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Religion Library: Buddhism

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Julia Hardy

The disagreement between the Mahayana scholars and other, more traditional scholars eventually led to separate divisions of Buddhism. Although there were many sub-schools of Buddhism at the time of the emergence of the Mahayana (Buddhist texts say there were eighteen schools), the so-deemed "traditional" philosopher-monks eventually came to call their school the Theravada, or the "doctrine of the elders." Mahayana Buddhist polemicists called them Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle, a pejorative term. Theravada would become the dominant form of Buddhism in Southeast Asia, and there an emphasis on the older, monastic traditions continued. As Buddhism spread through Central Asia to China, Korea, and Japan, however, it was the Mahayana sutras that had the greatest appeal. In these new regions, new texts continued to emerge and Mahayana Buddhism would continue to evolve over the centuries.

Eventually Theravada and Mahayana came to be regarded as two distinct divisions of Buddhism. A third emerged, known as the Vajrayana, the Diamond or Thunderbolt Vehicle. By the 8th and 9th centuries C.E., Vajrayana Buddhism had spread beyond India to much of Asia, but its practice is now limited mainly to Tibetan Buddhism, Shingon Buddhism in Japan, and some Korean and Japanese new religions.

Vajrayana is based on Tantras, texts that describe esoteric teachings and practices. Possibly as old as pre-Aryan India, the Tantric tradition employed methods such as mudras, mantras, and mandalas to hasten the path to spiritual realization. Mudras are hand positions and movements that are believed to convey sacred power; a statue of a Buddhist deity will often portray the hands in the position of a mudra. Mantras are sacred phrases that are believed to have magical powers. Mandalas are diagrams representing sacred spaces, and are used as objects of meditation.

Tantric practices also include the evocation of deities, breathing exercises, controlling the movement of subtle energies through the body in prescribed patterns, and rituals uniting masculine and feminine energies. The latter might involve sexual practices with a partner, or might be meditative visualizations involving deities or spiritual energies. Some practitioners of Tantra were known as siddhas, or Perfected Ones, and were believed to have special powers. These siddhas did not always have the best of reputations; they were often regarded as renegades or degenerates.

Aspects of Tantra such as the sexual practices or the deliberate breaking of the prohibition against alcohol to facilitate a breakthrough to spiritual realization were always controversial. Tantric practices were therefore carefully regulated by mainstream Buddhists, and, with some notable exceptions, the forms of Tantric practice that became a part of Vajrayana Buddhism excluded these controversial practices or transformed them into visualization exercises.


Study Questions:
1.      How does Mahayana Buddhism privilege the Buddha?
2.     What does it mean to follow the path of the bodhisattva?
3.     What are the three major sects of Buddhism, and how do they differ from one another?