Buddhism, with its rich history and many varieties of expressions, is clearly a diverse philosophical, religious system.
On a first note, as it was originally taught by the Buddha and the school of elders, Buddhism does not refer to a personal God or gods and can therefore be regarded as atheistic. However, we shouldn’t make the mistake of believing Buddhism to have logically concluded that God does not exist. God is just not referred to in the writings of the Buddha. However, the larger frame of the system is slightly more complex considering that some forms of Buddhism can be seen as theistic (Pure Land Buddhism) and others pantheistic. Generally speaking Buddhism is considered to be atheistic.
There are two major branches of Buddhism including the Theravada and the Mahayana. These essentially come down to different expressions of the same teaching of the historical Buddha. There hasn’t been much animosity between these two major schools although there has been debate on how to implement the Buddha’s teachings.
The Theravada (pronounced “terra-VAH-dah”) branch is argued to be the oldest form of Buddhism found in the Pali literature, and therefore closest to early Buddhist practices (1). According to this school the Buddha urged one to abstain from all kinds of evil, to accumulate all that is good and to purify our mind, and thus focuses on the development of ethical conduct, meditation and wisdom. Theravada Buddhism has also grown in the West, as Buddhist commentator John Bullit explains that “In the last century, however, the West has begun to take notice of Theravada’s unique spiritual legacy and teachings of Awakening. In recent decades, this interest has swelled, with the monastic Sangha from the various schools within Theravada establishing dozens of monasteries across Europe and North America” (2). This form of Buddhism is similar to pantheistic Hinduism in several ways as both seem to neglect the existence of a personal deity, both deal with impersonal forces, and both emphasise self-realization. Similarly to Theravada Buddhism the contemporary school of Zen Buddhism emphasizes meditation, although it is not historically linked in any way to the Theravada branch. Zen Buddhists, in a similar way to those who utilize Transcendent Meditation, hold that wisdom is achieved through meditation. As a result of emphasizing meditation there is a downplaying of the sutras and doctrines.
On the other hand, the Mahayana school is more of an umbrella body for a great variety of schools including the Tantra school (the secret teaching of Yoga) represented in Tibet, Nepal and the Pure Land sect. It also has certain features in common with polytheistic Hinduism. Both consider the need for saviours, for example, in Mahayana the Buddha himself is considered a saviour and salvation is by grace. Likewise petitionary prayers are common in both, and in some Buddhist temples there are places to offer incense to Hindu deities. Although these Hindu deities are not allowed into, what is known as, the Buddhist sanctum sanctorum (holy of holies, or inner shrine) prayers made to these deities are considered effective.
Pure Land Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism widely practiced in East Asia. For example, its presence is found in countries like Japan (the Jodo-shu, Ji-Shu, Jodo Shinshu sects) and China. Chinese Buddhists view recitation as a meditation method used to concentrate the mind and purify thoughts (3). The monk Hanshan Deqing was a notable proponent of this branch of Buddhism, a man well-known for his lecturers and widely admired for his dedication to his beliefs. Pure Land Buddhism has been embedded in Chinese history for some to and especially because of its influence on the powerful Ming Dynasty that ruled from 1368–1644 AD. These Buddhists focus on a celestial Buddha described in the Mahayana scriptures with the desire to purify the mind for the attainment of self-realization.
Another branch of Mahayana Buddhism is Nichiren Buddhism which is based on the teachings of the 13th century Japanese monk Nichiren (1222–1282) (4). Nichiren Buddhism is not a known to be a unified system since it encompasses several major schools of thought and Japanese religions, though chanting and recital of the Lotus Sutra (a Mahayana sutra) is a common unifying factor (5). However, the monk and founder Nichiren studied in numerous temples in Japan where he came to the conclusion that the highest teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha were to be found in the Lotus Sutra; a teaching that he gave much piety to (6). Since he was critical of other sects he would experience much criticism as well as attempted execution from Japanese rulers and priests. However, surviving that Nichiren would go on to build the Kuon-ji temple, a place where he would live out the rest of his life and train disciples. Another form of Buddhism central to Japan is Shingon Buddhism (founded by Kukai) though it had its origins elsewhere. Kukai was a talented writer, writing some 50 works that explicated the tantric Buddhist Shingon doctrine. In his time Kukai was alleged to have travelled to Tang China where he acquired esoteric teachings, hence why some have referred to Shingon as “Esoteric Buddhism.”
1. Gethin, R. 1998. The foundations of Buddhism. p. 1.
2. Access to Insight. 2005. What is Theravada Buddhism? Available.
3. Prebish, C. & Tanaka, K. 1998. The Faces of Buddhism in America. p. 20.
4. Payne, R. Re-Visioning Kamakura Buddhism (Studies in East Asian Buddhism). p 24.
5. Neusner, J. 2003. World religions in America: an introduction. p. 225.
6. Anesaki, M. 1916. Nichiren, the Buddhist prophet. p. 34.