An introductory summary outlining the nature and main differences of the fast, great, ancient, diamond, and zen vehicles to enlightenment.
After one understands that desire for the material world necessarily engenders suffering, one naturally looks with delight to the teachings of those as to how to avoid suffering through enlightenment. Unlike other world religions, however, there is not one definitive solution, as each person, as a result of culture and personal history, finds enlightenment in a different manner.
And of course, in India itself, a caste system had already been devised to prevent conflict between merging civilizations, and each caste already had its own teachings as how to find more perfection within the cycle of life.
In this context, Gautama indicated that enlightenment permits exit from the cycle of life, through transcendence; and all his teachings state that the method to enlightenment is a process over time. This is loosely referred to as 'the way' (to enlightenment), but in fact 'the way' is not 'one way,' but rather, a myriad paths to the same destination. Each person has one path to that destination, called 'the path,' but the path is different for each individual. This can be very confusing to those for whom English is a second language, and so many texts are not quite translated quite correctly on this point. As the way is a journey, teachings on how to accelerate one's journey on the path to enlightenment are therefore called 'vehicles.' There are a multiplicity of vehicles available, here summarized as the fast, great, old, diamond, and zen methods.Now this is a simplification, intended only to place the various schools, as they exist now,in relation to each other. If you are interested in the subject, you will find much more.
The fastest vehicle is said to be the 'hinayana' vehicle, or 'small vehicle,' which requires ardent monastic asceticism, continuous meditation, and extensive study in order to reach the most ancient state of union with 'the absolute,' totally in accordance with the earliest vedic traditions in Eastern mysticism, to which Buddhist teachings are simple and coherent continuations.
Historically, practitioners of the hinayana must be of the highest priest caste, within which they learn to recite the vedas, as well as the newer buddhist texts, as a hymn to the universe. Successful practitioners, historically, are called 'arhats.' Others less successful in the way often report, in amazement, the extraordinary stories of their lives, sometimes laced with miracles, demons, and theophanies, for the education and assistance of those so much less fortunate in life that they cannot read the original scriptures.
The small vehicle may provide the fastest journey to enlightenment, but it is only one of the myriad paths called the 'mahayana' or 'great vehicle.' Adherents of the mahayana state all other paths to enlightenment are simply longer ways to the same goal which the mahayana describes; so the mahayana tradition views the theravada, vajrayana, and zen traditions as good too, and part of the mahayana, but are just too complicated. Instead, the mahayana itself strives to identify a core doctrine that is in common to all ways, which is uniform and simple.This core doctrine is called 'the middle way' and only requires moderation, rather than asceticism.
The middle way allows people to proceed in normal life, but still reach enlightenment through buddhist practice. Teachers of the middle way may be conservatives, operating Buddhist churches; or yoga teachers, providing meditational aids. The middle way is not really meant to have monasteries, or miracles, or Gods, but teachers will use such aids if it assists the practitioners. The doctrines are, generally, simplified forms of the hinayana.
That being said, the mahayana teaches that all vehicles are just different mechanisms on the myriad path to the same enlightenment, so while the mahayana identifies a core doctrine for the middle way, it is different from virtually all other religions in that it *also* allows and acknowledges any other doctrine as being equally valid, and therefore may include them as necessary to assist its practitioners. As a result, there are actually many versions of the mahayana schools, and because other doctrines often claim exclusive rights to The Truth, this does raise some paradoxes which can be perplexing; but any Buddhist will tell you, accepting paradox is part of the way.
In parallel with the mahayana is the theravada, or 'old vehicle.' As noted above, the hinayana extended the ancient vedic texts with the natural continuation of new buddhist teachings. But historically, there were many versions of the older texts in other languages besides the sanskrit of the brahman priests, especially in the language of Pali. For those not able to understand the complex metaphysics of the vedic Upanishads, secondary texts had been written, using parables and myths to assist in comprehension; as well as guidebooks, called 'sutras' to assist in better conduct of life.
The Theravada tradition augments this larger, massive, multilingual caucus with the new buddhist teachings. Often, enlightenment itself shrinks in apparent significance, with the large number of additional meditational aids, such as the tantric symbolisms described in later sections.
As buddhism rose in popularity during the early centuries of its development, missionaries traveled East to spread the ideas. As a result, a series of new versions of Buddhism appeared across Tibet, China, Burma, Thailand, and Japan. These new versions, like the theravada, augmented the older local religions with Gautama's vision. The first, and perhaps most extraordinary of these, is Tibetan Buddhism: the Vajrayana, or diamond vehicle, formed as an extension of the more ancient Tibetan religion of Bon.
Practitioners of the diamond vehicle call their method 'the diamond cutter,' because of its precision in defining the way, and also, its iridescent beauty. From the theravada it takes the concept of the lotus, as representing the unfolding of awareness of the Buddhist truths, and places at its center the jewel of perfect life, which overcomes the demons in the lower hells, encountered between reincarnations during transmigration. It does this symbolically by mirroring the jewel in the lotus in the water of consciousness in which it floats, to form the image of the unfolding diamond sceptre, or vajra. At each end of life, the unfolding petals, representing the Buddhist truths, hold the diamond of perfection at its center. in another manifestation, the vajra is an emanation of transcendental state via meditation on sound. So the Tibetan bell, played during meditation, has one unfolding lotus as its handle, which can be seen; and the unfolding lotus in the sound at its other end, which is invisible.
The depth of the Tibetan tradition is simply indicated here by the extent of the meaning of the 'diamond cutter' in the name Vajrayana itself.
As the missionaries continued east carrying the news of Gautama;s vision, many more variants of Buddhism were created, as each civilization added the idea of enlightenment to its own religions and mythologies. but of all the variants, perhaps none are as different from the mahayana core as Zen buddhism, in Japan, Zen does not deny the mahayana tradition as being valid, but rather states that a different way to enlightenment is preferable. Its idea is that a person is better able to reach enlightenment by detaching the mind itself from its own thoughts. This method is not so much 'thinking nothing,' as many believe, but rather letting thoughts pass by without attaching the consciousness to them. By doing so, over time one attains the ability to exist outside normal thought, yet still communicate with others,after the state of 'satori' is reached.
Many people have trouble doing this, so the Zen teachers provide paradoxes called 'koans' to consider first, such as "the bull stands in a field, and the gate to the field is open. Is the bull inside or outside?" If the student believes one answer is obvious, the student is told to meditate on it. Adepts describe the sudden realization of the paradox, like a blinding but invisible flash, as the first insight into the nature of no-world which, if nurtured by the monks appropriately, leads to a lasting state of satori which can persist for many years, after even only a few weeks of training.
For those wishing to be Zen monks themselves, the level of detachment from the material world is far more extreme even than in the hinayana. Zen monks make their own clothes, build their own homes, and grow their own food. Zen temples are even meant to be built entirely of wood, without using a single nail, as part of the discipline.
The extremity of zen endeavour, including the practice of meditation without connected thought for several hours every morning before dawn, may appear very austere, but in fact zen monks are often very personable and, if you are properly respectful, display a sense of humor rare elsewhere. For example, when I described the idea of this book to a Zen monk some years ago, he smiled and said simply, "oh good! You will make...the first crossover vehicle."