I've read that Jainism is one of the oldest Indian traditions, that Buddhism somewhat derived from it and that at some time they rivaled (I'm not sure if this was a political thing). Can you explain what are the connections between this two in terms of philosophy and practice?
The Jains were already established and flourishing when the Buddha came on to the scene. There are many places in the suttas where the Buddha debates with Jains and discusses their teachings. There are definite similarities, most likely due to being from the same general area with similar culture, but there are also major differences. In the Suttas they are called the Niganthas, as Ven Thanissaro will speak of below:
As he interrogates the Niganthas, he makes the point that if all pleasure and pain experienced in the present were determined by past action, why is it that they now feel the pain of harsh treatment when they practice asceticism, and no pain of harsh treatment when they don't? If past action were the sole determining factor, then present action should have no effect on their present experience of pleasure or pain.
In this way, the Buddha points to one of the most distinctive features of his own teaching on kamma: that the present experience of pleasure and pain is a combined result of both past and present actions. This seemingly small addition to the notion of kamma plays an enormous role in allowing for the exercise of free will and the possibility of putting an end to suffering before the effects of all past actions have ripened. In other words, this addition is what makes Buddhist practice possible, and makes it possible for a person who has completed the practice to survive and teach it with full authority to others.
The second important point touched on in this sutta — how to put an end to pain and suffering — relates to the first. If the cause of present suffering were located exclusively in the past, no one could do anything in the present moment to stop that suffering; the most that could be done would be to endure the suffering while not creating any new kamma leading to future suffering. Although this was the Jain approach to practice, many people at present believe that it is the Buddhist approach as well. Meditation, according to this understanding, is the process of purifying the mind of old kamma by training it to look on with non-reactive equanimity as pain arises. The pain is the result of old kamma, the equanimity adds no new kamma, and thus over time all old kamma can be burned away.
In this sutta, however, the Buddha heaps ridicule on this idea. First he notes that none of the Niganthas have ever come to the end of pain by trying to burn it away in this way; then he notes that they have based their belief in this practice entirely on their faith in their teacher and their approval of his ideas, but neither faith nor approval can act as guarantees of the truth. As he illustrates with his simile of the man shot with an arrow, only a person who has succeeded in going beyond pain would be in a position to speak with authority of the method that actually puts an end to pain. (What is not mentioned in this sutta is the Nigantha idea that the practice of austerities, to succeed completely in burning away old kamma, must culminate in a suicide by starvation. Thus there could be no living person who would be able to vouch for the efficacy of their method.)
The dhamma wiki also has a page that may be informative with a nice graph showing similarities: http://www.dhammawiki.com/index.php?title=Buddhism_and_Jainism
Which came first?
Jainism is clearly older than Buddhism if we just go by the archeological and historical records. Both religions claim that their founders, Mahavira and Buddha rediscovered the teachings after they had died out from a previous era. The Buddhist scriptures clearly refer to Jainism as if it is an already entrenched religion. And there is reference made to a previous Jain teacher born at least a couple of centuries before Buddha. Both religions maintained an oral tradition and did not have their teachings put to writing for hundreds of years. The Buddhist Tipitaka was put to writing around 100 BCE. However, the Jain sutras did not get put to writing until the 6th century CE (Mahesh Jain, 2004) which is about 600 years after the Buddhist scriptures. The scriptures also have numerous parallels, including some of the same stories and same formats. There is even a numerical section of the Jain sutras similar to the numerical lists found in the Buddhist Anguttara Nikaya. Considering this, it can be argued that the Jain writers copied some material or at least the format off the Buddhist scriptures.
There are marked differences in the definitions of kamma and nibbana (karma and nirvana) and the Buddha was practicing asceticism prior to enlightenment. In light of these facts it is possible that both Mahavira and Buddha were practicing some form of Jainism/Shramana/asceticism and the Buddha got it right (and was the actual new enlightened one to teach the masses, not Mahavira) in regard to nibbana and kamma but both were insistent on ahimsa and many other teachings.
Notions of Karma
I believe one of the central differences between Jainism and Buddhism is in their respective interpretations of Karma.
For Jains Karma is a primarily a matter of external behavior or action. It is physical conduct that leads to Karma and the objective is to free the sould from its karmic accretions. This leads to a practice of inaction and extreme measures such as sweeping the floor before walking to avoid harming life.
For Buddhist karma is more of a matter of underlying intention. So unconsciously inhaling insects would be less of a problem for Buddhists than it would be for Jains as the intention to harm isn't present. The mind has primacy rather than the bodily actions.
In the Upali Sutta the Buddha debates these points with the Jain Upali. Uplai maintains that bodily actions carry most karmic weight whereas the Buddha states that it is mental ... to quote
I declare three actions for doing demerit and its perpetration. They are bodily, verbal and mental actions.’ [...] ‘Friend, Gotama, of these three actions that are different and dissected, which one does good Gotama declare as most blameworthy? Is it bodily, verbal or mental actions?’ ‘Friend Tapassi, of these three actions, I declare mental action as the most blameworthy, not so much bodily or verbal action.’
Notions of soul
Another notable difference between the faiths is which being have a persistent soul. If I could just bring in Hinduism to illustrate the point
- Hindus believe that humans and animals have a persistent soul
- Jains believe that humans, animals, plants, rocks, fire and a whole wealth of 'non-living' (to us) objects have soul. If you light a match then the flame has a soul.
- Buddhists believe that nothing has a permanent soul or more accurately fixed self.