Back to school

14 September 2010 - 2:19am 1 Comment

What is spiritual practice?
The transformation of bad to good.

His Eminence Tsem Rinpoche

Generally, we can engage in spiritual practice from three schools of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. Hence three kinds of attainments or results are possible.


(Southern School)

In this school, the emphasis is on personal liberation – freedom from all kinds of suffering. It is a sensible motivation because if we ourselves have problems, we will not be able to help others very much. Hence, the eradication of the causes of suffering (of which ignorance, desirous attachment and hatred are the root causes) is the central focus of the Theravadan teachings.

The motivation is to abandon worldly concerns and self-grasping. If we show no results, we will continue to harm ourselves and others; we will not be able to get out of uncontrolled rebirths and therefore, we will continue to perpetuate our suffering now and in future lives.

If we are spiritual, we will want to put a stop to such a cycle.


(Northern School)

The emphasis of Mahayana practitioners is the attainment of Bodhisattvahood or Buddhahood so that we are in the best position to help others. It is a progression from the first school, as the motivation is higher. One is motivated by compassion to help all living beings to be free from suffering and to attain permanent happiness.

Such a motivation goes beyond self-liberation, and helps us to generate an altruistic mind and heart of compassion that makes our life more meaningful. If one’s compassion is genuine, it cannot be limited only to helping one’s cause. We are only one person whereas, other living beings are countless – how can we be happy when everyone else is unhappy?


(Northern School or Tibetan Buddhism)

This school shares the same Bodhicitta or altruistic motivation with the Mahayanists. However, the emphasis is on the attainment of Buddhahood in this present lifetime.

There is logic and validity in pursuing such a goal. We cannot be sure if our next rebirth will be a human. Even if we are reborn human, we may not be fully endowed to learn or practise Dharma. Our life can be cut short even in this present life. Death may be a certainty but time of one’s death is uncertain. The favourable conditions that we enjoy now may disappear due to geo-political, economical and environmental change. The Vajrayanists’ reasoning is therefore that we must practise NOW, not tomorrow, next year or in our next life because what we have now is a rare and precious opportunity which may disappear anytime and is unlikely to be assembled again.

This requires an even higher motivation or level of compassion. We cannot let others’ suffering be prolonged due to our own laziness and lack of effort or determination to transform. We must achieve results as quickly as possible. It is the most sincere thing to do.

If there is no result, no change in our attitudes towards others, no improvement in our abilities or knowledge to benefit others; if we are still bitchy, angry or unhappy after many years of practice, we need to question whether we are on a spiritual journey or merely pretending to be spiritual.

H.E. Tsem Rinpoche said, “If we do not have results, are we proving Buddha is wrong?”

One Response to Back to school

  1. Both Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions of today (specifically where the Vinaya lineage is still adhered to) belong to the ‘Northern Schools’, where the earlier 16-17 and some scholars say up until 18 Buddhist Schools existed in the Northern Indian region and were commonly & respectfully known as the ‘Sravakas’ (pejoratively later known as ‘Hinayana’) except for the Theravada which parted ways from their Northern counterparts and went down south to Sri Lanka.

    Theravada belongs to the ‘Southern School’ as it historically went down south all the way to Sri Lanka and is today’s only surviving full lineage from the age of the earlier Buddhist Sravaka Schools.

    In his work known as ‘Karmasiddhiprakarana’ (‘A Treatise on Action’), Arya Vasubandhu, a distinguished Buddhist monk & scholar (who had a famed half brother, Arya Asanga) respectfully addresses the Theravadins as “the honorable Tamraparniyas” (Tamraparni, the ancient title for today’s Sri Lanka).

    None of them were ‘Mahayana’ although some scholars assert that certain ideas from some of them are included in Mahayana thought.
    So, today’s Mahayana / Vajrayana traditions derive their monastic lineage (Vinaya) from only 2 Sravaka Schools: Dharmaguptaka and Mulasarvastivada, but in Dharma (Sutras [Agama & Mahayana] & Tantras) & Abhidharma, they teach Mahayana/Vajrayana doctrines.

    If one wants to know the scriptural content or Sutra Pitaka of what the earlier Schools taught, also as an alternative comparison to the Pali Canon’s Sutta Pitaka Nikayas’, it would be found in the Agama & Kangyur collection in the Chinese and Tibetan Canons respectively.

    Today’s East Asian Mahayana based Buddhist Traditions takes its Vinaya (monastic discipline) lineage from the Chinese (e.g the Koreans and Vietnamese) has its roots in one of the Sravaka schools known as Dharmaguptaka. And in the Tibetan Tradition, their Vinaya adheres to another known as Mulasarvastivada. Both Schools were based in Northern India.

    Tibet could have another monastic lineage known as the Mahasamghika, another early Northern Indian Sravaka School, which the great sage, Atisha (who taught the Lamrin) was ordained in but for the decree of King Tritsu Detsen or also known as Tri Ralpacan who forbade that lineage in favour of the already established Mulasarvastivada.

    “This school shares the same Bodhicitta or altruistic motivation with the Mahayanists. However, the emphasis is on the attainment of Buddhahood in this present lifetime.”
    In Chán/Zen, they share the same idea/challenge of awakening / enlightenment in one lifetime as do their Vajrayana counterpart although with differing methods. The other sister Vajrayana traditions besides the Tibetan lineage are the Shingon (Japan) and Tangmi (China).