AN OVERVIEW OF THE HISTORY OF BUDDHISM
Shakyamuni Buddha was the founder of Buddhism and the history of the Buddha Dharma in our era begins with the enlightenment of the Buddha, who at the age of 35, attained Buddhahood or enlightenment. After his awakening, he strove constantly for the benefit of others, traveling throughout India, encountering many different kinds of people, and conveying to all of them general and specific teachings appropriate for all manner of life situations. His enlightenment, and the teachings that he gave, enable us to experience lasting happiness. His teachings have since been passed down through numerous unbroken lineages of teachers, which have spread to many countries and many of these lineages still flourish throughout the world. At the time of the Buddha’s death, this Dharma was well established in central India. There were many lay followers, but the heart of the Dharma lies in the Spiritual Community, or ordained Sangha, which is usually located in a monastic center for monks and nuns.
Over more than 2500 years ago, the Buddha taught the eighty-four thousands divisions of Dharma, which are antidotes to the eighty-four thousand negative and afflictive emotions or Kleshas. There are twenty-one thousand teachings for each of the three principle afflictions (attachment, hatred, and ignorance). Historically, the Buddha’s first turning of the wheel of Dharma or Dharmacakraparvarttan, started when the Buddha traveled to Sarnath, or Deer Park, in northern India. The Buddha taught what he experienced and attained from the practice of the Middle Way approach. The Bodhi-tree is located in present-day Bodhgaya. Buddhism, shows the path, and provides various practices, that lead to the state of complete Buddhahood, free from the misery of cyclic existence or Samsara. The Buddha proclaimed that all beings have the potential, capability, and ability to awaken to their basic nature, or potential of wakefulness within, which can be fully realized through the methods on the path. This process consists mainly of two elements – the accumulation of Wisdom and Merit, through developing the right philosophical view, and then going through the process of meditation practice.
Buddha’s wisdom and teachings were later compiled together by his fellow disciples, such as Mahakashyapa, Ananda, Upali, and so on. After the ‘Great Departure’ or Mahaparinirvana of the Buddha, Mahakashyapa, the regent of the Buddha, headed the initial council, and this historic first great gathering of the Buddhist Sangha was held in order to record, clarify, and consolidate the teachings of the Buddha. In this way, the council was able to accurately collect and preserve the teachings. The Buddha taught several approaches, depending upon the inclinations and level of spiritual advancement of the student. Generally, there are two principal Vehicles or Yanas (Thegpa-Nyie): Hinayana (Lesser Vehicle) and Mahayana (Greater Vehicle). The Hinayana is also called Theravada, which means the ‘Teachings of the Elders’ and it divided into two sub-schools: Shravakayana and Pratyekabuddhayana. The Hinayana is considered to be the basic vehicle focusing on the Buddha’s foundational teachings for which in turn further individual liberation while the Mahayana, also called the Bodhisattvayana teachings, emphasize universal compassion, and further upon analyzing the ultimate nature of reality, a third category of higher level teachings, known as Vajrayana (Indestructible/Diamond Vehicle) emerged, containing a host of skillful means for swift accomplishment. In this way the corpus of the Buddha’s teachings is traditionally divided into three spiritual approaches: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. The Hinayana teachings of the Buddha flourished in India, and later split into 18 sub-schools. But all these 18 schools can be comprised into four basic schools of Shravakas or Hearers: Mulasarvastivadin, Mahasamghika, Sthaviravadin, and Sammitiya. The Theravada School spread to Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand), and Mahayana became popular after the new millennium, and continued to spread throughout East Asia (China, Japan, Korea). Over the centuries, Mahayana became a very strong presence in countries like Tibet, and so the teachings of the great Mahayana masters spread, such as Nagarjuna, Bhavaviveka, Jnanagarbha, Aryedeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga, Dharmakirti, Tilopa, Naropa, Virupa and so forth. The highest of the three levels of Buddha’s teachings is called Vajrayana in Sanskrit, or Dorje Thegpa in Tibetan. The Buddha taught Vajrayana teachings to a restricted group of only suitable disciples later in his life. Vajrayana spread northward to Nepal and across the Himalayas to Tibet.
HINAYANA OR THERAVADA BUDDHISM
The first vehicle of Buddhism is often referred to as Hinayana Buddhism or the Lesser Vehicle, or alternately, as Theraveda Buddhism (“Doctrine of the Elders” or “Ancient Doctrine”). The primary purpose of those following this original Buddhist path is to live a pure life, study, meditate, and work towards oneself becoming enlightened. However it is also acknowledged that it takes many lifetimes in order to attain this goal, due to the need to achieve sufficient merit and insight. Theraveda Buddhism is still widely practiced in Asia, particularly in Sri Lanka or Ceylon, though also in the South East countries of Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Bangladesh. The principle texts of Theraveda are the Pali Cannon, which was finally codified around 100 BCE, at what is considered to be the fourth Buddhist Council. These texts survived in oral form up until that point. All schools and vehicles of Buddhism recognize these texts as authentic and a source of the early Buddhist teachings. The Tripitaka consist of Sutras, which are the teachings of the Buddha, the Abbhidarma, which are philosophical treaties and psychological analyses, and the Vinayana, which are the rules of conduct that the monastic body adhere to.
After centuries of the Hinayana tradition being practiced, debates were held concerning this single minded focus of personal enlightenment, and a new vehicle of Buddhism emerged that became known as the Greater Vehicle, since it held that it was not really possible to become fully Enlightened on one’s own, due to interdependence, and that in fact there was more merit and worth in becoming enlightened for the benefit of others. To attain enlightenment at the Shravaka or Pratyekabuddha level, was in fact a lesser realization. The emergence of Mahayana Buddhism is considered to have begun with growth of a number of important Mahayana texts beginning with works like the Lalitavistar Sutra and Mahavastu. Saddharmapundarika Sutra also known as the Lotus Sutra. The Lankavatar Sutras are the foundational Mahayana treatises. The most famous of these is the Prajnaparamitra Sutra, or the “Perfection of Wisdom Sutra’, also known as the “Heart Sutra,” whose fundamental teaching describes how form is not other than emptiness, and emptiness is not other than form.
Mahayana Buddhism is also sometimes known as the Boddhistavayana, or the vehicle of the Boddhisattvas, who are highly realized spiritual beings who abide at lower levels of attainment than fully realized Buddhas, but who remain at these lower levels in order to be of more benefit to sentient beings. Through their aspirations and through skillful means, they are able to help others, who often pray to them for assistance and guidance. The Mahayana tradition has numerous texts associated with it. It primarily arose in Southern India, near Amarvati and Nagarajunakonda in Andhra state, in India. The famous Buddhist philosopher, Nagarjuna, lived there. It was Nagarjuna who brought the Prajnaparamita Sutra from the naga realms. (Nagarjuna also practiced Vajrayana, and in particular the Hayagriva practices. It was Nagarjuna who bestowed upon the renowned Guru Rinpoche the Hayagriva practice, and Nagarjuna is thus recognized as one of the eight great Vidyadharas.)
Also, the great Buddhist University of Nalanda, located in Bihar state, India, was originally Mahayana in orientation, though it too taught Vajrayana texts later, and from this university many great sages, including Candrakirti and Shantideva, emerged whose Dharma teachings later were spread to other parts of Asia. Shantideva’s “The Way of the Boddhisattva” is considered by many to be the foundational text of the Mahayana par excellence. It focuses in particular on the Six Paramitas of generosity, right conduct, patience, diligence, concentration, and insight. Put more simply, these three higher trainings of Mahayana fall into the three major categories of: sila or ethics, which purifies, samadhi or meditative stability, which pacifies, and prajna or insight, which liberates one from samsara.
Today Mahayana Buddhism is the form of Buddhism with the greatest following. About 56% of Buddhists are followers of this tradition, and it is most widely practiced in the countries of East Asia. The Zen Buddhist tradition of Japan, and the Ch’an Buddhism of China are both Mahayana in orientation. However, Vajrayana Buddhists also study the same set of texts, and it is largely included in Vajrayana studies, along with the original Pali cannon Sutras.
Vajrayana is translated into English as the ‘Indestructible Vehicle or Diamond Vehicle’. Vajrayana Buddhism was first developed in India in the 5th century C.E. and it is also a branch of Mahayana Buddhism. According to the final ‘Turning of the Wheel of Dharma’ by Buddha Sahkyamuni, it is clear that the development and dissemination of Vajrayana Buddhism began probably in the 6th-7th centuries. It spread quickly in India and became established in other parts of the Buddhist world, particularly in Tibet, where it became the dominant form of Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism is often referred to simply as ‘Tibetan Buddhism’, although it may have originally emerged as a reaction to the philosophical scholasticism of Indian Buddhism. However, Vajrayana is the core of Tibetan Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism is also called Tantrayana, an esoteric Buddhist practice through which one can attain Enlightenment more quickly and effectively.
The spread of Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet began when the great Tantric master Guru Padmasambhava arrived in Tibet in the 8th century. Padmasambhava is the founder of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, and he is credited with bringing Vajrayana to Tibet. He was invited by the Tibetan King Trisong Deutsen (742-797) in order to subdue the evil forces that were impeding both the spread of Buddhism and obstructing the building of Samye monastery in Tibet. The King first invited Shantarakshita to Tibet and then later after the recommendation of Shantarakshita the King invited Guru Padmasambhava, who performed the Vajrakilaya dance and enacted the rite of ‘Thread-cross’ or Lud-dhoe to assist the King and Shantarakshita in clearing away obscurations and hindrances in the building of Samye. Therefore, the first ever Buddhist Monastery, the seat of Buddha Dharma, was built under the patronage of King Trisong Deutsen, directed by Guru Padmasambhava and Shantarakshita. For the construction of Samye, Padmasambhava, exerting his magical powers, showed the King an image of a monastery in his palm. That is the origin of the name Samye meaning ‘Unimaginable or Inconceivable’. Padmassambhva chose the construction site while the design was done by Shantarakshita. After the construction was completed, Buddhism became the official religion in Tibet. Many of the learned monks were invited to Tibet to translate the huge volumes of Buddhist Sutras and Tantras into Tibetan.
The translation of Vajrayana Buddhism, or those Tantric texts brought from different hidden lands, and translated into Tibetan, was done by these scholars. The King then selected seven nobles to be the first monks in Tibet.
Guru Padmasmbhava then traveled throughout Tibet subjugating Gods, Demons, and spirits, which would constitute the subtle psychic energy of a country. He conquered these entities throughout Nepal and Tibet, making them into protectors of the Dharma, as a way of pacifying the country of its aggression and making it a place where the Dharma would flourish. Having attained omniscient wisdom and the complete mastery of enlightened power and skillful means, he would overwhelm beings intent on creating obstacles to the Dharma. Guru Padmasambhava went all around Tibet, leaving no more than an arm-span without his footprints on it. One of the most important things that he did was concealing the scriptural texs and religious objects known as Terma ‘Treasure-teachings’, to be discovered in the future for the sake of future generations. The reasons for hiding these Termas were to prevent the teachings of Secret Mantra from being destroyed, to avoid the Vajrayana from being corrupted or modified by intellectuals, to preserve the blessings of the practices, and to benefit future disciples. For each of these hidden treasures Padmasambhava predicted the time of their disclosure, the person who would reveal them, and the destined recipients who would hold the teachings.
In Tibet, Guru Padmasambhava appeared in different forms in order to test whether the Tibetans were ready to receive and practice the Dharma. He tested them in more ways, saw that it was time to establish and spread the Dharma in Tibet, and began his enlightened activities. Again and again evil spirits living in specific areas tried to obstruct Guru Padmasambhava from teaching. There are many testimonies left in boulders and rocks of him defeating and binding them under oath to protect the Dharma, such as boulder formations or handprints and footprints he left in rocks. There are many sacred places where Guru Padmasambhava subdued evil spirits, and many practitioners confirm that the blessings one receives and the inspiration one experiences to intensify one’s practice by visiting these sacred sites are immense. The obstructive demonic forces were not only tamed and converted to work for the welfare of all living beings, but those ministers who still had doubts saw for themselves the efficacy of the teachings and became Guru Rinpoche’s close disciples, received transmissions, meditated upon the instructions, and thus also attained realizations themselves.
The selected noble boys who were to become the first monks were first sent to study with the leading scholars in India to learn the various languages spoken there, since the Dharma texts were not only written in one language. These boys spent thirteen years in India and studied with the same masters who had taught Guru Rinpoche and Khenpo Shantarakshita. When they returned to Tibet they became the first of one hundred and eight great translators. They were the unequaled masters Vairocana or Berotsana, Kawa Paltsek, and Chokro Lui Gyältsen. They had learned the languages of India, knew the meaning of the profound texts, started translating them into Tibetan, and educated other translators. They started the enormous task of translating the vast collection of Dharma texts into the Tibetan language with immense accuracy. The translations consisted of the entire Buddhist works of India that were compiled in the Kangyur – The Translation of Buddha’s Words and the Tengyur – The Translation of Teachings, as well as other subjects such as literature, linguistics, science, architecture, painting, and medicine. This was the primary work that was started under the direction of Vairocana and completed by other masters. Padmasambhava’s chief disciples included the translator Vairocana and Yudra Nyingpo.
During his time in Tibet, Guru Padmasambhava transmitted countless teachings and empowerments. There were countless students who received the teachings and empowerments from Padmasambhava in person, but the most renowned are the original 25 disciples, the intermediate 25 disciples, and the later 17 and 21 disciples. There were 80 of his students who attained rainbow body at Yerpa and also the 108 meditators of Chuwori, the 30 tantrikas at Yangdzong, the 55 realized ones at Sheldrang. Of the female disciples there the 25 dakini students and seven yoginis. Many of these close disciples had blood lines that have continued to the present day. All of the 25 disciples of Padmasambhava attained supreme accomplishment.
Again, there are varying accounts of when Vajrayana Buddhism emerged. In some traditions, it is understood that Lord Buddha made mention of Tantrayana texts before his passing, the most famous one being the Kalachakra Tantra, which some believe he even taught before his parinirvana. Lord Buddha also is understood to have prophesied when the Tantric teachings would spread, and that another great Buddhist teacher would be born twelve years after his passing, who would eventually bring Tantric teachings to Tibet. Vajrayana also flourished for some time in other parts of Asia, but it is only in the Himalayan kingdoms, and Eastern India, that it took hold in its fully developped form. The only other principle surviving form of Vajrayana outside of the Himalayan region is Shingon Buddhism, in Japan. However the tantric classes of this form of Buddhism only go to the level of Kriya, Upa (or Charya), and Yoga classes, and there is no Anuttarayoga level of practice.
The first person to bring Buddhism to Tibet was the King Songtsan Gampo of the 7th century, who brought writing to Tibet and established the Tibetan script. He had two principal wives, one was a Chinese princess and the other a Nepali princess. He built the first Buddhist temple, the Jokhang, in central Lhasa, in Tibet. Later, in the 8th century, the renowned Indian abbot of Vikramshila University in India, Shantarakshita, known for his skill in combining Madhyamaka and Yogacharya philosophies, was invited to give Buddhist teachings, and his approach was both scholarly and that of a gentle renunciant monk. An incarnation of the boddhisattva Vajrapani, he was known as ‘the guardian of peace’. He was much esteemed and was the one who worked to establish the first true monastery, and in fact ordained the first monks, at Samye, in Tibet, a rather wild place at the time. However, since Tibet was so wild, his efforts met with considerable resistance, since the savage tendencies within Tibet were too strong. It was then that the second Dharma king, King Trisong Detsen asked the Indian mahasiddha, Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, to come to Tibet, so that Buddhism would truly take hold in Tibet. Padmasambhava was an individual of extraordinary accomplishment, and was able to subdue the malevolent forces prevalent there through tantric practice. Essentially, he transformed the negative into the positive, but it was not without struggle from the perspective of these malevolent forces, and unfortunately, the introduction was not fully established, due to certain ceremonies not being fully completed. Therefore it was prophesied that Buddhism in Tibet would go through periods of rise andfall and re-emergence, and that the Tibetans would experience great suffering due to the fact that the introduction had been incomplete, and certain beings not fully tamed.
Guru Rinpoche had two primary consorts, who assisted him in his activity. They became equally accomplished and demonstrated the feminine aspect of the Buddhist teachings, which is wisdom, the masculine aspect being compassion. Their names were Yeshe Tsogyal and Mandarava, and they were highly accomplished dakinis. Yeshe Tsogyal codified the teachings of Padmasambhava, for the benefit of the practitioners of that time, and for the future. Yeshe Tsogyal concealed these teachings, codified as texts, or sometimes as sacred statues or medicinal pills, in hidden places in Tibet, as Treasures to be uncovered in the future, when they will be of great benefit to those who come into contact with them and practice in the correct way. Guru Rinpoche’s accomplishment was so replete, that he gained insight and omniscience of the past, present and future, and thus was able to see the conditions of the future, and how to help people during those times. One famous reference in one of his texts from around 800AD refers to the future modern era in these terms: “When the iron bird flies in the sky and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered across the earth, and the Buddha Dharma will spread to the land of the red-faced man.”