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Denominations of Buddhism: Theravada & Mahayana

“Denominations” of Buddhism: Theravada & Mahayana

Theravada Buddhism is the oldest form of Buddhism, and is probably the closest to the core teachings of the original Buddha. Most of the other schools have added significant new elements to Buddhism, but Theravada is as close to “plain vanilla” Buddhism as possible.

Theravada Buddhism explains that your enlightenment will come from your experience, coupled with your critical thinking and reasoning skills. By the strictest ideals of Theravada teachings, it is unlikely that laypeople can reach enlightenment on their own; monks are far more likely to reach enlightenment. Generally, the role of laymen is to feed and support the monks while the monks meditate and work toward their own enlightenment. Good laypeople who do their duty in this lifetime may get lucky and become a monk in a future lifetime. I’m oversimplifying a bit, but if you don’t want to become a monk in a monastery, this one probably isn’t for you.

Theravada Buddhism is often called Hinayana, the “Small Vehicle,” Buddhism. This is in contrast to Mahayana Buddhism, which is the “Great Vehicle.” There are far fewer Theravada Buddhists than Mahayanists, and all the rest of the flavors of Buddhism we will discuss fall under the main category of Mahayana.

Mahayana Buddhism is a blanket term for most other (non-Theravada) forms of Buddhism. By far the majority of the world’s Buddhists fall into this category. General beliefs include the idea that anyone, not just monks, can become Buddhas. We all have a little bit of Buddha inside us. Some of the schools of Mahayana that we’ll be discussing this week are Pure Land, Tibetan, Zen, and Tantric Buddhism. There are many, many other sub-schools of Buddhism, but these are the main forms.

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