Shakyamuni Buddha established the spiritual tradition of Buddhism, called “buddha-dharma” or “the teachings of the awakened one.”
Over 2500 years ago in ancient India, prince Siddhartha Gautama engaged in different ascetic practices for many years. Realizing that the path of asceticism was not leading him to his goal, he discontinued that practice and decided instead to sit quietly under the bodhi-tree. There he attained the complete realization of the true reality of all phenomena. Thus he became known as the “Buddha,” which means “the awakened one.”
The historical Buddha traveled to Sarnath, in northern India, where he began to offer teachings based on his own experience to a small assembly at a place called Deer Park. These teachings, known as the “dharma”—meaning the “truth”—were a discourse between the Buddha and his disciples on philosophy and view, as well as practical instructions on how to relate to everyday life and how to work with one’s own mind. These teachings—known as the “buddha-dharma,” meaning “teachings of the awakened one”—encompass what is known today as Buddhism.
The teachings of the Buddha show the path and practices that lead to the state of complete enlightenment, the freedom from cyclic existence known as samsara. Buddha proclaims in his teachings that all sentient beings have the potential of wakefulness within, which can be fully realized through the methods on the path. The process of awakening mainly consists of two elements of accumulation of merit and wisdom through developing the right philosophical view and then going through the process of meditation practice. The methods of the path are passed down from generation to generation, which is known in Vajrayana as the “lineage.”
After the parinirvana of the Buddha Sakyamuni (486 or 483 B.C.E. according to western sources and 544 B.C.E., per the Pali tradition), Mahakasyapa, the regent of the Buddha, assembled the bikshus (monks), who had attained the fruition of Arhat (foe-destroyer).
Mahakasyapa, who had been chosen by the Buddha to lead the sangha, headed the Council, composed of the five hundred Arhats who congregated at Rajagriha and Àjatasatru. The king of Magadha provided food and lodging to the gathering, which occurred at the time for the rainy season retreat. This historic, first great gathering of the buddhist sangha was held to record, clarify, and consolidate the teachings of the Buddha. In this way the Council was able to accurately collect and preserve the teachings.
At this great gathering, Ànanda recited the Sutras; Upali presented the Vinaya, and Mahakasyapa enunciated the matrakas (which later developed into the Abhidharma). These three subjects became well known in the buddhist world as the “Tripitaka” or “three collections or baskets” of Buddha’s teachings: Sutra-pitaka, Vinaya-pitaka, and Abhidharma-pitaka.
According to Nagarjuna, a great mahayana master and founder of the Middle Way School of mahayana philosophy, bodhisattvas assembled at Vimalasvabhava, near Rajagriha and at this Council, Bodhisattva Vajrapani recited the Sutras; Maitreya, the Vinaya: and Mañjusri, the Abhidharma. This mahayana Council was headed by the bodhisattva Samantabhadra and it preserved the mahayana teachings.
Two more Councils were held later on. Taken together, these Councils led to the preservation of the whole collection of the teachings of the Buddha, many of which are still existing in different languages-Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Burmese, Chinese, Japanese, and many other Asian languages. Many sutras have also been translated into different western languages, sucha as English, French, and German.
THREE YANA TEACHINGS
Buddha taught the whole corpus of teachings, encompassing what has today come to be known as the Three Yanas (vehicles), or cycles of the buddhist teachings. Traditionally, the Three Yanas are: the Shravakayana (vehicle of the hearers), Pratyekabuddhayana (vehicle of the solitary realizers), and Bodhisattvayana (vehicle of the mahayana).
However, the three are today more commonly known among the Tibetan buddhists to be composed of the Hinayana (basic vehicle), Mahayana (great vehicle), and Vajrayana (indestructible vehicle). Each of these cycles of teaching became popular at different periods in the history of Buddhism.
1. THE HINAYANA TEACHINGS
The First Council held shortly after the Buddha’s passing emphasized the Hinayana teachings. Initially, the Hinayana schools flourished in India, and 18 schools of Hinayana were known at the time of the great Indian King Asoka in the first century B.C.E. During Asoka’s reign, Buddhism began to spread throughout Asia, and Hinayana became established in Sri Lanka.
2. THE MAHAYANA TEACHINGS
The Mahayana teachings became popular after the new millennium and continued to spread throughout Asia in the first century C.E. Over the following centuries, the teachings became a very strong presence in countries throughout Asia, including Tibet. Buddhist teaching spread along trading routes such as the silk route.
In India and surrounding countries, great Mahayana teaching masters such as Nagarjuna, Bhavya, Jnanagarbha, Aryadeva, Asanga, Vasubandhu, Dignaga, Dharmakirti, Tilopa and Naropa became famous. Buddhism reached its height in China by the fourth century.
3. THE VAJARAYANA TEACHINGS
Although the Buddha taught the Vajrayana to a restricted group of suitable disciples later in his life, the Vajrayana cycle of teachings did not became popular until the sixth century C.E. At that time, many of the great Mahayana masters of scholarship took up the Vajrayana path in their later years and left their scholarly and monastic establishments to practice Vajrayana tantras outside an institutional context.