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Mahayana and Theravada

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by Harold Stewart

Those who are accustomed only to the rigid dogmatic verbal formulas and the exclusive monolithic authoritarian institutions of the three religions of Semitic origin may be amazed to find Mahayana Buddhism so tolerant, flexible, and multiformal. The longevity of the Mahayana, which has been a live and growing Tradition for the past two thousand one hundred years or more, springs directly from its resilience and pliancy; unlike the conservative Theravada, or Way of the Elders, that still survives in Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand but has largely fossilized into a literal scholasticism of the Pali texts in place of Wisdom and a punctilious observance of the monastic regulations instead of Method. To this open-mindedness the Mahayana owes its ability to adapt its teachings to suit many different epochs and regions and its readiness to adopt and assimilate local traditions from peoples of the most diverse cultures and temperaments. It has even carried this accommodation to the point where it teaches what at first sight may seem to be at variance with the doctrines of the Founder as recorded in the scriptures. But being Metaphysical and not merely religious in outlook, Mahayana Buddhism must of necessity embrace apparently opposite and contradictory views if it is to be truly universal in scope.

Continuing the Theravada Tradition, which has always taught the Difficult Path to Enlightenment by self-effort in accordance with the meditational and disciplinary methods of The Sangha, the Mahayana, too, has held predominantly to a Doctrine of self-Power. But when the downward course of the present cycle and the diminishing spiritual capacities of mankind made this method no longer viable for most Buddhist followers, the Mahayana was to find a place also for the Easy Way of the Other Power. This movement, whose ancestry goes back at least 2,000 years through China to India, came to full flower in the Jodo and Shin schools of Pure Land Buddhism in twelfth-century Japan. Its development was made possible by the idea of parinama (Japanese: ko), or the transference of a Buddha's or Bodhisattva's accumulated merits, such as Wisdom, Compassion, or Faith, to his devotees in need. All that is required is to invoke his aid.

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