Essentials of Buddhism - Lesson 2

Buddhism Becomes a Religion

Description of how Buddhism became a religion. It expanded into 3 branches, Therevada, Mahayana, and Vajranyana.

Timothy Tennent
Essentials of Buddhism
Lesson 2
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Buddhism Becomes a Religion

Buddhism Becomes a Religion

I. Therevada

II. Mahayana

A. Meaning of the name

B. Three insights

C. Bodhisattva

  • Discussion of the events surrounding the emergence of Siddhartha Gautama as the Buddha.

  • Description of how Buddhism became a religion. It expanded into 3 branches, Therevada, Mahayana, and Vajranyana.

  • Discussion of how Mahayana Buddhism has opened the door to different schools of thought or lineages of Buddhism.

  • Discussion of Vajranyana Buddhism, which is also known as Tibetan Buddhism.

You may access the seminary level course on this subject by Dr. Tennent, by going to Buddhism. 

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Now that we have set forth the initial emergence of this notable figure who becomes known as “The Buddha,” we now have to see how this eventually becomes the religion of Buddhism and how this develops into modern day Buddhism as a world religion and represents 6 percent of the world population.

This of course represents a challenge because Buddhism is a very complex religion with many different variations and expressions. Just imagine yourself if you were being asked to summarize this global movement called “Christianity.” Christianity is a very diverse movement with many different expressions , groups and subgroups, denominations, etc. How does one step back from all of that and summarize what is Christianity, especially as you move from The New Testament teachings and the actual practice of Christianity around the world?

A similar challenge faces us when we think about Buddhism. We normally look at Christianity under three general umbrellas: We look at Roman Catholicism, we look at Eastern Orthodoxy and we look at Protestantism. All of the Christian faith generally is placed under those three general headings.

In the same way Buddhism is often divided into three major subgroupings, or three major structures, which gives us kind of a way or handle on how to explain Buddhism and its global complexity. We will look at these three main branches one at a time in this summary lecture and explain each one. Just to briefly give you an overview, these three branches are known as “Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana”.


Let me explain what each of those means. Theravada comes from the root, “terra,”which means “elders.” So Theravada just means “the way of the elders.” It is often referred to as one of the most ancient Buddhist thinking. It is often called Universal Buddhism because it represents kind of the seminal idea of The Buddha.

Mahayana Buddhism is the second major branch. That “maha” prefix means “great.” The word “yana” means “vehicle.” This means “great vehicle.” It is sometimes called “Messianic Buddhism” because it introduces the special Messianic figures, which we will look at when we explore Mahayana Buddhism.

So there is Theravada Buddhism, there is Mahayana Buddhism and there is Vajrayana, which is often translated “thunderbolt vehicle, vehicle of power.” This is a special form of Buddhism which involves a lot of mystical practices and is associated mainly with Tibetan Buddhism. This is the general structure of Buddhism. We call this the “three-vehicle structure of modern Buddhism:” Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. In this summary we are going to briefly explain to you the three main branches of Buddhism and how they are different because these branches are quite dramatically different; and how they understand the overall Buddhist thought and how they develop the Buddhist teachings from these initial two seminal sermons that we have already examined.

According to Buddhist beliefs, when the Buddha gave those first two sermons, his first converts were those five ascetics under whom he had studied under in Varanasi. They became the first followers of the Buddha. So this becomes the beginning of a community of Buddhists; and therefore we have the emergence of Buddhism. Not just one enlightened person known as the Buddha, but a community of followers of the Buddha and his enlightened, known as Buddhists. According to tradition, these five ascetics took the first vows of Buddhism, which represent even today the initial vows of a Buddhist priest. It goes like this: “I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the Dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.” The Buddha of course, you already know. I take refuge in the Buddha, meaning “the enlightened one.” I take refuge in this great teacher that taught us these seminal truths. I take refuge in the Dharma; that means I take refuge in the teaching of the Buddha as symbolized by the two sermons. Finally, I take refuge in the Sangha, which is the word for the community. The Sangha represents those who gather together to begin to follow the Buddha. This literally means “the flock.” It’s like saying, “I take refuge in the teacher, I take refuge in the teaching, I take refuge in the flock.”

These three refuges, where you take refuge in each of these, are known as “the three jewels of Theravada Buddhism.” They are the three seminal teachings of Theravada Buddhism or “the way of the elders.” So I want to briefly go through each of these three jewels and say a little more about them because I think it is important to see how they understand the Buddhist teaching that becomes very different from what we find in Mahayana or Vajrayana.

The first jewel of Theravada Buddhism is the Buddha. In Theravada Buddhism - and this is in the most ancient form of Buddhism - they believe that Siddharta Gautama is the central reality of this age, of this existence in this world. He is not just an exceptional person, he is omniscient, he has all knowledge. He is not just one among many enlightened persons that have come along. He is not among many Buddhas. He is the one and only Buddha. They refer to him as the “Tathāgata”. That term means even more than the Buddha, more than just the enlightened one. It means “one who has gone before us” and “one who is perfectly enlightened,” “the one and only one to lead us all to enlightenment.” They believe that Siddharta Gautama became the Buddha, he became the Tathāgata. They believe he taught the Dharma for about 45 years around the Ganges Plain and then they believe that he died; and he left us with his teaching or his Dharma.

This leads us to the second jewel of Theravada Buddhism, which is known as the “Dharma.” According to the Theravadans, they believe that those first two sermons, which represent the 13 core teachings – remember the four noble truths, the three characteristics of human existence, the five aggregates and the one foundational teaching of pratityasamutpada– that those represent the final words that were ever presented, the essence of Buddhist teaching. Anything that goes beyond those core teachings is some kind of extension of and therefore a violation, of the basic Buddhist teaching. They only will accept the teachings that they believe came directly from the Buddha as he traveled around and taught. There was a man who came at this early meeting; and they believe that he recited from heart all of the Buddhist teachings, which is known as the Dharma. That is the person called “Mahakasyapa” It actually means, “the great tortoise.” This great tortoise called a council of elders to discuss Buddhism after the death of the Buddha. In this council, they recited from memory all of the Buddhist teachings. There was a friend of the Buddha known as Pali, another called Ananda who recited all of the discourse of the Buddha that was taken down and they formed the seminal teachings of the Buddha. Most of it is based on expositions of these first two sermons.

The Dharma is then collected and more or less canonized. We should view this is as a complete canon. I think in the Biblical sense, the Biblical cannon we have, the 66 books of the Bible represents a closed canon. This is how they view it. They view all of the writings of Buddha as placed in these three baskets known as “Tripitaka”, the three baskets, which represent the essence of Buddhist teaching. This is a closed canon. The first basket is the basket of discipline; this gives us the disciplines of the monastic order. The second is the basket of discourses, which represents all of the teachings of the Buddha. The third basket contains a lot of philosophical teaching and more advanced teachings of the Buddha. These baskets represent the seminal teachings of the Buddha. They lay out the conduct of a Buddhist’s life, the discourses that they are to engage in and various kinds of the supplementary doctrines. That is the second jewel of Theravada Buddhism, the Dharma or the teaching.

The third, which I believe I alluded to earlier, became clear early on: The enlightenment that the Buddha outlined, the enlightenment that he spoke of, could not be achieved by the ordinary lay existence. This could only be achieved after many, many lifetimes of effort and work that culminated in giving your life as a monk in a monastic life, monastic goal. So the goal of Theravada Buddhism is to become a monk, to become one that would not be born again into the world of existence, but would be totally dedicated to following the precepts of Buddhism.

Very early on this early Theravadan form of Buddhism becomes a monastic order. They believe that when you enter into the monastic life, you first start on the eight-fold path and that can be done as a monk. You can detach yourself from this world and the thirst or the “tanha” of this world. This is called becoming a “stream winner.” You enter into the stream, moving toward enlightenment. Eventually you become a “once returner.” This is someone who will return to the wheel of samsara, maybe only one time. Some will argue less than seven times. You will return to the wheel of samsara. You are within seven lifetimes of achieving enlightenment.

The third stage of this is a “non-returner.” This is a person who is in his last life. Maybe he will someday step back on the wheel of samsara to teach more; which ultimately leads to someone becoming an “arhat.” An arhat is someone who is in their last stage of life. They have already achieved enlightenment. They have already been liberated. But they have come back to help and teach others. This person is an arhat. That is part of the goal of the Theravadans, to become someone who would be a teacher, who could help lead others to enlightenment.

This becomes the jist of the earliest form of Buddhism known as Theravada Buddhism. The three jewels summarize this to Buddhists in the Dharma, the Sangha. It is essentially a monastic form of Buddhism.


We now want to develop the second major branch of Buddhism, which is known as “Mahayana” Buddhism, or “the great vehicle” Buddhism. This is particularly important and we will spend more time on this because this represents the majority, the vast majority of modern day Buddhists. Most Buddhists do not live in monasteries. Most Buddhists do not accept the rather limited by comparison range of sacred texts that are accepted by the Theravada. This is a much broader movement and represents about 80 percent of Buddhists around the world. So it is very, very important to appreciate and understand the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism.

Early on in the early reflections of the Theravadan Buddhists, there were some disagreements among even the elders themselves about certain philosophical points of Buddhism and the overall goal of Buddhism. There was a dispute about what had really happened in the monastic experience of Theravada Buddhism. We mentioned that Theravadans had argued that the enlightenment of the Buddha could only be understood and accepted if someone entered into the monastic life. What happened over time was that the monastic Buddhists became a special spiritual elite, a special group of people that were super spiritual people, that everybody else was on some rung way down the list. This creates a situation which in a way mimicked one of the big problems that the Buddhists found with Hinduism. That is, that Hinduism had eventually become focused on a small group of only 8 percent of Indians who could call themselves “high caste Brahmins.” Everyone else had no hope for salvation, or hope for moksha, or release from the wheel of samsara. So Buddhism had fallen into this same trap, it had become exclusivist. It had focused on the priestly tradition of certain people who are monks. Granted, they did insist that they all come from a rabbinical background; but they still represented a rather small group of people.

So there began to be rumblings in this movement of laity, lay people who dissented and argued that in fact, this was not true to the original vision of the Buddha. This group, by the way, is known as “the Mahasamghika,” which means “the great assembly, the great assembleites,” those who followed and challenged the exclusivity of the Buddhist monastic life. This corresponded, by the way, with the rise of Ashoka in India in 272 B.C., who actually assisted this unorthodox movement and eventually helped to fund going out as Buddhist missionaries all over the world. This is why this version of Buddhism has become the dominant form of Buddhism. They pejoratively referred to the earlier Theravada Buddhism as “Hinayana.” Hinayana is not a term that you would want to use for Theravadans because they don’t like this term for themselves. It is important to understand that this is how they are referred to by Mahayana. The word “Hinayana” means “little vehicle.” They contrasted the little vehicle, which is monastic Buddhism, with their Mahayana, “the great vehicle” which could carry many to salvation. They argue that the Theravadans were limited to a few, to the elite. It was, again, recapitulating the basic problem with the Hindu elite of the high-caste Brahmins. Here the Mahayana opens up to many; and even lay people could be enlightened if they followed the Mahayana version of Buddhism.

To understand Mahayana Buddhism, you have to understand that they believe that there were other teachings of the Buddha that were rejected by Theravadans, that should also be accepted. We summarize this into what is known as “the three insights of Mahayana Buddhism.” Remember how we had the three jewels of Theravada Buddhism. In the same way, we now have the three insights of Mahayana Buddhism.

The first insight in Mahayana Buddhism is the belief that the Buddha taught secret truths. This is an important point because they believe that the Buddha had his basic teaching that he taught. Remember, we used this expression, “turning the wheel of Dharma.” They believe that the Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma and did in fact teach these first two sermons. They accept the basic teaching of Theravada as legitimate. But they believe that he had some other disciples where he turned the wheel of Dharma a second time. Around the time of Christ we have the emergence of a group of new texts or new sutras that claim to be the discourse of the Buddha. This opens the door to a number of new teachings, novel doctrines, which broaden the base of Buddhism. They claim that these are not new teachings, but in fact go back to the earliest time of Buddha himself; that these teachings were kept secret until the time when the Sangha, the community, had reached a certain level of spiritual maturity and now they could experience this higher wisdom, this higher consciousness. So this is the first insight of Mahayana Buddhism. They basically say the canon is not closed. The three baskets had to not have lids on them. There are new teachings which are now being added to the baskets, that expand our understanding of the Buddhist teaching. We have a growing canon, as it were, which creates new possibilities doctrinally and experientially for global Buddhism.

Secondly, they believe that the Theravadans had a too restrictive view of the Buddha. They believe that the very term “Buddha” should be expanded to include a much larger range of meanings. This developed what they eventually called “the three-fold body of Buddha.” They believed that the Theravadans had only understood the initial first level understanding of Buddha, which was the basic historical body of Buddha. They called it “the apparition body” or in their language they called it “the nirmanakaya.” That means “the historical body” of Buddha. In other words, they believe that yes, the Theravadans are right: the Siddhartha Gautama was born, he did live, he became the enlightened one and there is this historical Buddha who lived and taught and eventually died in north India. But they do not believe that the term “Buddha” can be reduced to only mean or refer to this one historical manifestation of The Buddha. They also believe what they call “the Dharma body” or “the body of essence.” The Dharma body is a belief that the teachings of the Buddha transcend the historical person of the Buddha. They believe that there is this Dharma, this teaching which undergirds the entire universe. This is not actually a form of reality, the highest level, but it is the closest thing the Buddhists get to embracing some undergirding anthology to the universe. But it is not anything that is substantive. It is not god, there is no god in Buddhism. But it is something that undergirds the universe in kind of a teaching way. It is a functional reality, not an actual reality. The Dharma presents kind of a broad teaching of Buddhism which undergirds the universe.

Finally, they believe in what they call “the body of bliss.” This is kind of like a heavenly experience. Remember, we talked about the wheel of samsara and how the Buddha had seen this vision of the wheel of samsara. They believe that when you look at this wheel of samsara, that there are various chambers within the wheel of samsara. You have to realize, the wheel of samsara in Buddhism is all an illusion. Ultimately, when you go into nirvana, the wheel of samsara completely passes away. So you cannot view this by seeing pictures of earth and of heaven. This is a picture of the experience of earth, the experience of heaven, but not any actual reality that is attached to the earth or your heavenly experience. They do believe that they saw different chambers within the human experience, which include chambers of suffering, chambers of torture, kind of like what we would call “hell.” They saw the earthly existence where one could achieve higher enlightenment, improve their karmic position. And they saw these higher stages or these higher chambers within the wheel of samsara, which they call the “body of bliss” where one could actually dwell with the Buddha and one could actually be taught further teachings. So they believe that when you die, you could actually go to this chamber, place of bliss, a place of happiness where you would learn more of the Buddhist teachings; so that when you came back to earth again, on the wheel of samsara, in earthly human form, that you could come back far more enlightened and you would have been able to put aside all of your encumbrances that had encumbered you in your previous earthly existence. This becomes kind of like a functional heaven. It is a place to look forward to going when you die, even though it does not have final reality; there is no god there. There are Buddhas there. There is a way of being taught there. This basically takes the word of Buddha and expands it. The whole of Mahayana, seeing the big picture, is all about expansion. You have expansion of teaching, expansion of the idea of the Buddha, what the word “Buddha” means.

Thirdly, the third insight of Mahayana Buddhism is the expansion of the Buddha himself, that Siddhartha Gautama was not the only Buddha. They believe that if Siddhartha Gautama came to earth, he was enlightened. And if, in fact, history goes back innumerably through history eternally, then Siddhartha Gautama cannot be the only being who came to earth to teach the Dharma. There must be others who had come to earth. Therefore, there are many Buddhas that have come and taught the Dharma over the years. Because of this multiplied Buddha idea, this creates a new kind of ideal within Mahayana Buddhism.

They developed a doctrine of what is known as “bodhisattva.” This is a very important doctrine and represents one of the key teachings of Mahayana Buddhism and that is the doctrine of the bodhisattva. Let me break down this word for you. The first part of the word is a word we already have learned. Remember the word “bohdi” is where we saw The Buddha sat under the bohdi tree. It is the word for “wisdom,” the word for “enlightenment” in Buddhism. All of these different words that seem so strange are a language known as “Pali,” which is related to a language you probably have heard of in the East known as “Sanskrit.” It is a very beautiful language. I had the privilege of studying this language. It is a language that undergirds the texts of Hinduism as well as the texts of Buddhism. “Bodhisattva:” “bohdi” means “wisdom;”the word “sat” is the word for “being.”Bodhisattva, a wise being. The “tva”ending represents the state of being, or the state of being wise, the quality of being a wise being. So this is a personalization. This is a person. A Bodhisattva is a wise being.

Buddhism eventually in the Mahayana form accepts the idea that certain people who followed this pathway, this Theravadan pathway, did in fact become enlightened. They believe that these people then went into this higher chamber of samsara. Remember these chambers up in the transcendent realm, where they became enlightened beings. From this transcendent realm in the wheel of samsara, they could help and assist people on this earth. That is very, very important because this creates a very powerful doctrine in Buddhism which is a very, very big help to Christians. One of the problems in talking to Hindus about Christianity is the belief that Jesus Christ died for your sins. Jesus Christ did something for you. In the Hindu structure the doctrine of karma teaches that you suffer for your own sins. You reap what you alone sow. So it is very, very hard to explain the idea of the vicariousness of Christ, that Christ vicariously suffered for you. He died for your sins. He paid a penalty which you deserved. He took on God’s wrath, which should have been towards you. That is fundamental to Christian theology, this vicarious suffering of Christ on the cross. Christ becomes a representative man and He is able to die for the sins of the world.

That becomes a huge barrier in Hinduism and later in early Buddhism in the Theravadan form, where you are simply in works/righteousness trying to help yourself. But with the idea of people coming back on the wheel of samsara, or staying as enlightened beings within the wheel of samsara in the transcendent realms as a bodhisattva helping people, you can ask for their help, you can pray to them. They become like functional deities. There is no god in Buddhism. There is no transcendent god who becomes the first cause because Buddhism at the end of the day is always Buddhism. It does not depart from the basic teachings of the two sermons of The Buddha, including that there is no first cause. But there are these functional beings, “bodhisattvas” who can help you and guide you and direct you. This becomes fundamental to the Buddhist idea in Mahayana, that there are beings in the heavenly realms that can help you and can guide you. These people become enlightened beings that can help you along the eight-fold path.

The monastic order, which Theravadans have, would take thousands of lifetimes to finally be able to enter into monastic life; and then maybe, many lifetimes as a monk, to finally achieve enlightenment. Rather than that, the Mahayana version sees even a lay person can be assisted by somebody who has already gone through that whole process, already gone through the thousands of lifetime, has already been a monk for so many lifetimes, and finally achieved enlightenment. They will be able to assist a lay person; they might be able to move someone from the earlier period, from the first two stages in the eight-fold path, all the way down to the last stage of the eight-fold path through trusting in this bodhisattva, who will guide you in the truths of Buddhism. This becomes the essence of the Mahayana vision.

In order for this to take place, the Mahayana Buddhists have to have a whole new section of text. One of the things that Christians are always surprised about when they begin to study Buddhism, is that it is not like Christianity where you have the Bible. You have the Old Testament, the New Testament, it can be read. Many people read the Bible through in a year’s time and they have come in contact with all of the sacred text of the Christian Faith. A Muslim, for example, can pick up the Qur’an. The Qur’an is about the length of the New Testament. It can be read rather quickly and it can be understood in that way.

With Buddhism we do not have that. In Buddhism we have hundreds of texts and then famous summaries of text. So it is really impossible for a Buddhist to be able to read all of the sacred text of Buddhism. In Theravada they have their own kind of universe of sacred text, which they regard as the seminal and early teachings of the Buddha. I think I mentioned a few of these like the dhammapada. But as you go to the Mahayana, you have many, many more texts that are out there. Just to mention a few of these, to give you an example – this is just a summary lecture here – but just to give you some feel for some of the texts that one encounters with Mahayana Buddhism, these are important sacred texts.

This is like the Mahayana Bible as it were, the Mahayana sacred text. They are known as “the prajnaparamita sutras.” That literally means: Sutra is “the perfection of wisdom and teachings.” They are generally dated back to the first century. As I mentioned earlier, they believe that they are only first revealed in the first century; but they were kept hidden back to the sixth century B.D. when Siddhartha Gautama, as the Buddha originally taught. Even these teachings that emerged around the time of Christ, these famous perfection of wisdom teachings, were developed over several hundred years. Finally they were put into two very famous condensed versions, kind of like the “Cliff notes” or the condensed version of the sacred text, which is known as “the diamond sutra” and “the heart sutra.” The diamond sutra and the heart sutra are simply condensed versions of the larger prajnaparamita sutras, the perfection of wisdom sutras.

What is taught in this famous, newly expanded text of Mahayana? First of all, they teach a new goal. They teach that the goal is not the monastic life; the goal is to become a bodhisattva, to develop an attitude of trust in the bodhisattva. This creates various new goals. They have new philosophical insights they bring out, which we will not go into. The heart sutra, this dilation of the larger work, really brings out some of the division between the Theravada and Mahayana and how this division took place. That is very, very important historically, to show how Buddhism developed.

The lotus sutra, the other summary that I mentioned, is such a famous sutra. The lotus sutra is not the same as the diamond or the heart sutra summary. This is another text which summarizes the essence of the bodhisattva teaching, the bodhisattva path and the Mahayana doctrines. The lotus sutra is a text that argues that there are three basic vehicles in Buddhism. There is the vehicle of the monastic life that brings one to enlightenment through monasticism. They have this belief that another path, another vehicle, is that through meditation, one can reach their enlightened stage. Finally, they believe there is this Messianic vehicle, this bodhisattva vehicle, where this enlightened being can come to save you. This is important because it raises early on the idea in Buddhism that there may be different ways in which one can be enlightened. This can eventually take away some of the tensions within different schools of Buddhist philosophy and Buddhist teaching. They are going to basically create the idea that people have different versions of this illness, of the tanha thirst, that creates suffering; and different prescriptions are necessary to create help and wholeness in someone’s life. So there is a little more of a spirit of cooperation and of accommodation within Buddhism.

One of the stories that is told in the lotus sutra, just to give you an example, is the story of a man who comes home from work one night, only to discover that his house is on fire. This house on fire is clearly in this text meant to be symbolic of one’s human existence. You are living and you have no idea that your life is perishing and it is impermanent. So this man comes home and sees his house on fire. However, he realizes that the fire has not spread sufficiently to even alert his children, who are on the top floor of this house. They are quietly playing and have no idea of the gravity of their situation, that in a few moments their whole house will become engulfed in flames. In the lotus sutra, the father calls out to his children and he knows that he cannot explain to them all the details of what is actually happening. He cannot say to them, “The house is on fire and because the house is on fire, it will soon engulf the whole house and you will be burned up.” The children are too young for this; so he has to use what Buddhists call “skillful means” in order to get them out. Skillful means in Buddhist doctrine and Mahayana means that somehow Buddhists teachers will teach novel things to get the same result, to get the end result that you want. But it may not be the same as other teachers. It is a way of accommodating contradictions, teachings and methods within Buddhism. So the father in the story calls out and he promises each child a special toy, which he knows will be particularly meaningful to that particular child. He tells the child, “You can only get it if you come right away and receive it.” The father of course does not have any of these toys. He just came from work, he was not expecting the house to be in flames. But he knew he had to use some skillful technique in order to get the children to get up and get out of the house quickly. Of course, the children do this. They realize that if they can come quickly, they will get this toy, and they do it, they rush down. Then and only then, can the father explain to them what actually has happened and what actually needed to be done to get them out of this fire and why he told them what he told them.

This opens up the idea that there are multiple vehicles to achieve enlightenment , that allows for a greater variety within the Mahayana universe, and all within the basic Buddhist vision. At this point we are going to see how this therefore expands and Mahayana Buddhism develops into various schools of thought within Mahayana Buddhism.

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