Tibetan Buddhism

Buddhism was Introduced into Tibet during the 7th century. The Tibetan kings brought the Tibetan tribes to some kind of unified government. With the country unified, they started to expand and interact with the great cultures of India and China. One of the most important and influential elements that Tibetans found in these cultures was a sophisticated practice of Buddhism.

King Songtsän Gampo ordered the construction of a series of temples around the country because he was told that Tibet laid on the body of a demoness. He ordered to build these temples to subdue the demoness. The actions of Songtsän Gampo didn’t just subdue the demoness, but also gave Tibet the form of a Mandala. Today, pilgrims walk around the country visiting these temples to later go straight to the center of the Mandala, which is a temple in the capital city of Lhasa. This temple is the most sacred place in Tibet. This is how starts the History of Tibetan Buddhism.

After the time of Songtsän Gampo, a king by the name of Trisong Detsen sponsored the construction of the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet. The king was helped by the Tantric saint Padmasambhava and the philosopher Shantarakshita. These two individuals represent the two faces of Tibetan Buddhism. Padmasambhava is the Tantric magician that subdued the demons that opposed the construction of the temple with rituals. Shantarakshita is the scholar that introduced the sophisticated monastic curriculum into Tibet.

The scholarly tradition is still alive, active and flourishing in Tibetan monasteries. If you want to study philosophy in the way we discussed here, Tibetan Buddhism is the way to go.

In the 11th century occurred what we call the later diffusion of the dharma. During this time, many important teachers emerged, either Indian saints and philosophers that came into Tibet or indigenous Tibetan figures who traveled to India and studied with Tantric saints and came back to Tibet to promulgate the tradition of Tantric practice. Out of these individuals floating through Tibet grew most of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tibetans adopted this new religious practice grabbing influence from the greater countries India and China, but as they did this, they created a unique mix in the history of Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is said to incorporate the three yanas or vehicles of Buddhism: the Theravada, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana.

There are four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism: the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and the Gelug. Each one of these has slight differences from each other, but they share some common traits. Tibetan Buddhism is a strongly scriptural tradition. They don’t just revere old texts that come back from the time of the Buddha, but texts that are generated by authoritative figures who manifest themselves from time to time in the history of Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhism has a canon of scripture. It is big and widely disseminated. It was settled in the 13th century and contains within it what you might call the authoritative Tibetan definition of the teaching that came to Tibet from India. In a broader sense, the Buddhist canon in Tibet still remains open. New texts can be generated or discovered to respond to all sorts of new situations.

The word lama is common in the Tibetan tradition. It is the equivalent of the Sanskrit word guru, which means a religious teacher. It also means someone who passes on a lineage or power. The lama is particularly important in Tantric and Tibetan Buddhism because the secrecy of Tantric rituals are always present. It is important to learn from a teacher who can tailor it effectively.

Lamas are so important in Tibetan Buddhism that the tradition itself is sometimes referred to as Lamaism. This word expresses an important truth about Tibetan Buddhism. It really does rely on Lamas. You might say that in Tibetan Buddhism the Lama is the representation of the Buddha.

The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism

The place to start in any survey of the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism is with the Nyingma school. This is the only one which traces its origin back before the later diffusion of the dharma, back to the time of Padmasambhava. The word Nyingma means “the old school”. The name refers to the early phase in the history of Tibetan Buddhism.

Because of the gap between the first diffusion of the dharma and the later diffusion, the connection between Padmasambhava and this later Nyingma tradition has always been pretty problematic. To establish the continuity with Padmasambhava, the members of the Nyingma school claim to have discovered secret texts that Padmasambhava left behind in Tibet written in the rocks, hidden in the mountains or sometimes buried in the mind of his disciples. They have attempted to discover these texts, interpret them and promulgate them in the present era.

Termas and Tertons

These texts are known as termas, a word that simply means treasure. Some of the most important authorities in the Nyingma history are people who discovered these termas and have been able in some way to disseminate them.

To look at the development of the Nyingma tradition it would be helpful to look at the lives of the Tertons, the people who discovered termas and made them available to others in their community.

A good example of the practice of the discovery and interpretation of the termas is a figure by the name of Jigme Lingpa. He claimed to be the reincarnation of Trisong Detsen. Like many Nyingma lamas and like many Indian Tantric saints, Jigme Lingpa spent many years meditating in the mountains. He had the experience of being visited by many of the important figures in the history of the tradition, including Padmasambhava and Trisong Detsen.

One of his most important revelations came to him in a dream. In the dream he was transported out of Tibet, across the Himalayas into the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, where he visited the Swayambhunath Stupa. When he was there a heavenly messenger came to him and revealed a text in a form of writing that it was impossible for him to understand. The heavenly messenger gave him the key to the code that he could use to unlock and interpret that text. As he translated and recorded these revelations, he created the nucleus for a new scriptural tradition in his community.

This story about Jigme Lingpa is not by any means an isolated story. There are other important revealers of Termas in the Nyingma tradition.

Nyingma is Founded on Direct Experience

The Nyingma school is a tradition founded on meditative experience. Jigme Lingpa was meditating in the mountains and while he was there he had powerful experiences that affirmed not only the depth of his own meditation but also his connection to this long lineage of teaching that took him all the way back to Padmasambhava and the ancient Buddhas of the Indian tradition.

In this sense, Nyingma is the Tibetan tradition that comes closest to the pure transmission of the Tantric impulse. Jigme Lingpa didn’t study or at least didn’t study in a sophisticated monastery. He wasn’t a great student of philosophy. His charisma and his power were established by the vividness of his own personal vision.

The Nyingma tradition still maintains this character today. It appeals to people because it puts its feet down on direct personal experience.

The Nyingma tradition and the story of Jigme Lingpa also convey the ancient Buddhist respect for scriptural transmission. Jigme’s Lingpa may have been founded on personal experience, but it was expressed and it was spread in a body of texts. Even in its most esoteric and personal form, Tibetan Buddhism is a strongly scriptural tradition. These aren’t just old texts that come back from the time of the Buddha, but texts that are generated by authoritative figures who manifest themselves from time to time in the history of Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhism has a canon of scripture. It is big and widely disseminated. It was settled in the 13th century and contains within it what you might call the authoritative Tibetan definition of the teaching that came to Tibet from India. In a broader sense, the Buddhist canon in Tibet still remains open. New texts can be generated or discovered to respond to all sorts of new situations.

The Nyingma tradition that is represented by Jigme Lingpa has come to North America. You can encounter it in various Tibetan communities. Interestingly enough, it is popular among scholars who study the tradition intellectually but have some kind of hunger for personal experience. They often study with Nyingma teachers to make that direct personal encounter with the dharma.

The Kagyu School

The word Kagyu means “teaching lineage”. This school traces its origin to the lama Marpa, who lived between the years 1012 and 1096. He was a Tibetan by birth but he traveled to India and studied with Tantric teachers. He brought their texts back to Tibet to serve as the foundation of a new lineage.

Marpa’s most important disciple and the person who carried his teaching was a man by the name of Milarepa. He is one of Tibet’s most beloved saints. The biography of Milarepa is one of the best ways to become familiar with the typical life of the Tibetan saint.

He starts out as a rather weak-willed and not very organized young man. It turns out that Milarepa’s father died when he was a young man and the relatives stole the family’s property. Milarepa’s mother was deeply angered by this and wanted to seek revenge. He took his malleable young son and sent him to study with one of the black magicians in Tibet to learn the black arts. He learned how to use the mantras that would help him bring storms on the relatives’ fields and even kill some of them through natural phenomena.

He did this and worked. However, Milarepa got worried about this because he realized that what he was doing created enormous bad karma, and unless he could find some way to remove this karma he would end up in one of the lowest hells. He began to wonder where he could find a teacher that would help him achieve enlightenment in this life.

He studied with a couple of different teachers and it didn’t work out well for him. He finally was advised to go and find a man by the name of Marpa, who would give him the teaching that he needed.

Milarepa seeks and meets Marpa. They have a difficult relationship. Marpa really puts Milarepa through intense trials. Milarepa finds himself in a state of complete despair. Once he tries to run away and realizes that running away from Marpa wouldn’t solve the problem. He comes back and begs for Marpa’s forgiveness.

One of the most interesting points in the life of Milarepa is when he finished his studies with Marpa and went to meditate by himself. He didn’t go to a cave to find solitude back he returned to his home with his mother. The relationship between Buddhist monks and their mother usually is pretty important. Unfortunately her mother had died and the house had fallen into ruin. Milarepa used it simply as a meditation on impermanence.

Milarepa went on from this experience to become a great ascetic and the founder of a great lineage.

The Sakya and Gelug School

There are two other schools that are worth mentioning. One of these is the Sakya school, that emerged in the 11th century under the leadership of a lama named Drokmi. Drokmi was the teacher of Konchok Gyelpo, who in 1073 founded a monastery at Sakya, a place that gave the school its name.

This school played an important role in the negotiations between the Tibetans and the Mongols. Eventually, the Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism and became important protectors of Tibetan Buddhism not just in Tibet but also in other parts of Asia. The 13th century, when the Mongols first appeared, was a crucial century in Tibet for a couple of reasons. First of all it gave rise to this incipient political allegiance between Tibetan monks and Mongols. This became an important theme in later Tibetan history.

It also was the first century after the death of Indian Buddhism. Indian Buddhism ended around the year 1200. We could say that the 13th century marks the beginning of a truly independent Tibetan religious tradition.

Today the old allegiance between Tibetan lamas and the Mongols is a difficult theme in Tibetan history because it is translated into this troubled relationship with the Chinese. China has always viewed itself as being the heirs of the Mongols. Chinese political leaders visualize Tibet as a part of the large Chinese empire.

The fourth school that I want to mention just briefly is the Gelug or “way of virtue” school. It emerged in the 14th century under the leadership of the scholar Tsongkhapa. Tsongkhapa followed the example of the Indian scholarly tradition and tried to establish a pure form of monastic practice. This involved an intense effort to codify the Tibetan approach to Buddhist philosophy and the stages of Tantric practice. Tsongkhapa is one of the great systematizers of the Tibetan tradition. He wrote extesively.

Tsongkhapa founded some major monasteries in central Tibet. These have been some of the most influential religious institutions in the history of Tibet and have been actively restored in recent years. Tsongkhapa is not only reveered by scholars and monks but also by common people as a great saint.

After the death of Tsongkhapa, the leadership of the Gelug school passed to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas.

Return from The Schools of Tibetan Buddhism to Tibetan Buddhism

History of Tibetan Buddhism

The first introduction of Buddhism to Tibet is known as the “first diffusion of the dharma”. It began in the 7th century, about the time when Tantra was beginning to manifest itself in the Indian Buddhist community. During the 7th century the Tibetan kings brought the Tibetan tribes to some kind of unified government. They began to expand their military influence out of central Tibet and into the rest of Asia.

As they did this, they came into contact with China and India. In both of these places they found quite sophisticated Buddhist cultures. These early Tibetan kings began to link themselves to the larger countries of Asia by beginning to adopt some of their religious practices. Buddhism was a central part of what they encountered in these places.

Songtsän Gampo and the Introduction of the Cult of the Buddha

According to the Tibetan chronicles, king Songtsän Gampo, who reigned roughly from 609 to 649, invited one of his two Buddhist wives to help him introduce the cult of the Buddha to Tibet. What this meant was to introduce a statue of the Buddha in Tibet and establish him as a focus of worship.

According to stories, the first attempts to build the temple in the capital city of Lhasa were unsuccessful. The carts that were carrying the Buddha’s statue fell to the swamps and were impossible for them to construct the temple the day they hoped to build it.

In a dream, the king was told that the land of Tibet laid on the body of a demoness, who had to be subdued before the cult of the Buddha could successfully be established. So, he ordered a series of temples to be build around the country. These temples were pinning down her knees, her elbows, her hips and her shoulders. Finally a temple was build in the center of the capital city to pin down her heart. This temple today is the most sacred in Tibet and is the focus of Buddhist pilgrimages.

The actions of Songtsän Gampo not only subdued the demoness but marked Tibet with the form of a Mandala, a Mandala that could be traced by pilgrims as they made their way from the fringes of the Tibetan plateau into this holy site in the center.

Trisong Detsen and the First Monastery

After the time of Songtsän Gampo, the next series of major events in Tibetan history occurred in the 8th century during the reign of another Buddhist king named Trisong Detsen. Trisong Detsen sponsored the construction of a monastery at Samye. This was the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet and obviously it marked a major shift in the relationship between Tibet and Buddhism.

The construction of the monastery required the help of the Tantric saint Padmasambhava, also known in Tibet as Guru Rinpoche or “precious teacher”. With his magic power, Padmasambhava subdued the demons that opposed the monastery’s construction. He has become the focus of tremendous story telling and myth making in Tibet.

King Trisong Detsen needed the help of another specialist as well. Padmasambhava was good at Tantric magic but he wasn’t necessarily a scholar. For the scholarly curriculum of his new monastery, king Trisong Detsen had to turn to one of the representatives of the Indian tradition whose name was Shantarakshita. He was actually a Madhyamaka philosopher of the Svātantrika branch. He helped introduce to Tibet that sophisticated monastic corriculum that we talked about in another article.

I think that you could say that these two figures represent the two faces of Tibetan Buddhism. A reverence for the power of a Tantric practitioner has always been important in Tibetan Buddhism. Tantra is a living force in Tibetan society and it manifests itself in a form of practice that is not unlike the practices associated with Padmasambhava. There also has been in Tibetan culture a deep reverence for the practice of Buddhist scholasticism as represented by Shantarakshita.

If you want to study philosophy in the way we discussed here, Tibetan Buddhism is the way to go. The scholarly tradition is still alive, active and flourishing in Tibetan monasteries.

The Definition of the Character of Tibetan Buddhism

The Tibetan tradition also tell us that Trisong Detsen didn’t just founded a monastery but he sponsored a debate to determine the character of Tibetan Buddhism. He brought a Chinese religious specialist and an Indian religious specialist. He set them up in a mode of discourse that would lead eventually to a conclusion about which variety of Buddhism would be best for Tibetan culture.

Representing the Chinese side was a meditation master whose name was Moheyan. He advocated the practice of sudden awakening. Representing the Indian side was a disciple of Shantarakshita whose name was Kamalashila. He advocated the practice of gradual awakening.

According to the Tibetan tradition, the king decided in favor of the Indian party and permanently oriented the Tibetan tradition towards India. This was another watershed in Tibetan history.

The Later Diffusion

What we call the “later diffusion of the dharma” took place in the 11th century. It is associated with important teachers, one of these is a man by the name of Atisha, who was an important scholar who came from one of the monasteries in Eastern India. In Tibet he had a group of disciples and established a lineage that recreated some of the scholarly tradition.

There were also some indigenous Tibetan figures who traveled to India and studied with Tantric saints and came back to Tibet to promulgate the tradition of Tantric practice. Out of these individuals floating through Tibet grew most of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism.

Return from History of Tibetan Buddhism to Tibetan Buddhism

The Buddhist Mandala

Here we are going to talk about the Buddhist Mandala. We saw that the goal of Tantric practice is to understand emptiness by achieving a union of opposites. This union was expressed by a series of symbolic pairs. These pairs apply to the personality, to ritual action and also to the cosmos as a whole. Here we are going to talk about a system of Tantric symbolism that is based not in the number two, but in the number five.

As before, the goal is to overcome duality by unifying the experience of human reality in a single whole.

What is a Mandala?

Let’s start with a basic question: What is a Mandala and what does it express? The word Mandala means simply “circle”. In its most simple form, a Mandala consists of five major points: North, South, East, West and the point of the center.

It is useful to think of the Mandala as functioning in a simple ritual way. It simply draws a line around some ritual space, demarcates it and separates it from the profane space that lies outside. You walk around this space and then encounter reality directly by moving right straight to the center of the Mandala. You might say that a Mandala suggests to us that our consciousness moves around encountering diversity and then unifies reality by going right straight to the center.

The Dhyani Buddhas

In Tantric art and symbolism, a separate Buddha can be associated with each one of these points. These five Buddhas of the Mandala are known as “meditation Buddhas” or Dhyani Buddhas.

The identity of these Buddhas is not fixed. This is one of the things that makes the study of the symbolism of a Mandala so complex. Different Buddhas are often associated with different Mandalas and different rituals. Buddhas often change places in the Mandala. However, the Buddha who often occupies the center of a Mandala is the Buddha Akshobhya. This is a Buddha whose name means “the unshakable”. Akshobhya Buddha sits at the center of the Mandala and is unshaken. He symbolizes consciousness and also symbolizes the element of space.

The five Buddhas of the Mandala help a person in this process of symbolic unification by connecting themselves to other five elements. What are these five elements? The five aggregates that constitute the personality. Each of these Buddhas is associated with one of the aggregates. Each Buddha also has a different color. They also symbolize five directions of the cosmos, five female Buddhas, five boddhisattvas, five times of the day, five seasons of the year and so on. These are all different ways in which these Buddhas are associated with different aspects of reality. When you put all these symbolic associations together the Mandala gives you a symbolic map of all of reality.

The Symbolic Representation of the Cosmos

The Mandala represents also a very precise view of the geographical structure of the world. According to this system, at the center there is a mountain. This is a sacred mountain that raises up in the center of the world. It is called mountain Meru.

Around this mountain, according to traditional Buddhist cosmology, there are four continents that are triangular in shape. The place where we live is the Southern continent Jambudvipa. We live in one of the four petals that extend out of the central mountain of the cosmos.

This view of the cosmos embodies a precise view of the human personality. The body itself is made up of a Mandala. You may have heard of the Chakras. These are energy centers located along the spine. In traditional Tantric physiology there are six of these running from the base of the spine right up to the top of the head. Five of these represent the points of the Mandala and the sixth point at the top represents the space that transcends reality.

Uses of the Mandala

How is the Mandala used in the Tantric tradition? One of the things that could be done is pretty simple. To take a plate and pieces of grain. Each one of these pieces of grain is placed in the plate and used to designate an important piece within the structure that we talked about. Then take that and offer it to a deity.

This is a simple gesture but a really powerful one. What you are doing here is to offer the whole world to the Buddha or the object you are worshipping. I may offer a flower to the Buddha, that’s great, but it is just a small portion of the cosmos. How much more powerful and effective would be to create a map of the cosmos and offer it to the deity.

Another thing that is often done as a form of worship and meditation is to create a Mandala using colored sand. When groups of Tibetan monks are asked to display some aspect of their tradition to an American audience they often create Mandalas using colored sand, sometimes simple ones and sometimes Mandalas enormously complex that take weeks to put together grain by grain.

These Mandalas are blessed and function as temporary palaces for the deities. When the worship is over the Mandala is destroyed as a lesson in impermanence.

Mandalas used for worship don’t have to be just in two dimensions. The cosmos is a three-dimensional structure. Some Mandalas can be build as places of worship in three dimensions. In Tibet there are enormous and complex three-dimensional Mandalas that represent the cosmos and are used in various ways as ritual objects.

Mandalas as Tools for Meditation

Mandalas can be used as powerful tools for meditation. In some rituals, Tibetan practitioners visualize the deities that are found in this sacred space. These visualizations are quite detailed and follow the form of the deities as they are represented in the texts and in Tantric art.

This kind of meditation where one visualizes a deity is very common in Mahayana Buddhism and is used to explore the ambiguities and complexities of the concept of emptiness. This is also what the practitioners of the Tantric tradition do, but here there is a difference.

Previously we talked of the Buddha as being different from ourselves, as begin out there in front of us. In the Tantric tradition we dissolve that distinction between the Buddha and ourselves. At the end of this ritual you dissolve that Buddha into your heart, so that that Buddha becomes you and you become the Buddha.

This is sometimes called deity-yoga, a discipline in which you imagine a deity in front of you and then you become identified with him. This is one of the fundamental forms of practice in the tradition of the Mandala.

The Mandala as the Journey of the Dead

The Tibetan Book of the Dead is used in funerals to guide the soul (or consciousness, more precisely) of the dead person through the difficulties of the afterlife and also to provide a meditation for the living about what will happen to them when they die.

The movement of the consciousness through the afterlife is visualized as a journey through the Mandala, not from the edges to the center, but from the center out to the edge.

When a person dies, according to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the consciousness becomes dissolved into the form of the central Buddha of the Mandala, in a state of pure non-dual awareness. If the person can recognize, accept and being absorbed into it, then the person is no longer subject to rebirth. If there is something frightening about the experience, then the person begins to fall out of the center of the Mandala and makes a procession around the edge seeing each one of the deities on a different day.

In each moment of this process it is possible to become absorbed into that deity and escape the cycle of transmigration if the person is prepared. If not, the person falls off the edge of the Mandala and back into rebirth in this world.

The Mandala and Tibet

There is one more important way in which the Mandala is manifested in Buddhist practice. We saw that the Mandala can represent the cosmos as a whole, but it doesn’t have to represent all of the cosmos. It can represent a particular piece of land. Tibet itself is understood as a Mandala. The sacred center is the capital city of Lhasa.

One of the ways to experience the Mandala in Tibet is to go on a pilgrimage. You must circulambule the great country itself, visiting the shrines that mark the sacred spots in the Mandala and finally making your way into the central territory that is associated with a shrine in the capital city.


In representations of the Mandala we see that there are always two central elements. There is a movement around, visiting the different spots of the perimeter of whatever manifestation of the Mandala, and there is this movement into the center, where you find a symbolic representation of reality in its unified state.

You can see that the Mandala is quite simple. It is just a circle. It is simple in its basic form but it is really powerful and affects many aspects of Buddhist life.

Return from Buddhist Mandala to Introduction to Tantric Buddhism

Buddhist Beliefs

What are the beliefs of Buddhism? This is one of the most common questions people make about Buddhism, or any religion for that matter. In this case, this is not an easy question to answer. Buddhism is a really complex tradition and involves many layers and different schools. To try to understand what Buddhism is all about, we can talk first about the beliefs that are shared by all or most of the Buddhist schools. To learn about this common beliefs, read my article Basic Beliefs of Buddhism.

In that article you will find some of the core beliefs that most Buddhists accept. In this article I want to talk in more length what the Buddha taught according to two of the most important branches of Buddhism: the Mahayana and the Theravada.

Theravada: The Doctrine of the Elders

Theravada is a word that means “doctrine of the Elders”. It is the oldest surviving school. It is said that it was founded around one hundred years after the Buddha’s Parinirvana. They accept as their scripture the Pali Canon. The Pali Canon is the mother of all Buddhist scriptures, it is accepted by the other branches of Buddhism (of course, including other additional scriptures).

What is the Pali Canon about? Well, the Pali Canon contains what are considered the traditional teachings of the Buddha, what we here in the West commonly think of when we hear the word Buddhism.

The Buddha said that his teaching was suffering, its origin and cessation. Pretty simple? Well, it took him many and many life times to find and fully grasp the meaning of suffering. What he understood is summarized in the so called Four Noble Truths:
  • The Truth of Suffering: the Buddha said that all in life causes suffering, no matter how pleasurable or good something seems. Everything ultimately leads to suffering.

  • The Truth of the Origin of Suffering: the Buddha talked about a complex chain of causes that originates suffering. This is synthesized by pointing out the most important links in the chain: Ignorance, desire, birth. This means that all suffering is ultimately rooted in ignorance. This ignorance about reality or ourselves leads to desire. This desire is what causes suffering and keep us in the cycle of deaths and rebirths.

  • The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: the Buddha said that the cessation of suffering is Nirvana. Nirvana is a concept difficult to grasp. It literally means to extinguish. Extinguish what? Extinguish the causes that lead us to suffering and to rebirth.

  • The Truth of the Path: the Buddha also taught about what to do to achieve Nirvana. He talked about moral conduct, mental concentration and wisdom. Moral conduct and mental concentration are like supporting elements to achieve wisdom, which is what will lead us to Nirvana.

Further Reading: The Four Noble Truths

These are the teachings of the Buddha according to the Theravada. This paradigm makes it difficult to lay people to seek Nirvana. In traditional Buddhism and in the Theravada tradition, the goal of lay people is to get good karma and consequently a good rebirth that may get them closer to Nirvana. They also have to support the monastic community, as monks and nuns can’t work in lay activities.

Monks and nuns are the ones who seek Nirvana really seriously. They have an additional series of regulations. For example, they can’t sleep in soft beds. They also can’t carry food from one day to the next. Everyday they have to get for their food and eat it in that moment.

The Path

Until now, we’ve just mentioned what people have to do to achieve Nirvana. They have to abide some rules of moral conduct, they have to engage in mental concentration or meditation and to try to find wisdom. The ultimate goal of Theravada is to achieve wisdom, which will lead to Nirvana.

What is this wisdom about? What should we know? The Buddha taught about the nature of reality and, more importantly, about the nature of the self. In this case, we should say the non-nature of the self, because the Buddha said that what we commonly identify as our “self” does not exist.

Self does not exist? What does this mean? It means that nothing lasts from one moment to the next. Nothing has an identity that endures from one moment to the next, including persons. Now you are not the same person that you were ten years ago. You are not the same person that you were one second ago. We don’t have an identity that endures from one moment to the next.

Then, you may ask, if there is no self, who is reading this article? The Buddha said that what we commonly call our “self” is a bundle of momentary phenomena. These skhandas, as the Buddha called them, are: matter, sensation, perception, mental formations and consciousness. If we identity with one or more of these phenomena suffering arises. Following this, suffering is extinguished by relinquishing attachments to any of these phenomena. This is wisdom.

With this, I think we covered the basic beliefs of the Theravada tradition.

Further Reading: The Marks of Existence
What am I?

Mahayana Buddhism: A New Paradigm

The Mahayana, or “Great Vehicle”, changes the style, the tone and the content of Buddhist practice in profound ways. It opens up the practice of Buddhahood to lay people as well as to monks and nuns. It also involves a far more extended vision of the cosmos than anything that came before.

Theravada Buddhism in South East Asia is in some ways very different from Buddhist practice at the time of the Buddha, but still represents, quite deliberately, a conservative option.

The name Mahayana comes from the literature of the movement itself. It is a name that is used to distinguish itself from what it saw as the Buddhism that came before. The basic premise of the Mahayana is that the Buddha gave his final and real teachings to a select group of followers. These teachings were not recorded in the Pali Canon, but in numerous “Sutras”.

The Boddhisattva Ideal

So, what is new with the Mahayana? The fundamental teaching of Mahayana Buddhism is what is called the Boddhisattva Ideal. A Boddhisattva is a Buddha-to-be, somebody who isn’t a Buddha yet but plans to be one in a future life. A Boddhisattva in the Mahayana tradition doesn’t attempt to go straight to Nirvana but he turns to this world and attempts to help others along the path to salvation. This means that Boddhisattvas can include lay men as well as monks and nuns, because all of us can be understood as being part of the path to Buddhahood.

Boddhisattvas that come back like this to this world to help others cultivate two important virtues. One is wisdom, that great virtue that was discussed in the early accounts of the Buddhist path that leads you to Nirvana. In addition to that, Boddhisattvas explicitly develop the virtue of compassion. The word is Karuna, a crucial Mahayana word.

So, Boddhisattvas cultivate two virtues. Wisdom, a contemplative and quiet virtue, that has to do with understanding the nature of the self and the nature of the world. And compassion, a virtue that has to do with actively seeking the welfare of others.

How is the Boddhisattva ideal expressed in ritual and in philosophy? The most important concept to express the Boddhisattva ideal is the concept of the Bodhicitta, a word we translate as the “mind that seeks enlightenment”.

What is it? Simply the aspiration to seek enlightenment for the sake of all other beings. Boddhisattvas who enter the Boddhisattva path start with some kind of gut feeling. “I want to be enlightened in order to bring that enlightenment to others”. This mind of enlightenment is generated and cultivated as the Boddhisattva path proceeds.

The Lay Boddhisattvas

Boddhisattvas described in Mahayana literature are often human beings just like ourselves. In the earlier tradition we always were talking largely about monks and nuns. The ideal practitioners of the Buddhist path were monks and nuns who engaged in an act of renunciation and pursued a monastic life. Now, this tradition was opening up explicitly for lay people. This is a way of saying that lay Buddhist values and the lay Buddhist life is a place where you can pursue the fundamental teaching of the Buddha. You can become a Boddhisattva and bring to ordinary lay life all the values of Buddhist life.

You can go out and have a couple of beers, you may live with your family, you may even go to a gambling hall, but you always do it in a way that is going to bring Buddhist values into that place. The Boddhisattva is engaged in the world. This is a crucial shift of the basic understanding of Buddhist life and it had a radical effect on Buddhism throughout Asia.

The Celestial Bodhisattvas and Buddhas

The Mahayana begins to imagine a universe that is not populated just by human boddhisattvas, people like you and me, but also by celestial boddhisattvas and Buddhas that have infinitely greater power than we have. These celestial boddhisattvas have the ability to intervene in this world and save people as if they were gods. Here we are going to talk about these “deities” and how they affect the lives and practices of Buddhists in the Mahayana world.

Further Reading: Mahayana Devotion

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