(continued from previous post - reply too long so segmented to avoid future expiration)
Is it true that in Theravada practice, it is generally thought that people must be reborn as monk before they can attain enlightenment. Thus the purpose of life for the Buddhist layman is to gain merit (good karma) by supporting the monks and doing other good deeds, in the hopes that the next life would be one favorable to gaining enlightenment?
I don't think so. Lay-practitioners in Theravada are also encouraged to practise Vipassana meditation to develope Insights and Wisdom for Enlightenment. There are many highly enlightened lay-teachers in Theravada too. In terms of the 4 stages of sainthood, which the highest level is Arhantship, there are many lay-teachers who are at least Sotapannas (stream-enterers) or higher. A stream enterer is known to have realised Non-self and destined to attain arhantship within 7 lifetimes and is destined not to fall into the 3 unwholesome realms and is destined to be reborn in the 3 wholesome realms if he did not attain Arhantship within that lifetime. They do not think that it is impossible for lay-practitioners to attain Arhantship, although I have heard (and is sometimes discussed), that in Theravada it is believed if you are a lay-person and you attain Arhantship, you will have to be ordained into the Sangha (monastic community) within 24 hours or you will enter Nirvana (pass away). Somehow your body cannot take it, and is not suitable to be a lay person after you become arhant. Maybe someone can explain it better than me.
In Mahayana Buddhism, as far as I know there is no belief that you definitely will have to renounce into the Sangha if you attain enlightenment. If memory serves though my master mentioned that when you attain the 1st Bhumi stage in Bodhisattvahood, you will have to enter monastic training to progress further. In Mahayana Practise, a Maha Bodhisattva is able to manifest as any being - a god, or king, a normal person, a monk, a ghost, or anything - anything that is required to reach out to other beings and teach the dharma. It doesnt matter what form he takes, as it is only a temporary form in order to benefit other beings. It is believed that anyone can practise the Bodhisattva ways. For example, Guan Shi Yin Pu Sa is depicted as a lay-person in white robes. Most Maha Bodhisattvas in Mahayana are lay persons. Only Di Zhang Wang Pu Sa (Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva) manifests as a monk.
In short, no matter who we are, lay-practitioners or renounced, we will have to do our best in cultivating both Blessings (Fu2) and Wisdom (Hui3). We should cultivate both
and not only one of the above. If you only cultivate blessings, and without wisdom you may even be reborn as an animal although you will be well-taken care of. If you cultivate only wisdom, even if you attain Arhantship nobody will give you alms (there is a real story in Buddha's times about this).
Always thought that Vajrayana practice was different from Mahayana and Theravada, but I came across a page stating that it falls under Mahayana.. Also used to think that Pureland was the only Mahayana school around... Now getting overwhelmed siah... Got Zen and Nichiren etc... Btw, is Nichiren part of Buddhism?
There are 13 Sects in Chinese Mahayana:http://www.buddhistdoor.com/bdoor/archive/nutshell/teach54.htm
1. Chu-she tsung  / Kosa Sect in Sanskrit, originated from Abhidharma School or Realistic School in India
2. Cheng-shih tsung  / Satyasiddhi Sect in Sanskrit
3. Lu tsung  / Vinaya Sect in Sanskrit
4. Chan tsung  / Dhayna Sect in Sanskrit / Zen in Japan, sometimes it is called Meditation School, or simply The School
5. Ching-tu tsung  / Sukhavati Sect in Sanskrit / Pure Land Sect, sometimes it is called Amidsim
6. Hus-yen tsung  / Avatamsaka Sect in Sanskrit / Flower Adornment Sect
7. Tien-tai tsung  / Heavenly Platform Sect
8. Fa-hsien tsung  / Dharmalaksana Sect in Sanskrit / Mere-consciousness Sect / Hosso in Japan, originated from Yogachara School in India
9. San-lun tsung  / Three Shastra Sect / Sanron in Japan, originated from Madhyamika School in India
10. Chen-yen tsung  or Mi tsung  / Esoteric School / Mantrayana or Tantrayana in Sanskrit / Word of Truth Sect / Shingon in Japan
11. Ti-lun tsung 
12. Nirvana Sect 
13. She-lun tsung 
Although there are 13 schools, but the more common ones are the Chan (Zen) school, Pure Land school, and Mi Tsung - which is Vajrayana. Vajrayana is more frequently found in Tibet, but smaller numbers of Vajrayana practitioners can be found in Japanese Buddhism, and their sect is called Shingon. The Esoteric School is also a Mahayana school.
Nichiren Buddhism is not a Chinese sect and developed latter from Tien Tai, which is known as Tendai in Japanese Buddhism, and the founder was Nichiren. The forum recognises Nichiren Shu but not some other Nichiren groups like Soka Gakkai - for this issue pls refer to: Nichiren Buddhism
Quoting from the explanation by An Eternal Now on the 5 vehicles. How different is Jenchen Buddhism from Mahayana Buddhism? Looks pretty similar to me...
The Buddha taught 5 vehicles as expedient means to guide sentient beings to Buddhahood. The Buddha taught Mahayana for Bodhisattva practitioners, and Humanity Vehicle teachings in general to humanity as a whole. In essence there is not 3, not 5, but only One Buddha Vehicle and all 5 or 3 vehicles are expediently taught.
Sorry for the trouble people... questions after questions... Thanks in advance to those solving my doubts again. Going to read through the Lotus Sutra soon.