What is the best form of Buddhism

Wat Srinagarindravararam

Soon after the Buddha's death there were disputes among the followers about his teachings, with the monks of the different schools living under the same roof for a long time (until the third century AD, at the monastery university of Nalanda until it was destroyed by Islamic conquerors in 1199). The historical Buddha was exaggerated by certain powers and given divine attributes. God-like figures crept into the strict doctrine of self-redemption, who are supposed to help people on the arduous path to Nibbana. The idea that there is no permanent “soul” has been replaced by the old, brahmanic idea of ​​the repeated reincarnation of the same person. The Nibbana became a “nothing” (a thought) with a permanent character, an eternal place of “emptiness”; something like a “heaven” or a “paradise” crept through the back door, even if only in negation. The original intentions of the Buddha were not only reinterpreted in the course of development, but sometimes turned into the opposite.

The following overview concentrates on the main lines of development and only serves the purpose of placing Buddhism in Thailand in a religious and spiritual-historical context.

1. The Hinayana Buddhism: The “old teaching” (Theravada) is the most original form, the original Buddhism, which is closest to the historical Buddha. It was summarized at the first council shortly after the death of Buddha and recorded in the canon in the Pali language, which was then only passed down orally. According to this teaching, everyone has to walk the path to Nibbana themselves. This form of Buddhism, a consistent teaching of self-redemption, is therefore also called the “small vehicle” (Hinayana) into Nibbana, because only a few people have space on it. In addition to Theravada Buddhism, other schools also existed within Hinayana. Theravada Buddhism spread from Sri Lanka to the countries of Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar). It is therefore also called "southern Buddhism".

2. The Mahayana Buddhism: 100 to 200 years after the death of the Buddha, there was a first major split. In their wake, a new form of Buddhism gradually developed, the language of which was to become Sanskrit. Some monks wanted to make salvation accessible to many people. Buddhism should become "more popular". The laity should also be able to board the ship of salvation. We therefore speak of the "big vehicle" (Sanskrit: Mahayana). For the first time in Buddhism, redeemer figures appear: enlightened people, so-called Bodhisattvas (Pali: Bodhisatta), who forego the transition to Nirvana out of compassion (charity) and who help people on their way to salvation, and are even able to do so To settle the “debt account” and take on their suffering. Suffering and the real world are no longer real and at the same time ephemeral, as with the historical Buddha, but mere appearance or imagination. Whoever leaves the illusory world behind, falls into the emptiness of nirvana. In the course of the development of Mahayana a schooling direction emerged which sees in this emptiness a "shining spirit" which finally becomes the absolute and is equated with emptiness (nirvana) or the absolute "Buddha". The number of original Buddha discourses is multiplied by the number of sutras ascribed to the historical Buddha or a Bodhisattva. Mahayana Buddhism developed its teaching in numerous schools, some of which were more devoted to philosophical speculation than to religious practice, and took on quite different forms in several Asian countries.

3. The chinese buddhism is one of these further developments of Mahayana Buddhism. China probably came into contact with Buddhism before the turn of the century. One route led from northern India via what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan and via the old trade routes north of the Himalayas. Buddhist monks were also on the "maritime silk road", that is, across the Strait of Malacca and the seaports of Sumatra, Borneo, Java, Funan on the Mekong Delta and Vietnam. Buddhism adapted itself to the religious and ethical ideas of place and time and absorbed the existing ideas about ancestor cult, spirits, demons and nature gods of China. Despite temporary oppression (for the last time during the Cultural Revolution from 1966) Buddhism unfolded into numerous schools and directions. Essentially, two main lines emerged, viz

- Amithaba Buddhism: Amithaba is the "Buddha of immeasurable light"; whoever believes in him and serves him, arrives after death in the "Pure Land", a kind of perfect paradise full of lotus flowers and jewels; there he will hear, understand and internalize the teaching (Dharma) so that he will be able to enter nirvana; also called Faith Buddhism or Buddhism of the "Pure Land";

- Meditation Buddhism: The path to enlightenment and nirvana leads through meditation; this line was mainly shaped by Ch’an Buddhism; he took on traits of Daoism, which also knows meditative techniques; The wisdom bodhisattva Manjusri enjoys great reverence; whoever meditates in front of his statue and obeys his teaching will belong to the Buddha family.

These forms of Buddhism can be found in China, Korea, Vietnam and of course wherever Chinese have emigrated in the course of their history, for example in Singapore. In Thailand, the Chinese largely adhered to Thai Theravada Buddhism, but brought their own traditions (such as the popular worship of a Marian-like female figure named Mäh Kuan Im, a female form of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara).

4. The japanese buddhism is also based on the Mahayana, which came to Japan via China and Korea in the sixth century. It also developed in very different directions in the course of its history and is partly connected with the local Shinto religion:

- Amida Buddhism, the Japanese version of the Chinese faith or Amithaba Buddhism, is widespread. Whoever pronounces the formula "Adoration of the Buddha Amida" with a sincere, believing and longing heart will be reborn in the "Pure Land".

- Zen Buddhism, a type of meditation Buddhism that emerged from Chinese Ch’an Buddhism and that was to shape Japanese culture more than other Buddhist schools, is known in the West. Zen Buddhism claims to return to the essence of the original Buddha's teaching and rejects magical excesses and excessive forms of Buddha and Bodhisattva worship. Not only meditation, but also physical work is a path to enlightenment.

5. From the connection between Mahayana Buddhism and magical customs, an occult, syncretistic Buddhism developed in India since the second century (Tantrajana or "Vehicle of Tantra Texts"). This form of Buddhism, in particular the reliance on magical practices and a pronounced ritual nature, is also Vajrayana (Diamond vehicle) or called esoteric Buddhism. Behind the numerous Buddhas hides a primordial Buddha who is equated with the absolute. The aim of the Buddhist is the connection of the individual with the absolute, the synthesis in duality, the unity of existence and emptiness.

6. Buddhism in its Mahayana and Tantrajana forms followed in several waves from the sixth century onwards Tibet and connected there with the local magic, ritualism and the world of gods, spirits and demons as well as shamanism. In Tibetan Buddhism, thousands of mantra sayings can lead to enlightenment. They do not necessarily have to be pronounced personally, but can be entrusted to a prayer wheel as written text; when it turns in the wind, the magical effect of the text unfolds. Pictures (thankas) serve as meditation aids. In the eleventh century Buddhism was consolidated in Tibet and it developed into an independent syncretistic trend with different historical developments.

7. The western buddhism: Buddhism influenced and inspired the spiritual world of Europe as early as the 19th century. One of the first to open up to ideas from the East was the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 to 1860). A whole series of old Buddhist texts were made accessible in the second half of the 19th century by mainly English and German translations of the western world, not by Buddhist missionaries, but by Western people who had come into contact with Buddhism in Asia. or by scientists. Around 1900 the first Europeans entered the monastic order. The first western Buddhist communities and monastic settlements arose in England. More and more non-Asian people became interested in Buddhism towards the end of the century, with all directions of development having their offshoots in Europe and especially in Switzerland, especially Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism with its monastic institute in Rikon and Theravada Buddhism in Thailand a center in Kandersteg and the monastery in Gretzenbach. All these Buddhist institutions and groups face the great challenge that, on the one hand, they want to preserve and further develop their own traditions, but on the other hand, they have to assert and assert themselves in a secular world as Buddhists with a common basis and interests. Buddhist umbrella organizations therefore deal with issues such as tax exemption and the presence of the “Buddhist voice” in public or take a position on socio-political and ethical issues like other religious communities.

©Josef Burri