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Statues of Buddha such as this one located in Khao Takiup village near Hua Hin, Thailand remind followers to practice right living.
Buddhism is a religion and philosophy based on the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhirtha Gautama, who lived between approximately 563 and 483 BCE.

Originating in India, Buddhism gradually spread throughout Asia to Central Asia, Sri Lanka, Tibet, Southeast Asia, as well as the East Asian countries of China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan.

Buddah image Khao Takiup - Hua Hin Thailand - courtesy of Bali Lau Entertainment Group  (c) (p) copyright 2004

Buddhism teaches followers to perform good and wholesome actions, to avoid bad and harmful actions, and to purify and train the mind. The aim of these practices is to end the suffering of cyclic existence, samsara, by awakening the practitioner to the realization of true reality, the achievement of Nirvana and Buddhahood.

Buddhist morality is underpinned by the principles of harmlessness and moderation. Mental training focuses on moral discipline (sila), meditative concentration (samadhi), and wisdom (praj??).

While Buddhism does not deny the existence of supernatural beings (indeed, many are discussed in Buddhist scripture), it does not ascribe power for creation, salvation or judgement to them. Like humans, they are regarded as having the power to affect worldly events, and so some Buddhist schools associate with them via ritual.

The three main branches of Buddhism

Buddhism has evolved into myriad schools that can be roughly grouped into three types: Nikaya (also called Hinayana), Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Of the Nikaya schools, only the Theravada survives. Each branch sees itself as representing the true, original teachings of the Buddha, and some schools believe that the dialectic nature of Buddhism allows its format, terminology, and techniques to adapt over time in response to changing circumstances, thus validating dharmic approaches different from their own.

The Theravada school, whose name means "Doctrine of the Elders", bases its practice and doctrine exclusively on the Pali Canon, which is a collection of what are known as agamas or nikaya sutras. The nikaya sutras are generally considered by modern scholars to be the oldest of the surviving types of Buddhist literature, and they are accepted as authentic in every branch of Buddhism. Theravada is the only surviving representative of the historical Nikaya branch. Nikaya Buddhism and consequently Theravada are sometimes referred to as Hinayana or "lesser vehicle", although this is considered by some to be impolite. Native Theravada is practiced today in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and portions of Vietnam and Malaysia.

The Mahayana (literally "Great Vehicle") branch emphasizes universal compassion and the selfless ideal of the bodhisattva, whose goal is to achieve Buddhahood in order to be of greatest benefit to other sentient beings. In addition to the Nikaya scriptures, Mah?y?na schools recognize all or part of a genre of scriptures that were first put in writing around 1 CE. These scriptures were written in some form of Sanskrit, except a few manuscripts in Prakrit, and are concerned with the purpose of achieving Buddhahood by following the path of the bodhisattva over the course of what is often described as countless eons of time. Because of this immense timeframe, some Mah?y?na schools accept the idea of working towards rebirth in a Pure Land. The Pure Land is normally conceived of as a state which is not enlightenment in itself but which is a highly conducive environment for working toward enlightenment, although some sources indicate that it is synonymous with enlightenment. Native Mah?y?na Buddhism is practiced today in China, Japan, Korea, and most of Vietnam.

The Vajrayana or "Diamond Vehicle" (also referred to as Mantrayana, Tantrayana, Tantric or esoteric Buddhism) shares the basic concepts of Mahayana, but also includes a vast array of spiritual techniques designed to enhance Buddhist practice. One component of the Vajrayana is harnessing psycho-physical energy as a means of developing profoundly powerful states of concentration and awareness. These profound states are in turn to be used as an efficient path to Buddhahood. Using these techniques, it is claimed that a practitioner can achieve Buddhahood in one lifetime, or even as little as three years. In addition to the Theravada and Mahayana scriptures, Vajrayana Buddhists recognise a large body of texts that include the Buddhist Tantras.

Native Vajrayana is practiced today mainly in Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia, Kalmykia, areas of India, and -- among the Shingon (Zhenyan), and Tendai schools in China and Japan.

At the present time the teachings of all three branches of Buddhism have spread throughout the world and are now easily available in the developed countries, and increasingly translated into local languages.

The Five Precepts

The Buddha statue Aukana, in Sri Lanka Buddhists undertake certain precepts as aids on the path to coming into contact with ultimate reality. Laypeople generally undertake five precepts. The Five Precepts are not given in the form of commands such as "thou shalt not ...", but rather are promises to oneself: "I will (try) to...".

The five precepts are:

To refrain from harming living creatures (killing).

To refrain from taking that which is not freely given (stealing).

To refrain from sexual misconduct.

To refrain from incorrect speech (lying, harsh language, slander, idle chit-chat).

To refrain from intoxicants which lead to loss of mindfulness.

It should be noted that the literal, and possibly original, meaning of the third precept covers more than the now generally standard meaning "sexual misconduct" and actually involves refraining from "wrong indulgence in all sensory pleasures".

In some schools of Buddhism, serious lay people or aspiring monks take an additional three to five ethical precepts, and some of the five precepts are strengthened. For example, the precept pertaining to sexual misconduct becomes a precept of celibacy; the fourth precept, which pertains to incorrect speech, is expanded to four: lying, harsh language, slander, and idle chit-chat. Fully ordained monks and nuns of the Theravada school also vow to follow the 227 patimokkha rules. Fully ordained Mahayana monks and nuns follow 348 equivalent rules with an additional set of, generally, 41 bodhisattva vows.

Theravada Buddhism read more here

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