Buddhism, the most fashionable and yet the least known religion

· 20 min read >

In the last century Buddhism has enjoyed excellent fame here in the West, thanks to philosophers and writers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Thoreau; the spread of Zen in the US and Europe since the 1950s, especially thanks to the writings of personalities like Suzuki; more recently thanks to figures such as the Dalai Lama and the Japanese Buddhist current launched by Makiguchi’s Soka Gakkai in the 1930s, widely spread in Europe with 130,000 practitioners. All these realities, however, contributed above all to creating a distorted image of Buddhism, far from the Asian reality, very idealised and abstract. In the West, Buddhism is considered not as a religion but as a philosophy of life, imbued with modern psychology, based solely on moral precepts, introspection, meditation. But Buddhism is quite different. It happened to me to discuss countless times with ignorant people about this religion so decided it was time to write a nice clarifying article.

Introduction

In this article, I will exclusively cover the principles of various Buddhist schools. For a study on the life of Buddha, the history and spread of Buddhism, I refer here.

I am not a Buddhist. I’m not even a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian or Baha’i. I am free. Of course, I was born in a Catholic country and for years I actively attended the church and the Catholic world. Then I duly turned away from it and I no longer embraced any confession. I find that religions, whatever they are, all have something interesting to take and to embrace and something totally sick to avoid like the plague. There is no perfect religion. Indeed, if it were up to me, religions would not even exist. This does not mean that I am a materialist or an atheist, quite the opposite, I am for spiritual freedom, research, personal experimentation, beyond morality, rules and pre-packaged models. I am also for freedom of choice and I don’t think one path is superior to another. But one thing I consider extremely important: intellectual honesty. With this free approach, I propose you this article.

The precepts of Buddhism

O Monks, the Venerable, the Tathāgatha […] made a proclamation of the Four Noble Truths. “Of what four? It was a proclamation of the Noble Truth of suffering (dukkha) by way of teaching… elucidating it; of the Noble Truth of the arising of suffering… of the Noble Truth of the cessation of suffering… of the Noble Truth of the Path leading to the cessation of suffering.

Saccavibangha Sutra

Foundations

First of all, the term Buddhism is recently coined and used exclusively by Westerners. In Asia, there is no single word to express this concept, in any of the originating countries of this religious current. The translation of the terms used in Buddhist scriptures is to be understood as “teaching of the Buddha”. One of the terms used is Buddha-sasana. The basic teaching underlying all Buddhist schools is that of the Four Noble Truths (in Sanskrit catvāri-ārya-satyāni), namely:

  1. The truth of the existence of pain (duḥkha). The life of sentient beings is impregnated with suffering: birth, disease, old age, the desire for what is missing, the repulsion for what we do not want, the pains of the body, the suffering of the mind. Everything is pain.
  2. The truth about the origin of pain. It is not the fault of fate, of a god, of the world or of chaos. It originates within us and is born in the search for happiness in what is transitory.
  3. The truth about the cessation of pain. There is the possibility of emancipating oneself from pain, this occurs by letting go of the attachment (tṛṣṇā) to things and people and to that illusory scale of values ​​for which what is transitory is more desirable. This state of cessation is called nirodha.
  4. The truth of the way that leads to the cessation of pain. There is a path of practice that allows you to free yourself from pain. It is the spiritual path to be followed to approach nirvāṇa and is called the Eightfold Path.

These Four Noble Truths are found in various discourses of the Pali Canon and the Chinese Canon and, according to tradition, were exhibited by Buddha in his first speech in Sarnath, after he had achieved spiritual awakening in Bodhgaya, and thanks to which he started the Dharma or the Buddhist doctrine. The anniversary of this event is celebrated in the traditional Theravāda countries with the festival of Āsāḷha Pūjā. By others, it is considered the starting point of the first Buddhist community (Saṃgha), made up of those five ascetics who had abandoned him years before discouraged, after having long been his disciples.

Dharma Wheel
Dharma Wheel

The middle way

In this speech, moreover, it is highlighted how Buddhist doctrine is a middle way, which distances itself from the extremes of a tormenting asceticism, but also from laxity; in the same way it is in the middle between absolutisms and individualism. This element is fundamental as there is a strong tendency for many spiritual movements, both past and present, to base the achievement of awakening on extreme ascetic practices that are often harmful to the body and mind. At the same time, modern religions have adapted to rampant materialism and secularism, just as other decidedly lax spiritual currents have emerged, even in the Buddhist field (did someone say Soka Gakkai?). In religions such as Christianity, for example, there is no attention whatsoever to the body and asceticism, except in certain elitist circles. This leads to laxity of customs and ease in losing the final goal. It is no coincidence that in religions such as Christianity there are no forms of meditation, except in very narrow areas (such as Hesychasm).

The Eightfold Path

The path to nirvana, called in Sanskrit under the name of rya aṣṭāṅgika mārga, consists of eight simple precepts to follow. They too were exposed by Buddha during his first sermon held in Sarnath and are part of the foundations of Buddhism:

  1. right view
  2. right intention
  3. right speech
  4. right action
  5. right livelihood
  6. right effort
  7. right mindfulness
  8. right concentration
Right view

Recognizing the Four Noble Truths without being distracted by the charm of temporary goods is having a correct vision of reality. Everything is transitory and the Four Noble Truths make it evident. This is the basis for starting this journey.

Right intention

The correct vision of reality must be accompanied by an equally correct intention. It is not enough to know how things are, you have to act accordingly by wanting to get rid of suffering in the right way, learning to master tṛṣṇā, or attachments.

Right speech

We must be responsible for what is said and adapt what we think to what we say, the same is for our actions: it must be in accordance with our words. Furthermore, what we utter, besides being true, must also be useful and not harmful to others.

Right action

Our action must be motivated by non-attachment, by non-greed. So things like violence, in any form, or theft are not in the least contemplated. But this precept is not limited to this: everything that is driven by attachment and craving must be avoided.

Right livelihood

Living in a balanced way avoiding excesses, obtaining sustenance using methods that do no harm to anyone. These modalities must always coincide with the concept of the middle way, that is, without exaggerating in the extremes.

Right effort

Letting go of unhealthy states of mind to cultivate healthy ones, trusting in one’s Buddhist practice by persevering with a correct and balanced commitment motivated by faith (śraddhā), which is obtained thanks to the results achieved with practice.

Right mindfulness

Ability to keep the mind free of confusion, generated by attachment and craving.

Right concentration

Knowing how to maintain the correct inner attitude, which leads to self-mastery during the practice of meditation (dhyāna), a fundamental element for all Buddhist schools.

Modalities

Although this Eightfold Path is clear and easy to understand, different ways have been developed within the Buddhist schools to practice it. Some argue that these precepts must be practised all together in order to progress in each of them a little at a time. Others prefer to divide these precepts into different groups by creating a spiral of elevation that rises to proceed from the “lowest” to the “highest” precepts, which implies working on the low ones first. The “immediate” model, however, typical of schools like the Zen one, supports the possibility of transcending all these precepts immediately reaching awakening. Another modality gives importance to the growth path at the moment by claiming that, once a goal has been reached, this medium should be abandoned, according to the principle that the goal should not be confused with the way.

Dukkha: the suffering
Dukkha: the suffering

Other key points

In addition to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, Buddhism of all schools shares other fundamental aspects. The first is that each aggregate (physical or mental) is the cause of suffering, or duḥkha (both when we want it and it does not present or ceases to be present, and when we want to get away from it and this persists). The second is that every aggregate, physical or mental, is born and therefore subject to decay and death: everything that exists is impermanent (anitya). The third aspect, a consequence of the other two, is that there is no eternal and immutable self (doctrine of the anātman). With this, Buddhism distances itself from Hinduism (and from all religions that believe in an immortal soul). These teachings, along with many others, are contained in the various Canons, or in the sutras. The first step on the path is, in fact, to listen to the doctrine of Buddha (the Dharma) exposed in the sutras to acquire faith in the teachings. For this reason, the monks chant the sutras every day.

Enso: representation of emptiness in Zen
Enso: representation of emptiness in Zen

Karma and śunyātā

To these aspects must be added the vision of an intertwined reality. Everything that exists is subject to the law of cause and effect. Every action generates consequences. This law binds beings to the illusions and attachments that form the basis of existential suffering. This concept of conditional co-production is called pratītyasamutpāda and is linked to that of karma. This term, which simply means “action“, subjugates everything that exists to follow its precepts. Taking an action generates consequences; good deeds generate positive consequences while evil deeds generate negative consequences, which will affect subsequent rebirths. This vision of intertwined reality, in which all processes and compounds are closely interconnected, is enriched by the belief that everything that exists underlies nothing but emptiness (śunyātā), that is, there is no intrinsic property in the compounds and processes that form the reality.

The gods and samsara

Although Buddha has never spoken of an absolute God and there is the general belief that Buddhism is an atheistic movement, in reality, all Buddhist schools confirm the existence of the devas, deities of the Hindu Vedic culture. They are present in all the canons. Buddhist devas, however, are subject to the law of karma and their existence is conditioned by saṃsāra, the cycle of life and rebirth. Considering that for the Buddhists there is no eternal and absolute soul or principle, what is reborn every time and in what way and timing is still a source of debate between the different schools. Since the divinities themselves are slaves of saṃsāra, they are unable to offer man salvation from it, nor an ultimate meaning of their existence. No Buddhist school in the world exists, nor has ever existed, which affirms, or has affirmed, the non-existence of divinities. The total lack of centrality of the deities in the Buddhist tradition has meant that many people think that it is a non-religion, an atheist philosophy of life.

Hindu Pantheon
Hindu Pantheon

The Three Jewels

All Buddhist schools recognize the essential role of the Three Jewels: namely the Buddha (historical and transcendent), the Dharma (doctrine) and the Saṃgha (the monastic community).

Buddha

The figure of Buddha or Buddhahood in general are elements accepted in all Buddhist schools. How this Buddha is seen varies from school to school. Buddha is someone who, through personal effort, has achieved awakening. Thanks to this, he ended the cycle of rebirth, eliminated all negative mental aspects and also reached spiritual powers. For Theravada Buddhism, there is only one Buddha for each historical era, and in our era, there has already been Siddhartha Gautama. Others can at best become Arhat. In Mahayana Buddhism, however, anyone can become Buddha and there are many who form a complex cosmology that, in part, we will see later.

Dharma

It refers to the doctrine of Buddha, or his teachings, which have been collected in the sutras that form the various canons. These are teachings that are not dogmatic but that must be lived in practice. They are a means of achieving nirvana, not irrefutable absolute truths: once nirvana is achieved, they are no longer needed. Dharma also refers to the universal law that moves everything that exists, both at the macrocosmic and individual levels. Ultimately it is the law that says the way things really are. Buddha’s doctrine is based on this cosmic and personal law.

Sagha

The monastic community made up of men and women, who follow the doctrine of Buddha and the precepts that arose from it, such as living in chastity and without possessing anything (just a bowl to beg for food and a garment). It is the best place to grow spiritually. Saṃgha is what makes Dharma live, preserves and transmits it. Without the monastic community, there is no Buddhism. It allows lay people to do good deeds by helping the monks, giving them food, clothes and everything they need. Saṃgha follows the monastic rules dictated by Buddha (Vinaya) and serves as a spiritual model for present and future generations. The rules include an obligation to beg for food; this creates an addiction to the laity and a mutual aid relationship. The laity provides for the material goods of the monks while they take care of spreading and bestowing the spiritual goods on the laity.

There is a more metaphysical concept of Saṃgha: that is, the community of the awakened, formed by all those who have achieved enlightenment, in the past, present and future. A bit like in Christianity there is a difference between the earthly Church, made by men and the Heavenly Church, made by saints.

Meditation

All Buddhist schools consider meditation (sometimes called bhāvanā or mental development, other times dhyāna, training of the mind) as the main tool for achieving awakening. The main methods are two: samatha (meditation of tranquillity) and vipassana (meditation of intuition or deep vision). Samatha stabilizes, concentrates, reassembles and unifies the mind. Vipassana allows you to see, explore, discern the formations of the aggregates (physical or mental). These two methods are not separate; Buddha regards them as two complementary states of mind, which can be achieved through meditation. From these two basic methods, countless techniques have developed within each school.

Theravada Buddhism

For living thus I come to know
the limits to which feeling goes.
My mind looks not to sense-desires:
Now see a being’s purity.

Suttaniapata

Principles

Theravada means “doctrine of the elderly“. This school is believed to be the oldest of all, and therefore the most faithful to Buddha’s teachings. Recent studies have shown that this claim has no foundation and that the Theravada school itself has been largely influenced by the Mahayana. In addition to the foundations listed above which are common to all Buddhist schools (the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the concept of karma, sunyata, samsara, the existence of the gods and meditation as the main instrument), the Theravada it has its own particular principles and rules. First of all, they refer to the Pali Canon, rejecting the sutras recited by other schools, especially the Mahayana one and its derivatives. Lay people must follow the five precepts (refrain from killing, stealing, lying, bad sexual behaviour and drinking intoxicating substances) to acquire the merits for future life, in which they may perhaps be reborn as monks (only these, in fact, they can get awakening or enlightenment).

Theravada monk and nun in Myanmar
Theravada monk and nun in Myanmar

Sagha

The gap between monks and laypeople is very wide, where laypeople revere the monks often providing food during the morning quest. Those who have witnessed this type of ceremony, which in countries like Myanmar or Laos are very easy to see, will notice how the lay faithful await the arrival of the monks on their knees to fill their bowls of rice. Also in the language, many reverential forms towards monks are used. These are called bhikkhu and bhikkhuni (the nuns): this is the title that fully ordained monks receive.

In the majority of Theravada countries, there is the custom of sending children after seven years, especially boys, for a minimum of a few months to live a monastic life. The poorest families leave them for the whole course of study since it is the only way they have to have their children study. Although a boy can spend ten years inside the monastery living as a monk, he is not considered to be one unless after 20 years of age and after a formal ceremony. Young aspiring monks are called to follow 10 precepts (in addition to the classic five, there are others: do not spread the defects of the Buddhist community, do not praise yourself or speak ill of others, do not be stingy, do not harbour anger, do not speak badly about Buddha, Dharma or Saṃgha).

Giovani novizie a chiedere l'elemosina, Myanmar
Young novices begging for alms, Myanmar

Monastic rules

Once fully ordered, the rules become 227 for monks and 311 for nuns. The disparity between these two groups is all in favour of the monks. Some of these precepts are: the obligation to beg for food; being able to eat only before noon; live in chastity; do not touch (or be touched) by women (valid for male monks); not being able to be alone with a woman; do not use money; do not trade; do not sleep with the laity; do not consume alcohol; don’t tickle; do not play with water; do not light a fire (or allow it to light); do not wash more than twice a month; do not disperse the semen or persuade someone to disperse your semen, except when dreaming; avoid sensual physical contact with a woman, including kissing or holding hands; if a bhikkhu should teach more than five or six Dharma sentences to a woman unless a well-educated man is present, it must be confessed; Dharma should not be taught to someone who is sick, who has an umbrella in their hand, who wears sandals or shoes; you cannot urinate and defecate standing, on plants and in water.

Theravada monks begging for food

The doctrine of analysis

With the advent of modernity, there are not a few Theravada monasteries that have adapted the rules, but there are still many who have this traditionalist approach. The Theravada method, in fact, is based (or should be based) on the continuous analytical elaboration of life, to the detriment of ethical and ritual rules. However, when you come into contact with the Theravada reality, you notice that often the practice focuses more on ritualism and morality than on analysis.

Mahayana Buddhism

No affliction is nirvana. And no appearance of the mind is the other shore.
When you’re deluded, this shore exists. When you wake tip, it doesn’t exist. Mortals stay on this shore. But those who discover the greatest of all vehicles stay on neither this shore nor the other shore.

Bodhidharma
Bodhisattva Manjusri, Japan
Bodhisattva Manjusri, Japan

Emptiness

Mahayana means “Great Vehicle” and refers specifically to sutras, or to the Prajñāpāramitā Sutra and the Lotus Sutra, which instead are not recognized as canonical by the Theravada school (which is therefore called Hinayana, Small Vehicle, in a derogatory way). In these sutras, the already known doctrine of emptiness (śunyātā) is emphasized. Since everything is empty, devoid of inherent substantiality, the nirvāṇa itself also loses its meaning. In fact, Nagarjuna, the greatest exponent of the Mahayana school, says:

«Samsara is nothing essentially different from Nirvana.
Nirvana is nothing essentially different from Samsara.
The limits of Nirvana are the limits of Samsara.
Between the two, also, there is not the slightest difference whatsoever.»

That is, between the state of suffering and that of awakening, there is no difference; as if to say that awakening is useless (even if it isn’t). The focus is on understanding the cause of the phenomena and no longer understanding the truth of suffering. This is only a partial doctrine, which serves at the beginning (therefore considered Hinayana); the next step is that of knowing the cause of being. This second doctrine, according to the Mahayana school, was taught by Buddha but only to a circle of chosen ones, who kept it secret for centuries and then brought it back to light at the beginning of our era.

Buddha Maitreya, Nepal
Buddha Maitreya, Nepal

Differences: Theravada approach

As we have seen above, the Theravada school recognizes a single Buddha per historical era (in ours it was Siddhartha Gautama) and the human being can at best aspire to become an Arhat (which implies the achievement of nirvana anyway). Obviously only monks can become Arhat. The Buddha is a being who, in addition to having achieved nirvana, has left useful teachings for humanity (while an Arhat limits himself to waking up and then extinguishing himself in nirvana, without real utility for others). Once dead, the Buddha came out of samsara, entered extinction (nirvana) and only the doctrine remains of him. Bodhisattvas (beings destined for awakening) are those who aspire to achieve spiritual awakening. Finally, always in the Theravada school, the Buddha of the future, of the next era, is the Maitreya Buddha, who at present is still a bodhisattva.

Mahayana school: Buddhahood

In the Mahayana vision, however, not only the Buddha did not become extinct and continues to exist in transcendent form, but he is not alone, he is accompanied by a myriad of other, always transcendent Buddhas. In fact, everyone has the nature of Buddha (Tathagatagarbha) and can achieve awakening and nirvana (not only the monks) but, more than that, they can become Buddhas and contribute to the awakening of the world in their transcendent life. The existence of this Buddha-nature in every being contradicts that of the non-existence of a Self or a soul within the aggregates (physical or mental). Thus, many exponents of the Mahayana school maintain that this doctrine has been exposed in order not to frighten non-Buddhists who approach this religion and that ultimately this Buddha-nature is non-self anyway.

Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, China
Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, China

Bodhisattvas

Since the main purpose is to help sentient beings, the main way is not so much to become Arhat and reach nirvana but to awaken and be reborn with the intent to facilitate others to awaken. The Theravada school is accused of selfishness, focused entirely on one’s individual salvation. It is, in fact, in the Mahayana context that the famous concept of compassion (karuṇā) towards all living beings typical of Buddhism develops. Here, whoever reaches nirvana and renounces to enter to save humanity (a concept called bodhicitta), is reborn countless times in samsara but without being involved in it, or as a spiritual master until he becomes a transcendent being endowed with divine powers called a bodhisattva. This creates a kind of Buddhist pantheon in which “famous” bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara (who in China and Japan become a female figure called respectively Guan Yin and Kannon), Manjusri, Maitreya, Tara, Vajrapani, Prajna and Ksitigarbha stand out.

Tara Bodhisattva
Tara Bodhisattva

Each of these cosmic bodhisattvas has a specific operational sphere (Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of compassion, Prajna is wisdom, Maitreya will be the Buddha of the future, Ksitigarbha is the protector of the monks and so on). They are revered in a way analogous to that of the devas (gods) of Hinduism or like the saints of Christianity. They have their own cults and sutras. They are often depicted in the form of statues or paintings, which are placed in specific temples or areas inside the temple dedicated to them. It almost seems that Mahayana Buddhism, in this, has taken a “step back” from the revolutionary idea of Buddhism of the origins still supported by the Theravada school.

The various Buddhas

As there are so many bodhisattvas, the same is true of the Buddhas. Siddhartha Gautama was nothing more than a mere earthly manifestation of the Eternal transcendent Buddha. In fact, it is seen, using the words of Dr Guan Xin, as “an omnipotent divinity endowed with numerous supernatural attributes and qualities … [He] is described almost as an omnipotent and invincible divinity”. Buddha then becomes again an eternal, omnipotent “god” who incarnates according to his needs. Each Buddha existing in the Mahayana tradition is the impersonation of one of the qualities of this “divine” and lives in a different “paradise” in the transcendent world. Indeed, according to the Mahayana tradition of the Pure Land, there is a “place” where the devotee, with the simple faith, devotion or repetition of the name of Buddha, can access after death and have the best conditions to reach the Buddhahood.

Mahayana Pantheon
Mahayana Pantheon

Heavens and hells

Here comes a complex cosmology, made up of eternal and omnipotent divinities, with paradises in which Buddhas, servant spirits, bodhisattvas and devotees coexist. In contrast, there are several hells in which “sinners” will meet to serve their sufferings before being born again in samsara. Buddha Gautama is actually the eternal Buddha, always awakened, who has never really reached extinction (nirvana) and who is the embodiment of Dharma. In the face of that, where are the differences between Buddhism and any other poly or monotheistic religion? This process of deification of the Buddha closely resembles that of Jesus Christ. Contemporary Buddhists of the Mahayana school (which I remember includes many other sub-schools such as Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, the Pure Land, Chan) try to give a “psychological” explanation to this cosmology. In reality, the various Buddhas and bodhisattvas do not exist as such but are archetypes, models that embody qualities to be cultivated in order to aspire to Buddhahood.

Example of a Buddhist hell
Example of a Buddhist hell

Vijñānavāda

Almost in contrast to the doctrine of the eternal Buddha and the various bodhisattvas and Buddhas, this teaching holds that everything that actually exists is nothing but illusory and inconsistent. What we see and experience is nothing but a projection of the mind and nothing exists outside of it. Based on the theory described above that also existed in Buddhism of the origins of the interdependence of each aggregate (if there is something it is because something else exists), the origin of the whole is nothing other than the flow of our mental experiences. When we realize that this flow is empty, it does not undergo any subject-object dynamics that we usually attribute to it, we reach the state of non-duality or nirvana. This doctrine has various interpretations within the Mahayana movement, some more or less nihilistic.

Upaya

That is the “skill in means” that, consciously used, lead to awakening. In the Mahayana school, Buddha’s teachings on the means, techniques and ways that can be useful for awakening can be adapted by the individual according to his needs. Not only that, but the use of any device that makes you approach the enlightenment is also allowed, even if it is not considered “true”. However, every means is not absolute truth but only a valid tool as long as it is effective at the moment, to be abandoned when it is no longer needed (or even becomes an obstacle). Furthermore, these gimmicks can also be taught to others, as upaya is also the ability to adapt your message to the public. In this, the Mahayana is even less dogmatic than the Theravada and reaffirms the importance of the practice and individuality of the spiritual path. It is no coincidence that other very different schools were born within this school.

Vajrayana Buddhism

The woman is heaven and woman is the doctrine (dharma),
The woman is the highest ascetic path (tapas),
The Buddha is woman and women are the Sangha,
And the woman is perfect wisdom.

Candamaharosana Tantra
Tibetan monks in a theological discussion
Tibetan monks in a theological discussion

The Diamond Vehicle

The Vajrayana school (or Vehicle of Diamond) was born around the VI-VII century in India, within the Mahayana and marries its principles. To these, it adds other doctrines that derive from Hindu tantrism and shamanism. This is why it is also called Tantric Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism or Mantrayana since mantras are used. This school is based on the concept of the vajra (translated as diamond or lightning) which symbolizes the ultimate unbreakable, immutable and authentic truth, which corresponds to emptiness, or the essence of all things. The diamond is also the enlightened mind: clear, limpid, empty (transparent). The Vajrayana is, therefore, the third vehicle, after the Hinayana (Theravada) and the Mahayana.

Prayer wheels
Prayer wheels

Tibetan Canon: the Tantras

This school is widespread in Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia and Japan but not only. It developed its own canon which is enriched by esoteric texts called Tantras. These (whose term means “weave” or “frame”) are considered secret esoteric teachings passed down orally for centuries. For this reason, Vajrayana can only be learned directly by a master. In these Tantras, it is argued that there is an authentic nature that underlies reality (like a weave, in fact), be it related to samsara or nirvana and that this nature corresponds to emptiness (sunyata). When this emptiness manifests itself, it does so through the illusion of existence. To know the emptiness underlying the phenomena is to achieve awakening. Tantra is the way that leads to this awareness.

Tibetan Mandala
Tibetan Mandala

Practices

While the Mahayana is “limited” to using meditation and the study of sutras as tools to achieve awakening, Vajrayana adds the use of Tantras (both the study of homonymous texts and the use of tantric practices) as a “skilful means” to achieve the purification of the body and its surroundings (techniques described in the lower or external Tantras) and to transform the contaminated dimension into pure (higher or internal Tantras). This journey of the Diamond Path can only be undertaken through initiations dispensed by a master. The techniques used are the following:

  1. Iṣṭadevatā: each practitioner chooses his own divinity of reference. It will be the main object of meditation, which is visualized in every detail during the practice.
  2. Maṇḍala: this divinity occupies a sacred space that has specific characteristics: it is visualized together and around the divinity, which is its centre.
  3. Mudrā: these are ritual and symbolic gestures that have a value in that they favour identification with the divinity object of meditation. Through the sacred gesture, divinity is made alive in us.
  4. Pūja: when divinity has been made present, sacred offerings are made in his honour. The same devotion to divinity is already offered, as is daily meditation. In Tantric Buddhism, the pūja is not only external but above all internal.
  5. Mantra: mantras are sacred formulas, sometimes considered magical, which allow the practitioner to enter into a special relationship with the divinity. Each of them, in fact, has one or more mantras that identify it. Not only that, but each mantra also contains an aspect of reality (for example compassion or wisdom) and its recitation reveals its secret.
  6. Samudācāratā: it is the ultimate stage that leads to living non-duality, thanks to identification with divinity. This allows the practitioner to live pure, like a god.

On closer inspection, these are real psychophysical techniques not so different from those used in theatre and this practice can be included among those used by Jodorowsky in his Psychomagic. Thanks to these techniques, the practitioner accelerates the awakening process without having to go through the purification of impurities and the accumulation of positivity. In this, Buddhist Tantrism, which has several sub-schools, takes up the concept of Hinduism. Initially, among other things, rituals of tantric sexual coupling were also practised, where the ingestion of sacred liquids (semen and menstrual blood) was foreseen in a ritual sense.

Vajradhara e Prajna
Vajradhara and Prajna

These practices then disappeared from Buddhism to remain at a stage of mere visualization. The Vajrayana school is widespread in Tibet (where it arrived last) so much so that the two are identified (although there are other forms of Buddhism in Tibet) but we also find it in Japan (Shingon), Nepal, Mongolia, part of China, Bhutan, to then spread to the West, mainly thanks to the fortune of Tibetan Buddhism and the figure of the Dalai Lama.

Conclusions

As you can see, Buddhism is a very heterogeneous reality that varies from school to school. But not only that, within them there are myriads of movements and, since there is no centralized authority, each monastery is quite free. There are several cases of syncretism and coexistence, within the same monastery, of different schools and currents, even distant from each other, but with a similar monastic practice. What catches the eye is that even Buddhism lives by a strong tradition that often presents old and discriminating rules (especially in the Theravada tradition, where women and laypeople have fewer rights and privileges) or that it has devotional attitudes and a theological vision towards the Buddha quite similar to monotheistic religions.

To say, therefore, that Buddhism is not a religion is a theological and historical forgery. To claim that it is only a philosophy of life, a practice in which compassion and meditation are at the centre is wrong: the recitation of the sutras is the master and cases of racism and violence by Buddhists against other religions are not rare (suffice it to see in Myanmar). Finally, it is seen, by the inhabitants of the majority Buddhist countries, as something old, retrograde and outdated, a decadent institution dedicated only to useless rituals and to stealing money from devotees, exactly as Western countries see Christianity.

Buddhism too has undergone manipulations, distortions and influences from other religions, over the centuries, compared to the original doctrine which unfortunately is not recoverable due to the total absence of sources contemporary to Buddha. It is good that Buddhism, in its essence, represents a revolutionary and avant-garde approach to the spiritual and human being and that thanks to various contemporary movements, there is a tendency to clean up questionable cultural heritage to recover the heart of the message in the light of new scientific and psychological knowledge. One can rightly argue that Buddhism was one of the first forms of psychoanalysis.

For an article on the life of Buddha, the history and spread of Buddhism, I refer to this.

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History and spread of Buddhism

in Spirituality
  ·   25 min read