Diversity, Change and Continuity (Big Idea 1; NE 2 and 3)

As argued in the Introduction, there is no fixed monolithic entity called Buddhism. Rather, like other traditions, it is diverse, particularly so having had such a long history and wide geographical spread through many countries, cultures and languages. According to Guy Claxton ‘Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Buddhism in Tibet and Buddhism in Japan are as different on the surface as Christianity, Judaism and Islam’ (1989). Scholars and syllabuses tend to divide Buddhism into Theravada ( ‘way of the elders’) and Mahayana (‘the great vehicle’) but this is really just for convenience as these are not even the same kind of term (Theravada is a line of ordination and/or a school of philosophy, and Mahayana a sort of different vision of Buddhism (see Willams 2008), including many different lines of ordination, schools of philosophy and traditions of practice). The two strands have different scriptural texts, somewhat different concepts of what is meant by ‘Buddha’, and differing ideas of the eventual goal of the Buddhist path. Theravada is the only surviving non-Mahayana tradition, but there were many others in earlier Buddhist centuries. In medieval India, monks in the same monastery might be following non-Mahayana and Mahayana paths. The label ‘Mahayana’ covers many different types of Buddhism, so that some scholars divide Buddhism into three instead: Southern (Theravada in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos), Northern (Tibetan Buddhism, in Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia as well as Tibet) and Eastern (the many different forms in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, noting that China is such a huge area that there are also Theravada and Tibetan-style Buddhist minorities as well as ‘Eastern’ traditions). There are several different strands of Tibetan/Northern Buddhism, and the far-Eastern traditions include (using the Japanese names) Zen, Jodo (Pure Land), Shingon, Tendai, Sanron, Kegon Nichiren Buddhism and others, as well as each having subgroups. There are also groups started in the 20th century such as the Triratna Buddhists (formerly Friends of the Western Buddhist Order) which started in the UK, and Soka Gakkai, a development of Nichiren Buddhism, which started in Japan.

The point to grasp is that there are many different Buddhist groups, that Buddhist tradition has changed and developed over time and in different contexts, and that even individuals in the same group may have different ideas, values, emotions and experience. No one source, whether a scholar, textbook or person calling themselves a Buddhist can speak for all. Having said that, there are still some basics that most Buddhists would share, and without which it would be hard to count them as Buddhists, though this list should not be seen as hard-and-fast. These might include: acceptance of impermanence, the working of karma, rebirth and the cycle of lives (samsara), the possibility of enlightenment or liberation, respect for ‘the’ or ‘a’ or several Buddhas and their teachings, a commitment to a moral and compassionate lifestyle, and practise of some form of traditional ritual or meditation. One factor making for continuity amidst the change is the care Buddhists have taken over the centuries to ensure the authenticity of their teachings. This may be through passing on texts, or by tracing lineages of teachers. Buddhist texts were passed on through memorisation to start with, until first written down several centuries after the time of the Buddha. Contrary to popular opinion, Richard Gombrich has argued that the regular oral recitation of texts in a group, as was the case in the early monastic community, makes it less likely that errors or deliberate changes are introduced than when texts are written down. Several individuals in Buddhist history went to great efforts, such as travelling from China to India or over the Himalayas between India and Tibet, to collect authentic scriptures. Ordained Buddhists have records of the lineage of their teachers, in theory at least stretching back to the Buddha himself, and identifying your teacher is important to lay Buddhists too, especially in Tibetan Buddhism.

Download the entire essay here

Buddhist worldview traditions


493.5 KB

Download resource