Ok, people have heard me joking around and say that I was a "Catholic Buddhist" growing up. It's a phrase I say because it's funny, but there's a lot to it too. What follows is a boring introduction to the Buddhism I practiced as a youth, culminating in a monastery in Bangkok when I was about 13 years old. It's probably boring stuff so read only if you have absolutely nothing better to do.
Ok, first off, before I completely bore the crud out of you let me start with a paraphrasing of one of the teachings of the original dude that most people think of when they say Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, the Indian prince. According to the Lotus Sutras he said that there was only one "Path" to Nirvana, but many "yana" or vehicles.
Fast forward a few centuries (actually 2548 years by the Thai Calendar which starts at year 1 with Gautama's death). There are now MANY yanas. Depending on where you come from in Asia you either believe that there are between one, two, three, four, five, six, nine or twelve vehicles to enlightenment.
The single Yana folks, I jokingly call the Jewish Buddhists. They believe there is only one true vehicle, the Mahayana, and that's it. The nine yana folks are famous because of the Tibetan monks and includes the tantras in their belief system. There are some that are part of a newer 12 yana systems, but I think that's a PC thing that's trying to reincorporate all the various yanas back into one system. I call the 9/12 Yana folks the Unitarian Buddhists. Due to the coolness of the Dhalai Lama, 9 Yana Buddhism is very vogue.
The two yana folks believe in the Mahayana and the Hinayana. Ok, first the word "Hinayana" is insulting to the people who believe in it. Hinayana was a term the Mahayanas used to slam them. "Hina yana" means "Lesser Vehicle" because "Maha yana" means "Greater Vehicle." The people who practice the "Hina yana" in Southeast Asia call it Theravada which means "Teachings of Elders" or literally "Elder's Teachings."
Well anyway, Thailand (and Burma aka Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and parts of south China and Vietnam) is one of the two yana folks. Remember yana just means "vehicle" on the "path of enlightenment."
The Theravadas trace their lineage (from teacher to student) back to the dudes that originally followed Buddha (Gautama) around and learned from him directly, these guys were called the Sthaviras (or in the ancient Pali language, the Theras). Because the Catholics claim their authority from Peter who followed around Jesus Christ, that's why I call the Theravada sect the "Catholic Buddhists."
But that's not the only similarity as to why I call them the Catholic Buddhists. To explain "Maha yana" I gotta talk about something else, the Nikayas. The Nikayas were a group of about 20 schools that accepted as only the Pali Scriptures as being holy and they taught these holy writings in the Pali language. Kinda like Latin for the early Catholic rites. Well anyway, of the 20 Nikaya schools, only Theravada still exists. The rest of them have faded away. Interestingly enough, Theravada was also the first Nikaya and is therefore the OLDEST of the Buddhist sects.
Mahayana Buddhism is younger than Theravada, it doesn't accept the Nikayas as being the ONLY correct buddhist text. It also accepts other languages and other Buddhas (enlightened ones). It was formed in protest and opposition to Theravada in china, vietnam, tibet, korea, japan, and taiwan. That's why I call it the "Protestant Buddhism." Mahayana is more famous here in the USA thanks to the coolness of Kung Fu, Shinto, Zen, and all that martial arts stuff.
In Thailand, we don't have zen, shinto, or shaolin monks. We have Muay Thai aka Thai Kickboxing. You don't practice Muay Thai in a monastery, you practice it in the ring or the back ally. Muay Thai is all about breaking your opponent and making their bones pop. You bring out blood and pain with knees and elbows. Good Muay Thai fighter and good Theravada buddhist are two terms that don't go well together. Usually Muay Thai fighers ENTER monasteries when their time as a fighter is over and they are seeking forgiveness or sinlessness for a life spent hurting people.
Ok if you're still reading, you probably are interested in WHAT the heck Theravada teaches. So here goes.
At the most basic level, Theravada teaches that a person tries to become an Arahant, a Worthy One, and end the cycle of life-death-and-rebirth, where all good things have been accomplished and the spirit is ready to move on because the experiences of mortality are at an end.
The way to end the cycle is through Understanding and Meditation.
Understanding comes from learning. Theravada monks learn many secular as well as religious topics. Some of the earliest schools in Thailand were run by monks and even today, many schools are run/assisted or staffed by monks and are extensions of the monastery. To become enlightened required knowledge. If you're a dirt poor rice farmer in the jungles of north-east Thailand... "public school" is at the local temple. In a way, you could say that the countries that had Theravada Buddhism had "public schools" for centuries before anyplace else.
Meditation was to correlate the human mind with the human spirit. There are three main tricks taught to help attain this. These are the l33t monk skillz that you learn in the monasteries.
- Anapana - Control your breathing to control your circulatory system and muscles to attain true physical calm. Chanting is used intially. Then as the student becomes better, nothing is needed except their own mental control.
- Vipasanna - Once you're body is calm, now take a look inside your head and figure out your life. Also called "auto hypnosis" you basically know how to reprogram your head to stop bad habits. Basically you put your conscious mind in a state of "auto pilot" and let your subconscious do some work. Takes a lot of training. Yes, this works folks. Look it up in non-religious books on auto-hypnosis and self-meditation. The brain is an awesome computer and Vipasanna teaches you how to rewrite your own code. Usually the Mahayana meditations use "things" to help you focus - crystals, spheres, balls, drums, gongs, etc. etc. - Theravada usually uses nothing. You close your eyes, you sit down, you get inside your own head. Sometimes chanting helps with this as well. However sometimes they'll use flowers (usually an unopened lotus blossom) or incense sticks (old school aroma therapy).
- Metta - You seek to understand humans. You start with yourself, seeking to find goodwill and compassion towards yourself. Basically, self-forgiveness. Then you seek to find compassion and goodwill towards your family. Then friends. Then neighbors. Etc. etc. etc. until you have goodwill and compassion towards all humans (pacifist). Then all animals (vegetarian). You eat, sleep, breathe and live "peace, love, and happiness."
Now, once you've got the technique down, correlating the mind and spirit is accomplished in stages:
- The first Jhana - meditate to bring your mind into a state of calm. You're learning how to do Anapana.
- The second Jhana - "level two" you are meditating for inner peace and harmony. You meditate to fix specific problems with yourself by self analysis and discipline. You're usually a pretty happy person at this point. You've got some skill at Vipasanna.
- The third Jhana - "level three" you have attained complete emotional control. Most of the time, you're mellow. You've studied the human heart and histories so much you're a pretty cool person to talk with and learn from. You've got Vipasanna down, you're working on Metta.
- The fourth Jhana - "level four" The mind controls all. You really don't have any emotions at this point because you're in total control of yourself. You are pure. A being of pure harmony of mind and spirit. You're also probably fairly detached from the world and the cares and concerns of people. Usually those strange monks on mountains and in deep forests are seeking the fourth Jhana. If you're in Thailand, people will seek you out to ask you questions about their sister, cow, divorce, future, dead cousin, winning lottery numbers, etc. etc.
Through Understanding and Meditation, a person progresses through four stages in the cycle of life-death-and rebirth.
- Stream-enterers - You're starting to "get it" and won't sink back into lesser states of being. You're a good person. You belive in yourself, you have faith, you can easily control your doubts. You're an A type personality.
- Once-returners - Not only are you a good person, but you also are able to control your lusts, hatreds, and delusions. You try to see truth. You've only got a little bit left to learn.
- The Non-Returners - You've got it. You understand the teachings of gautama and have learned to control your desires. If you do return to the mortal life, you do so because you wish to teach. You've attained Nirvana. The Bodhisattva.
- Arahant - You're at Nirvana. You're done. You're gone off doing whatever it is that those in Nirvana do. In the Theravada religion, there has only ever been one Arahant that stayed in mortality to teach and that was Gautama. He spoke of the Maitreya (in Pali it's more like "Metteyya"), the future Arahant/Bodhisattva that will come to teach pure Dharma and follow after Gautama.
When people or other Buddhists gripe about Theravada buddhists, what do they usually gripe about?
- First - they believe in only the Nikayas and teach only in the dead Pali language
- Second - they seek enlightenment only for themselves (they don't seek good kharma for others)
- Third - Monks and Nuns, they maintain these structures and holy orders and disciplines
Classic Retorts of a Theravada Monk to these criticisms
- First - The Nikayas were written by students of Gautama himself. They are the best and most efficient path to true and ultimate Nirvana, ending the cycle of suffering forever. Why shouldn't they be followed? All other Nikaya are derivations of the Lotus Sutras. Pali was the language they were written in and all other languages lose nuances.
- Second - By seeking enlightenment for themselves first they avoid hypocrisy and ultimately Buddha taught that one must elevate oneself first. "World peace" happens because teachers pass knowledge to students and by following the process of seeking enlightenment, people find the harmony they need. However, it must begin with the individual.
- Third - A monastery or nunery makes it easier to find the order and discipline needed to attain the fourth jhana be reached. If not in a monastery or nunery then alone in the wilderness. Nothing about Theravada requires a monastery or nunery, however, they make things easier. Over 2000 years has shown that only away from the cares of mortality (the running around of ants) can the fourth Jhana be attained. However, Monks and Nuns teach and therefore the relationship between those seeking enlightenment and those that have attained it is maintained in these holy places.
Now you know, and knowing is half the battle. G.I.Joe.
As a bonus, I included a couple of the chants I remember from my childhood! Wonder what Pali looks like in an english-type transliteration? Read on oh ye glutton for punishment.
Before I went to sleep each and every night, this was my prayer.
"Namo tassa Bhagavato Arahato Samma-Sambuddhassa" repeated three times.
It means, "Honour to the Blessed One, the Exalted One, the Fully-Enlightened One."
Each and every morning I remember my Mom chanting this one.
Buddham saranam gacchami (I go to the Buddha as my Refuge)
Dhammam saranam gacchami (I go to the Dhamma as my Refuge)
Sangham saranam gacchami (I go to the Sangha as my Refuge)
Repeated three times.
Except the second time you prefix the lines with Dutiyampi which means "For the second time" and the third time you prefix with Tatiyampi which means "For the third time."
And this one too (this one was kinda fun, it's kinda fast and fun to say):
Panatipata veramani sikkha padam samadiyami Adinnadana veramani sikkha padam samadiyami Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkha padam samadiyami Musavada veramani sikkha padam samadiyami Sura meraya majja pamadatthana veramani sikkha padam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to abstain from killing living beings. I undertake the precept to abstain from taking that which is not given. I undertake the precept to abstain from sexual misconduct. I undertake the precept to abstain from false speech. I undertake the precept to abstain from intoxicants.