Rahula was the historical Buddha’s only child. He was born shortly before his father left on his quest for enlightenment. Indeed, Rahula’s birth appears to have been one of the factors that fueled Prince Siddhartha’s determination to become a wandering mendicant.
Buddha Leaving His Son
According to Buddhist legend, Prince Siddhartha already had been shaken deeply by the realization he could not escape sickness, old age, and death. And he was beginning to think of leaving his privileged life to seek peace of mind. When his wife Yasodhara gave birth to a son, the Prince bitterly called the boy Rahula, which means “fetter.”
Soon Prince Siddhartha left his wife and son to become the Buddha. Some modern wits have called the Buddha a “deadbeat dad.” But the infant Rahula was the grandson of King Suddhodana of the Shakya clan. He would be well cared for.
When Rahula was about nine years old, his father returned to his home city of Kapilavastu. Yasodhara took Rahula to see his father, who was now the Buddha. She told Rahula to ask his father for his inheritance so that he would become king when Suddhodana died.
So the child, as children will, attached himself to his father. He followed the Buddha, asking incessantly for his inheritance. After a time the Buddha complied by having the boy ordained as a monk. His would be the inheritance of the dharma.
Rahula Learns to Be Truthful
The Buddha showed his son no favoritism, and Rahula followed the same rules as other new monks and lived under the same conditions, which were a far cry from his life in a palace.
It is recorded that once a senior monk took his sleeping spot during a rainstorm, forcing Rahula to seek shelter in a latrine. He was awakened by his father’s voice, asking Who is there?
It is I, Rahula, the boy responded. I see, replied the Buddha, who walked away. Although the Buddha was determined to not show his son special privileges, perhaps he had heard Rahula had been turned out in the rain and had gone to check on the boy. Finding him safe, even if uncomfortable, the Buddha left him there.
Rahula was a high-spirited boy who loved pranks. Once he deliberately misdirected a layperson who had come to see the Buddha. Learning of this, the Buddha decided it was time for a fatherly, or at least teacherly, sit down with Rahula. What happened next is recorded in the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta in the Pali Tipitika.
Rahula was astonished but pleased when his father called on him. He filled a basin with water and washed his father’s feet. When he finished, the Buddha pointed to the small amount of water left in a dipper.
“Rahula, do you see this little bit of leftover water?”
“That’s how little of a monk there is in one who feels no shame at telling a lie.”
When the leftover water was tossed away, the Buddha said, “Rahula, do you see how this little bit of water is tossed away?”
“Rahula, whatever there is of a monk in anyone who feels no shame at telling a lie is tossed away just like that.”
The Budha turned the water dipper upside down and said to Rahula, “Do you see how this water dipper is turned upside down?”
“Rahula, whatever there is of a monk in anyone who feels no shame at telling a lie is turned upside down just like that.”
Then the Buddha turned the water dipper right side up. “Rahula, do you see how empty and hollow this water dipper is?”
“Rahula, whatever there is of a monk in anyone who feels no shame at telling a deliberate lie is empty and hollow just like that.”
The Buddha then taught Rahula how to reflect carefully on everything he thought, said, and consider consequences, and how his actions affected others and himself. Chastised, Rahula learned to purify his practice. It was said he realized enlightenment when he was only 18 years old
We know only a little about Rahula in his later life. It is said that through his efforts his mother, Yasodhara, eventually became a nun and realized enlightenment also. His friends called him Rahula the Lucky. He said that he was twice lucky, being born the son of the Buddha and also realizing enlightenment.
It is also recorded that he died relatively young, while his father was still alive. The Emperor Ashoka the Great is said to have built a stupa in Rahula’s honor, dedicated to novice monks
The different Buddhist schools of thought, still operating in the present day, developed after the death of the Buddha (l. c. 563 – c. 483 BCE) in an effort to perpetuate his teachings and honor his example. Each of the schools claimed to represent Buddha’s original vision and still do so in the modern era.
Although Buddha himself is said to have requested that, following his death, no leader was to be chosen to lead anything like a school, this was ignored and his disciples seem to have fairly quickly institutionalized Buddhist thought with rules, regulations, and a hierarchy.
At first, there may have been a unified vision of what Buddha had taught but, in time, disagreements over what constituted the “true teaching” resulted in fragmentation and the establishment of three main schools:
Theravada Buddhism claims to be the oldest school and to maintain Buddha’s original vision and teachings. Mahayana Buddhism is said to have split off from Theravada in the belief that it was too self-centered and had lost the true vision; this school also claims it holds to the Buddha’s original teaching. Actually, however, the two schools may have been established around the same time, just with different focus, and probably emerged from two earlier schools: the Sthaviravada (possible precursor to Theravada) and the Mahasanghika (also given as Mahasamghika, considered by some the earlier Mahayana). The connection between these earlier schools and the later ones, however, has been challenged. Vajrayana Buddhism developed, largely in Tibet, in response to what were perceived as too many rules in Mahayana Buddhism and emphasized living the Buddhist walk naturally without regard to ideas of what one was “supposed” to do and so it, too, claims to be the most authentic.
All three schools maintain a belief in the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path as preached by the Buddha but differ – sometimes significantly – in how they choose to follow that path. Objectively, none are considered any more legitimate than the others, nor are the many minor schools which have developed, although adherents of each believe otherwise while, at the same time, recognizing they are all part of Ekayana(“One Vehicle” or “One Path”) in that all embrace Buddha’s central vision and seek to promote harmony and compassion in the world.
ALL BUDDHIST SCHOOLS MAINTAIN A BELIEF IN THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS & EIGHTFOLD PATH AS PREACHED BY THE BUDDHA BUT DIFFER IN HOW THEY CHOOSE TO FOLLOW THAT PATH.
Although Buddhism is often perceived by non-adherents as a uniform belief system, it is as varied as any other in practice but, theoretically at least, a modern-day secular Buddhist can participate in rituals with a religious Buddhist without concern or conflict and all work toward the same essential goals.
Buddha & Buddhism
According to the foundational account of Buddha’s life, he was born Siddhartha Gautama, a Hindu prince, and his father, hoping to prevent him from following a spiritual path instead of succeeding him as king, kept him from any experiences which might have made him aware of suffering and death. The king’s plan succeeded for 29 years until Siddhartha witnessed the famous Four Signs while out riding one day – an aged man, a sick man, a dead man, and a spiritual ascetic – and became aware of the reality of sickness, old age, and death.
He renounced his wealth and position and followed the example of the spiritual ascetic, eventually attaining enlightenment upon recognizing the inherent impermanence of all aspects of life and realizing how one could live without suffering. He developed the concept of the Four Noble Truths, which state that suffering in life is caused by attachment to the things of life, and the Eightfold Path, the spiritual discipline one should follow to achieve release from attachment and the pain of craving and loss. Scholar John M. Koller comments:
The Buddha’s teaching of [the Four Noble Truths] was based on his insight into interdependent arising (pratitya samutpada) as the nature of existence. Interdependent arising means that everything is constantly changing, that nothing is permanent. It also means that all existence is selfless, that nothing exists separately, by itself. And beyond the impermanence and selflessness of existence, interdependent arising means that whatever arises or ceases does so dependent upon conditions. This is why understanding the conditions that give rise to [suffering] is crucial to the process of eliminating [suffering]. (64)
Buddha illustrated these conditions through the Wheel of Becoming which has in its hub the triad of ignorance, craving, and aversion, between the hub and rim the six types of suffering existence, and on the rim the conditions which give rise to duhkha (translated as “suffering”). Ignorance of the true nature of life encourages craving for those things one believes are desirable and aversion to things one fears and rejects. Caught on this wheel, the soul is blinded to the true nature of life and so condemns itself to samsara, the endless repetition of rebirth and death.
Spread & Fragmentation
Buddha preached his vision from the time of his enlightenment until his death at 80 years of age, at which point he requested that his disciples should not choose a leader but that each should lead themselves. He also requested that his remains be placed in a stupaat a crossroads. Neither of these requests was honored as his disciples fairly quickly organized themselves as a group with a leader and divided his remains among themselves, each choosing to place them in a stupa in a location of their choice.
BUDDHIST SCHOOLS HAD TO CONTEND WITH THE WELL-ESTABLISHED BELIEF SYSTEMS &, IN AN EFFORT TO LEVEL THE PLAYING FIELD, DEVELOPED AN ILLUSTRIOUS FOUNDATION STORY
Around 400 BCE, they held the First Council at which they established accepted Buddhist doctrine based on the Buddha’s teachings and, in 383 BCE, they held a Second Council at which, according to the standard account of the meeting, the Sthaviravada school insisted on the observance of ten proscriptions in the monastic discipline which the majority rejected.
At this point, either the Sthaviravada school left the community (known as the sangha) or the majority distanced themselves from the Sthaviravada and called themselves Mahasanghika (“Great Congregation”). All the later schools then developed from this first schism.
These schools had to contend with the more well-established belief systems of Hinduism and Jainism and, in an effort to level the playing field, developed an illustrious foundation story for their founder and attributed to him a number of miracles. Still, Buddhism remained a small sect in India, one among many, until it was championed by the Mauryan king Ashoka the Great (r. 268-232 BCE) who embraced the faith and initiated its spread. He sent missionaries to other nations such as Sri Lanka, China, Korea, Thailand, and Buddhism was accepted in these places far more quickly than in its home country.
Doctrinal differences, however, led to further divisions within the community of adherents. As the belief system became more institutionalized, these differences became more significant. Different canons of scripture developed which were held by some as true while rejected by others and different practices arose in response to the scripture. For example, the Pali canon, which emerged from Sri Lanka, maintained that Buddha was a human being who, although endowed with great spiritual power, still attained enlightenment through his own efforts and, when he died, he was set free from samsara and achieved total liberation from human affairs.
As Buddhism spread, however, the founder was deified as a transcendent being who had always existed and would always exist. Buddha’s death was still understood as his nirvana, a “blowing out” of all attachment and craving, but some adherents no longer saw this as simply an escape from samsara but an elevation to an eternally abiding state; freed from samsara, but still present in spirit. The Mahasanghika school held to this belief as well as many others (such as the claim that the Buddha had never existed physically, only as a kind of holy apparition) which stood in direct contrast to the Sthaviravada and, later, the Theravada schools. Although the central vision of the Buddha was retained by adherents, doctrinal differences like this one led to the establishment of the different schools of Buddhist thought.
Although there were actually many schisms before the establishment of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (the Mahasanghika school alone produced three different sects by c. 283 BCE), the division of these schools from the original sangha is said to have been predicted by the Buddha himself in what is known as The Three Turnings. This concept is based on that of the Dharmachakra(wheel of eight spokes, a familiar Buddhist symbol) which represents the Eightfold Path, informed by dharma which, in Buddhism, is understood as “cosmic law”. The Dharmachakra has always been in motion and always will be but, as far as human recognition of it goes, it was set in motion when Buddha gave his first sermon, would then make the first turn with the establishment of Theravada Buddhism, a second with Mahayana, and a third with Vajrayana.
Theravada Buddhism is said to be the oldest form of the belief system, but this is challenged by modern scholars. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. and Donald S. Lopez, Jr. explain:
Despite the way in which scholars have portrayed the tradition, Theravada is neither synonymous with early Buddhism nor a more pristine form of the religion prior to the rise of the Mahayana. Such a claim suggests a state of sectarian inertia that belies the diversity over time of doctrine and practice within what comes to be called the Theravada tradition. (904)
Even so, many of those who self-identify as Theravada Buddhists do still make the claim that it is the oldest version of Buddhism and the closest to the founder’s vision. It is known as the “Teaching of the Elders” which derives from the same name held by the earlier school of Sthaviravada, and this is sometimes interpreted to mean that its founders were those closest to the Buddha but, actually, the term was commonly used in India to denote any monastic sect, and this applies directly to Theravada.
Adherents focus on the Three Trainings (trisksa):
Sila (moral conduct)
This discipline is observed as part of the Eightfold Path and is inspired by the central figure of the school, the sage Buddhaghosa (5th century CE) whose name means “Voice of the Buddha” for his ability to interpret and comment upon Buddhist doctrine. They hold the Pali canon to be the most authentic and focus on a monastic interpretation of the Buddhist path in which the individual seeks to become an arhat (saint) and has no obligation to teach others the way toward enlightenment. One may certainly do so if one chooses but, unlike Mahayana Buddhism, the goal is not to become a spiritual guide to others but to free one’s self from samsara.
Theravada Buddhism is divided between a clergy of monks and a congregation of laypeople and it is understood that the monks are more spiritually advanced than the common folk. Women are considered inferior to men and are not thought capable of attaining enlightenment until they are reincarnated as a male. The Theravada school is sometimes referred to as Hinayana (“little vehicle”) by Mahayana Buddhists, but it should be noted that this is considered an insult by Theravada Buddhists in that it suggests their school is not as important as Mahayana.
MAHAYANA IS THE MOST WIDESPREAD & POPULAR FORM OF BUDDHISM IN THE WORLD TODAY.
Mahayana Buddhists named themselves the “Great Vehicle” either because they felt they retained the true teachings and could carry the most people to enlightenment (as has been claimed) or because they developed from the early “Great Congregation” Mahasanghika school and wished to distance themselves from it, however slightly. It was founded 400 years after Buddha’s death, probably inspired by the early Mahasanghika ideology, and was streamlined and codified by the sage Nagarjuna (c. 2nd century CE), the central figure of the school. It may have initially been a minor school before interacting with Mahasanghika or, according to some scholars, developed on its own without that school’s influence but, either way, Mahayana is the most widespread and popular form of Buddhism in the world today, spreading from its initial acceptance in China, Korea, Mongolia, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Tibet to points all around the world.
MAHAYANA IS THE MOST WIDESPREAD & POPULAR FORM OF BUDDHISM IN THE WORLD TODAY.
The Mahayana school believes that all human beings possess a Buddha nature and can attain transcendent awareness, becoming a Bodhisattva (“essence of enlightenment”), who can then guide others on the same path. Adherents seek to attain the state of sunyata – the realization that all things are devoid of intrinsic existence, nature, and lasting meaning – a clearing of the mind that enables one to recognize the true nature of life. Having attained this higher state, just as Buddha did, one becomes a buddha. This transcendental state is similar to how gods and spirits were viewed by the Buddha himself – as existing but incapable of rendering any service to the individual – but, as a Bodhisattva, both women and men who have awakened are able to help others to help themselves.
As with Theravada and every other school of Buddhism, the focus is on the self – self-perfection and self-redemption – and no other can do the spiritual work which one needs to do to release one’s self from suffering. Although Buddha is sometimes seen as a deified being by Mahayana Buddhists, the tenets do not encourage one to call on him for help. Following Buddha’s own vision, a belief in a creator god who is attentive to one’s prayers is discouraged because it attaches one to a power outside of one’s self and sets one up for disappointment and frustration when prayers go unanswered.
This is not to say that no Mahayana Buddhists pray directly to the Buddha; the tradition of representing Buddha in statuary and art, of praying to these objects, and considering them holy – observed in Mahayana Buddhism – was initiated by the Mahasanghika school and is among the many compelling reasons to believe the younger school emerged from the older one.
Vajrayana Buddhism (“Diamond Vehicle”) is so-called because of its association of enlightenment with an unbreakable substance. Its name is also given as “Thunderbolt Vehicle”, especially in reference to Tantric or Zen Buddhism, in that enlightenment falls like a thunderbolt after one has put in the required effort at perfecting the self. It is often considered an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism – is even referenced as a sect of that school – but actually borrows tenets from both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism while adding an innovation of its own.
In both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, one decides to follow the path, accepts the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as legitimate, and commits to a spiritual discipline which will lead to enlightenment by renouncing unprofitable habits. In Vajrayana Buddhism, it is understood that one already has a Buddha nature – everyone does, just as Mahayana believes – but, in Vajrayana, one only has to realize this in order to fully awaken. An adherent, therefore, does not have to give up bad habits such as drinking alcohol or smoking right away in order to begin one’s work on the path; one only has to commit to following the path and the desire to engage in unhealthy and damaging behaviors will steadily lose their allure. Instead of distancing one’s self from desire, one steps toward and through it, shedding one’s attachment as one proceeds in the discipline.
As with Mahayana Buddhism, the Vajrayana school focuses one on becoming a Bodhisattva who will then guide others. It was systematized by the sage Atisha (l. 982-1054 CE) in Tibet and so is sometimes referred to as Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama, often referenced as the spiritual leader of all Buddhists, is technically only the spiritual head of the Vajrayana School, and his views are most directly in line with this school of thought.
There are many other Buddhist schools which have developed from these three all around the world. In the West, the most popular of these is Zen Buddhism which traveled from China to Japan and was most fully developed there before arriving in the West. As Zen Masters are fond of saying, “What you call Zen is not Zen; What you do not call Zen is not Zen” meaning that the state of being one wishes to attain cannot be defined; it can only be experienced. One arrives at this state through deep meditation and mental concentration on koans – usually translated as “riddles” – which have no answer, such as the famous “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” – in order to clear the mind, rid the self of attachment, and attain the state of samadhi, a state of psychological and spiritual vision similar to sunyata. Students of Zen Buddhism frequently study with a master who might slap them, shout, or suddenly hit them with a stout stick in order to awaken them from the illusion of who they think they are and what they think they are doing. These sudden attacks without warning are engaged in, like the koans, to snap an adherent out of rational, linear thinking into a higher state of awareness.
Pure Land Buddhism is another which developed from Mahayana Buddhism and its goal is rebirth in a “pure land” of a Buddha Realm which exists on a higher plane. The belief comes from a story in the text known as the Infinite Life Sutra in which the Buddha tells a story of a past buddha named Amitabha who became a Bodhisattva and to whom were revealed the Buddha Realms available to the enlightened. Amitabha’s efforts to save all sentient creatures from suffering resulted in the creation of the realm of Sukhavati, the greatest of all, in which one experiences complete bliss after leaving the body at death. Although Pure Land is its own school, some Mahayana Buddhists observe the same tenets.
An increasingly popular school in the West is Secular Buddhism which rejects all metaphysical aspects of the belief system to focus on self-improvement for its own sake. Secular Buddhism recognizes the Four Noble Truths and Eight-Fold Path but on purely practical and psychological levels. There are no saints, no Bodhisattvas, no Buddha Realms, no concept of reincarnation to be considered. One engages in the discipline as set down by the Buddha in order to become a better version of one’s self and, when one dies, one no longer exists. There is no concept of a reward after death; one’s efforts in being the best person one can be in life is considered its own reward.
It is actually impossible to tell which, if any, of these schools is closest to the original vision of the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama, himself, wrote nothing down but instead – like many great spiritual figures throughout history whose followers then founded a religion in their name – lived his beliefs and tried to help others in their struggles. Since the earliest Buddhist texts were written centuries after the Buddha lived, and in an era when the events of a famous person’s life were regularly embellished upon, it is unknown whether his so-called “biography” is accurate nor even the dates between which he is said to have lived.
However that may be, and whoever he was, the Buddha established a belief system which attracts over 500 million adherents in the present day and has, for centuries, offered people a path toward peace of mind and inspiration to help others. The Buddhist belief in the sanctity of all life – no matter which school one attaches one’s self to – promotes care for other human beings, animals, and the earth in an effort to end suffering and offer transformative possibilities. In this respect, each school works toward goals that Buddha himself would approve of and differences in how those goals are reached are ultimately irrelevant
Strictly speaking, this isn’t just one Buddha; it is 200 or so faces decorating the towers of the Bayon, a temple in Cambodia very near the famous Angkor Wat. The Bayon probably was constructed at the end of the 12th century.
Although the faces are often assumed to be of the Buddha, they may have been intended to represent Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Scholars believe they were all made in the likeness of King Jayavarman VII (1181-1219), the Khmer monarch who built the Angkor Thom temple complex that contains the Bayon temple and the many faces.
2. The Standing Buddha of Gandhara
This exquisite Buddha was found near modern-day Peshawar, Pakistan. In ancient times, much of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan was a Buddhist kingdom called Gandhara. Gandhara is remembered today for its art, particularly while being ruled by the Kushan Dynasty, from the 1st century BCE to the 3rd century CE. The first depictions of the Buddha in human form were made by the artists of Kushan Gandhara.
This Buddha was sculpted in the 2nd or 3rd century CE and today is in the Tokyo National Museum. The style of the sculpture is sometimes described as Greek, but the Tokyo National Museum insists it is Roman.
3. A Head of Buddha from Afghanistan
This head, believed to represent Shakyamuni Buddha, was excavated from an archaeological site in Hadda, Afghanistan, which is ten kilometers south of present-day Jalalabad. It probably was made in the 4th or 5th century CE, although the style is similar to the Graeco-Roman art of earlier times.
The head now is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Museum curators say the head is made of stucco and was once painted. It’s believed the original statue was attached to a wall and was part of a narrative panel.
4. The Fasting Buddha of Pakistan
The “Fasting Buddha” is another masterpiece from ancient Gandhara that was excavated in Sikri, Pakistan, in the 19th century. It probably dates to the 2nd century CE. The sculpture was donated to the Lahore Museum of Pakistan in 1894, where it is still displayed.
Strictly speaking, the statue should be called the “Fasting Bodhisattva” or the “Fasting Siddhartha,” since it portrays an event that took place before the Buddha’s enlightenment. On his spiritual quest, Siddhartha Gautama tried many aesthetic practices, including starving himself until he resembled a living skeleton. Eventually, he realized that mental cultivation and insight, not bodily deprivation, would lead to enlightenment.
5. The Tree Root Buddha of Ayuthaya
This quirky Buddha appears to be growing from tree roots. This stone head is near a 14th-century temple called Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya, which was once the capital of Siam, and is now in Thailand. In 1767 a Burmese army attacked Ayutthaya and reduced much of it to ruins, including the temple. Burmese soldier vandalized the temple by cutting off the heads of the Buddhas.
The temple was abandoned until the 1950s when the government of Thailandbegan to restore it. This head was discovered outside the temple grounds, tree roots growing around it.
Another View of the Tree Root Buddha
The tree root Buddha sometimes called the Ayuthaya Buddha, is a popular subject of Thai postcards and travel guidebooks. It is such a popular tourist attraction it must be watched by a guard, to prevent visitors from touching it.
6. The Longmen Grottoes Vairocana
The Longmen Grottoes of Henan Province, China, are a formation of limestone rock carved into tens of thousands of statues over a period of many centuries, beginning about 493 CE. The large (17.14 meters) Vairocana Buddha that dominates the Fengxian Cave was carved in the 7th century. It is regarded to this day as one of the most beautiful representations of Chinese Buddhist art. To get an idea of the size of the figures, find the man in the blue jacket beneath them.
Face of the Longmen Grottoes Vairocana Buddha
Here is a closer look at the face of the Longmen Grottoes Vairocana Buddha. This section of the grottoes was carved during the life of the Empress Wu Zetian (625-705 CE). An inscription at the base of the Vairocana honors the Empress, and it is said that the face of the Empress served as the model for the face of Vairocana.
7. The Giant Leshan Buddha
He’s not the most beautiful Buddha, but the giant Maitreya Buddha of Leshan, China, does make an impression. He’s held the record for world’s largest seated stone Buddha for more than 13 centuries. He is 233 feet (about 71 meters) tall. His shoulders are about 92 feet (28 meters) wide. His fingers are 11 feet (3 meters) long.
The giant Buddha sits at the confluence of three rivers — the Dadu, Qingyi, and Minjiang. According to legend, a monk named Hai Tong decided to erect a Buddha to placate water spirits that were causing boat accidents. Hai Tong begged for 20 years to raise the money to carve the Buddha. Work began in 713 CE and was completed in 803 CE.
8. The Seated Buddha of Gal Vihara
Gal Vihara is a rock temple in north-central Sri Lanka that was built in the 12th century. Although it has fallen into ruin, Gal Vihara today is a popular destination for tourists and pilgrims. The dominant feature is a giant granite block, from which four images of the Buddha were carved. Archaeologists say the four figures were originally covered in gold. The seated Buddha in the photograph is over 15 feet tall.
9. The Kamakura Daibutsu, or Great Buddha of Kamakura
He isn’t the biggest Buddha in Japan or the oldest, but the Daibutsu — Great Buddha — of Kamakura has long been the most iconic Buddha in Japan. Japanese artists and poets have celebrated this Buddha for centuries; Rudyard Kipling also made the Kamakura Daibutsu the subject of a poem, and the American artist John La Farge painted a popular watercolor of the Daibutsu in 1887 that introduced him to the West.
The bronze statue, believed to have been made in 1252, depicts Amitabha Buddha, called Amida Butsu in Japan.
10. The Tian Tan Buddha
The tenth Buddha in our list is the only modern one. The Tian Tan Buddha of Hong Kong was completed in 1993. But he’s quickly turning into one of the most photographed Buddhas in the world. The Tian Tan Buddha is 110 feet (34 meters) tall and weighs 250 metric tons (280 short tons). It is located at Ngong Ping, Lantau Island, in Hong Kong. The statue is called the “Tian Tan” because its base is a replica of Tian Tan, the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
The Tian Tan Buddha’s right hand is raised to remove affliction. His left hand rests on his knee, representing happiness. It is said that on a clear day the Tian Tan Buddha can be seen as far away as Macau, which is 40 miles west of Hong Kong.
He’s no rival in size to the stone Leshan Buddha, but the Tian Tan Buddha is the largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha in the world. The massive statue took ten years to cast.
O’Brien, Barbara. “Ten Famous Buddhas: Where They Came From; What They Represent.” Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/famous-buddhas-where-they-came-from-what-they-represent-449986.
We do not know how many monks and nuns were ordained by the Buddha during his lifetime. The early accounts sometimes describe monks and nuns by the thousands, but that is possibly exaggerated.
Of these unknown numbers some outstanding individuals emerge. These are individuals who contributed to the development of Buddhism and whose names one finds in the sutras. Through their life stories we can get at least a glimpse of the first generation of men and women who chose to follow the Buddha and practice his teaching.
Ananda was the historical Buddha‘s cousin and also his attendant during the latter part of his life. Ananda is also remembered as the disciple who recited the Buddha’s sermons from memory at the First Buddhist Council, after the Buddha had died.
According to a possibly apocryphal story in the Pali Tipitika, Ananda persuaded a reluctant Buddha to accept women as his disciples.
Anathapindika was a wealthy lay disciple and benefactor of the Buddha. His generosity to the poor earned him his name, which means “feeder of the orphans or helpless.”
The Buddha and his disciples traveled for most of the year, but they stayed indoors in seclusion during the summer monsoon season. With the Buddha’s permission, Anathapindika purchased a property that would be called the Jeta Grove. He then built a meeting hall, dining hall, sleeping cells, wells, lotus ponds, and whatever else the monks might need during their solitary rains retreats. This was the first Buddhist monastery.
Today, readers of the sutras may notice that the Buddha delivered many of his discourses “in the Jeta Grove, in Anathapindika’s Monastery.”null
Devadatta was a kinsman of the Buddha who became a disciple. According to some traditions, Devadatta became consumed with jealousy of the Buddha. After receiving a particularly harsh rebuke from the Buddha, Devadatta plotted to have the Buddha assassinated.
When his plots failed, he split the sangha by persuading many younger monks to follow him instead of the Buddha. The monks Sariputra and Maudgalyayana were able to persuade the wayward monks to return.null
Some of the early sutras of Buddhism are about enlightened women who teach men. In Dhammadinna’s story, the man was the enlightened woman’s ex-husband. The Buddha praised Dhammadinna as “a woman of discerning wisdom.
Queen Khema was a great beauty who became a nun and one of the chief women disciples of the Buddha. In the Khema Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya 44), this enlightened nun gives a dharma lesson to a king.
After the historical Buddha died, Mahakasyapa assumed a leadership position among the Buddha’s surviving monks and nuns. He convened and presided over the First Buddhist Council. For this reason, he is called the “father of the sangha.” He is also a patriarch of Chan (Zen).
Maudgalyayana was a lifelong friend of Sariputra; the two entered the order together. The Buddha’s instructions to Maudgalyayana as he struggled with his early practice have been valued by the many generations.
Pajapati is credited with being the first Buddhist nun. She is often called Mahapajapati.
Pajapati was the Buddha’s aunt who raised the young Prince Siddhartha as her own child after the death of his mother, Queen Maya. After the Buddha’s enlightenment she and many of her court ladies shaved their heads, dressed in patched mendicants’ robes, and walked many miles barefoot to find the Buddha and ask to be ordained. In a section of the Pali Tipitika that remains controversial, the Buddha refused the request until persuaded to change his mind by Ananda.
Patacara was a nun who overcame unimaginable grief to realize enlightenment and become a leading disciple. Some of her poems are preserved in a section of the Sutta-pitaka called the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, in the Khuddaka Nikaya.
Punnika was a slave who, by chance, heard a sermon of the Buddha. In a famous story recorded in the Pali Sutta-pitaka, she inspired a Brahmin to seek out the Buddha. In time she became a nun and realized enlightenment.
Rahula was the historical Buddha’s only child, born shortly before the Buddha left his life as a prince to seek enlightenment. It is said Rahula was ordained a monk while still a child and realized enlightenment at the age of 18.
It was said Sariputra was second only to the Buddha in his ability to teach. He is credited with mastering and codifying the Buddha’s Abhidharma teachings, which became the third “basket” of the Tripitika.
Upali was a low-caste barber who met the Buddha when he was called upon to cut the Buddha’s hair. He came to the Buddha to ask to be ordained with a group of the Buddha’s high-born kinsmen. The Buddha insisted on ordaining Upali first so that he would be their senior, and superior, in the order.
Upali became known for his faithful devotion to the Precepts and his understanding of the rules of the monastic order. He was called upon to recite the rules from memory at the First Buddhist Council, and this recitation became the basis of the Vinaya.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Historical Buddha’s Disciples.” Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/first-generation-of-buddhas-disciples-449657.
Tathagatagarbha, or Tathagata-garbha, means “womb” (garbha) of Buddha (Tathagata). This refers to a Mahayana Buddhist doctrine that Buddha Nature is within all beings. Because this is so, all beings may realize enlightenment. Tathagatagarbha often is described as a seed, embryo or potentiality within each individual to be developed.
Tathagatagarbha was never a separate philosophical school, but more of a proposal and the doctrine is understood in various ways. And it sometimes has been controversial. Critics of this doctrine say that it amounts to a self or atmanby another name, and the teaching of atman is something the Buddha specifically denied.
Origins of Tathagatagarbha
The doctrine was taken from a number of Mahayana sutras. The Mahayana Tathagatagarbha sutras include the Tathagatagarbha and Srimaladevi Simhanada sutras, both thought to have been written in the 3rd century CE, and several others. The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, probably also written about the 3rd century, is considered the most influential.null
The proposal developed in these sutras appears primarily to have been a response to Madhyamika philosophy, which says that phenomena are empty of self-essence and have no independent existence. Phenomena appear distinctive to us only as they relate to other phenomena, in function and position. Thus, it cannot be said that phenomena either exist or don’t exist.
Tathagatagarbha proposed that Buddha Nature is a permanent essence in all things. This was sometimes described as a seed and at other times pictured as a fully formed Buddha in each of us.
Somewhat later some other scholars, possibly in China, connected Tathagatagarbha to the Yogacara teaching of Alaya vijnana, which is sometimes called “storehouse consciousness.” This is a level of awareness that contains all the impressions of previous experiences, which become the seeds of karma.null
The combination of Tathagatagarbha and Yogacara would become especially important in Tibetan Buddhism as well as in Zen and other Mahayana traditions. The association of Buddha Nature
with a level of vijnana is significant because vijnana is a kind of pure, direct awareness not marked by thoughts or concepts. This caused Zen and other traditions to emphasize the practice of direct contemplation or awareness of mind above intellectual understanding.
Is Tathagatagarbha a Self?
In the religions of the Buddha’s day that were the forerunners of today’s Hinduism, one of the central beliefs as (and is) the doctrine of atman. Atman means “breath” or “spirit,” and it refers to a soul or individual essence of self. Another is the teaching of Brahman, which is understood as something like the absolute reality or the ground of being. In the several traditions of Hinduism, the precise relationship of atman to Brahman varies, but they could be understood as the small, individual self and the big, universal self.
However, the Buddha specifically rejected this teaching. The doctrine of anatman, which he articulated many times, is a direct refutation of atman.
Through the centuries many have accused the Tathagatagarbha doctrine of being an attempt to sneak an atman back into Buddhism by another name. In this case, the potentiality or Buddha-seed within each being is compared to atman, and Buddha Nature — which is sometimes identified with the dharmakaya — is compared to Brahman.
You can find many Buddhist teachers speaking of a small mind and a big mind, or small self and big self. What they mean may not be exactly like the atman and Brahman of Vedanta, but it’s common for people to understand them that way. Understanding Tathagatagarbha this way, however, would violate basic Buddhist teaching.
Today, in some Buddhist traditions influence by Tathagatagarbha doctrine, Buddha Nature often is still described as a kind of seed or potentiality within each of us. Others, however, teach that Buddha Nature is simply what we are; the essential nature of all beings.
The teachings of small self and big self are sometimes used today in a kind of provisional way, but ultimately this duality must be fused. This is done in several ways. For example, the Zen koan Mu, or Chao-chou’s Dog, is (among other things) intended to smash through the concept that Buddha Nature is something that one has.
And it’s very possible today, depending on the school, to be a Mahayana Buddhist practitioner for many years and never hear the word Tathagatagarbha. But because it was a popular idea at a critical time during the development of Mahayana, its influence lingers.
Tathagata-garbha, O’Brien, Barbara. “Tathagata-garbha.” Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/tathagatagarbha-womb-of-buddha-450013.
Buddha Nature is a term used often in Mahayana Buddhism that is not easy to define. To add to the confusion, understanding of what it is varies from school to school.null
Basically, Buddha Nature is the fundamental nature of all beings. Part of this fundamental nature is the tenet that all beings may realize enlightenment. Beyond this basic definition, one can find all manner of commentaries and theories and doctrines about Buddha Nature that may be more difficult to understand. This is because Buddha Nature is not part of our conventional, conceptual understanding of things, and language does not function well to explain it.null
This article is a beginner’s introduction to Buddha Nature
Origin of the Buddha Nature Doctrine
The origin of the Buddha Nature doctrine can be traced to something the historical Buddha said, as recorded in the Pali Tipitika (Pabhassara Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya 1.49-52):
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn’t discern that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that – for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person – there is no development of the mind.
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that – for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones – there is development of the mind.” [ Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation]
This passage gave rise to many theories and interpretations within early Buddhism. Monastics and scholars also struggled with questions about anatta, no self, and how a no-self could be reborn, affected by karma, or become a Buddha. The luminous mind that is present whether one is aware of it or not offered an answer.null
Theravada Buddhism did not develop a doctrine of Buddha Nature. However, other early schools of Buddhism began to describe the luminous mind as a subtle, basic consciousness present in all sentient beings, or as a potentiality for enlightenment that pervades everywhere.
Buddha Nature in China and Tibet
In the 5th century, a text called the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra – or the Nirvana Sutra – was translated from Sanskrit into Chinese. The Nirvana Sutra is one of three Mahayana sutras that make up a collection called the Tathagatagarbha (“womb of the Buddhas”) sutras. Today some scholars believe these texts were developed from earlier Mahasanghika texts. Mahasanghika was an early sect of Buddhism that emerged in the 4th century BCE and which was an important forerunner of Mahayana.https://7f07498aa52e8908810c7a61f3a1afe1.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
The Tathagatagarbha sutras are credited with presenting the fully developed doctrine of Buddha Dhatu, or Buddha Nature.The Nirvana Sutra, in particular, was enormously influential in the development of Buddhism in China. Buddha Nature remains an essential teaching in the several schools of Mahayana Buddhism that emerged in China, such as T’ien T’ai and Chan (Zen).
At least some of the Tathagatagarbha sutras also were translated into Tibetan, probably late in the 8th century. Buddha Nature is an important teaching in
Tibetan Buddhism, although the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism do not entirely agree on what it is. For example, the Sakya and Nyingma schools emphasize that Buddha Nature is the essential nature of the mind, while Gelugpa treats it more as a potentiality within the mind.
Note that “Tathagatagarbha” sometimes appears in texts as a synonym for Buddha Nature, although it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing.
Is Buddha Nature a Self?
Sometimes Buddha Nature is described as a “true self” or “original self.” And sometimes it is said that everyone has Buddha Nature. This is not wrong. But sometimes people hear this and imagine that Buddha Nature is something like a soul, or some attribute that we possess, like intelligence or a bad temper. This is not a correct view.
Smashing the “me and my Buddha nature” dichotomy appears to be the point of a famous dialogue between the Chan master Chao-chou Ts’ung-shen (778-897) and a monk, who inquired if a dog has Buddha nature. Chao-chou’s answer – Mu (no, or does not have) has been contemplated as a koan by generations of Zen students.
Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) “made a paradigm shift when he translated a phrase rendered in the Chinese version of the Nirvana Sutra from ‘All sentient beings have Buddha nature’ to ‘All existents are Buddha nature,'” wrote Buddhist scholar Paula Arai in Bringing Zen Home, the Healing Heart of Japanese Women’s Rituals. “Moreover, by removing an explicit verb the whole phrase becomes an activity. The implications of this grammatical shift continue to reverberate. Some could interpret this move as the logical conclusion of a nondualistic philosophy.”
Very simply, Dogen’s point is that Buddha Nature is not something we have, it is what we are. And this something that we are is an activity or process that involves all beings. Dogen also emphasized that practice is not something that will give us enlightenment but instead is the activity of our already enlightened nature, or Buddha Nature.
Let’s go back to the original idea of a luminous mind that is always present, whether we are aware of it or not. The Tibetan teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche described Buddha Nature this way:
“… our fundamental nature of mind is a luminous expanse of awareness that is beyond all conceptual fabrication and completely free from the movement of thoughts. It is the union of emptiness and clarity, of space and radiant awareness that is endowed with supreme and immeasurable qualities. From this basic nature of emptiness everything is expressed; from this everything arises and manifests.”
Another way of putting this is to say that Buddha Nature is “something” that you are, together with all beings. And this “something” is already enlightened. Because beings cling to a false idea of a finite self, set apart from everything else, they do not experience themselves as Buddhas. But when beings clarify the nature of their existence they experience the Buddha Nature that was always there.
If this explanation is difficult to understand at first, do not be discouraged. It is better to not try to “figure it out.” Instead, keep open, and let it clarify itself.
O’Brien, Barbara. “Buddha Nature.” Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, learnreligions.com/buddha-nature-doctrine-450001.
CONVENIENT WORSHIP FROM THE COMFORT OF YOUR OWN HOME
Have you ever been to a temple in Japan and thought, “I wish I had some of this amazingness in my house?” Then the Japanese butsudan 仏壇 is for you.
A butsudan is a small, household Buddhist shrine. Its exterior often resembles a simple cabinet, with two outward opening doors. Of course, they can also exhibit more elaborate and elegant, designs.
The inside is what makes the butsudan so special. It houses a religious icon, namely a Buddhist statue or image. The name-tablets of one’s ancestors are harmoniously positioned alongside it. A plethora of religious items called butsugu are also arranged inside.
The butsudan is actually unique to Japan. No other Buddhist countries partake in this practice (except some Mongolians). Because there are so many temples in other Asian countries, people don’t need to make altars in their homes.
Wait a minute. There are a lot temples in Japan too! Why do Japanese people need an altar in their own homes? When did this custom start? Let’s uncover the mystery of the Japanese butsudan.
WHAT IS A BUTSUDAN?
The butsudan actually has its origins in ancient India. Practitioners of early Buddhism made a platforms of mud and venerated gods there. It wasn’t long before roofs were added to shelter the platforms from rain and wind. It’s said that this is the origin of temples.
Buddhism eventually made its way to Japan via China, where it took off.
On March 27, 685, the Japanese Emperor Tenmu issued an edict. It stated that each family in every country (pretty presumptious of him, eh?) must make a Buddhist altar that holds a statue of Buddha and the Buddhist scriptures and conduct prayer and memorial services in front of it.
The 27th day of each month was designated as “Butsudan Day” by the Zen-Nihon-Shuukyou-Yougu-Kyoudoukumiai (全日本宗教用具協同組合), which literally means “Japan’s Religious Utensil Dealer Cooperative.”
And that’s where butsudan came from. Right?
The current butsudan is not directly descended from the above-mentioned imperial edict. So how did the current butsudan come to be? There are actually two theories.
#1: THE NOBILITY’S PRIVATE BUDDHA STATUE HALL
Some of the nobility had their own jubitsudou 持仏堂. This a private place where a Buddha statue and ancestor tablets were kept. During the Nara period, the arrangement of items was set up in a small building outside of the house. However, it only began to be placed inside the house during the Heian period.
For example, Fujiwara-no-Yorimichi (藤原頼通, 992 – 1074) had Byoudouin-Hououdou (平等院鳳凰堂, Phoenix Hall of Byodoin temple). Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (足利義満, 1368-1394) had Rokuonji (鹿苑寺 Kinkakuji temple). These massive complexes acted as their own personal jibutsudou.
According to famed historian Takeda Choshu (竹田聴洲, 1916 – 1980), the above mentioned jibutsudou was eventually made into the smaller butsuma 仏間, which means “a room for Buddha.” It was further reduced into what we now know to be a butsudan, so that it could be put indoors.
#2: SOUL SHELF
Tamadana 魂棚 literally means a soul shelf. In practice, it is an altar to greet spirits of ancestors and the recently deceased during Obon. While its shape varies by region and period, one example is a board affixed to four upright corner pillars made of bamboo or wood. With this image in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that people often used tea tables instead.
The father of native Japanese folklorists, Yanagida Kunio (柳田國男, 1875 – 1962), claims that the tamadana birthed the modern bustudan. It transitioned from its temporary Bon festival usage to a place of permanent installation and eventually became the butsudan.
Although there are two theories, the first theory is regarded as the more likely of the two.
THE SPREAD OF BUTSUDAN
In the Muromachi period (1336 – 1537), the eighth head of Hongan-ji temple was named Rennyo 蓮如. He restored the Jodo Shinshu sect and gave his followers scrolls with the script namuamidabutsu 南無阿弥陀仏, which is an homage to the Buddha of infinite light and life. He encouraged them to enshrine the scrolls in their own butsudan.
When they made their own butsudan, they imitated what was found in the head temple of their respective sect and made it out of gold. This paved the way for the current kin-butsudan, which literally means golden butsudan.
The Jodo Shinshu sect set many standard rules regarding the butsudan. Even now, the sect says the principal image of a butsudan should be a hanging scroll acquired from the head temple of a family’s ancestral temple.
Eventually, butsudan spread outside the Jodo Shinshu sect as family mortuary tablets became common.
In the Edo period, the Shogunate created a system called terauke-seido (寺請制度 ) in which a Buddhist temples certified people as members of their temple. This new system forced individuals to choose a specific temple for their family and support it. To demonstrate membership to the temple, each family had to install a household butsudan for morning and evening worship. Additionally, they were asked to invite a family temple priest to hold memorial services to commemorate the anniversaries of their ancestors’ deaths.
This custom became widespread among commoners and the butsudan became an integral part of Japanese family life.
WHAT GOES IN A BUTSUDAN
The arrangement and types of items in and around the butsudan vary depending on sect and the size of butsudan.
A butsudan usually has doors with an embellishment of a temple gate and three stairs. The highest stair is called shumidan 須弥壇 and is reserved for the most important butsudan item, specifically a Buddha statue. The area above shumidan is called kyuuden 宮殿 and is considered the holy place. It is the area within the butsudan that must be occupied by the Buddha statue, which tipically rests on the shumidan. Alternatively there could be an image of Buddha placed on the back wall of the butsudan, occupying the holy place.
An accompanying statue or image of Buddha is placed on one side of the butsudan and the founder of the respective sect is placed on the other side. There is a vast array of items (butsugu) that could be placed in the butsudan. But it would take up a lot of space in this article, so I’ll skip those today
WHAT DOESN’T GO IN A BUTSUDAN
While there are many things inside a butsudan, there are also some things that don’t belong.
“Officially,” photographs should not be placed inside. Neither should certificates, trophies, or lottery tickets because a butsudan is not a place to expect benefits. Despite this, many people put these things in their butsudan. In fact, my family in Japan places stuff like this in their butsudan all the time.
I once asked my mom why we place things like that in our butsudan, and she said it was to let our ancestors know how we are doing. Although I’m not sure if my ancestors can actually see that stuff, I guess it can’t be completely wrong since the butsudan is used to pray to your ancestors anyway.
HOW MUCH DOES A BUTSUDAN COST?
According to research conducted by いい仏壇.com in June, 2011, most people pay between 100,000 to 500,000 yen for their butsudan (about US $1,000 – $5,000). While not the majority, a staggering 20% people paid over 500,000 yen for theirs. Even more impressive is that 1.2% of the people paid over 2,000,000 yen.
NICONICO DOUGA’S BUTSUDAN INCIDENT
Considering only one percent of people pay more than 2 million yen for a butsudan, 63 million yen seems completely ludicrous!
Someone on Niconico Douga, a Japanese video sharing website, bought a butsudan for 63,000,000 yen (about $630,000)!
This incident occurred on August 7, 2008. It went for a price never before seen. Before this, the product which made the most money on the Niconico Douga online market was Hatsune Miku vocaloid software which sold for 28,900,000 yen. Of course, this is an aggregated price of everyone who ever bought that product, so naturally it would be that high.
The butsudan not only broke the record and doubled that number, it did it with one sale. Everyone thought that the overpriced butsudan was a joke. More surprisingly, the exact same butsudan was sold again the next day for the same price! This, of course, became huge news.
Niconico market only counted it as a sale after the product was shipped. This was to make sure it wasn’t a fake order. Letting the time lapse on the site’s cancelation/shipping agreement makes this a possibility.
Once it was shipped, the sale of those two butsudans was finalized.
On August 11, one more was sold, as well as a 62,000,000 yen butsudan. On August 15, another one was sold. The world never ceases to amaze.
However, on August 18, the butsudan shop which originally posted the butsudan in question, announced they filed a police report about fake orders. They wanted to identify the criminal and demand compensation. The following day, two more 63,000,000 yen butsudan were sold. The butsudan posting was deleted on August, 24th. It seems likely that they could have all been fake orders, but nobody knows if every single one was. It’s possible that some of them were jokes and others, likely fewer, were real. At any rate, even if one was real, buying such an expensive item online is pretty ridiculous.
BEST PLACE TO BUY BUTSUDAN?
No matter the price of the butsudan, buying one online is pretty crazy. We’re talking artisan craftsmanship here. These things are gorgeous and ornate. Not something you really want shipped in a box.
There are lots of places to buy butsudan in Japan. But probably the most unique is in Kanagawa. You can buy butsudan in a drive-thru. No, マクド didn’t start selling butsudan. This is a real place where you can shop for butsudan from your car.
I went there to explore this unique butsudanery (not a real word, but it sounds nice). Check out the travel post later this week. Until then…
The Nyingma school, also called Nyingmapa, is the oldest of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. It was established in Tibet during the reign of the Emperor Trisong Detsen (742-797 CE), who brought the tantric masters Shantarakshita and Padmasambhava to Tibet to teach and to found the first Buddhist monastery in Tibet.
Buddhism had been introduced to Tibet in 641 CE, when the Chinese Princess Wen Cheng became the bride of the Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo. The princess brought with her a statue of the Buddha, the first in Tibet, which today is enshrined in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. But the people of Tibet resisted Buddhism and preferred their indigenous religion, Bon.
According to Tibetan Buddhist mythology, that changed when Padmasambhava called forth the indigenous gods of Tibet and converted them to Buddhism. The fearsome gods agreed to become dharmapalas, or dharma protectors. From then on, Buddhism has been the principal religion of the Tibetan people.
The construction of Samye Gompa, or Samye Monastery, probably was completed about 779 CE. Here Tibetan Nyingmapa was established, although Nyingmapa also traces its origins to earlier masters in India and in Uddiyana, now the Swat Valley of Pakistan.
Padmasambhava is said to have had twenty-five disciples, and from them a vast and complex system of transmission lineages developed.
Nyingmapa was the only school of Tibetan Buddhism that never aspired to political power in Tibet. Indeed, it was uniquely disorganized, with no head overseeing the school until modern times.
Over time, six “mother” monasteries were built in Tibet and dedicated to Nyingmapa practice. These were Kathok Monastery, Thupten Dorje Drak Monastery, Ugyen Mindrolling Monastery, Palyul Namgyal Jangchup Ling Monastery, Dzogchen Ugyen Samten Chooling Monastery, and Zhechen Tenyi Dhargye Ling Monastery. From these, many satellite monasteries were built in Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal.
Nyingmapa classifies all Buddhist teachings into nine yanas, or vehicles. Dzogchen, or “great perfection,” is the highest yana and the central teaching of the Nyingma school.
According to Dzogchen teaching, the essence of all beings is a pure awareness. This purity (ka dog) correlates to the Mahayana doctrine of sunyata. Ka dog combined with natural formation—lhun sgrub, which corresponds to dependent origination—brings about rigpa, awakened awareness. The path of Dzogchen cultivates rigpa through meditation so that rigpa flows through our actions in everyday life.
Dzogchen is an esoteric path, and authentic practice must be learned from a Dzogchen master. It is a Vajrayana tradition, meaning that it combines use of symbols, ritual, and tantric practices to enable the flow of rigpa.
Dzogchen is not exclusive to Nyingmapa. There is a living Bon tradition that incorporates Dzogchen and claims it as its own. Dzogchen is sometimes practiced by followers of other Tibetan schools. The Fifth Dalai Lama, of the Gelug school, is known to have been devoted to Dzogchen practice, for example.
Nyingma Scriptures: Sutra, Tantra, Terma
In addition to the sutras and other teachings common to all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Nyingmapa follows a collection of tantras called the Nyingma Gyubum. In this usage, tantra refers to teachings and writings devoted to Vajrayana practice.
Nyingmapa also has a collection of revealed teachings called terma. Authorship of the terma is attributed to Padmasambhava and his consort Yeshe Tsogyal. The terma were hidden as they were written because people were not yet ready to receive their teachings. They are discovered at the appropriate time by realized masters called tertons, or treasure revealers.
Many of the terma discovered so far have been collected in a multi-volume work called the Rinchen Terdzo. The most widely known terma is the Bardo Thodol, commonly called the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.”
Unique Lineage Traditions
One unique aspect of Nyingmapa is the “white sangha,” ordained masters and practitioners who are not celibate. Those who live a more traditionally monastic, and celibate, life are said to be in the “red sangha.”
One Nyingmapa tradition, the Mindrolling lineage, has supported a tradition of women masters, called the Jetsunma lineage. The Jetsunmas have been daughters of Mindrolling Trichens, or heads of the Mindrolling lineage, beginning with Jetsun Mingyur Paldrön (1699-1769). The current Jetsunma is Her Eminence Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche.
Nyingmapa in Exile
The Chinese invasion of Tibet and the 1959 uprising caused the heads of the major Nyingmapa lineages to leave Tibet. Monastic traditions re-established in India include Thekchok Namdrol Shedrub Dargye Ling, in Bylakuppe, Karnataka State; Ngedon Gatsal Ling, in Clementown, Dehradun; Palyul Chokhor Ling, E-Vam Gyurmed Ling, Nechung Drayang Ling, and Thubten E-vam Dorjey Drag in Himachal Pradesh.
Although the Nyingma school had never had a head, in exile a series of high lama have been appointed to the position for administration purposes. The most recent was Kyabjé Trulshik Rinpoche, who died in 2011.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Nyingmapa School.” Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/nyingma-school-450169.
People often think of the current Dalai Lama who travels the world as the highly visible spokesman for Buddhism as THE Dalai Lama, but in reality, he is the only most recent in a long line of leaders of the Gelug branch of Tibetan Buddhism. He is considered to be a tulku–a reincarnation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. In Tibetan, Avalokitesvara is known as Chenrezig.
In 1578 the Mongol ruler Altan Khan gave the title Dalai Lama to Sonyam Gyatso, third in a line of reborn lamas of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The title means “ocean of wisdom” and was given posthumously to Sonyam Gyatso’s two predecessors.
In 1642, the 5th Dalai Lama, Lobsang Gyatso, became the spiritual and political leader of all of Tibet, an authority passed on to his successors. Since that time the succession of Dalai Lamas has been at the center of both Tibetan Buddhismand the history of the Tibetan people.
01: Gedun Drupa, the 1st Dalai Lama
Gendun Drupa was born to a nomadic family in 1391 and died in 1474. His original name was Pema Dorjee.
He took novice monk’s vows in 1405 at Narthang monastery and received full monk’s ordination in 1411. In 1416, he became a disciple of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelugpa School, and eventually became Tsongkhapa’s principle disciple. Gendun Drupa is remembered as a great scholar who wrote a number of books and who founded a major monastic university, Tashi Lhunpo.
Gendun Drupa was not called “Dalai Lama” during his lifetime, because the title did not yet exist. He was identified as the first Dalai Lama several years after his death.
02: Gendun Gyatso, the 2nd Dalai Lama
Gendun Gyatso was born in 1475 and died in 1542. His father, a well-known tantric practitioner of the Nyingma school, named him Sangye Phel and gave the boy a Buddhist education.
When he was 11 years old, he was recognized as an incarnation of Gedun Drupa and enthroned at Tashi Lhunpo monastery. He received the name Gendun Gyatso at his monk’s ordination. Like Gedun Drupa, Gendun Gyatso would not receive the title Dalai Lama until after his death.
Gedun Gyatso served as abbot of Drepung and Sera monasteries. He is also remembered for reviving the great prayer festival, the Monlam Chenmo.
03: Sonam Gyatso, the 3rd Dalai Lama
Sonam Gyatso was born in 1543 to a wealthy family living near Lhasa. He died in 1588. His given name was Ranu Sicho. At the age of 3 he was recognized to be the reincarnation of Gendun Gyatso and was then taken to Drepung Monastery for training. He received novice ordination at the age of 7 and full ordination at 22.
Sonam Gyatso received the title Dalai Lama, meaning “ocean of wisdom,” from the Mongolian king Altan Khan. He was the first Dalai Lama to be called by that title in his lifetime.
Sonam Gyatso served as abbot of Drepung and Sera monsteries, and he founded Namgyal and Kumbum monasteries. He died while teaching in Mongolia.
04: Yonten Gyatso, the 4th Dalai Lama
Yonten Gyatso was born in 1589 in Mongolia. His father was a Mongol tribal chief and a grandson of Altan Khan. He died in 1617.
Although Yonten Gyatso was recognized to be the reborn Dalai Lama as a small child, his parents did not allow him to leave Mongolia until he was 12. He received his early Buddhist education from lamas visiting from Tibet.
Yonten Gyatso finally came to Tibet in 1601 and soon after took novice monk’s ordination. He received full ordination at the age of 26 and was abbot of Drepung and Sera monasteries. He died at Drepung monastery only a year later.
Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso was born in 1617 to a noble family. His given name was Künga Nyingpo. He died in 1682.
Military victories by the Mongol Prince Gushi Kahn gave control of Tibet to the Dalai Lama. When Lobsang Gyatso was enthroned in 1642, he became the spiritual and political leader of Tibet. He is remembered in Tibetan history as the Great Fifth.
The Great Fifth established Lhasa as the capital of Tibet and began construction of Potala Palace. He appointed a regent, or desi, to handle the administrative duties of governing. Before his death, he advised the Desi Sangya Gyatso to keep his death a secret, possibly to prevent a power struggle before a new Dalai Lama was prepared to assume authority.
Tsangyang Gyatso was born in 1683 and died in 1706. His given name was Sanje Tenzin.
In 1688, the boy was brought to Nankartse, near Lhasa, and educated by teachers appointed by the Desi Sangya Gyatso. His identity as the Dalai Lama was kept secret until 1697 when the death of the 5th Dalai Lama finally was announced and Tsangyang Gyatso was enthroned.
The 6th Dalai Lama is most remembered for renouncing monastic life and spending time in taverns and with women. He also composed songs and poems.
In 1701, a descendant of Gushi Khan named Lhasang Khan killed Sangya Gyatso. Then, in 1706 Lhasang Khan abducted Tsangyang Gyatso and declared that another lama was the real 6th Dalai Lama. Tsangyang Gyatso died in Lhasang Khan’s custody.
The lama who had replaced Tsangyang Gyatso as Sixth Dalai Lama was still enthroned in Lhasa, so Kelzang Gyatso’s identification as 7th Dalai Lama was kept secret for a time.
A tribe of Mongol warriors called the Dzungars invaded Lhasa in 1717. The Dzungars killed Lhasang Kahn and deposed the pretender 6th Dalai Lama. However, the Dzungars were lawless and destructive, and the Tibetans appealed to the Emperor Kangxi of China to help rid Tibet of the Dzungars. Chinese and Tibetan forces together expelled the Dzungars in 1720. Then they brought Kelzang Gyatso to Lhasa to be enthroned.
Kelzang Gyatso abolished the position of desi (regent) and replaced it with a council of ministers.
08: Jamphel Gyatso, the 8th Dalai Lama
Jamphel Gyatso was born in 1758, enthroned at Potala Palace in 1762 and died in 1804 at the age of 47.
During his reign, a war broke out between Tibet and the Gurkhas occupying Nepal. The war was joined by China, which blamed the war on a feud among lamas. China then attempted to change the process for choosing the rebirths of lamas by imposing the “golden urn” ceremony on Tibet. More than two centuries later, the current government of China has re-introduced the golden urn ceremony as a means of controlling the leadership of Tibetan Buddhism.
Jamphel Gyatso was the first Dalai Lama to be represented by a regent while he was a minor. He completed the building of Norbulingka Park and Summer Palace. By all accounts a quiet man devoted to meditation and study, as an adult he preferred to let others run the government of Tibet.
09: Lungtok Gyatso, the 9th Dalai Lama
Lungtok Gyatso was born in 1805 and died in 1815 before his tenth birthday from complications from a common cold. He was the only Dalai Lama to die in childhood and the first of four that would die before the age of 22. His reincarnated successor would not be recognized for eight years.
10: Tsultrim Gyatso, the 10th Dalai Lama
Tsultrim Gyatso was born in 1816 and died in 1837 at the age of 21. Though he sought to change the economic system of Tibet, he died before being able to enact any of his reforms.
11: Khendrup Gyatso, the 11th Dalai Lama
Khendrup Gyatso was born in 1838 and died in 1856 at the age of 18. Born in the same village as the 7th Dalai Lama, he was recognized as the reincarnation in 1840 and assumed full power over the government in 1855–only a year before his death.
12: Trinley Gyatso, the 12th Dalai Lama
Trinley Gyatso was born in 1857 and died in 1875. He assumed full authority over the Tibetan government at the age of 18 but died before his 20th birthday.
Thubten Gyatso was born in 1876 and died in 1933. He is remembered as the Great Thirteenth.
Thubten Gyatso assumed leadership in Tibet in 1895. At that time Czarist Russia and the British Empire had been sparring for decades over control of Asia. In the 1890s the two empires turned their attention eastward, to Tibet. A British force invaded in 1903, leaving after extracting a short-lived treaty from the Tibetans.
Tenzin Gyatso was born in 1935 and recognized as the Dalai Lama at the age of three.
China invaded Tibet in 1950 when Tenzin Gyatso was only 15. For nine years he attempted to negotiate with the Chinese to save the Tibetan people from the dictatorship of Mao Zedong. However, the Tibetan Uprising of 1959 forced the Dalai Lama into exile, and he has never been allowed to return to Tibet.
The 14th Dalai Lama established a Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India. In some ways, his exile has been to the world’s benefit, since he has spent his life bringing a message of peace and compassion to the world
The 14th Dalai Lama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. In 2011 he absolved himself of political power, although he is still the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Future generations are likely to regard him in the same light as the Great Fifth and the Great Thirteenth for his contributions to spreading the message of Tibetan Buddhism to the world, thereby saving the tradition.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The 14 Dalai Lamas from 1391 to Present.” Learn Religions, Aug. 25, 2020, learnreligions.com/succession-of-dalai-lamas-450187.
The dharma wheel, or dharmachakra in Sanskrit, is one of the oldest symbols of Buddhism. Around the globe, it is used to represent Buddhism in the same way that a cross represents Christianity or a Star of David represents Judaism. It is also one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism. Similar symbols are found in Jainism and Hinduism, and it is likely the dharmachakra symbol in Buddhism evolved out of Hinduism.
A traditional dharma wheel is a chariot wheel with varying numbers of spokes. It can be in any color, although it is most often gold. At the center, there may be three shapes swirling together, a yin-yang symbol, a second wheel, or an empty circle.
What the Dharma Wheel Represents
A dharma wheel has three basic parts: the hub, the rim, and the spokes. Over the centuries, various teachers and traditions have proposed diverse meanings for these parts. Here are some common understandings of the wheel’s symbolism:
The circle, the round shape of the wheel, represents the perfection of thedharma, the Buddha’s teaching.
When a wheel has 24 spokes, the spokes represent the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination plus the reversing of the Twelves Links and liberation fromsamsara. A 24-spoke dharma wheel is also called anAshoka Chakra.
When a wheel has 31 spokes, the spokes represent the 31 realms of existence from ancient Buddhist cosmology.
The wheel often has spokes protruding beyond the wheel, which we might imagine are spikes, although usually, they don’t look very sharp. The spikes represent various penetrating insights.
The Ashoka Chakra
Among the oldest existing examples of a dharma wheel are found on the pillars erected by theAshoka the Great(304–232 B.C.E.), an emperor who ruled much of what is now India and beyond. Ashoka was a great patron of Buddhism and encouraged its spread, although he never forced it on his subjects.
Ashoka erected enormous stone pillars throughout his kingdom, many of which are still standing. The pillars contain edicts, some of which encouraged people to practice Buddhist morality and nonviolence. There is typically at least one lion on the top of each pillar, representing Ashoka’s rule. The pillars also are decorated with 24-spoke dharma wheels.
In 1947, the government of India adopted a new national flag, in the center of which is a navy blue Ashoka Chakra on a white background.
Other Symbols Related to the Dharma Wheel
Sometimes the dharma wheel is presented in a tableau, supported on a lotus flower pedestal with two deer, a buck, and a doe on either side. This recalls thefirst sermongiven by thehistorical Buddhaafter hisenlightenment. The sermon is said to have been given to five mendicants in Sarnath, a deer park in what is now Uttar Pradesh, India.
According to Buddhist legend, the park was home to a herd of ruru deer, and the deer gathered around to listen to the sermon. The deer depicted by the dharma wheel reminds us that the Buddha taught to save all beings, not just humans. In some versions of this story, the deer are emanations of bodhisattvas.
Typically, when the dharma wheel is represented with deer, the wheel must be twice the height of the deer. The deer are shown with legs folded under them, gazing serenely at the wheel with their noses lifted.
The first turning was the sermon in the deer park, after the Buddha’s enlightenment. Here, the Buddha explained the Four Noble Truths. The second turning was the introduction of the perfection of wisdom teachings on the nature of sunyata (emptiness). The third turning was the introduction of the doctrine of Buddha Nature.
O’Brien, Barbara. “The Dharma Wheel (Dharmachakra) Symbol in Buddhism.” Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, learnreligions.com/the-dharma-wheel-449956.