The various 'Schools' of Buddhism
Introducing Buddhism course, tutor: Mike Horne
Over the last two and a half millennia since the death of the historical Buddha the religion has diversified and changed, particularly when it moved into new countries and adapted to fit their cultures. This is the same with most religions; there is not one standard form of Christianity but a wide variety of practises and beliefs ranging from the Quakers to the eastern orthodox churches. To the outsider there appears to be little that links them.
Several different schools of Buddhism have arrived in the UK and the west. And other ones are on their way. When they arrive and become established they might change quite dramatically, depending on how far the teacher wishes to integrate the practise with local culture and customs. Should the scriptures be recited in their original language or in modern English to make them more understandable? Should there be a monastic base or should it be solely a lay community? Should they wear eastern costumes or casual western clothes? Most have altered observance and festival days to fit into the working week of lay people.
We are indeed fortunate that there is such a wide choice now available. If you are wishing to become a Buddhist you can now 'shop around' and find a tradition that suits your personality and spiritual needs. If you want to take up the practice seriously, I strongly advise you to join a group or find a teacher. Practising meditation with a group of dharma-friends is much easier and you can help each other with any problems that you encounter. Some forms of Buddhism definitely require the help of a qualified teacher (Tibetan Buddhism and Rinzai Zen in particular). Be careful to check out the teacher's dharma lineage and do not let go of your common sense!
Buddhism went into decline in its original home of India following the Moslem invasions of the 11th and 12th centuries CE. But by this time it had spread to many other countries.
Theravada Buddhism is the only remaining Hinayana School and now exists in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is a simple and practical form of Buddhism paying attention to morality and mindfulness. The form that has become well established in the UK comes from the teachings of Ajahn Chah in Thailand. The monasteries of Amaravati, Citteviveka and Harnham follow this tradition. You can find out more about them by visiting the Forest Sangha Newsletter website.
All other forms of Buddhism are part of the Mahayana School. Mahayana Buddhism is distinguished from the Hinayana by the presence of the Bodhisattva Vow, in which the individual vows to practice for the benefit of others, even to the extent of refusing to enter into final Nirvana until all other sentient beings have achieved it first. Personally, I think that it is helpful to make this vow early in one's practise, but cannot believe that anyone could achieve enlightenment without losing selfish motivation along the way.
Zen Buddhism has mostly reached the UK from Japan, sometimes via the USA. There are two main schools of Zen. Rinzai Zen is famous for its use of koans (mental puzzles that cannot be solved intellectually). This was quite popular with the 'beat generation', but has not really taken root. There is one Rinzai Zen centre in London.
Soto Zen is less well known, but has established itself better. Folowers of Taizen Deshimaru have established a lay tradition (the International Zen Association), and chant scriptures in Japanese. Roshi Jiyu Kennet has established a monastic tradition known as the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives and has translated the scriptures into English for use in ceremonies. Their main monastery is Throssel Hole Abbey in Northumbria.
The original Chinese form of Zen, called Ch'an, has also arrived in the UK. The Vietnamese form brought to Europe by Thich Nhat Hahn, established a meditation centre at Plum Village in France.
There are four schools of Tibetan Buddhism (the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug) and most have reached the west, following the Chinese invasion in the 1950s. Tibetan forms of Buddhism are (to the outsider) a bit different from other Buddhist schools and are characterised by having four refuges (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha and Lama), special tantric meditation practices, secret empowerments passed on by the lama and the re-incarnation of lamas. It tends to have a gradational series of teachings, transmitted by the lama when he thinks that you are ready for the next stage. There is a strong artistic and musical heritage. One lama, Geshe Kelsang, has founded the popular, but controversial, New Kadampa Tradition (NKT).
Pure Land Buddhism, which pays respect to Amida Buddha, has yet to become popular in the UK, but is probably practised among the ethnic Chinese community.
Nichiren Buddhism has also arrived in the UK with the establishment of branches of Soko Gakkai International. The main practise is the chanting of a mantra in reverence of the Lotus Sutra.
Some new forms of Buddhism have developed such as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, founded in 1968 by the venerable Sangharakshita, combining practices from Theravada, Tibetan and Zen, along with a strong sense of 'Right Livelihood'.