Which sects or schools of Buddhism make the least reference to reincarnation and memories of past lives ?, also the least likely to talk about deities ? Which texts are the most accurate records of what the Buddha taught ? Thanks
Theravada is a common name for the conservative tradition that preserved fairly accurate records of what the Buddha taught. The thing is, other lives are mentioned a lot in the original texts.
The conservative tradition insists on literal interpretation of the texts, while various liberal schools (known under umbrella name of Mahayana) allow reading between the lines and various non-literal interpretations, including didactic and metaphorical interpretations of "other lives". They even allow (gasp!) development of ideas from the seeds present in the original texts, as well as from practice. Mahayana schools claim to have better preserved the spirit of what the Buddha taught.
Of all Mahayana schools Zen/Chan(Chinese)/Seon(Korean) are probably least likely to talk about past lives etc. Modern "Secular Buddhism" explicitly rejects any supernatural teachings.
Finally, if you want to get into Buddhism, you have to realize that within all schools without exception there are teachers & students who uphold literal interpretation of other lives and deities, and there are those who have a more comprehensive view of these things.
For example, within Tibetan Buddhist schools such as Nyingma and Kagyu - there is a lot of talk about past lives for beginners, but at advanced levels there is barely any mention of them. The deities do play important role but they are not taken literally.
Even Theravada teachers with all their traditional literalism, do not spend too much time talking about past lives and instead place a lot of emphasis on everyday practice. And when you practice enough in any tradition you arrive in more or less the same place of wisdom where all schools agree with each other.
I think you are looking for the same thing I’ve been looking for in the past years.
What I do is read lots of different texts from many different Buddhist traditions, and extract what I consider “pure wisdom” not influenced by religious beliefs. Currently I’m listening to an audio book: the Diamond Sutra interpretation by Osho, and it’s pretty great and free from religious distortions.
You can also adopt a skeptical point of view when reading Buddhism. For example, when past lives are mentioned, you can interpret it as your past defilements. Rebirth is enlightment. Etc.
An additional way I’ve found to acquire true wisdom is to study texts from many religions, and just abstract yourself from the fancy religious artifacts. You can get snippets of wisdom from Christians, Muslims, etc.
In reality there are no schools, only the Dhamma. The Dhamma is about the true nature of things, the nature of reality.
In this day and age where there are many schools, traditions, contradictory views and opinions, it can get complicated for people who have not yet experienced much of the Buddha's teachings, the Buddha-Dhamma.
I would not rely on any schools if I were you. Also, there are suspicious suttas and even contradictory ones. Nonetheless, the original Nikayas are the most accurate records of what the Buddha taught.
But since the Buddha is not here to teach us anymore, the second best option is to listen to advice from wise teachers who have true experiential wisdom. Who they are? that will be for you to decide.
Personally, I would recommend that you read from such venerable ones. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Ajahn Chah, Pa Auk Sayadaw , Mahasi Sayadaw. - http://www.dhammatalks.net/
And these books
- Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree: The Buddha's Teaching on Voidness, by Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
- Food for the heart, Collected teachings of Ajahn Chah
- Practicing the Jhanas: Traditional Concentration Meditation as Presented by the Venerable Pa Auk Sayadaw
Which texts are the most accurate records of what the Buddha taught ?
The Vinaya is said to be original, too, but it is (if I can say so with all due respect) less interesting than the suttas unless you're a monk. Some people would include the Abhidhamma too (see Buddhavacana); and there are later Turnings of the Wheel as well; but I think I recommend the suttas: to start with, and as an answer to this question.
For more about the Pali suttas (as written and translated texts), see also the answers these topics:
- English (or other European) translations of Pali Canon
- Chronological or other sequence for beginners
Even only the (collections of) suttas are long (see also Why isn't there a Buddhist Bible?), though IMO it's beneficial to study even one sutta. So, an alternative is to read a modern introduction, perhaps one which is structured as an anthology or summary of selected suttas, for example:
- In the Buddha's Words by Bhikkhu Bodhi is often recommended on this site
- I found The Buddha's Teachings on Prosperity remarkable in its focus on suttas for laity.
The most accurate records of what the Buddha taught are the Pali suttas however it is these very suttas that are subject to different interpretations.
For example, the idea of "past lives" is a combination of mere interpretations of what the Buddha reportedly taught in the Pali suttas plus later literal teachings introduced into Buddhism, such as the Jataka Tales, written hundreds of years after the Buddha. For example, the Pali sutta SN 22.79 is the only sutta that explains what is meant by recollecting past "nivasa" (often translated as "lives") yet this sutta obviously does not refer to past lives but to past states of egoism/attachment.
Similarly, the idea of "other-worldly-disembodied-deities" is a mere interpretation of the Buddha's teachings about "deities", which can be simply regarded as the rich, powerful (eg kings & queens) or meditation mystics & psychics of other religions.
If you wish to learn about how to interpret or understand the language of the Pali suttas, without falling in materialistic religious superstition, I recommend books by the old Thai monk Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, such as:
The word "birth" refers to the arising of the mistaken idea "I," "myself". It does not refer to physical birth, as generally supposed. The mistaken assumption that this word "birth" refers to physical birth is a major obstacle to comprehending the Buddha's teaching. Anyone who falls to grasp this point will never succeed in understanding anything of the Buddha teaching.
It is fundamental to Buddhism, to believe in certain factors.
“Householders, there are some recluses and brahmins whose doctrine and view is this: ‘There is nothing given, nothing offered, nothing sacrificed; no fruit or result of good and bad actions; no this world, no other world; no mother, no father; no beings who are reborn spontaneously; no good and virtuous recluses and brahmins in the world who have themselves realised by direct knowledge and declare this world and the other worl>