Similar to Christianity, Buddhism has many branches. The original doctrine that the Buddha taught his monks is called the Theravada or the Teaching of the Elders, but this very deep teaching may be too strange and frightening for everyday Americans.
This unpopularity is not unusual when we consider the deeper teachings of many religions, such as Kabbalah in Judaism and Orison in Christianity. People usually talk a good story about God, but don’t want to really go there, opting instead for earthly glories such as sex, money, power, security and entertainment. Familiar things.
For exactly these reasons, some Buddhist branches, for example, Zen, Tibetan, and many other divisions of Buddhism have split off from the original, strict Theravada, making their particular brand of Buddhism more user-friendly, and have thus enjoyed great success in attracting followers, while the Theravada remains somewhat obscure in most of the world.
Theravada is called (Hinayana) the “small vehicle” because it appealed originally to a limited number of people who were very serious in their practice, i.e., the Buddha’s Sangha of monks or disciples, who had only one desire in mind: Enlightenment. In modern times, Theravada has evolved into a mainly social religion where ceremony and practices of generosity, harmlessness, and loving kindness have generally replaced the austere practices of the Buddha and his disciples. However, these austere teachings are still practiced by dedicated Buddhist monks in the remote forests of Sri Lanka, Thailand and other Southeastern Asian countries, a practice relatively unchanged from the Buddha’s times; teachings that I was fortunate enough to participate in while living in forests of Northeast Thailand.
Zen, Tibetan, and the other branches are called Mahayana, the “large vehicle,” which is more sociable and where multitudes can easily fit into the boat. Mahayana adjusts the original teachings so that they are palatable for the wider audience. A blend of Buddhism, German Romanticism, new age, and light and love seems to work well in the U.S.
Hinayana, or the original Buddhism, never altered the Buddha’s original teachings in order to attract more followers because this method has proven, over 2600 years, to be the fast and sure road to enlightenment. Being fully cognizant that this adherence to the strict doctrine limited its popularity, Hinayana never altered its course and has thus survived for many centuries, mostly under the radar, because it is the place one goes to get the original, profound Buddhist teachings that work.
Even though only a handful of people ever get a hankering to go this far, enough throughout history have recognized the Theravada as the real deal. The numbers, even today, that have become enlightened by practicing as the Buddha originally taught is a testament to its effectiveness. Thailand remains steady at about 93% Theravada Buddhist, and Sri Lanka about 70%, with large Theravada populations in Cambodia, Viet Nam, and Laos. There are about 100 million Theravada Buddhist worldwide, and about 2 billion Mahayana Buddhists globally counting China.
Buddhism is relatively new to America, coming here only about fifty years ago through intellectual channels and Asian immigration. Also, Buddhist texts have only been relatively recently translated into English since the early 1900s, so Buddhism is in its infancy in America. Zen Buddhism arrived here generally in the 50s, Tibetan Buddhism in the 60s, and Theravada Buddhism only in the 70s.
After Buddhism arrived, it appealed to westerners because of its logical approach – why should you believe what someone else tells you unless you can prove it true for yourself? (Which is actually what the Buddha said). And the proven methods of Buddhist practice appealed to westerners, practices designed to free one psychologically so that one can live a peaceful, contented life, rather than being a “work in progress” where there is seldom any work… or progress!
What the Buddha taught, when applied, leads to personal freedom from stress, and a profound understanding of life, opposed to second hand understanding that is not the result of personal insight, but the result of what someone else or some books tell you.
This scientific approach of experimenting and then experiencing insight for yourself, including enlightenment, immediately appealed to America’s ideal of self reliance and the inherent tendency to be cautious about what others say (show me instead) which perhaps is a backlash of media advertising and a growing disdain of organized, authoritative religions
Interestingly enough, the practice of meditation, when practiced correctly, results in enhanced insight reflecting an awareness of many good values, some of which are just now just coming to the forefront on college campuses, such as taking care of our earth, (not polluting and deforesting just to make money), caring for all living beings, honesty and peace.
But alas, when it comes right down to it, when the deepest aspects of Theravada are looked into and it comes down to the truth of matters, many westerners run away and seek shelter in familiar surroundings. You could say that Asians are a bit tougher in this regard.
The Theravada Buddhist teachings run contrary to the world – against the world so to speak; against the stream of everyday consciousness. Therefore, Theravada will never be popular in the world, as the world presently exists.
The Buddha said that the world’s way is the way of desire, of wanting and thirst, and as such necessarily saddles us with negative drives such as selfishness, blind ambition, hatred, cruelty, and meanness, and eventually violence and wars.
He said that worldling run after their thirsts, thinking that the objects of their desires, when obtained, will make them happy. But instead of happiness, this craving for desires and the resulting clinging to them after they are achieved them become the prime causes of our stress.
He gets it right down to the nitty-gritty of human experience, which goes against the grain of our minds that really believe that we can be happy by desiring and obtaining things. It goes against all present logic and what we believe to be true.
He declared that when we stop this craving and clinging to our objects of desire, only then can the mind become happy and totally free. But who would believe that?
He doesn’t get into God or heaven because he suggested that those things are merely thoughts and imaginations, the very things that keep us from seeing with intuitive insight, and will not help pull out the arrow of discontent. And that imaginings and thoughts only veil our true discontent by a psychological transference of responsibility. Only by solving discontent up front in the realm of reality can the mind then advance into super-mundane states. Otherwise, super-mundane states are only imagined and not really experienced or achieved. It is these super mundane states that make Buddhism a religion rather than merely a philosophy.
As an example, the Buddha suggested looking into this body of ours, looking into the reality of it that we hide from, instead of looking outside to gods or heavens. He said that this is the only place that we can be released by the truth.
I believe that this is good advice, because if we can’t face the truth of our own body, which is right here in front of us to see, how can we ever hope to ferret out the truth of other things more complicated and distant? Plus, when we do see the truth of this body and mind of ours, the truth of everything outside becomes almost magically clear as well.
Of course, few have the courage to even attempt this seemingly simple investigation into reality because we are so accustomed to living in images and illusions, and glancing past what we don’t want to admit. We like to substitute fairy tales for reality, but in the meantime our discontent remains, even though we try to rationalize and justify it by our beliefs.
Buddhist monks who aren’t particularly worried about popularity or a following will frankly suggest to you the truth about these things. They might suggest that when you study the body, you will discover that it has a number of holes, all of which secrete something; eye gunk, phlegm, mucous, feces, urine, sweat, snot, just to mention a few. And if you took all of these secretions and spread them out on your coffee table, this would be closer to the truth of the body than a body deodorized, made up, dressed up and ordained with jewelry and trinkets. Then he might suggest that the next time you have friends over, show them your coffee table – as a conversation starter.
When one does this study of the body from the standpoint of what the body really is, it is at first quite depressing and disgusting, but like all of the Buddha’s teachings, this becomes in time a tremendous freedom as one lets go of the body and all the perceived responsibilities for it’s survival. The body then becomes just the body, to be carefully maintained like a automobile, with no attachment or aversion.
This is an example of the deeper teachings that eventually free us from our attachment and clinging to our bodies, an attachment which causes untold worry and heartaches. But who has the courage to look at the truth of life? Who has the courage to even look at their bodies?
In other words, the Theravada teachings are tough, but according to the Buddha, the only way to become free. Otherwise we go through life kidding ourselves and wondering why we are always in a state of discontent. Of course, many times we don’t even see that we are discontented, that’s how mixed up we are. We don’t see that our entire existence consists of nothing more than the constant stress of trying to satisfy our endless desires. If we aren’t even aware of how we suffer every moment in life, and how we then spend an entire lifetime trying to escape this suffering, there is probably little hope for release.
One day the Buddha held up a handful of leaves and asked his monks which was greater; the few leaves in his hand, or the leaves on all the trees in the forest behind him. The monks answered that the leaves in the forest were of course more. Then the Buddha said; that which he teaches is as the few leaves in his hand. Why do I only teach the few leaves in my hand? Because they are the only ones that can free you; all the other leaves in the forest cannot.