This series titled Practical Companion is for intermediate practitioners.
This post covers some sensitive issues in the Buddhist world in regard to the various traditions and methods of practice. How do we know which method is suitable for us? How do we know if we have joined a credible Buddhist organization? How do we know if our teacher is qualified?
Examine our method of practice
Most of us probably learn Buddha Dharma from books, youtube, the internet, friends, teachers, courses, etc. There are so many resources available, but not all who claim themselves Buddhist are Buddhist. Some may contain inaccuracies and some are from dubious sources. Therefore, it is essential for us to authenticate and check before believing, accepting, and practicing what was taught to us.
When we talk about Theravāda Buddhism, most of us would probably be aware of another derogatory name, “Hinayana”. (Small Vehicle). I’ll discuss that later. For now, let us understand how the “Elder’s School of Buddhism” (Theravada) comes about.
At Buddha’s parinirvanna (total release from samsara), most of his disciples grieved but there are a few who celebrated! And the reason for their joy was because they saw an opportunity for them to reinvent Buddha-Dharma at their whims and fancy, They wanted to change the ways things were being done. They wished to twist the Dharma according to their needs and desire. Be more “progressive”. So you see, there were already people who desired to corrupt the teachings of Buddha more than 2500 years ago!
Fortunately, great enlightened disciples like Mahakasyapa and Ananda had banded together with other enlightened disciples to set the record straight. Their effort to compile the authentic teachings of Buddha was known as the 1st Buddhist council. The Buddhist canon from the 1st Buddhist Council was adopted into Theravada Buddhism and remains available today. The language of the record is Pali and their scripture is called Sutta. This Pali canon is regarded as the oldest record of Buddhism. From the simple narrations above, it is apparent that Theravada Buddhism is the concerted effort of senior monks trying to preserve Buddhism in its original form.
Theravada Buddhism is practiced in Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.
In Theravada Buddhism, the propagation of Dharma is also strictly in accordance with the rules of the ancient past, harking all the way back to Buddha’s time. The content in the sutta is pretty consistent about renouncing attachment to mundane pursuits. Sutta that talks about meditation are very direct in its instructional approach. If you refer to my post on Kevatta Sutta, you witness the directness of the meditation instruction. If you read the Mangala Sutta, it tells you in a very rational way, how one can obtain a blessed life. There is very little space for mysticism and the supernatural. For people hooked on devotional worship of a god-like being, the Pali canon can appear “boring”.
Moreover, if you were to tell a strict Theravada monk that you cannot do meditation. His response would probably be, “Then no one can help you gain enlightenment (Ultimate Happiness) because the Buddha instructed us before his Parinirvana, that we have to depend on ourselves.” The message of Buddha’s parinirvana in Theravada tradition also implies that Buddha is no longer with us in Samsara. Some may feel disheartened by such an uncompromising message. If you inform a Theravada monk of your desire to get rich, he will probably advise you about the impermanence of mundane happiness.
Although the approach is true to the Dharma, few people have the wisdom to appreciate such messages. You can probably imagine the problem encountered by an uncompromising individual when he is trying to propagate Buddha Dharma. In this case, a more enterprising monk would probably critique his rigid brethren as a Hinayana. A person, whose heart is too narrow to accommodate the myriad needs of different beings.
On the other hand, if we were to look at the historical context of how the Theravada movement arose, we would appreciate the dire concerns that give birth to such a “no-nonsense” approach to Buddha Dharma.
So where is the balancing point? Where is the middle way? I think it will depend on the wisdom of the teachers. Although countries like Thailand practices Theravāda Buddhism, there are numerous teachers who propagate Buddha Dharma in a creative manner.
We’ll look at Mahayana Buddhism next week.
May all be well and happy.
Mahayana Buddhism – To be continued in the next post
Vajrayana Buddhism – To be continued in the next post
Core Buddhism – The Dharma Seals