Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a living tradition mainly composed of philosophy and practices that help you find your true nature. Like most traditions as it migrated from India to other places it mixed with the native religions, cultures, and traditions of the area. The migration happened when the Muslims took over and started annihilating Buddhists because they were atheists unlike the Hindus. People tend to kill what they don’t understand. Some of the traditions in Buddhism are like religion. For example, in China and other places as it spread, there is the Pure Land school of Buddhism which is a lot like Christianity. If you live a good life and reap good karma then you are reborn into a sort of “Heaven” where you spend the rest of eternity reaching enlightenment.
The big divide in Buddhism is three subsections. There is Theravada which follows the Buddha’s early words and tend to be more fanatical. The male monks can’t touch women or money, etc. The gist is that they believe only in only enlightening themselves. They don’t care about enlightening others. The other two divisions call them Hinayana. “Yana” means vehicle, and “Hina” means lesser in Sanskrit. Theravadins don’t like being called Hinayanists, and a lot of them don’t like any other school of Buddhism. The type of practitioner that seeks enlightenment only for himself is known as an Arhat.
Mahayana is the second division. “Maha” means great, and “Yana” you already know! In this school you take a vow called the Bodhisattva vow (I’ll explain what a Bodhisattva is in a moment!) where you hold back from being enlightened until you help everyone else become enlightened. A Bodhisattva is a person who has reached a state of enlightenment but has returned to this world in some way through reincarnation to help others. Some Bodhisattvas have become so great that they become archetypes for others to connect with and receive teachings from and learn. Now that part is just myth. Later on the path you are taught that Bodhisattvas reincarnate as real people, and the archetypal Bodhisattvas are just there to represent a school of thought or a collection of teachings. See Buddhism doesn’t lie when it comes to their myths. Once you are ready, they tell you the truth. It’s a sort of super-sanity.
The third division or “vehicle” is Vajrayana. Vajra means “Secret”, but it can also mean “Indestructible” as in a Diamond. This is an esoteric tradition. Meaning you have to get initiated to get the teachings. This is because this version of Buddhism is not for the feign of heart. It is believed that one can reach enlightenment in one lifetime with this tradition. This tradition is an extension of the Mahayana tradition. The real reason you are initiated is so that the teachings won’t be misused or misinterpreted then re-taught wrong therefore destroying the purity of the teachings. This tradition is rich in symbolism and rituals, even though the more advanced you get the more you are encouraged to leave all the symbols and rituals behind. Again “super-sanity”!
I entered Vajrayana as a result of my past spiritual experiences. Vajrayana was already a lot like what I was practicing before. I also learned pure Mahayana when I studied Korean and Japanese Zen Buddhism in Boston for a few years. The Buddha taught in many different ways to many different people. Sometimes these ways contradicted each other. He did this because everyone is different, and there is no one way that will accommodate everybody. I’ve seen Buddhist-Jews Buddhist-Hindus, even Buddhist-Christians. “Buddha” is a title, it means “enlightened one”. The Buddha, if he existed, was a man named Siddhartha Gautama. We in Tibetan Buddhism call him Shakyamuni (“sage from the Shakya tribe”, where he came from). His adventure and tale are really nice, but I’ll leave it for another post. So now you know, Buddhism means “enlightenmentism”. There have been many Buddhas before and after Shakyamuni!