The Scottish RMPS curriculum and different types of Buddhism
If you read the Scottish curriculum for the Buddhism portion of the National 5 / Higher qualification in RMPS (Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies) you quickly notice something: all the terminology is in Pali. Pupils must learn about kamma, nibbana, the three marks of existence – anicca, anatta and dukkha….
This Pali terminology betrays a bias towards Theravada Buddhism, the type of Buddhism prevalent today in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar, Laos). Theravada (literally “doctrine of the elders”) is a school of Buddhism that considers itself quite orthodox, and to represent an unbroken lineage from the time of the Buddha. For a while scholars saw Theravada Buddhism – and its Pali canon – as representative of early Indian Buddhism, and this is probably how the syllabus took its shape. However, we now know that there were many other schools of Indian Buddhism with different beliefs and practices. Meanwhile the Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) movement changed the landscape further, and took root in East Asia, as well as Nepal and Tibet. Mahayana Buddhism is completely absent from the Scottish school curriculum, despite being widely represented in Scottish life.
Limiting the school syllabus to Theravada beliefs and practices has the potential to rob pupils of the full richness of Buddhist history and culture. Where is the room here for Zen koans, or the Dalai Lama, or the glories of Mahayana literature? Some teachers manage to sneak some of this in under cover of themes such as “devotion” or “beliefs about the Buddha”, or embrace more diversity in teaching Buddhism lower down the school, at the pre-certificated levels.
If and when it is possible to include more diverse material in the teaching of Buddhism, how can teachers navigate the variety and history? There are a few different models for terminology:
Theravada and Mahayana
This is often used as a way to distinguish between what are seen as two broad branches of current Buddhism, with Theravada in South/Southeast Asia, and Mahayana pretty much everywhere else. This can be a handy shorthand, but doesn’t take account of history (there were other schools of non-Mahayana Buddhism in the past) nor of diversity (there are many different types of Mahayana).
Hinayana and Mahayana
This is best avoided. “Hinayana” literally means the “lesser vehicle” and is what certain Mahayana (“great vehicle”) texts use to refer to non-Mahayana Buddhists. It is a pejorative term. If talking about the current Buddhist world, use “Theravada”. If talking about history and different Indian Buddhist schools then use “non-Mahayana”.
Some systems add the “diamond” or “thunderbolt” vehicle to the two above. This is particularly prominent in Tibetan Buddhism, and sometimes presents itself as the “third turning of the wheel of the dharma” (after “Hinayana” and “Mahayana”). In scholarship it is often considered a branch of Mahayana.
Northern, Eastern, Southern, Western
A geographical designation is more neutral and surprisingly useful. Northern Buddhism (Tibet, Nepal) is rather dominated by Vajrayana/Mahayana, Eastern Buddhism (China, Korea, Japan) has various branches of Mahayana, Southern Buddhism (Sri Lanka and mainland Southeast Asia) is Theravada, and Western Buddhism is best seen as its own branch, including offshoots of all the others and some uniquely western developments.
The benefits of embracing a more diverse curriculum are clear: pupils get a better appreciation of the variation within religious traditions, are exposed to a wider range of literature and art and practice, and are better prepared for the study of Buddhism (or of art, literature, culture, history) at university.