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The issue of orthodoxy in Buddhism has been a matter of no little disputation; the earliest form of the teachings of the Enlightened One (the Buddha) held sway for several centuries before the variety of Buddhist converts pushed the tradition to embrace doctrinal diversity. The "original" dharma, meaning the teachings or truth taught by the Buddha, was embodied in a sangha, or religious order, which encompassed both lay and ordained disciples. These "three jewels"—the Buddha, dharma, and sangha—constitute the fundamental building blocks upon which the worldwide Buddhist community rests. Yet the tradition became so diversified and those who pursued enlightenment so far removed from the milieu of ancient India, where the Buddha flourished, that three distinctive ways or "vehicles" developed: the Theravada, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana.

The Theravadans hold that they are loyal to the original Buddhist tradition, insisting, then, that they are orthodox in their teachings. They are often dubbed Hinayana ("Little Vehicle") by rival Buddhists, implying that they have restricted the means of enlightenment to a single kind of experience. Both the other vehicles, however, hold that they are just as orthodox. They maintain that they accept other cultural frameworks for configuring the dharma and they notably give great significance to the Bodhisattva in the practice of Buddhism. For the ordinary believer, weighed down by the chores of life, the assistance of one who has completed the way is a magnificent boon: the Bodhisattva puts off entering into nirvana in order to assist those who are less endowed with good karma by transferring some of the merit obtained in the process of enlightenment to the less advanced searcher for enlightenment.

Debates about orthodoxy arose largely because of Buddhism's swift successes across manifold cultural frontiers, and these debates pitted those committed to the earliest texts and most common social forms associated with earliest Indian Buddhism (termed the Way of the Elders) against more manifold expressions. Buddhist orthodoxy, then, rests upon claims of authentic connection to the ideas, doctrines, and social forms deemed consistent with those of this early period. Those committed to the Theravadan tradition believe that theirs most closely follows these normative dimensions of that early Buddhism. Others insist that their enlightenment truth is the same (i.e., is orthodox) but that the formulas for expressing it in human language must be diversified in order to appeal to humans in their rich cultural environment. Initially such groups designated themselves as Mahayanist or "Big Vehicle."

In addition, Mahayanist tradition developed several philosophical schools as ways to comprehend the true impact of the Buddha's teachings for all kinds of minds. One of the most important of these was begun by a Brahman convert called Nagarjuna. His position is referred to as the "Middle Way," or Madhyamika. It is sometimes regarded as the most orthodox of the many schools in Mahayana Buddhism. Nagarjuna declined to debate whether or not one could talk about what is absolutely real. He insisted, rather, that anything that could be claimed to be real had to be "empty" of self-essence or absolute truth claims. This was because all the evidence around us in the world of phenomena points to the fact that nothing is permanent. Nagarjuna noted that everything appears to have an essence that abides forever, but in truth it does not. Thus what is true must be empty of such claims—it is truly "nothing" in its most authentic expression.

His orthodoxy of thought is often contrasted to orthodoxy of practice, such as that expressed in the great Yogacara school of meditation practice developed by a bhiksu, or monk, named Maitreya (270–350 C.E.), who insisted on the momentariness of all conscious awareness. Once one had meditated to the point where the false nature of substance became apparent, one could then proceed to the point where consciousness itself would merge into ultimate reality. His sketch of the processes of meditation provided the foundation for subsequent meditational developments and hence took on a kind of conservative orthodoxy. The citation of these schools as orthodox shows that the term relates to fundamental stances toward what is real or what exists.

Buddhist women in particular have no problem with the traditional religious understandings of the way, whichever of the three vehicles they belong to, but more and more they are objecting to the social restrictions imposed by the patriarchal structures of the Buddhist societies in which they live. Traditionally, monks were regarded as superior to nuns, and seldom were female practitioners of any Buddhism school accorded a leadership role. Monastic codes almost always insisted that females adopt a male stance in order to progress along the path. Currently women are insisting on the equality expressed by the Buddha's original teachings, a notion of orthodoxy that differs considerably from the norm. In the final analysis, the case of Buddhist orthodoxy raises the issue of whether orthodoxy's meaning can be limited to a single linguistic or cultural expression. Rather, it might well rest upon a core intuition which is then embodied in many cultural forms and languages, all of them ultimately unreal but all provisionally necessary for human knowledge.

This survey does not exhaust the religious environments in which the ideas of orthodoxy flourish, but what has been noted here should throw into relief some of the key ideas and affirm the multidimensionality of the term. Since the very use of the word implies exclusion, it runs counter to the more positive instincts of inclusion important today, especially in the West. Still, orthodoxy reminds us again of the immense power that religious affirmation and division have encapsulated in the human family.


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Earle H. Waugh

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Octadecanoate to OvenbirdsOrthodoxy - Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Jewish Orthodoxy, Hinduism, Buddhism, Bibliography