Traditions of Zen Buddhism

As Buddhsim spread through Asia, the teachings came to be interpreted in different ways, and distinct practices became associated with the different "schools" that evolved. Although the schools found today do reflect unique beliefs and practices, they all share the fundamental teachings of the Buddha as outlined in the Fundamentals section of DharmaNet's Learning Center.

It is common to see the Buddhist traditions presented as three main "schools" — Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism). Although these categories have a useful purpose, they also oversimplify the distinctions between traditions and obscure the connections between all the traditions. With that caveat in mind, we present an introductiom to Buddhist traditions using this formula.


Theravadan ("Doctrine of the Elders") Buddhism traces its rooots to the earliest traditions of Buddhism, beginning with the original Sangha of the Buddha. Today's Theravadan Buddhists consider their tradition to be the only surviving representative of the earliest schools of Buddhism.

Theravadan Buddhists accept the earliest collected teachings of the Buddha, the Pail Canon, as the true authoritative Dharma. (Pali was a language used during the Buddha's lifetime.) While the suttas (teachings) of the Pali Canon are accepted as authentic in every branch of Buddhism, we shall see that other traditions recognize other teachings as well as authentic.

Theravadan Buddhismh has been the predominant religion of Sri Lanka and continental Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Burma/Myanmar and Thailand). It is also found in parts of southwest China, Vietnam and Bangladesh, as well as in Malaysia and Indonesia. Theravadan Buddhism is growing today in Singapore and in the West.

Theravadans maintain that the ideal Buddhist is the “one who is worthy” (Sanskrit: arhat; Pali: arahant), the perfected person who attains nirvana through his own efforts. Although the Theravadan arhat “takes refuge in the Buddha, ” his focus is on the practice of the Buddha's dhamma. The role of the monastic and layperson are clearly differentiated by the Theravadans, with monks who withdraw from the world seen as those who may become arhants, with laypeople . . .

The contemporary Theravadan monastic tradition includes both Pali scholarship as well as a meditative practices. In traditional Asian Theravadan cultures th role oflay Buddhists role is to support the monastic community which is working toward arahantship. While scholars may be found in the large monasteries of the Asian Theravadan countries, meditators often continue the tradition of "forest monks" from the Buddha's time.

Theravadans profoundly revere the historical Buddha as a perfected master but do not pay homage to the numerous buddhas and bodhisattvas that are worshiped in the Mahayana.

Vipassana in the West

in the modern West a new form of Theravadan lay practice centered on meditation practice has taken root. Often refered to as Vipassana or insight meditation, this form of Theravadan practice was brought to the west by Westerners who trained in Thailand, Burma and India with teachers such as Mahasi Saydaw and Ajahn Chah. As well, traditional Theravadan monasteries can be found in most Western countries, serving the Asian communities now living in the West.

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