era BC., if the teachings contain contradictions when compared with the Pāli Canon or with each other, etc.
Regarding the issue of contradictions, we will give an example:
The Buddha, as mentioned above, told his disciples shortly before he rested that he had nothing else to teach them and that he had not kept any of his teachings secret. However, in Mahayana and Vajrayana, it is taught that the Buddha secretly taught the “higher teachings” of Mahayana to a smaller circle of students who had a higher perception. It is therefore implied that the Buddha lied to all of his disciples shortly before his death. This is not mentioned anywhere in the Pāli Canon and, certainly, lying does not lead to spiritual release and enlightenment.
In Theravada Buddhism, there are ten perfections (pāramita) which the Buddhas and their disciples must fulfill in order to attain enlightenment, one of which is the perfection of truthfulness (sacca-pāramitā).
In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, however, there are only six perfections and the emphasis on the perfection of truthfulness (sacca-pāramitā) is missing. This absence leaves room for the fabrication of false and imaginary teachings that are in stark contrast to the Teachings of the historical Buddha. For these reasons, the reliability of such teachings is questionable. In the non-Theravadic schools, the so-called “skillfull means” are taught, i.e., that in order to achieve the purpose of enlightenment or in order to help beings, a Bodhisattva may commit murder or lie if the circumstances call for it. These teachings are nowhere to be found in the original texts and are in complete contradiction with Buddhism.
The above clarifications are deemed necessary especially for the Western people who, mainly due to ignorance and misinformation, identifies Buddhism almost exclusively with the Dalai Lama and Tibet.