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Solving Proble Theravada And Mahayana: An Analysis Of Its Spread And Development M The Labour Problem In Japan

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Joshua Hambali

Payal Ramji

LCA 100

Buddhism is divided into two major sects, Mahayana and Theravada. However these two traditions as Saram states, “do not differ with regards to doctrinal essence or basic teachings, but each has different interpretation of the salvation goal, the methods of adapting religion for the masses, and the concept of Buddhahood.” (Caldarola 335) Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddhism of the “Greater Vehicle”, represents the northern school of thought and was historically spread from India to Nepal, Tibet, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Theravada on the other hand, the Buddhism of “The Way of the Elders”, represents the southern school of thought that spread by the way of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Laos (Steinberg 37). Although they do not differ in their basic doctrine, there exists a belief by each respective sect that their interpretation of Buddhism is more legitimate than the other. This could be seen most significantly in how Mahayanists refer to Theravada Buddhism as Hinayana, the “Lesser Vehicle”. However how did one Buddhist sect become dominant in one region and not another?

This paper will posit upon Buddhism and its proliferation from India to China and Southeast Asia. More specifically, it will focus on how the attributes of Mahayana Buddhism in comparison to Theravada Buddhism, made it a favorite of East Asian nations. In doing so, it is inevitable that China, as a major source of influence, will be discussed in great lengths to explain the phenomenon in the immediate regions surrounding it.

The three most powerful attributes of Mahayana Buddhism that appealed to the people of China, in comparison to Theravada Buddhism, were its practicality and adaptability which were both enhanced by the political circumstance of the time. The first important part of Mahayana Buddhism that contributed to its popularity in China was its practicality. It was practical in the sense that Mahayana was a school of thought that was able to form direct connections with the lives of the ordinary people, who are ordinarily religious. In Mahayana Buddhism rituals such as paying for religious verses (sutras), could supplement prayer, releasing adherents of the religion from a strictly binding relationship. In addition, Mahayana traditionally prefers the figure of the bodhisattva, or Buddhas-to-be, enlightened men who passionately help others to reach nirvana before entering it themselves (Stearns 24). Thus, in the Mahayana context, ordinary people could still gain salvation albeit through the help of bodhisattvas. This is an element of the Mahayana doctrine that has a particular wide appeal. In the Chinese context, this attribute is especially important in Mahayana’s successful penetration into the zealous Confucius state. Monasticism was particularly un-Confucian, particularly un-Chinese. Ropp wrote “A monk was guilty of cutting family line, a sin against the ancestors and the height of social irresponsibility.” (Ropp 147) In spite of this, Mahayana Buddhism could turn this argument all around as by seeking salvation, one could reach the point of becoming a bodhisattva. Subsequently, bringing salvation to his or her family and friends, which to a great extent is the ultimate epitome of devotion that is decreed in Confucianism. This is a concept of selflessness that is seemingly lacking in Theravada Buddhism. Additionally, the prospect of having a broad pantheon of bodhisattvas is attractive and filled with festive life.” (Lyons and Peters 20)

Hence it has been proven how Mahayana as a religion was conveniently practical in the sense that it fitted right into the local constraints of the pre-existing society. As opposed to Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism believes that it is highly unlikely, to the verge of impossible that an ordinary person reach nirvana unless they live an ascetic lifestyle. (Skilton 66). Ultimately, the goal of the Theravadin is of personal salvation, to become an arhat, a sage who has achieved nirvana and will never be reborn. And as Stearns would like to describe it, “the Theravada path depends heavily upon individual efforts; monks and other religious figures could illustrate the way but had no obligation to save others” (Stearns 23). This is a concept that many ordinary men could have had perceived as being selfish, thus hindering it away from gaining popular acceptance. In the Chinese context, this attribute would have been seen as a total violation of their deeply rooted Confucianism code of conduct, which gave particular emphasize upon the maintenance of healthy relationships. Consequently it could be seen how Theravada Buddhism is absurdly impractical to the preexisting local Confucius Chinese culture.

The second most vital attribute of Mahayana Buddhism, that made its popularity on foreign soil possible, is its ability to adapt to pre-existing local customs and to the pre-existing moral code of the local people. This is especially evident in areas where India, as the source of Buddhism, has less established trade routes. In areas to the north and east of India, in the absence of merchants who acted as critical transmitters of the religion, greater cultural and religious tolerance was needed (Stearns 24). This is a pre-requisite that is far more likely to be fulfilled by Mahayana Buddhism rather then its counterpart. In China, adaptation was crucial, especially to the well established ideals of Confucianism. It is vital as Skilton clarifies, “unlike Southeast Asia, it was not to function as a vehicle for higher culture, since China had already acquired a high degree of literate civilizations.” (Skilton 165). When Buddhism first penetrated into China, it was a totalitarian state based upon a two-class society. At the bottom were the masses of the farmers who were illiterate and politically powerless and the top, were the scholar-officials who hoarded all the power and education. It was the task and privilege of the landed gentry to rule, and the task of the peasant population to be productive. (Zurcher 56) Thus it could be seen how the peasants would be found guilty of complete negligence if they were to adopt Theravada Buddhism in its entirety. A strong example being how Theravada monks are strictly instructed to beg for their food, while Mahayana monks do not (Steinberg 37). As Possehl would like to put it, “Confucian philosophy, extolled the value of the family and the continuity of descendants, and stressed the prqactical and economic usefulness of Chinese citizens.” ( Lyons and Peters 22) Thus it was close to impossible that Theravada Buddhism, as

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