Buddhism And The Main Buddhist Sects After Buddha's death in 483 BC, his closest adherents (his disciple monks) took time off their preaching to write down his sermons (sutras) and his rules (vinayas). In the old tradition of Buddha, monks initially walked the countryside preaching and teaching for nine months of the year and went to sit out the monsoon season in a retreat for three months. These retreats became monasteries and temples. The retreat into monasteries was important in the development of different interpretations of Buddha's teachings and in due course led to the establishment of various sects which gained popularity in different parts of Asia. There are three main Buddhist sects: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana or Tantric Buddism. Theravada Buddhism is the predominant sect in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand and is the sect that remains most loyal to Buddha's original doctrines. Theravada Buddhism teaches that the path to the attainment of personal Nirvana is the goal of life. It is a very individualistic religion in that everybody is alone on their own route to enlightenment. Mahayana Buddism grew into the largest sect and spread along the Silk Road from India through China to east Asia starting in about 200 BC. Mahayana Buddhists worship Buddha and the Buddhist saints (Bodhisattvas - meaning 'wisdom beings'). Bodhisattvas are beings that restrain themselves from attaining Nirvana (and therefore leaving the wheel of life or cycle of birth, death and reincarnation) so that they can help others achieve Nirvana, which is a major difference between it and Theravada Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism is more readily absorbed by different cultures than the other kinds which accounts for it having spread so much. The Buddhist emperor Ashoka (272-232 BC) gave Mahayana a huge boost in popularity by dispatching missionaries to Sri Lanka, south-east Asia and China from where it was taken to Korea and Japan in the Sixth Century anno domini. Zen Buddhism grew in popularity in Japan and China in the Seventh Century. Zen Buddhism is a variant of Mahayana Buddhism and teaches that Nirvana can be achieved through mental conditioning and meditation. Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism grew in the Seventh Century too and is most common in Tibet and Mongolia. Vajrayana Buddhism strives to identify the initiate with a visualized deity. Tantric cannon includes esoteric texts, teaching that meditation can engage the mind by the use of mantras (chants), mudras (hand gestures) and mandalas (visible icons). The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists.
Buddhism attained its height of popularity in China during the T'ang dynasty in the Ninth Century, at which point it was partly suppressed by royal command. Similarly Zen reached its height of popularity in the Nineteen Century when the Japanese royal family turned to Shintoism taking numerous royal hangers-on with it. Buddhism declined in India too in the Eighth Century because many of its principles were absorbed into Hinduism. Buddism was to all intents and purposes extinct in India by the Thirteenth Century. Owen Jones, the writer of this piece, writes on a variety of subjects, but is now concerned with Korean religious belief. If you would like to know more go to What is Religious Belief?