Diversity

There is great diversity within Buddhism. For ease scholars usually differentiate Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism. There are many differences between these strands of Buddhism. Theravada can mainly be found in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and parts of Southeast Asia, while Mahayana can be seen in Tibet, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Mongolia along with parts of Southeast Asia. The main difference between these two strands of Buddhism is the goal that believers aim for. Theravada Buddhists aspire to become Arahats (enlightened ones), while Mahayana Buddhists strive to become bodhisattvas and eventually Buddhas themselves (someone who rediscovers the dharma and teaches). Western ideas of schism, based on the history of Christianity, have often led to the idea that there is hostility between these two groups. This is not normally the case. Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists exist happily side by side, and in the past, both those aiming to become Buddhas and those aiming to become Arahats, shared monasteries with each other.

Given the huge number of countries that Buddhism has spread to, there is obviously a great deal of cultural diversity within the faith tradition. This can be seen mainly in terms of ritual practices. In Tibet for example, there are some shamanistic elements to rituals, while in certain Chinese schools there are more devotional aspects. With increased emigration different cultures join the ‘melting pot’ of the West, resulting in these new communities incorporating many Western cultural aspects of Buddhism.

Buddhism has successfully extended into countries outside its traditional regions, and has co-existed with religions already present. Buddhists acknowledge the existence of gods, devils, supernatural beings etc and so can quite happily incorporate new ones into its belief system. For example, when Buddhism spread to Tibet a number of deities and demons became Buddhist. The important point that Buddhism teaches is that while these gods may exist and intervene to aid with worldly requests (for example, helping one pass an exam), they cannot help on the Buddhist path – escaping the round of samsara – because all the gods are also subject to it, as they will eventually die themselves. Thus many Buddhists will nominally have two or more religions – in India, for example, a Buddhist may call himself a Hindu when it comes to worshipping Hindu gods for this worldly results, but a Buddhist when it comes to escaping from suffering.

Buddhists usually welcome interfaith dialogue. In fact, the Buddha emphasised the importance of investigating any truth claim and assessing its veracity. When Christian missionaries began working in Sri Lanka in the 18th century, they were initially frustrated by Buddhists acceptance of them and willingness to participate in interfaith dialogue. These same Christian missionaries were further perturbed by their hosts’ willingness to please them and worship their God while still following the Buddhist path to escape from samsara.

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