Religion Essay


I. Introduction

Like the family and the economy, religion is a universal and pervasive phenomenon, a part of the cultural system, because it is assumed to meet some basic need of human being. Religion is an integrated part of human experience and shows remarkable continuity through time. Even in the modern secularized societies in the West, religion has persisted and still exerts a great influence in the lives of people. Almost all known peoples in all places and times have some set of specific cultural patterns made up of beliefs and codes of conduct, tinged with emotional views, an explanation or justification of human behavior and social organization regarding the distribution of power between the leaders and the governed, the moral code, the distribution of wealth, or the success of some and failure of others may be found in religion.

            Because the modes of religious experience are diverse and religion means many different things to different people, the definition of religion varies that it is difficult to reach a generally accepted definition of religion.  Religion is commonly thought of as concerned with spiritual beings and the supernatural but Giddens (2004) pointed out that religion cannot be identified with belief in the supernatural which involves belief in phenomenon outside nature. He cited Confucianism as concerned with accepting the natural harmony of the world instead of finding truths that account for them.

            Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism are two branches of Buddhism. The name Theravada means “the way of the elders.” It is an austere religion that requires solitude, meditation, and self-mastery through which each member hopes to achieve Nirvana. Because of these requirements, the possibility of liberation is limited to a few. Many of its followers are monks and nuns who spend most of their time in meditation and teaching. Theravada Buddhism is sometimes called “Hinayana Buddhism,” Hinayana meaning “small vehicles,” but this term is not accepted by followers of the religion. On the other hand, Mahayana means “large vehicle.” It is a less austere system than Theravada Buddhism and emphasizes liberation for everyone (Mizuno, 2001). Many Mahayana Buddhists believe in liberation through good faith and good works. Their object is not only to obtain a personal Nirvana, but to help others to that goal.

            The Mahayana branch has developed a system of ideal Buddhas, or enlightened ones. The most important Buddha is the Amitabha, or Amida, Budhha, to whom members can appeal for deliverance. Some Mahana Buddhists also believe in a goddess, a symbol of compassion, who is called Kwan Yin in China and Kwannon in Japan.

            Mahayana Buddhists have elaborate temples presided over by priests. They have colorful festivals and solemn rituals. Statues of the various Buddhas and Bodhisattras (Buddhas-to-be) play a part in their worship (Mizuno, 2001) but the statues themselves are not worshiped. Mahayana Buddhism is divided into many sects, including Zen, Jodo, Shin, Tendai, and Nichiren Shoshu (Soka Gakkai).

Thesis Statement: This study critically assesses the key developments from Theravada to Mahayana Buddhism.

II. Discussion

A. Theravada Buddhism

·         Distinctive Doctrines, Practices, Sacred Texts

            Early Buddhist teachings are best preserved in the Pali texts. They form a complete Canon and afford the fullest view of Theravada doctrine. The Pali language is related to Sanskrit, and many Pali terms are similar to the Sanskrit ones. Thus Pali dhamma is the same as Sanskrit dharma, Pali kamma is Snaskrit karma, Pali nibbana is Sanskrit nirvana (Conze, 2002). The body of teaching which emerges is regarded by Theravadins as pointing to the truth or Law (dhamma) of the universe itself, by which a disciple must live to gain ultimate freedom and peace. In outline the system is as follows:

            The universe as we know it is in process of continued change. All things, including the individual life, are impermanent (anicca). They arise and pass away unchangingly. In man there is no permanent, unchanging self, transmigrating intact, as was commonly assumed, from one incarnation into the next. The individual is really composed of five groups of changing physical and mental such as body, feelings, perceptions, and mental formations and consciousness. No fixed entity or essence underlies these. Everything is transitory and impermanent (anicca), in restless unease (dukka, suffering), and without abiding substance (anatta). In this stream of ongoing psycho-physical events all happens according to universal causality (kamma). A cause or complex of causes brings about each event, which in turn brings on its own result (Conze, 2002). Every individual thus reaps what he sows, but most important is recognition of the ethical principle that good deeds bring good results, evil deeds evil results. Deliverance from suffering, therefore, is through practice along the path of right (the Eightfold Path), moving onward and upward toward ultimate release of Nibbana (Sanskrit, Nirvana) (Mizuno, 2001).

            Implications of the Eightfold Path are set forth in detail. 1) Right view means understanding the Four Noble Truths that is, suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path leading to its cessation. 2) Right thought is free from lust, ill-will, cruelty, and untruthfulness. 3) Right speech means avoidance of lying, tale-bearing, harsh language, and vain-talk. 4) Right action means abstaining from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. 5) Right livelihood is following an occupation which causes no harm to any living thing. 6) Right effort means avoiding and overcoming at evil tendencies, and the arousing and maintaining of those that are wholesome and good. 7) Right mindfulness in keeping watch over every state of body, feeling, mind, and the mind’s objects so as to understand and rightly control them. 8) Right concentration is a concentration of mind is meditation to bring on certain ecstatic states of consciousness leading to highest insight (Conze, 2002). By practicing these eight principles the individual purifies himself.

B. Mahayana Buddhism

            As contrasted with the relatively simple, conservative Theravada from of Buddhism, the Mahayana division represents the complex outcome of the liberal tendency to modify ideas and practices as the religion developed and spread among different peoples of Northern Asia. New characteristics which emerged are as follows:

            A Changed Conception of the Ideal Buddhist. Whereas the Theravadin arrives to become an arahat or perfected saint ready for Nirvana, the Mahayanist exalts the way of a Bodhisattva, example, one who, like Gautama before his enlightenment, is vowed to prepare himself for enlightenment in order to serve and save other suffering mortals. A Bodhisattva, moved by a great compassion, strives to perfect himself in the necessary virtues (paramitas) for this task. The paramitas are six in number—generosity, morality, patience, vigor, concentration, and wisdom. Even when perfected in these and worthy to enter Nirvana, the Bodhisattva foregoes that consummation (Mizuno, 2001). He willingly continues in the turbulent world of transmigratory existence in order to save others. This ideal the Mahayanists claimed to be more social and admirable than the arhat (in Sanskrit) ideal of the Sarvastivadin conservatives, which they regarded as selfish and narrow.

            The Development of a Speculative Interpretation of the Buddha. Mahayanists know and respect the story of Gautama Buddha. He is regarded, however, as but earthly manifestation of a primordial being—the eternal, Buddha who appears variously in many worlds in order to make known his truth (dharma). This is explained in the doctrine of the Three Bodies (Trikaya) of the Buddha. Ultimate truth and reality in itself is his dharma-body (Dharma-kaya). As radiated out and preached by the Buddha manifestations for the enjoyment of assemblies in all universes it is his body of enjoyment (Sambhoga-kaya). As embodied on earth in a particular person (example Gautama Buddha) it is a transformation body (Nirmana-kaya). All three bodies belong to the one ultimate Buddha, who is manifested through all of them (Carrithers, 2003).

            Buddhas and Bodhisattva. There are countless Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The innumerable manifestations in celestial and terrestrial realms give rise in popular religion to a whole pantheon of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. These become in effect deities and helpers whose aid may be sought through offerings and invocations. Shakyamuni is among them, but other earthly Buddhas are thought to have pretended him and still others are expected to follow him in ages of the world. Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were as numberless as the universes in which they minister. Among this great host, those most revered in the Far East are 1) the Celestial Buddhas: Amitabha, Lord of the Western Paradise; Bhaisajyaguru, teacher of Healing; Vairodana, the primordial eternal Buddha; Lochana, the eternal Buddha as omnipresent; 2) Bodhisattvas and 3) Terrestrial Buddhas (Carrithers, 2003).

 III. Conclusion

            In conclusion, as conducted in Southeast Asia, the religion (Theravada Buddhism) maintains the pattern of its early form in India. Its order of yellow-robed monks is made up of those who have withdrawn from worldly life to concentrate on the ay of spirituality. In its monasteries the rules of the Vinaya Pitaka, the Basket of Discipline, are still observed. Its laity respects the priesthood, look to its members for religious instruction, and make their offerings in alms.

On the other hand, in spite of great changes that taken place in all lands where Mahayana Buddhism is present, its traditional practices continue. Ordination ceremonies, services of worship, and monastic disciplines follow established patterns within the various sects. Incense is burned and offerings made on altars before familiar deities. Ancient sutras are chanted in rituals descended from a hoary past. Where new temples or monasteries are built, the tendency is to keep, if possible, the traditional architectural features. Unless untoward conditions hinder, such as war, impoverishment, social upheaval, or oppression from without, old edifices are kept in repair and renewed from time to time. These all are indications of persistent influence from past cultural achievements.


1. Carrithers, Michael. The Buddha (Oxford University 2003).

2. Conze, Edward. A Short History of Buddhism (Allen & Unwin, 2002).

3. Giddens, Anthony (2004). Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press

4. Mizuno, Kogen. Basic Buddhist Concepts (Tuttle, 2001).


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