2002-07-07: Entering the Stream

Entering the Stream

An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings (1993)

by Samuel Bercholz (?) and Sherab Chödzin Kohn (?)

Bercholz (editor-in-chief of Shambhala Publications) and Kohn have collected about thirty writings, ancient and modern, to describe the teachings of Buddhism. I suspect they would be very interesting and useful to students of Buddhism, or those (particularly Americans) who aspire to become Buddhists.

I was interested to learn that Buddhism consists of three main traditions:

Theravada (teaching of the elders of the order, Pali) is a branch of the Hinayana (small vehicle, Sanskrit) and is focused on the life of the arhat, an approach oriented around monastic life. An arhat is a saintly type, dedicated to study  and practice in the manner taught by the historic Buddha, beginning about 528 BCE. The objective of the arhat is to achieve freedom from samsara, the recurring cycle of rebirth, and the effects of actions in countless lives. It is widespread in southeast Asia. The teachings are based on sutras, said to be the actual words of the Buddha.

Around the second century CE, the Mahayana (great vehicle, Sanskrit) tradition formed. This is oriented around the bodhisattva, an enlightened being who vows to remain in samsara to liberate all other sentient beings. The teachings are based on new sutras, also said to be the teachings of the Buddha, but hidden until the time was ripe. Mahayana Buddhism spread to China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan; it includes Zen (Ch’an in Chinese) Buddhism, an amalgam of Taoism and Buddhism. From Japan it has spread to America, although other traditions are also represented here.

Around the seventh century CE, the Vajrayana (diamond vehicle) tradition formed. “The Vajrayana leaped yet further than the Mahayana in acceptance of the world, holding that all experiences, including the sensual, are sacred manifestations of the awakened mind.” This is more liturgical than the other traditions, incorporating deities representing various aspects of awakened mind.

The book opens with a life of Buddha, and a history of Buddhism (from which the descriptions above are taken), both written by Kohn. This is followed by three large sections with writings from practitioners and students from the three traditions. Although this is probably a superficial criticism, I found irritating the use of words in Sanskrit or Pali or other languages. These are shorthand for concepts that take a lot of words to express in English, but still seemed almost inconsiderate to a reader who isn’t committed to learning a lot of arcane terminology.

My overall impression is of a noble objective, perhaps occasionally reached, which isn’t quite able to be transmitted to the modern American mind. This is as much due to shortcomings in the modern mind as the Buddhist traditions involved. I suspect that most of the people who find this book useful (as opposed to merely interesting) don’t really need it, due to familiarity with other means of transmission of the memes involved.


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