Buddha’s teachings focused on the elimination of suffering through enlightenment and through the liberation from samsara (the endless cycle of death, rebirth and death). This was to be done, according to Buddha, by the elimination of cravings and desires. As the follower of the middle path eliminated his attachments to an unreal world and imaginary self, karma (merits or demerits based on good or bad behavior) would have nothing to attach itself to. This would lead to enlightenment, which is the state of nirvana, the Buddhist concept of salvation.
Nirvana was and is a difficult term to define. Even Buddha did not attempt a clear answer as to the makeup of nirvana. The word itself literally means “the ‘blowing out’ of the flame of desire”. To Buddha, real persons never existed, and all people are only imaginary. But Buddha did maintain that life in this world is real and the suffering that accompanies it is also real.
Nirvana was portrayed as a complete escape from both karma and the cycle of samsara. This was a rejection of Hindu teaching that the world is an illusion and the suffering experienced by those living in this world is also an illusion.
Buddhism flourished in India for several centuries until it was absorbed by Hinduism. The Hindu priesthood even declared Buddha to be an incarnation of Vishnu (one of their main gods). Buddhism was spread throughout Asia by Buddhist monks.
There are three main branches of Buddhism and hundreds of variations in many places of the world, but primarily in Asian countries. These three main forms of Buddhism are:
- Theravada Buddhism – In this branch of Buddhism, enlightenment is available to only a few, primarily monks. Others must simply hope to be reincarnated as a monk in a future life in order to pursue enlightenment. This group has a closed canon of Buddhistic writings consisting of Buddha’s teachings, ethical rules for monks, and a variety of philosophical teachings. Theravada Buddhism stresses that a person should be concerned with his own enlightenment and not with another’s enlightenment.
- Mahayana Buddhism – This branch of Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is available to all people. Mahayana teaching developed the idea of bodhisattva: bodhisattva is someone who has attained enlightenment but refuses to enter nirvana, in order to guide others to achieve enlightenment. Buddha’s original teaching emphasized that you are the only one who can save yourself. But Mahayana Buddhism developed the concept of “savior gods” who can be called upon by other Buddhists for help. Mahayana Buddhists reasoned that this is why Buddha stayed on earth 45 years after his enlightenment, in order to help others achieve The Mahayana’s make Buddha the first bodhisattva. The Mahayana branch accepts writings from India, China, Japan and Tibet.
- Vajrayana or Tantra – This branch of Buddhism comes from a form of Hinduism that emphasizes occult practices for the development of spiritual power. Vajrayana Buddhism is the primary religion of Tibet. The primitive folk religions of Tibet have also been incorporated into this form of Buddhism. The practices include: chanting phrases repeatedly; prayer wheels; appeasing hosts of demons, spirits and other evil forces through worship and sacrifice.
Beyond these three main branches of Buddhism, there are several other major forms of Buddhism: