As the fourth most followed religion in the world, with an estimated 350 million followers or more, Buddhism is one of the major religions in the world today, and has been for much of its two-and-a-half thousand year history. As those years have passed, it has changed and adapted to new cultures and psychologies, producing a wide variety of forms. And yet, at the heart of all these sects, the essential message of the Buddha is retained: life is full of suffering, and there is a way out of that suffering – the Way of the Buddha.
This is not to say that there are not big differences between many of the diverse kinds of Buddhism, however; there is the somewhat austere and conservative approach of Theravada Buddhism, the radical and unorthodox methods of Zen Buddhism, the multifarious and Hindu-influenced forms of Tibetan Buddhism, the devotional and almost theistic Pure Land Buddhism, and the militant yet liberating Nichiren Buddhism, to name but a few. Outwardly, these different denominations appear more like different religions rather than various versions of the same one. This is not so surprising when we remember that the societies and times that they arose and developed from also differ greatly, and as hinted at above, it is the teachings of the Buddha that are really important, not the particulars of the sect from through they are conveyed. We will look at these teachings a little later, but first let’s examine the outer layers of the Buddhist onion.
When we inspect specific practices from individual sects, Buddhism can seem pretty confusing. Chinese Buddhists make much use of music, with some beautifully melodic hymns in their repertoire. Whereas in Theravada Buddhism, a cappella chanting is used in their religious services, basing this practice on teachings attributed to the Buddha.
Buddhists pay obeisance to a number of statues in their temples, including Avalokiteshvara, Tara, and the Buddha, in Nichiren Buddhism the primary object of worship is a symbol representing the Lotus Sutra, and whilst Pure Land Buddhists chant the name of Amitabha Buddha, Japanese Zen Buddhists meditate upon the moment or illogical riddles. Pure Land
All these apparent contradictions lead some scholars to classify the major sects as different Buddhisms as opposed to forms of one religion called Buddhism. Furthermore, there are seemingly irreconcilable doctrines to be found in these sects; in Theravada Buddhism, the Buddha is believed to have been a man who realized Nirvana, or enlightenment, and when he finally passed away, ceased to exist. In Mahayana Buddhism (which includes most of the other modern Buddhist movements) the Buddha is more like a god, still existing in some heavenly realm ready to come to the aid of a follower when petitioned. Likewise, the spiritual ideal in Theravada Buddhism is the Arahant, someone who realizes full enlightenment in this lifetime and then ceases to exist like the Buddha; in Mahayana Buddhism, the Arahant is superseded by the Bodhisattva who though spiritually awakened, puts off full enlightenment so as to help others to do the same.
A Traditional response to these and the thousands of other differences found between the Buddhist sects is to consider them as ‘skillful means’ to enlightenment. In other words, the various sects, practices and teachings exist to accommodate the many different kinds of human beings that live in the world. According to this viewpoint, whilst outwardly they may appear to contradict one another, the final destination (enlightenment) is the same; it is only the particular route taken that differs. This interpretation of the myriad of forms that Buddhism takes is quite popular among many modern Buddhists, especially western ones, and it has even been taught by popular Buddhist teachers who themselves adhere to one particular sect. Another cause for conciliatory language between such teachers is some of the similarities found in their denominations, as explored below.
Generally speaking, most forms of Buddhism share many common characteristics such as the use of Buddha statues and other religious imagery, ceremonies and rituals, the practice of chanting and prayer, and the presence of a priestly class, often in the from of minks and nuns. With the exception of monks and nuns, according to the earliest known scriptures (the Tripitaka or Pali Canon), the Buddha actually dissuaded his followers from using images, rituals, and prayer, and made little or no reference to ceremonies and chanting. As far as we can tell, these practices arose long after his passing away, and while he was alive, the Buddha encouraged his disciples to walk the Noble Eightfold Path, involving aspects such as basic morality, meditation and mindfulness. So, whilst a cause for Buddhists to see similarities amongst the different versions of Buddhism found in the world today, such activities are not really part of the Buddha’s actual teaching.
This emphasis of the Buddha on his Way as the Path to end suffering, rather than as a religion as such raises an important question when looking at the Buddhist religion today: is it what he really intended for his followers? The same could be asked of Christ and Christianity of course, and I know many Christians who hold the view that whilst religion is manmade, the real point of Christian practice is salvation in Jesus Christ, which is God-made. With the substation of Buddha for Christ, and enlightenment for salvation – plus the elimination of God from the equation altogether – this statement could be made regarding Buddhism. It can be argued, and some Pali Canon purists do, that the Buddha did not teach Buddhism or any other ism for that matter, but that he pointed out the Way to Nirvana.
So, who is correct? Are Theravada Buddhists or the Pali Canon enthusiasts on the right track, or are the Pure Landers headed for eventual enlightenment in Amitabha’s heavenly paradise? Perhaps none of these groups are correct, and it is the tantric Tibetan Buddhists that are on the true path; but, then again, surely all those hours spent meditating have not been wasted by the world’s Zennists? In truth, it is by looking at the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings, whether in the Pali, Chinese, or Tibetan scriptures, that we might divulge as to who is right and who is wrong. And, if we discern the common themes that run through these voluminous works, we find that wisdom, compassion, meditation, mindfulness and above all enlightenment lie at the common heart of all these variations on the Buddha’s Path.
Furthermore, by walking this Path we can taste liberation, which is the ultimate test as to whether we are walking the Buddha’s Way or not. True enough, it is easy to get caught up in rituals and doctrines and the like, and when this is done, we fall into the traps of sectarianism and religiosity, and this is a million miles from the intention of the Buddha, which was to establish the Way out of suffering. Therefore, if awareness is applied to our practice, then whether we call what we practice Theravada Buddhism, Pali Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, or no Buddhism at all, it will be in line with what the Buddha intended for us: the Way to end suffering.