Tuesday, March 25, 2008

To the Roof of the World — and Beyond

Before it left India for good at the end of the first millennium A.D., Buddhism went through significant changes. The early teachings developed into what we now call Theravada — the dominant approach in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, emphasizing a progressive path to liberation largely limited to monks and nuns. At the same time, another major current emerged that preached the ideal of the bodhisattva — the person who dedicates his or her life to liberating others. Known as the Mahayana (“the great vehicle”), this second major branch of Buddhism was more egalitarian and offered the possibility of enlightenment to everyone, whether lay or monastic. From India, wandering monks and scholars transported Mahayana Buddhism over the Himalayas (the “roof of the world”) to China and Tibet. There it mingled with indigenous spiritual teachings, set down roots, and evolved into a number of different traditions and schools, most notably Ch’an (Zen in Japanese) and Vajrayana Buddhism, which took the practice of meditation to new heights.

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