> Spread of Buddhism
Buddhists follow three main traditions. There are those who adhere to the Theravada or Southern tradition, those who adhere to the Mahayana or Northern tradition and those who adhere to the Vajrayana or Tibetan tradition.
Long ago, Buddhism began to spread southwards from its place of origin in northern India to Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Indo-China and other South East Asian countries. It also moved northwards into the Himalayan kingdoms (Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal), Tibet, Mongolia and other parts of Central Asia, and also into China, Korea and Japan.
This was a fortunate development because Buddhism all but died out in India after the Moslem incursions of the 11th Century ce. In more modern times, the spread of Communism has also virtually obliterated Buddhism from various other countries where it was once strongly established (e.g. China, Vietnam, Tibet, etc.). There is now a resurgence of Buddhism in these countries. Nowadays, however, Buddhism is attracting an increasing following in Europe and the Americas. In Asia, it is thriving in countries like Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Korea and Japan.
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In the development of Buddhism after the Buddha’s death several schools and traditions arose. Most of them ceased to exist being absorbed by others and today we have three main schools of Buddhism namely the Theravada, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana.
Within each school there are different traditions.
Modern scholars tend to divide the schools according to the language used. Mahayana schools are therefore Sanskrit based schools, and Theravada Pali based.
Teachings of other traditions reached the South Asian countries but did not become established there. The school of Buddhism in the South Asian countries, such as Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, based on the Pali Canon is known as the Theravada school and sometimes as ‘Southern Buddhism’.
The special characteristics of the new Mahayana School were the emphasis on the Bodhisattva ideal, the aim of each person to become a Buddha and to work for the happiness and welfare of all beings. New Sutras (texts) were composed similar in form to the existing ones but expounding new ideas.
In China it was the Mahayana, which became established. Different traditions developed, each having its own monasteries and teaching facilities. Each tradition was based on one or more of the Mahayana Sutras. Similarly the Mahayana became established in Korea and Japan. In addition there were new traditions in Japan.
The aim of Vajrayana is the same as that in Mahayana, that is to attain Buddhahood, but the tantric practices showed a quick way to achieve this end. The different traditions of Buddhism in Tibet are as follows:
Different traditions give varying emphasis to different aspects of the teaching and practices. There are also additional teachings specific to particular traditions. The Abhidamma (higher systematic philosophy) has developed independently within the different schools and traditions, though even here we see many common features.
We need to remember the words in the Lotus Sutra,
‘There is only one yana – Buddhayana’, the path of the Buddha.
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