Buddhism in 200 words: Updating the AP Style Book on Buddhism

Speaking again of twitter, a colleague there, @samtenchuwo,  just alerted me to the AP Style Book, a guide widely used by journalists. Its entry for Buddhism is around 200 words and, well, lets just say it needs some help.

So let’s see if we can come up with something better, shall we?

~

Buddha, Buddhism A major religion founded in India about 450 B.C. by the Buddha. Buddha means awakened one, and was the name assumed by Siddhartha Gautama.

Most of Buddhism’s followers are in South and East Asia, with growth in many Western countries.

Buddhists believe that a path of ethics, meditation, and wisdom will enable the individual to attain nirvana, the release from suffering. Until nirvana is attained, believers wander in the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara).

There are three major groups within Buddhism.

Theravada: Followers stress lay generosity for a better rebirth and monastic discipline for individual attainment of nirvana. It is dominant in Cambodia, Laos, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, and Sri Lanka.

— Mahayana: Followers stress the bodhisattva ideal, wherein one vows to bring all beings, not just oneself, to nirvana. This is found mostly in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China. Two major branches are Pure Land, devoted to attaining rebirth in a blissful land where awakening would be assured, and Zen, which focuses on meditation.

— Vajrayana: Known as Tantra, this form of Buddhism promises special, often secret, techniques to quickly transform one’s ignorance into liberative wisdom. Major centers for this group are in the Himalayas, Mongolia, and Japan.

~

Phew… 199 words. What do you think?  See any major flaws here? Remember, saying more about any one will require saying less elsewhere. Can you write a better sub-200 word summary of Buddhism? If so, drop it in the comment section or write it on your own site and leave us a link.

Here’s the original. I think one should try to stay as close to the original as possible.

AP Styleguide Buddhism

  • http://www.alanpeto.com/ Alan Peto

    I’ve used the AP Style Guide for years, but I don’t think I ever looked up Buddha or Buddhism. Just did and saw it as well. I agree that a better explanation is needed, and yours is a great start. I’d add the ‘count’ of how many branches are in Mahayana, and then lead into Pure Land and Zen as you have. For Vajrayvana, I think it would be helpful it to somehow include “Tibetan” somewhere so it can be referenced (e.g.: “Known as Tantra (popularly referred to as “Tibetan”)”)

    • justinwhitaker

      Are all Tibetan Buddhists Vajrayanists though? To my knowledge, Vajrayana is a pretty specialized practice (which could also just be lumped within Mahayana); many Tibetan Buddhist monastic and most lay people will never engage in it in their lifetimes. So to say that Tibetan Buddhism is Vajrayana is to me very problematic. Perhaps we could just replace “Himalayas” with Tibet?

      • http://www.alanpeto.com/ Alan Peto

        Good points!

      • Barbara_OBrien

        Vajrayana is a particular path of practice, but its doctrinal/philosophical foundational basis is Mahayana. You could make a parallel with Theravada; in Asia Theravada laypeople don’t meditate, as a rule, but instead are encouraged to give alms to monks and keep the Precepts, and the monks do the meditating. That doesn’t mean the monks and the laypeople belong to separate schools. By the same token, Vajrayana practice requires initiation into esoteric levels of teaching, and most Tibetan laypeople don’t do that. But that doesn’t make Vajrayana something entirely separate from the rest of Tibetan Buddhism, or from Mahayana Buddhism generally.

        • justinwhitaker

          You’re right, Barbara. Thanks. I would be at least somewhat amenable to putting Vajrayana under the Mahayana umbrella. I suppose the earliest reason for separating them in such descriptions was the vast difference between Vajrayana (which was mistakenly thought to identify all of Tibetan Buddhism) and Chan/Zen, etc. Early on I thought a better categorization would be Theravadin, Tibetan (influenced) and East Asian.

          • Barbara_OBrien

            I’m not sure the difference between Vajrayana and Zen is all that vast. It’s all based mostly on Madhyamika/Yogacara, and Japanese Zen (at least) has tantric elements, even if it isn’t esoteric. I’ve compared lots of notes with Vajrayana practitioners and while there are some doctrinal differences, there are more than enough commonalities. I don’t think the gap between Vajrayana and Zen is any bigger than, say, the gap between Nichiren and Zen or Pure Land and Zen. These are different sorts of gaps, of course. But the point is I don’t think geographical divisions are helpful to understanding any of this any more.

            • justinwhitaker

              They have common roots and doctrines, yes, but each developed in pretty radically different ways. East Asian absorbed parts of Daoism while Tibetan Buddhism took on the very colorful, diety-rich, etc culture and religion of Tibet. Going from a Zen temple to a Tibetan across the street, a casual practitioner would see and do very different things.

              • Barbara_OBrien

                I’m very aware of the histories and distinctions between Zen and Tibetan Vajrayana, but speaking as an “insider,” I say the differences are more stark on the surface than in the substance. As a Soto Zen student, when I read Tibetan commentaries and talk to Tibetan practitioners, I see more commonalities than differences. The Madhyamika influence in particular is more open and obvious in most Tibetan schools than it is in some other forms of Japanese Buddhism, which makes Tibetan seem more “familiar” to me. I can understand why someone viewing the two traditions as an academic wouldn’t see this, but I see it, and I say the differences aren’t that vast.

        • http://www.alanpeto.com/ Alan Peto

          Agreed :)

  • togeika

    Including the 4 Noble Truths and the 8 Fold Path is the “nutshell” explanation of Buddhism. More important than the distinctions between the three major flavors.

  • Jeffrey

    I’ve saved you sixty words:

    A major religion founded in India about 450 B.C. by Siddhartha Gautama, who assumed the title Buddha, or awakened one. Most followers are in South and East Asia, with growth in Western countries. Buddhists believe ethics, meditation, and wisdom enables nirvana, or release from suffering and cycles of death and rebirth (samsara).

    There are three major groups.

    Theravada: Dominant in SE Asia and Sri Lanka, followers stress lay generosity for better rebirth and monastic discipline for attainment of nirvana.

    Mahayana: Found in East Asia and Vietnam, adherents take bodhisattva vows to bring all beings to nirvana. Major branches include Pure Land, devoted to attaining rebirth in a celestial paradise, and Zen, focusing on meditation.

    Vajrayana: Known as Tantra, it promises special, often secret, techniques to quickly transform ignorance into liberative wisdom. Major centers are in the Himalayas, Mongolia, and Japan.

    • justinwhitaker

      Well done! I’m especially impressed by your inclusion of Vietnam in the Mahayana section. Plus, with 60 extra words, just think of what people would want to add.

  • http://www.sumeru-books.com Yonten

    My small contribution would be for starters to refer to the date of 450 BCE instead of BC.

    • justinwhitaker

      good idea! I think I might do a re-write (leaving my original) if/as a few more comments come in.

  • Andrei Volkov

    Buddha, Buddhism A major religion founded in India about 450 B.C. by Siddhartha Shakya, popularly known as the Buddha (“awakened”).

    Buddhists believe that human experiences originate in the mind, training which through cultivation of ethics, meditation, and wisdom, leads to nirvana, the release from suffering, or enlightenment, the insight into the true nature of things. Until the goal is attained, believers experience the cycle of death and rebirth (samsara).

    Major traditions within Buddhism include:

    — Theravada: Seeing themselves as orthodox adherents to the original teaching, followers emphasize monastic discipline for individual attainment of nirvana, and lay ethics for a better rebirth. Dominant in Cambodia, Laos, Burma (Myanmar), Thailand, and Sri Lanka.

    — Mahayana: Seeing themselves as upholders of the true spirit of the teaching, followers stress altruism and compassion, exemplified in the bodhisattva’s vow to bring all beings, prior to oneself, to enlightenment. Mahayana is found mostly in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China. The notable branches are Pure Land, devoted to attaining rebirth in a blissful land, Zen, which focuses on intuitive insight and meditation, and Vajrayana, a synthesis of Buddhist and yogic elements that promises special, often secret, techniques to cleanse one’s mind from obscurations and achieve enlightenment.

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for this, Andrei – and apologies for my late reply. Aside from an E after B.C. I think this represents the consensus at the moment. I’d also add Tibet in the places Mahayana is practiced.

      • Andrei Volkov

        Thanks. Besides the inclusion of Vajrayana within Mahayana, my other edits to note are:

        1. Changed Siddhartha Gotama to Siddhartha Shakya, as Gotama is not proven to be Buddha’s family name. Gotama was a Brahmin gotra while Shakya were famously kshatriyas, although there is more than one opinion on this (see http://books.google.co.in/books?id=KvpTvxyDiHUC&pg=PA22)

        2. “*popularly* known as the Buddha” — to emphasize that Buddha was not an official designation, but stood out as the most popular of all the epithets.

        3. “human experiences originate in the mind, training which” — to stress the mind as the center of gravity in Buddhism, as opposed to the original that skipped right to the path.

        4. “leads to nirvana, … or enlightenment, the insight into the true nature of things” — because in Mahayana, nirvana is not the goal.

        5. “believers *experience* the cycle”, to hint that samsara is a state of mind, as opposed to “wander” — which implies literal reincarnation of soul, denied by many Buddhist schools.

        6. “Seeing themselves as orthodox adherents to the original teaching” and “Seeing themselves as upholders of the true spirit of the teaching” — to show the pivot point of the division.

        7. “emphasize monastic discipline for individual attainment of nirvana, and lay ethics for a better rebirth” — swapped the two parts of the sentence, to downplay the lay aspect.

        8. “altruism and compassion” — to mention the points Mahayana is most vocal about.

        9. “a synthesis of Buddhist and yogic elements” — to characterize in broad strokes how Vajrayana is different from the rest of Buddhism.

        10. “to cleanse one’s mind from obscurations and achieve enlightenment” — as opposed to “to quickly transform one’s ignorance into liberative wisdom” which sounded like one of those fake degree programs.

        Re: Tibet, I figured it being a part of China, the only reason to include it would be to give a friendly blow to the horse of emancipation. Excluding it saved one word I used to call Buddha “the”.

        Hope this helps.

  • Barbara_OBrien

    Your version is an improvement, but Vajrayana is an extension of Mahayana, not an entirely separate school with a different philosophical basis. It’s more correct to say there are two major schools of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, and Mahayana subdivides into many schools distinguished mostly by differences in practice. The Vajrayana or esoteric practices of Mahayana Buddhism are found primarily in Tibetan schools and Japanese Shingon.

  • Glen Zorn

    Just a data point: although fellow zennists are scarce, there are a ton of Mahayana temples here in Thailand.

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks for that, Glen. Could you say more about the Mahayana temples in Thailand. What ‘flavor’ of Mahayana are they? Who practices at them? Thanks again.

  • Nalliah Thayabharan

    But unproven tenets like “Rebirth”, a mind independent of
    the corporal body, the Samsara Chakra, a “Nirvana” as a goal etc. are
    meaningless concepts to me as I realise after death, I am no more like any
    other animal or species.


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