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Development of Schools of Buddhism
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Development of Schools of Buddhism (35 min.) MP3
Transcript of a talk delivered by Brother ChiSing
November 9, 2014 - Dallas, Texas

So, I can't give a whole history of Buddhism in this short time, but I will give you a general idea, and you can ask questions, too. This fall we have been doing a series on the Buddha's essential teachings for happiness, enlightenment, and world peace. And so we covered a lot of different topics in the last few weeks, and this is just one other topic that we can cover.

And this is really from my perspective, so I never asked you to believe everything I say. Just hopefully something I say can help stimulate your own creative thinking and your own investigation into truth. Because it doesn't matter what the teacher says if you don't investigate for yourself, because then it is just words. And words that have no correlation to your own experience don't have any power in your life. And the reason why we have teachings is not so somebody can brag about having the best teachings, but rather so it has practical value in transforming your life.

That is why, unlike some teachers, I don't try to teach you lots and lots, pages and pages of facts and figures and all of that. That can be some useful in some cases, especially if you're trying to get a degree or something in Buddhist studies or whatever. For the most part, I am trying only to teach the same thing over and over and over again, a few different lessons.

I have about 12 major lessons that have the most impact in my life. I usually teach those over and over again in different ways over the course of the year. The reason why I do that is I don't want to teach more than what I really, really know from my own experience. I think it is almost dangerous for Buddhist teachers to start teaching more than what they have experienced, because then they are just teaching words and figures and notes. There is no power to it.

That is why I personally prefer and then tradition slightly more than the other traditions, though I love them all, because the emphasis is not in so many words but in the practice and in your own insight that comes from the practice. It is like a fixing a car. I don't need to teach you all all the different parts of the car and the motor and everything, the battery and everything. I just need to show you where is the best mechanics to go to. Right? I just need to show you how to put the key in the ignition and start the car. I don't need to tell you everything on why it works, you know?

But some people love that, and that is great, so you can go to those kinds of Buddhist classes if you want to learn all the details. But to me, I don't need to know all the details. I just need to know how to make the car work and run and get enough gas and everything. So that analogy is like this practice. You don't need to know every single detail about everything. You just need to know the essentials enough to make it work in your life. And that is really what I teach. That is my approach.

And of course, I honor different approaches too, because we all have different inclinations. We all have different approaches. So there are different kinds of teachers that like to teach in different ways. My approach is keep it simple, come back to the essentials, and learn enough to start to cultivate your own understanding and your own insights, your own truth. You see? Don't just rely on someone else's words, but practice, practice, practice until insights start coming from your own heart.

Okay. So, I personally believe that there is truth, universal, infinite, divine truth of reality, that there is this infinite reality, the source of truth, and you can call it whatever you want. Some people call it God or Spirit or universal reality or Buddha nature or whatever. I believe that there is truth. There is just infinite reality, the source of all truth.

And on this planet, I believe there have been many brothers and sisters who have awakened to aspects of this truth. One brother who awakened to this universal truth, we call him the Buddha. I personally believe there are others also, but in our practice, we are focusing on the teachings of the Buddha, so that is what I am going to do. But there are many other teachers who have had wonderful insights as well. I don't believe that the Buddha has any exclusive claim to the truth, that he is simply one very, very wonderful manifestation of someone who awakened to the truth.

So, the Buddha awakened to truth as he saw it, mainly the kind of truth that helps people to let go of their suffering and to awaken to their true self, their true nature. So, then he taught several disciples, some of whom were monks and nuns, and some who were called lay disciples. I've never really liked that word "lay." It makes me think of Frito-Lay. I don't know. It's a weird word, but okay. These are the laypeople. And then the monastics.

So, of these groups of disciples, several of them became enlightened to the truth to a degree among both lay and monastic disciples. Traditionally, all the monks and nuns wore saffron robes, which could be somewhere between yellow to orange to reddish, depending on the intensity of the saffron color and how they dyed the robes. In general, it looks kind of yellowish orangish. And then the laypeople all wore white.

So just visualize these thousands of people who are following the Buddha's teachings, living in all the different cities and villages, and they are all in these beautiful colors of the kind of yellow orange and the white. I like that because it makes me think of the balance. The yellow robes make me think of the sun, the sunshine, and then the white robes, the white clothing that the laypeople wore, reminds me of the moonlight. So you have sunlight and moonlight, kind of the balance altogether. That is how I think about.

But anyway, because the light of truth as refracted through the Buddha in our communities, monastic and lay, by the time the Buddha physically passed away, there were many, many enlightened disciples, and they had a little assembly to compile the teachings together to make sure everyone was on the same page. But see, the funny thing is back then, 2,600 years ago, they didn't write any of this down. Most of the spiritual tradition in India back then, they didn't put it on paper. It was to be memorized and recited and chanted, and that is how they kept all of these teachings by memorizing it and chanting them. That is a lot to memorize.

But anyway, they had really good people in their community that really had really good memories. However, as the Buddha was passing away physically, he had his faithful attendant with him. And the Buddha said, "Please tell all of my followers that when I enter into paranirvana, final great peace, they can let go of the minor teachings and just keep the major teachings. They can let go of the minor rules and keep the major guidelines." And the poor attendant was so sad that he didn't even think to ask the Buddha, "Which ones are the minor ones, and which ones are the major ones?" Well, that attendant was scolded by all the other monks because they didn't know which ones were the minor ones and which ones were the major ones.

But things like that happen in every religion. I like this story because what is interesting about that story is it gave rise eventually to the different movements in Buddhism, both the conservative and then the reform. But isn't that true of every religion? We have the conservative branch and then the reformed branches, right? But that is natural.

A few years ago, I had a revelation in my heart after I was doing some very deep retreat practice where I realized the value of both the conservative and the reformed aspects and religion. The conservative branch of a religion helps to preserve the teachings without too much change, and then the reform branch helps to keep it fresh and alive and relevant. So it is actually a good thing that both exist because they help balance each other.

The problem is when they both stop seeing the value in each other. See, that is when we have problems. Then that means when the conservatives don't realize how important the reforms are, they become fundamentalist, and when the reforms don't appreciate the conservatives, they start to create something so radically different from the original that it doesn't even look like the original at all anymore. So it loses some of its power.

But anyway, what are the minor and what are the major guidelines? Well, I think that is up to us to practice and understand. Personally, I think some of the minor guidelines would've been some of the restrictions that were placed on the female disciples of the Buddha at the time. I think the Buddha would consider them minor guidelines. Remember that the Buddha doesn't just teach us what you might think of as absolute truth, but rather the way the Buddha teaches is always gradual and skillful to the audience and to the time. And it can change. It should be allowed to change.

So when the Buddha introduced the teachings to the people, at that time and culture, it was unheard of to have large communities of women following this enlightened teacher. It was really unheard of, and when the Buddha allowed women to be his monastic followers as well as lay followers, which kind of caused a little controversy in the community.

The Buddha put certain restrictive guidelines on the nuns. I believe it is not because the Buddha was trying to discriminate against women but because this would help ensure the place of women in his community, to protect them from some of the criticism that was sounded against the Buddha at the time. However, I think the Buddha did not mean for those guidelines to be set in place forever, but just temporarily until everyone got used to the idea of having female nuns and such strong female leadership, because at that time it was very counter-religious and countercultural.

Over a few centuries of time, there were 18 schools of Buddhism that developed. Only one of them has survived to this day. That is the Theravada school. But even they are not really one of the 18. They are like a descendent of one of the 18. And another school, which has died out, but sort of gave rise eventually to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism.

So, broadly, Mahayana rose around the first century around the time of Christ roughly. So about 500 years after the beginning of Buddhism. But the Theravada—"Thera" means elder and "vada" means way—so the way of the elders. So the Theravada school of Buddhism, which is primarily predominant in like Thailand for example, they believed that they are the eldest school of Buddhism, and it reflects the original teachings. That is actually not necessarily the truth. I don't think any of the schools of Buddhism today necessarily have the exact original. So they are all expressions of the development of Buddhism, whether they want to admit it or not.

In Mahayana Buddhism, in the first century, there were many, many new teachings that emerged, new insights that arose based on practitioners' meditation, and so they would write these scriptures as if the Buddha had spoken them. Now whether the Buddha actually spoke them in real life or not, well, that is up for the scholars to debate. But at least you can say that there were new insights in the practitioners as they wrote, but they thought that the Buddha was teaching them in their own current practice.

Audience Member: So, ChiSing, would that be like the later disciple of Jesus saying that he had a revelation?

ChiSing: Oh, that is a good analogy. Yeah. Because, you see, there were the gospels that were trying to express what Jesus said during his earthly life, but then later on there was this apostle named Paul. He never met Jesus when he was in real life, that he had visions of Jesus, and he was taught by Jesus through visions. So he was saying that Jesus was actually saying the teaching using him, too, in addition to whatever Jesus said on the earth plane. So it could be like that.

So, there is what the Buddha taught when he was on the earth, and then there are revelations of the Buddhas and bodhisattvas in meditations currently as you are practicing. So who knows? But of course, you can understand why the Theravada Buddhists think the Mahayana Buddhists are making up everything, right? You're having visions? Okay. We're just going to go by the original book.

But anyway, I personally think there is value in both schools. The Theravada it's very beautiful in the rich traditional—a lot of goodness in that tradition. And I like the Mahayana schools, too, because there's wonderful relevant innovation, creativity, and new insight that arises from the Mahayana. And Mahayana, "Maha" means great. "Yana" means vehicle. So, great vehicle. So the Mahayana movement was trying to say that it is a greater vehicle of Buddhism to encompass more broadly.

Unfortunately, they labeled the other schools as Hinayana. "Hina" means little, "yana," vehicle. So, we are the big vehicle, and you are the little vehicle. So that wasn't very nice. These days we don't try to use the word Hinayana anymore. We just say, "Well, there is Mahayana and there is Theravada" or other expressions like that. We try not to say Hinayana because that is not a nice term.

So, I'm going to talk a little bit about four or five different schools of Buddhism. I'm going to talk first about the Theravada. Imagine that this is a big giant iceberg underwater. Theravada would be what seems to be the most obvious teachings of the Buddha, basically what he actually said and what was recited, and then eventually a few hundred years later written down. So these are just the basic teachings, the most obvious teachings of the Buddha, the most obvious kind of by the book conservative teachings.

But you could think of Mahayana as the development of deeper teachings, deeper insights that grew from the original teachings of the Buddha. Because in Mahayana Buddhism, we don't believe that the Buddha is gone, and we certainly don't believe that truth is only what the Buddha said during his lifetime on the earth. As you practice what the Buddha teaches, you can actually start gaining more insight and understanding then even what the Buddha may have said in his earthly life. So the Mahayana is open to these new, emerging insights. So it is a much more reformed kind of understanding of religion.

So one school is Pure Land. It is the largest school of Buddhism in the world. Another popular one is the Vajrayana. So again, "Vajra" means diamond thunderbolt, and "yana" means vehicle. So it is basically like a school of Mahayana, but they believe that they are of an even more intensive, powerful expression of Mahayana Buddhism. So you find Vajrayana practice in many places, such as Tibet and other kinds of places. Pure Land is primarily in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Another school of Buddhism that is very popular these days is Zen, and of course Zen as it developed in Vietnam has led to our tradition that our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a Zen master in. And then of course, the thing about Thich Nhat Hanh is he is part of the movement called Unified Buddhism, so even though his lineage is from Zen, it is open to the other traditions and their insights as well. So it is a more inclusive kind of Zen. But most of the Zen we know it these days is from Japanese Zen rather than Vietnamese Zen. But just know that Japanese Zen and Vietnamese Zen and Chinese Zen and Korean Zen, they all have different flavors. They're very different from each other. I would say Vietnamese Zen is very much more relaxed, and Japanese Zen is much more prim and proper.

So, another version—and there are more versions of Buddhism than that. For example, there is Nichiren Buddhism. And I will mention that. They are a Japanese form of Buddhism, and they uphold the Lotus Sutra as the highest supreme teaching of the Buddha, and Nichiren was a Buddhist monk. He formulated a mantra for his disciples to use to really intensively get in touch with the power of the Lotus Sutra as an expression of the universal power of the universe, of the dharma hearing now.

Anyway, in a way, you can look at Nichiren Buddhism as another form of sort of an esoteric kind of Buddhism. Because Vajrayana is esoteric. In other words, you use mantras, rituals, secret ceremonies to cultivate certain insight, energy, and power to generate the wisdom and compassion in your life. Well, Nichiren Buddhism, you can think of it as a form of that as well because by having a particular mandala on their altar—they have Chinese writing on the mandala, and they have the chant.

So the mandala and the chant and the energy of the whole universe all come together in this practice. And what is that mantra? It is "Nam myoho renge kyo." You may have heard it before. Tina Turner is a practitioner of this, and so is Patrick Duffy, who was on Dallas, and Orlando Bloom of The Lord of the Rings. So anyway, there is a lot of different wonderful practitioners of this version. But it is very powerful for them. Again, just like Tibetan Buddhism is very powerful for people who practice that because there are certain intensive things they do, secret things they do.

So anyway, Pure Land Buddhism focuses on the heart, devotion, gratitude, love, and thanksgiving, and basically, it is a very devotional form of Buddhism. Just by reciting "Namo Amitabha, namo Amitabha, namo Amitabha." Thank you, infinite light of the Buddha. Thank you, infinite light of the Buddha. Thank you, infinite light of the Buddha. It generates a certain energy of the heart that opens you up to deep insight and deep compassion. In fact, the Pure Land of the Buddha of Infinite Light is sometimes called the Pure Land of the Lotus Flowers.

So anyway, the lotus flower is a predominant image in Buddhism. In Zen, it is very different from Pure Land and Vajrayana and even Theravada. Theravada, it just kind it does things by the book, and Pure Land focuses not on meditation but on devotion. Vajrayana focuses on ritual and mantra and ceremony, and Zen focuses primarily on meditation. Theravada does, too, but Zen even more so. And Theravada actually focuses a lot more on ethics and proper behavior, discipline, and Zen has that also, but it is mostly about the meditation. And then Nichiren Buddhism focuses primarily on the practice of chanting the "Nam myoho renge kyo."

I have tried them all, and I find that there is value in all of them, but it is impossible to do all of them in one lifetime and do it well. Then you have to kind of explore and then see which one you choose to focus on. You can focus on more than one, but it is very difficult to try to practice all of them. Then what you end up with is like a mush of practices, and they are kind of weak. So I recommend that you focus a little bit on maybe one or two practices from these traditions.

But anyway, for me, for whatever karmic reason, I find that meditation is like my primary base of the practice, which I always come back to that. I mean, I love Pure Land, too because I believe it helps balance my heart. I do the Medicine Buddha mantra, too, because I need some healing energy, some of that empowerment practice. I like hanging out with the Nichiren Buddhists from time to time, because when they chant, they really mean it. And then of course I love going to feed food to the monks at the Theravada Temple. But Zen really is my home.

Now, does anybody have any questions on these particular schools of Buddhism? There are other smaller schools of Buddhism, but I would say these are the main ones. Theravada is the most traditional. They are primarily in Thailand. Pure Land is the largest mainly in China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Vajrayana Buddhism or esoteric Buddhism is found in many places, but especially in Tibet.

Nichiren Buddhism came from Japan, but they are international. One of their international branches, called the Soka Gakkai, they have grown so big in America that they actually are the largest, I think, group of Buddhists in the country now. And then Zen, it is not as big, but it is very respected because of its simplicity and discipline and beauty in the simplicity. And Zen produces many masters of great peace. You can just feel the peace from their practice, like Thich Nhat Hanh. Questions? Or comments?

Audience Member: What period of history did Zen originate? Do you know?

ChiSing: Well, all of the Mahayana traditions all kind of developed fully in the first century all at the same time, except for the later development of Nichiren Buddhism and of Vajrayana. So I'd say Theravada in the year 600 B.C. and then Pure Land, Zen, and other schools of Buddhism, which died out later, but in the first century, and then Vajrayana and Nichiren, later on, a few centuries after that. But Zen did not really fully develop until it came in the China a few centuries after the first century. And then it started to blossom more and more.

In fact, Zen Buddhism is different from the other forms of Buddhism because it is taking the essence of Buddhism and then practicing that, in practicing in other ways besides the original way of Buddhism. So that is why Zen is more flexible in that sense. So that is why, like for example, there are Christian Zen groups because they can just take the essence of Buddhism, which is Zen, which is just the meditation practice, and then they can put it into any religious or cultural context.

So that is why there are different forms of Zen in different countries. And Zen not only had insights from Buddhism, but also Taoism and Confucianism. And just whatever the religious and cultural insights were of each country, Zen was able to make itself relevant and fit in with that because it is focusing on the essence, which is it doesn't matter what the Buddha said 2,600 years ago if you don't know what the Buddha is saying now in your own life, you see? So Zen isn't trying to be orthodox in the sense of following the exact teaching of the Buddha 2,600 years ago. Zen is just trying to help us to get in touch with the truth that is already in our own heart now, and that may or may not look like the words that have developed over the past 2,600 years.

Okay. Any questions or other comments? This was kind of a more intellectual lecture today I guess, but I want you to just see that there is a lot more flexibility possible. So what really matters is what is useful. What can we practice? That is why I love Thich Nhat Hanh and I love Zen, because he just takes what is most essential and makes it practical and applicable and easy for all of us to practice. And that is all I need. I don't need to know why everything else.

So, thank you very much for listening.

Transcribed by Jessica Hitch

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