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Buddhism is not a monolithic tradition. As it spread through Asia over more than two millennia, it divided into several sects, each with its own liturgies, rituals, and canon of scriptures. There are also doctrinal disagreements. However, all are founded on the same basic teachings of the historical Buddha.
This is a very simple guide to major sectarian divisions for people who are new to Buddhism. For more guidance, see "Which School of Buddhism Is Right for You?"
Buddhism can be divided into two major schools: Theravada and Mahayana. Today, Theravada is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos. Mahayana is dominant in China, Japan, Taiwan, Tibet, Nepal, Mongolia, Korea and most of Vietnam.
You will sometimes hear there are three major schools of Buddhism, the third being Vajrayana. Vajrayana is associated with Tibetan Buddhism as well as a Japanese school called Shingon. But Vajrayana is founded on Mahayana philosophy and is more accurately understood as an extension of Mahayana. Further, you can find elements of Vajrayana in many schools of Mahayana beside Tibetan and Shingon.
Note that if you come across a discussion of schools of Buddhism called Sthaviravada or Hinayana, most of the time this refers to Theravada.
The basic doctrinal difference that divides Theravada from Mahayana is an interpretation of anatta, the teaching that there is no soul or self. The self that seems to inhabit our bodies continuously through our lives is an illusion. All schools of Buddhism support this teaching.
However, Mahayana Buddhism takes anatta further and teaches a doctrine called shunyata, or emptiness. According to Mahayana, all phenomena take identity to us only in relation to other phenomena and cannot be said to either exist or not exist. The difference in interpretation of anatta impacts how many other doctrines are understood.
If you are scratching your head at this point, you are not alone. These are extremely difficult doctrines to understand, and many will tell you they cannot be understood by intellect alone. If you're a beginner there's not much point spinning your wheels over which school is right. Practice awhile, and come to your own conclusions as you gain more understanding.
If you are new to Buddhism, the most obvious difference you might see is that in Theravada, the ideal of practice is the arhat, the individual who has realized enlightenment. In Mahayana, the ideal of practice is the enlightened being who is dedicated to bringing all beings to enlightenment.
In Asia, there is a bigger difference between monastic and lay Theravada Buddhism than among different orders or sects of Theravada Buddhism. Monks meditate, study and teach; laypeople, on the whole (there are exceptions), do not. Laypeople practice by supporting the monasteries with alms, donations, chants, and prayers. They are encouraged to keep the five precepts and observe uposatha days.
In the West, those who come to Theravada as adults -- as opposed to growing up with it in an ethnic Asian community -- most commonly practice Vipassana or "insight" meditation and study the Pali Canon, which is the main body of scripture for Theravada. The more traditional monastic-lay symbiosis found in Asia hasn't yet emerged among non-ethnic-Asian Western practitioners.
There are a number of different Theravada monastic orders in Asia. There are also beliefs and practices associated with Buddhism, often taken from local folk cultures, that are found in some parts of Southeast Asia but not others. But compared to Mahayana, Theravada is relatively homogenous.
The distinctions among different sects of Mahayana Buddhism are so pronounced they might seem to be entirely different religions, yet they are all built on the same philosophical and doctrinal foundation.
The doctrinal differences tend to be minor compared to differences in practice, such as meditation, ritual, and chanting. Most people who come to Mahayana choose a school because its practices resonate well with them.
Here are some of the Mahayana traditions you are most likely to find in the West, but it is not an exhaustive list, and there are many variations and sub-sects. There are also traditions that combine elements of more than one sect. The practices described are all long-established means to enable practitioners to actualize the Buddha's teaching.
Not every temple you might visit will fit neatly into one of these sectarian niches. It's not at all unusual to find temples that combine practices of more than one tradition, for example. There are many sects not listed, and those that are listed come in many denominations.
By Barbara O'Brien
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