A brief discussion of
Buddhist traditions: East & West
Buddhist traditions in the East:
Buddhism is not a single monolithic religion. Many of its adherents have
combined the teachings of the Buddha with local religious rituals, beliefs and
customs. Little conflict occurs, because Buddhism at its core is a philosophical
system to which such additions can be easily grafted.
After the Buddha's death, splits occurred. There are now three main systems
of thought within Buddhism which are geographically and philosophically
separate. Each tradition in turn has many sects. One source divides the religion
into three main groups by their location:
Theravada Buddhism (a.k.a. as Southern Buddhism) now has 100
Buddhist missionariesfrom India took the religion to a number of
countries, but it initially only achieved a foothold in Sri Lanka.
It later spread from Sri Lanka to Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and parts
of Vietnam. They promoted the Vibhajjavada school (Separative
Teaching). By the 15th century, this form of the religion reached almost
its present geographical extent.
Concepts and practices include:
Dana - thoughtful, ceremonial giving
Sila - accepting Buddhist teaching and following it in practice;
refraining from killing, stealing, wrong behavior, use of drugs. On
special days, three additional precepts may be added, restricting
adornment, entertainment and comfort.
Karma - the balance of accumulated sin and merit, which will
determine one's future in the present life, and the nature of the next
life to come.
The Cosmos - consists of billions of worlds grouped into clusters;
clusters are grouped into galaxies, which are themselves grouped into
super-galaxies. The universe also has many levels: four underworlds and
21 heavenly realms.
Paritta - ritual chanting.
Worship - of relics of a Buddha, of items made by a Buddha, or of
other symbolic relics.
Festivals - days of the full moon, and three other days during the
lunar cycle are celebrated. There is a new year's festival, and
celebrations tied to the agricultural year.
Pilgrimages - particularly to Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka and India.
Mahayana Buddhism (a.k.a. Northern Buddhism) is the predominant
religion in China, Japan, Korea and much of Vietnam. The tradition entered
China during the Han dynasty (206 BCE to 220
CE). It found initial acceptance there among the workers; later, it
gradually penetrated the ruling class. Buddhism reached Japan in the 6th
century. It underwent severe repression during the 1960's in China during
the Cultural Revolution.
Eastern Buddhism contains many distinct schools:
T'ein-t'ai, Hua-yen, Pure Land teachings, and the Meditation school. They
celebrate the New Year, harvest festivals, and five anniversaries from the
lives of Buddha and of the Bodhissattva Kuan-yin. They also engage in Dana,
Sila, Chanting, Worship and Pilgrimage.
Vajrayana Buddhism (a.k.a. Tantric Buddhism) has perhaps 10
million adherents in parts of China, Mongolia, Russia and Tibet. It was brought
Tibet circa 750 CE by Padmasambhava at the request of the king of Tibet. 4 Conflict with the native Tibetan religion of Bon caused
it to go largely underground until its revival in the 11th century CE. The
head of the Gelu school of Buddhist teaching became the Dalai Lama, and
ruled Tibet. It has been, until recently, wrongly dismissed as a degenerate
form of Buddhism.
Ceremony and ritual are emphasized. They also engage in
Dana, Sila, Chanting, Worship and Pilgrimage. They developed the practice of
searching out a young child at the time of death of an important teacher.
The child is believed to be the successor to the deceased teacher. They
celebrate New Years, harvest festivals and anniversaries of five important
events in the life of the Buddha. Buddhist and Tibetan culture suffered
greatly during the Cultural Revolution when an attempt was made to destroy
all religious belief. 1
Buddhism in the West:
Southern Buddhism became established in Europe early in the 20th
Buddhism came to the U.S. in the early 19th century, with the arrival of
Chinese and Japanese immigrants to Hawaii and to the west coast of the U.S.
mainland. The Zen Buddhist tradition of Eastern Buddhism has developed a large
following, particularly after the "Beat" generation, which began in the
1950's. Today, there are racial and cultural divides in American Buddhism,
between nationalities of new immigrants, and between Caucasians and Asians. They
exist largely as two solitudes, with little interaction.
For Asian-American Buddhists, the temple "has more congregational
importance, playing a key religious, social and cultural role in the
community." Many have come to America recently, escaping wars in the Far
Caucasians Buddhists focus on meditation. Their groups tend to be "more
lay orientated, with more women in positions of leadership. For some
converts, Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion." 2
Reliable data on Buddhism in the U.S. is hard to come by. Many estimates of
total adherents to Buddhism ranged from three to four million. This would have
made them the third largest religious group in the U.S., behind Christians and
NOTAS (None Of The Above; persons with no religious identification.) However,
the American Religious identification Survey (ARIS 2001) by the
Graduate Center of the City University of New York
found that the estimated number of American adults who identify themselves as
Buddhist was 1,082,000 in 2001, a significant rise from 401,000 in their similar
1990 survey. This places the number of Buddhists nearly equal to the number of
Muslims in the U.S., which they estimated at 1,104,000 in 2001.
Numbers of Canadian Buddhists rose from 163,415 in
the 1991 census to 300,345 in 2001.3
J.R. Hinnels, "A Handbook of Living Religions," Penguin, (1991).