In traditional Buddhist thought, the disciple undergoes a series of stages of awakening, culminating in Buddhahood:
- Stream-enterer – a person who gains enough confidence in the Dharma to continue pursuing it lifetime after lifetime.
- Arhat – a “noble one”, a person who has reached a very high state of awakening. In some traditions he is analogous to an enlightened Buddha. In others, he is not fully enlightened yet.
- Bodhisattva – a “seeker of enlightenment”, who aspires to reach full Buddhahood, usually by making a set of vows to assist others before fulfilling their own goal.
- Buddha – a fully awakened being, who has completed the Buddhist path, experiences Nirvana (unbinding) and is said to be completely liberated.
How to get from A to B: Buddhist schools and practices
Due to many complex factors, the original Indian Buddhist community flourished and spread, but also developed subtle nuances that helped to distinguish them from other communities. As Buddhism spread outside of India and adapted to new cultures such as Persia, China, Myanmar, etc, these differences magnified and individual schools and traditions rose to the surface.
However, all traditions seek to answer the same basic question: how does one put the Buddha’s teachings into practice in such a way as to cross over from the existing state to the state of Nirvana?
Because of the diversity and breadth of sutras, to say nothing of history and geography, various Buddhist schools will tend to center around a specific sutra, or sutras, and formulate practices and teachings around it.
Further, depending on the particular Buddhist culture and for complex historical reasons, sometimes these schools blend together practices and techings, and sometimes they have distinct boundaries between one another. For example, in the Japanese Tendai school, elements of meditation, esoteric teachings and devotion can be found. On the other hand, Japanese Zen focuses primarily on seated meditation, while Japanese Pure Land focuses on Amitabha Buddha and the recitation of his name.
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