Buddhism is centered around the teachings of the Buddha, an Indian man named Siddhartha who achieved enlightenment around 2,500 years ago while sitting under a bodhi tree. The main goals of all Buddhist sects is to fight suffering, live simply and attain enlightenment. Over the centuries, the Buddha's teachings spread from the Indian peninsula to Asia and then throughout the world. Various sects or schools of Buddhism developed during this spread; however, all have similar paths toward the same goal.
Also known as The Great Vehicle, Mahayana Buddhism is one of the oldest Buddhist sects, having separated from Indian Buddhism in the first century A.D. The largest school of Buddhism, Mahayana differs from other Buddhist sects in that it advocates delaying total enlightenment in order to help others through charity and ending suffering. This is called being a bodhisattva, or one who actively tries to become a Buddha or act Buddha-like by helping others. Mahayana Buddhism, more than other sects, focuses on the religious community and working with others, rather than solely achieving personal enlightenment. The Great Vehicle also promotes worship of Buddhist leaders and bodhisattvas, making this branch of Buddhism similar to deity-based religions.
Sometimes disparagingly referred to at The Lesser Vehicle, Theravada Buddhism is predominant in Southeastern Asia in countries like Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. Generally viewed as the oldest form of Buddhism, Theravada is conservative, focusing on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The Four Noble Truths, briefly, are: there is suffering, there is a cause for it, there is a way to end it and there is a path to freedom from it. In addition to meditation, Theravada Buddhists practice seven steps to purification from ignorance and suffering. Unlike other sects of Buddhism, Theravada practitioners believe that those who have achieved enlightenment are perfect or infallible.
While technically a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism has its own approach and teachings. Founded in Tibet in the eighth century, Tibetan Buddhism focuses on symbolism, awareness of death and ritualistic practices. Teachers, or "lamas," hold great significance in Tibetan Buddhism, as they inform and educate lay people of Buddhist scripture and practices. While mostly influential in Tibet and surrounding areas, Tibetan Buddhism has worldwide visibility thanks to the respected writings and teachings of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet. Tibetan Buddhists are concerned with living correctly and the life-death cycle, in addition to enlightenment. Showing its close relationship to Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhists also believe in reincarnation.
When Buddhism moved across the Himalayas from India to China, it lost some of its old world traditions and developed into a sleek, stripped-down form of Buddhism called Zen, a word that comes from the Chinese word "Ch'an," or meditation. It then moved to Japan and developed its modern form. Zen focuses on the "perfection of personhood," according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Its practitioners' goal is to attain enlightenment by self-development through sitting meditation, or "zazen." Zen followers seek to break their minds' attachment to thinking and lead a simpler existence. This branch of Buddhism is also popular in Europe and America, with Zen masters moving West in the early twentieth century to teach this form of Buddhism.
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