Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism

This brief summary can barely scratch the surface of the vast and varied theological thought and literature  which have proliferated from Buddha’s original teachings more than 2500 years ago,, during the Axial Age. (Achsenzeit was a term coined by the German psychiatrist and philosopher, Karl Jaspers (1883-1969,) denoting the century during which Eastern and Western philosophy and spirituality emerged simultaneously, yet independently. Among the seminal thinkers of this critical period, Jaspers included Buddha and the two historical Tirthankara of Jainism in India; the Pre-Socratics and their idealist successors, Plato and Aristotle, in Greece; and Lao-zi and Confucius, founders of the two poles of Chinese philosophy.) Our knowledge of Buddha’s teachings is qualified by the fact that writing sacred texts only began in India during the 1st Century BCE, with the earliest Buddhist texts dating from the following century, five or six hundred years after the prophet's death, long after the emergence of different schools for interpreting them. In contrast, the words of Christ and Mohammad, both of whom presumed to have been illiterate, were written down within fifty years of their deaths. This did not prevent bitter doctrinal disputes over their proper exegesis. These resulted in the violent schisms, lasting to the present between Latin and Greek orthodoxies, the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics and today’s conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. These controversies were each accompanied by mountains of vitriolic glosses, charges of heresies and anathematized texts. In contrast, tolerance of their co-religionists has been deemed a characteristic of the Hinduism and Buddhism  which may reflect the fluidity intrinsic in religions where everything is an emanation of a non-manifest absolute. The two faith’s doctrinal truce has not, however, extend to Muslims in Hindu India or in Buddhist Myanmar or to Hindu Tamils in Buddhist Sri Lanka as recent history reminds us. 

The following notes can at most outline  a few of the salient doctrinal differences between the three leading schools for interpreting Buddha’s dharma or teachings.  An overview of buddhist ontology in a wider theological and philosophical context concludes appendix I in three sections of a) “Consciousness Against Itself,” “The Via Negativa: In Pursuit of Mindlessness” and c) “Post-Humanism vs. the Anthropocene.”

I. Theravada Buddhism 

The three leading schools of Buddhism practiced today, I. Theravada, II. Mahayana and III. Vajrayana, can be distinguished by the texts which they recognize as canonical and the theological differences determining that choice. Theravada means "The Wisdom of the Elders," but is referred to by the other two tendencies more pejoratively as "Hinayana Buddhism” or the "Lesser Vehicle” (Sans. > yana spiritual practice or path, related to yantra diagram, mechanism,) and the “First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma.”  It adheres most strictly to the earliest texts, those which it attributes to Buddha’s lifetime, later codified in the Tripikata or “three baskets” of the Pali Canon; (Pali is an ancient language spoken on the eastern Gangetic plain near Bhodi Gaya, closely related to Sanskrit, the language of the Hindu scriptures.) These contain 1) rules governing the sangha or community of bhikkus or monks; 2) over 1000 sutras or suttas attributed to Buddha himself or his earliest disciples; and 3) texts summarizing and systematizing these sutras. They teach that the path for release from samsara, returning or reincarnation in a succession of lives, which Buddha equated with dukkha or suffering, requires purging its ”karmic debt,” its samsaric attachment to the self and world. In Buddha’s own case, this took 547 prior incarnations of virtuous actions before he could achieve enlightenment and release from existence, as recorded in the Jataka Tales or “birth stories," all or a selection of which are illustrated in most Theravada temples, notably those at Bagan in Myanmar, along with scenes from Buddha's life and those of the 27 Buddhas preceding him. It may at first seem “counter-productive” that these frescoes and statues are often placed where they cannot be seen unless one understands that  their purpose was not to teach or inspire but to acquire “merit" to repay the donor's karmic debts and hasten his or her attainment of nirvana

Theravada Buddhism is still the dominant faith in Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. It holds that satori or enlightenment requires shedding the individual self and ego by recognizing them as maya or illusions. These result form the accretion of passing sensations by the five skandhas, “heaps” or mental "aggregates," which include, a) the attribution of form, matter and being or rupa, b) sensations, the feelings triggered by these forms, c) perceptions of these forms or samjna, d) cognition, the formation of concepts or sankhara about these illusions and, finally, e) awareness or consciousness itself.  An equivalent view In Western epistemology might be the associationism and skepticism of Locke and Hume which prompted Kant’s theory of the “transcendental (that is, mental) “unity of apperception” and the a priori aesthetic and analytic categories. He famously critiqued scientific knowledge as incapable of providing knowledge of "things-in-themselves," notably God, because based on a posteriori observation, itself based on the a priori categories of perception and cognition. Theravada Buddhists might be compared with fundamentalist Christians but only in regard to their reluctance to deviate substantially from the Pali Canon, analogous to the Bible or, in the case of Islam, the Qur'an,  and the hadiths or accepted “sayings" of Muhammad, the "seal" of the prophets, that is, the last revealed word form God. Theravada Buddhism, however, does not demand that these text be read iterally and has spawned its own esoteric hermeneutics or modes of interpretation.

II. Mahayana Buddhism

Mahayana Buddhism characterizes itself as the "Greater Vehicle" or “Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma,”  a more advanced revelation of Buddha's path to salvation, and is traditionally practiced in China, Japan, Korea and Viet Nam. It regards the texts in the Pali Canon as a basic introduction to Buddhist doctrine for the layman (and all women) who could not devote a lifetime to the study and meditation needed to free the mind from its samsaric attachments, so it could understand Mahayana Buddhism's more sophisticated, sometimes occult, interpretations  of Buddha’s dharma. At the same time, unlike Theravada Buddhism, it offers the hope that enlightenment might exceptionally be achieved in a single lifetime by those who devote themselves  to its many schools' of yogic and meditative sadhanas or techniques. These are believed to have been revealed in sutras secretly hidden in caves by Buddha before his parinirvana, so they could be discovered centuries later when teachers, siddhas and gurus had emerged sufficiently "evolved" to comprehend and transmit these new revelations to others. The Mahayana schools (which include Chan, Nicheren, Zen, Shingon and Amida or “Pure Land” Buddhism, to mention just a few,) go further than Theravada doctrine in denying the reality of the material world as itself an illusion or mental projection “dependently” not “independently originated.” Mahayana’s anti-materialism is more thoroughgoing than the idealism of Plato or Hegel which at least gave Ideas, Forms and Logic an independent origination and existence and posited nous or mind as a metaphysical “ground-of-being.” In contrast, Mahayana denies the reality of all mental activity, whether perception or cognition (ideation,) including even its own dharma or doctrines; it proposes, instead, "extinguishing" mental action and consciousness as a pre-requisite for nirvana or non-existence. A similar distrust of consciousness has already been in noted - and critiqued - in appendix I in connection with Heidegger’s distinction between “ontic,” man- or mind-created, (“dependently originated,”) being and “ontologically” given Dasein, “being-here,”his term for an a priori, “primordial” human mode-of-being or essence anterior to the mind’s construction. 

In Mahayana Buddhism, the road to satori or enlightenment lies not through thought or action but their cessation, the negation of the mind’s attributing or constituting being  to the world, its own ideas and itself, which can only be achieved through the realization of sunyata or "emptiness;" in the enigmatic words of the Heart Sutra, “emptiness is form, form emptiness.” When one realizes the mind’s essential emptiness and the illusion of a self or non-being, one becomes impervious to loss and suffering, most importantly, the loss of one’s life. This philosophic or theological tropism towards self-annihilation as the soteriological path is hardly unique to Buddhism, it informs the Stoic strain running through classical antiquity. Indeed, an analogous renunciation of the self and its “pursuit of happiness” because ephemeral, even prideful and the concomitant recognition of the "original sin" of individuation from one's creator and differentiation of self from the underlying oneness of being, lies at the heart of the three Mosaic faiths. The Christian ascetic St.John of the Cross’ ten steps towards self-extinction find a counterpart in their seeming opposite, the semazens or Sufi dervishes, surrendering their naf or ego to whirl powerlessly around Allah, the unmoved prime mover. A paradoxical consequence of Mahayana Buddhism’s gnostic faith that everything is the emanation of an underlying "emptiness" or "non-manifest," the source of its atheism, has been its licensing of an unprecedented proliferation of manifestations, Buddhas, bodhisattvas and universes, of whom the 515 worshipped at Preah Khan represented just a handful.  

Mahayana Buddhism’s rejection of existence, both physical and metaphysical, inevitably raises the charge of nihilism and the classic objection to it: how can these illusion or even an “awareness of their “emptiness” exist, if there is only nothingness? How can the "non-manifest" emanate illusions without dualism, dvaita, and, more interestingly, why would it? The question of theodicy therefore becomes not the nature of evil but the reason for  creation. If mind and world are dependently-generated what do they depend on, what is "self-arising,” “unbegotten” or  “unoriginated?” How does this escape the assumption or "myth of the given,” of an origin, even a non-manifest one?  More seriously, are suffering and illusion a satisfactory or full description of human experience; could the cup be both half empty and half full?  Is unabated misery a given or a symptom of a pathological social system or a psychiatric condition ?  Is death itself a “fact” or given, since it has been susceptible to so many, wildly different meanings?  As Epicurus argued (and Blanchot, for very different reasons,) can the “conscious-I” even experience its own death - or only its life? If  the “I” does not “miss” the millennia before it, why should it those after it, locked as it is in an  eternal present? Some of these conundrums are more directly, if not necessarily more convincingly, addressed by Vajrayana Buddhism. 

III. Vajrayana Buddhism 

Vajrayana Buddhism (more popularly known as Tantric) styles itself the “Adamantine Vehicle” and “Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma;” it arose, in part, as an alternative to  Mahayana’s "nihilism" and demand for a life of renunciation, as well as, Theravada’s endless purgative reincarnations with the distant possibility of achieving nirvana. Those sects, predictably, have labeled their Tantric critics as pushing a false "fast track to nirvana" and "satori lite." The elites who generally adopted Buddhism first and then imposed it on their subjects' indigenous animist beliefs, were reluctant and unable to make a life-long commitment to ascetic monasticism and unaccustomed by their social position to delayed gratification of their wishes; they had empire s to rule. The increasing number of tax-exempt, monastic foundations with thousands of meditating monks, such as Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, drained royal coffers of the funds needed to defend and extend their domains and construct such “plains of merit" as at Bagan and "temple mountains" as at Angkor to prove their entitlement to semi-divine status. Tantrism seems to answer these problems by offering its adherents a third path to nirvana – through clandestine orders, “guru lineages” or paramparas which form unbroken chains of transmission from an original Vajrayana mahasiddha, a greatly "woken" sage, who discovered the Vajrayana sutras and passed that wisdom down to living “guru masters” who could induct a king or courtier into its occult  sometimes transgressive sadhanas, techniques and rites. 

Vajrayana’s foundational texts, like those of Mahayana Buddhism, were supposedly “discovered” around the 6th Century CE in caves in India and soon spread through Southeast Asia, where many Vajrayana statuettes have been found at Khmer sites and those of the Srivijaya Empire. Today Tantrism's sphere of influence is confined largely to lamaseries in Tibet, exiles in India, as well as enclaves in the western United States, such as Boulder, Sedona and Malibu. Scholars have hypothesized that Tantrism may have originated among Buddhist hermits, so-called “forest monks,” (see appendix VII) who pursued their own idiosyncratic paths to salvation and were frowned on by the more orthodox members of the sangha or community of monks, governed by its strict vinayas, highly detailed and rigid "rules" or codes of conduct, The established monastic orders especially resented and denounced these ”non-conventuals" because they were often credited with magical powers by a laity still steeped in shamanic beliefs. They accused them of relapsing to Saivism, specifically wandering sadhus who frequented taboo sites like charnel (burial) grounds, kept the company of outcasts and  out-castes, detached themselves from all material possession, (including sometimes clothing,) and practiced extreme "austerities" like fire walking or standing on one leg for months at a time. These mystics claimed to be following Shiva’s own example, in his aspect as Bhikshantana, a naked mendicant paying penance for slaying a Brahmin or severing Brahma’s fifth head, whose concentration of energy, unexpended in sexual dalliance, allowed him to morph into his most fearsome form, Bhairava, the "destroyer of world" in his apocalyptic dance ending a universe. 

Vajrayana followers naturally do not consider themselves heretics deviating from Theravada and Mahayana dharma, simply deepening it with doctrines so powerful and unconventional they must be concealed from all but a chosen few, sufficiently prepared to receive them and not question their seemingly scandalous practices.  Vajrayana's core criticism of the Mahayana path is that its exclusive emphasis on achieving sunyata, the "awareness of emptiness," denies its adherents the secret yanas or “effective means” for glimpsing in their own lifetimes "what lies beyond emptiness,” the “world beyond thought.” One learns in Vajrayana's more sophisticated  interpretation that “empty” doesn't really mean empty, as in a room with nothing in it, only empty of thought and its attributed and ephemeral being; an even more vivid and “adamantine” reality, it promises, lies beyond the shadows of "dependently-originated" appearances. This finds a parallel in Heidegger's belief that a total ”eidetic reduction" of human consciousness would reveal an ontological, pre-conscious, "primordial given," defined into existence by the negation of "ontic,” mind-attributed being, in other words, an "other-than-thought,” the pre-conscious, uncorrupted “other” and the remainder. As suggested in appendix I, this may be the subconscious, philosophic germ or metaphysic, the assumed given and unexpressed psychic desire behind, Neo-Heideggerian deconstruction and critical theory, as well as, Post-Humanism's celebration of "alterity" as a pre-discursive, even pre-humannnocent a gnosis or “way of knowing," which persists in myth, animals and ecology. 

Vajrayana might thern be described, as accepting Mahayana's nihilistic "awareness of emptiness," only to recuperate both existence and experience by postulating a body, world and nature "beyond thought," no less speculative than the thirty-odd levels of consciousness postulated by Buddhist cosmology. One of Vajrayana's many secret and surprising revelations is that behind the samsaric self and world of maya, there exist three "Buddha bodies" and five “Buddha natures,” all emanations of one non-manifest Adi-Buddha or Absolute. The rigorous "preparatory" practices for the Tantric abhisheka or initiation ceremony and the sadhanas or spiritual exercises of the subsequent "development phase," such as visualization of a yidam, constitute its "yanas of effective means" through which adeptsdiscover their “subtle bodies” (a concept familiar from the chakras of Ayurvedic medicine) and experience and realize their specific “Buddha natures.” In place of a firm physical or metaphysical (idealist) “ground-of-being,” Tantra postulates unsuspected “subtle modes” of emanation and contraction “circulating in a sea of energy” beneath the surface of the world of everyday illusion. These are divided into five, specific "Buddha families,” one of which predominates in every individual, which the vajra master discerns in each adept and which determines which personal yidam he is assigned. These "subtle modes of being" include: 1) tathagata, (thusness,) the lack of attributes, a spaciousness which is the “ground-of-being” for the other “Buddha natures;”  2) vajra (thunderbolt or diamond,) clarity or insight, seeing through samsaric illusion; 3) ratna (jewel,) expansiveness, inclusiveness, the exfoliation of one’s “Buddha nature;” 4) padma (lotus,) love, self-negation, absorption in oceanic “Buddha nature;” 5) karma (right action,) the “effective means” for destroying illusion and experiencing this ultimate reality.  These “energy fields” manifest themselves through yidams, mandalas, transitory worlds, “under erasure,” which reveal themselves as “dependently originated” visualizations of the adept's own "Buddha nature,” and then collapse, negated as independent phenomena, as soon one recognizes their inherent emptiness. 

Finally, in the "completion phase" the new Vajrayana adept or "awakened soul" achieves mahamudra, the "great seal" or culmination, both telos and eschaton, of his Tantric practice, when the deadened mind, "rests in Buddha essence," as a result of a non-conceptual, non-conscious vajra "way of knowing,” vajrasattva. This is described as "empty in essence but aware," which would seem to imply an awareness without content, including a mind to be aware of it. If so, it constitutes a new metaphysic - the non-manifest "Buddha's essence," analogous to the Romantic poets' quixotic quest for an "unmediated vision" of "the-thing-in-itself" – except, vajrasattva, is not  a vision of the thing but the thing itself. Appendix I compared these metaphysical trappings with what the poet Wallace Stevens called  “fictions,” a “final elegance” which does not “console,” nor “sanctify” but “plainly propounds” the power of subjectivity in a world “not our own and, much more not ourselves.” He outlined a “dialectic of the imagination” which does not surrender to the barrage of the “not conscious” but 1) "abstracts” or negates it by drawing it into consciousness, 2) then transforms it by infusing it with meaning and feeling, (in other words , turns it into a metaphor of which the mind is the tenor) and 3) finally, gives the mind the pleasure of a subjective moments of its own creation.  The imagination does not experience or reify its own constructions as external ”reality;" it knows they are ephemeral fictions because it created, manifested and “dependently generated them,” but, also real because they constitute its being – as a conscious being. Dismissing these as maya, illusions, lies or unreal is based on a "category error" since fictions (L. > fingere to mold or shape) and subjective experience do not purport to be "ontologically given" but artificial, man- and mind-made constructs. They do not pretend to be true to nature only to the poet and his or her readers' human nature, the “second nature” of art and the “supreme fiction”  which is being conscious.