Can’t We All Just Get Along?

How many schools of Buddhism are there?  There were the eighteen schools of early Buddhism: Saravastivadin, Sautranika, Dharmaguptaka, etc.  There are the three vehicles: Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.  There are the various schools of Japanese Buddhism: Pure Land (Jodo-shu and Jodo-shinshu), Shingon, Tendai, Nichiren, Soka Gakkai, Soto and Rinzai Zen.  There are the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism: Gelug, Kagyu, Nyingma, and Sakyu.  There are the diverse forms of  Theravada: Thai Forest, lay Burmese, the various state Buddhisms. There are the ten schools of Chinese Buddhism: T’ien T’ai, Chan (Northern and Southern), Ching-t’u, etc.  We haven’t even gotten to Korea or Viet Nam!  I’m sure I’ve left out a lot…

Which one of these is the True Buddhism?  You could argue, as Joseph Goldstein has [ref] Goldstein. J. (2002). One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism.  HarperSanFrancisco. [/ref], that they are all outward expressions of One Dharma, but they are really quite heterodox and heteropractic.  The more one learns about Buddhism, the more one becomes aware that there is no one thing called Buddhism, but a diversity of cultures of awakening inspired and informed by the teachings of the Buddha.

It’s the same with all religions.  Judaism has always been a broad stream of competing interpretations of tradition.  Today that Judaic stream includes such diverse forms as Hasidism, Modern Orthodoxy, Conservativism, and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.  Similarly, Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the mainline, fundamentalist, and evangelical branches of  Protestantism, Unitarianism, Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh-Day Adventism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses all coexist under the broad umbrella of Christianity.  Which is the true Judaism?   What the true Christianity?

Religions are not static entities, but evolving, pluralistic networks inspired by the ideas of their founders, who in turn were inspired by traditions that preceded them.  Christ  emerged from within the Jewish tradition, the Buddha from within the Indian ō›ranmana movement.  Religions are, as Buddhists might say, conditioned phenomena that are impermanent and have no self-nature.

We have no way of knowing precisely what the Buddha said.  The teachings of the Pali canon were written down centuries after the buddha’s parinirvana.  The Mahayana sutras, most written centuries after the Pali canon, also claim to be Buddhavacana, the Word of the Buddha, just as the Bible and Qur’an claim to be the Word of God.

Even if we knew exactly what the Buddha said, there’s no reason to assume everything he said was true.  He may have been Enlightened, but he was still just a man:  a man who grew up within a particular historical era, socioeconomic class, culture, and gender.  His knowledge of the world was limited by the cosmology, science, geography, biology, economics, psychology, and politics of the time.  He didn’t know about quarks, quasars, molecules, bacteria, evolution, neurobiology, macroeconomics, or North America.  He grew up within a culture that believed in devas, brahmas, ghosts and demons, and that assumed Mount Meru was the center of the geographical world.  Whenever we approach a Buddhist text, we can’t help approaching it as twenty-first century inhabitants of our own contemporary cultures.  We must use our own knowledge base, our ability to reason, and our own lived experience of Buddhist practice to reassess the value, meaning, and intention of Buddhist teachings and texts.

It always saddens me when one school of Buddhism assumes it is The True School and denigrates others.  This has happened throughout Buddhism’s history, just as it happens in all religions.  Nichiren vigorously attacked Zen in the 13th Century, and Mahayana has historically denigrated Theravada as a ”lesser vehicle”, while Theravada has complained about Mahayana and Vajrayana revisionism.  The various Buddhisms have always been marked by reinterpretation and attempts to reinstate orthodoxy.

It also always saddens me when people I respect and admire attack each other. The impetus for this post is B. Alan Wallace’s recent attack on Stephen Batchelor’s views In Mandala, the FPMT official publication.  In that essay, Wallace states that Batchelor offers a ”false facsimile” of the Buddha’s teachings and his writings are a ”near enemy” of Buddhism.

Wallace and Batchelor were monks together in India and Switzerland.  I’ve had the pleasure of having spoken to and attended talks by both of them over the years. They are both thoughtful, challenging, and inspiring teachers, and I’ve learned much from each of them.  I understand where and why Wallace disagrees with Batchelor, and while my own views are much closer to Batchelor’s (this Blog is called the Existential Buddhist, after all!) I think Wallace makes some valid criticisms.  It’s a big leap, however, from saying one disagrees with someone else to saying they are an enemy.  There’s a lot of room for interpretation in Buddhism.  We’re a big tent.  Let a thousand flowers bloom, a thousand schools of thought contend!  Lighten up, Alan!  In the words of the famous contemporary American philosopher, Rodney King, ”Can’t we all just get along?”

13 Replies to “Can’t We All Just Get Along?”

  1. Sure, Buddhism is a big tent. That doesn’t mean that Buddhism is anything you want to make it. Sometimes there are offshoots that diverge far enough from it that it becomes problematic to call them Buddhism anymore; truth in advertising and all that. If you lose sight of one or more of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha or the Four Dharma Seals, I think it’s at least legitimate to ask if what you’re teaching can legitimately be called Buddhism. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong, of course. Only different.

    For the record, I think that Batchelor has drifted far enough from this core that what he teaches isn’t Buddhism anymore. I also think that he’s kidding himself when he claims to have discovered what the Buddha really taught.

    A lot of Wallace’s essay stuck in my craw, in particular the puerile jabs at ‘atheists’ and bringing up those old bogeymen, Mao and Stalin, and his essay took a decidedly ugly turn after that point. However, I agree with him about the main point he’s making. Not everything is Buddhism, there are reasonably good criteria to determine whether something is Buddhism or not, and labeling something Buddhism when it isn’t does give a distorted picture of Buddhism, which is not helpful.

    I have no beef whatsoever with what Batchelor teaches. I just don’t like it that he calls it Buddhism. Truth in advertising and all that.

  2. Seth, if you see a post on my blog tomorrow that is similar in many respects to this one, please don’t think I am copying you. Either our minds are somehow gravitating toward the same subjects at relatively the same time, or you have found a way to get inside my head and steal my thoughts. I suspect the latter, due to the fact that Steven Spielberg has been doing just that for over thirty years now. He owes everything to me. George Lucas, too.

    Seriously, I did just finish writing a somewhat similar post for tomorrow.
    Now, I haven’t read Wallace’s essay yet, but I do tend to agree with Petteri Sulonen as I am not sure that what Batchelor is teaching is still Buddhism. I feel the same way about the Soka Gakkai and it’s interesting that you list them as a separate tradition. At the same time, I’m not convinced there is a fool-proof way to go about determining what’s Buddhism and what’s not, except in extreme, obvious cases.

    I do think there are certain core principles or doctrines that constitute Buddha-dharma, and while not every single one needs to be embraced, when teachings drift too far afield, then I think feel we have a case of something that is based on Buddhism, but is not Buddhism per se.

    Why it’s necessary to attack each other, I just don’t get. I had a bellyful of that in the Gakkai. At least, on the organizational level there was a reason for it. They need to attack other forms of Buddhism in order to promote their own brand. A sleazy reason, but a reason nonetheless. Perhaps that the real motivation behind all such attacks.
    I agree with your assessment of Rodney King as the ”famous contemporary American philosopher”! His entire canon consists of but six words, and yet, they are immortal, and should be the mantra we all chant.

    1. Petteri and David,

      I write this having just spent the day in jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring Zion Canyon. I want to thank both Petteri and David for their thoughtful comments. It looks like we all agree on the importance of keeping discourse civil and friendly as part of the practice of right speech.

      Petteri, I agree with you that a big tent is not the same thing as implying that “anything goes,” but I suspect we differ as to what the core ingredients of anything aspiring to call itself a Buddhism must include. I have called this blog “The Existential Buddhist” to clarify that I am not coming from within a particular tradition but from my own experience, not because my own experience is so vast or better than anyone else’s, but because I am the kind of person who just cannot rely on someone else’s experience as being authoritative. Some folks might think that I am not really a Buddhist because I remain agnostic about a lot of Buddhist teachings, not necessarily because I believe they are wrong, but because they still lie outside my personal experience, or I cannot quite square them with some aspects of my own experience.

      I still call myself a Buddhist, though, because of what I do believe in given my own experience: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, interbeing, non-clinging, mindfulness, compassion, loving-kindness, equanimity, sympathetic joy, the value of meditation practice, the ethics of the precepts, the inspiration of many Buddhist teachers. Is that enough to make something Buddhism? Maybe not, but I’m not sure what else you could call it. Neo-Buddhism? Existential Buddhism? Whatever! Anyway, I suspect that Stephen Batchelor would endorse all of the core Buddhist ingredients I just listed, and that is why I consider his teachings as still being within the Buddhist camp.

      David, I look forward, as always, to reading your post on this subject. I see Kyoshin has also published a piece on this topic on his website, Echoes of the Name. I would list his URL here, but my web access is very limited here in Zion.

      Best regards to all,


  3. ” Religions are, as Buddhists might say, conditioned phenomena that are impermanent and have no self-nature.”

    This statement is not true. Religions are fabricated stories. Religions are religious. No way around this. They are not what the “founder” intended. It is what the followers and sheep do with the information. People are religious about football, or cooking. It is a means of escape not awakening. They are miles apart from each other. If one is relying on a religion to awaken it ain’t gonna happen because religion is filled with belief and fabrication. It is also dependent of fellow believers of like mind. Awakening comes completely from ones own experience. It does not rely on what others think, or any world view or religious doctrine. So many people who practice Buddhism think it is a religion, and for them it is. I am sure that whoever started “Buddhism” did not want it to turn into a religion. The same with the “Chirst”. Many people awaken to their life without any contact with Buddhism or Christianity or any religion. Buddhism can be a short path to self-discovery, but it can never be a religion, unless that is what people make it out to be.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      “ Religions are, as Buddhists might say, conditioned phenomena that are impermanent and have no self-nature.”

      I think you misunderstood the statement you were responding to. When I wrote that religions are impermanent and have no self-nature, I meant that religions change over time, and that they do so through a process of interchange with the cultures they exist within. For example, Buddhism changed over the centuries as it interacted with Indian tantra, Chinese Taoism, and Tibetan Bon. Similarly, now that Buddhism is interacting with Western cultures, it will probably change as a result of its contact with Western individualism, egalitarianism, commercialism, science, etc.

      Your main point seems to be that you believe religions, being based on fabrication and faith, impede rather than facilitate awakening, and that many people awaken without Buddhism or religion in general. Sorry you have had such bad experience with religion!

      I am not sure what you mean by “awaken to life” in your comment, and whether you intend it to mean the same thing that Buddhists mean when they talk about awakening. You seem to be saying you think of Buddhism as a path of self-discovery, which is not the way Buddhists think of it.

      Can individuals awaken on their own without Buddhism? Well, the Buddha did it. And the previous Buddhas before him. The dharma is always available for discovery. On the other hand, it’s a lot harder to discover an entire path on your own! You can learn an awful lot from those who have walked the path before you. And it’s nice to be walking the path in the company of others!

  4. Anonymous, I think you are in agreement with Seth more than you might think. All conditioned phenomena can be considered a “fabricated story,” in so far as they are products of people and culture. Religion too is a culture, some use it to alienate others, while some use it to be more tolerate, open-minded, and compassionate. It depends on the individual’s intentions.

    Seth, I like big tents too. I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, but I feel enriched from many of its teachings. I believe that we are all interconnected egos, and our speech and actions have consequences that permeate beyond our perceived notion of a self. By alienating others, especially by calling them an “enemy,” we create a false dichotomy, a conflict between “Us vs. Them.” I believe this dualistic thinking is the source of our suffering. I am typically a big fan of Wallace, but I would be disappointed if he is calling others an “enemy of Buddhism.” That is not a good way to lead others to follow the Dharma. I’m going to check out his article right now.

    Thanks for another great post and keep them coming!

  5. Buddhism is a religion because it contains at least one element of faith: that the Buddha said, and was correct in saying, that all beings are perfect and complete and endowed with Buddha nature from the very beginning. As I understand it, one thing that distinguishes Buddhism from other religions, however, is that this faith is provisional, to be confirmed through experience–or existentially, as Seth defines it. Also, it’s not necessarily a belief system, but rather a form of action. That form is contained in the six paramitas. So, to the extent that one’s actions accord with the six paramitas, one may be called a Buddhist. To the extent that one’s actions deviate from the paramitas, one is not a Buddhist. Ultimately, what’s important is to hit the mat, sit, sit, sit, and discover how to reconcile the Buddha’s statement about our inherent perfection with our perceived imperfection.

    1. That could also be said about others religions. Especially mystic traditions like Sufism, Kabbalah, or Christian Mysticism, where the goal is to confirm your beliefs through experience. Also, all religions have a certain “call to action,” they are never just beliefs.

  6. I didn’t mean to suggest that Buddhism is totally different from ALL religions with respect to personal religious experience or calls to action. But I would note that you refer to the mystical sects of major religions, which are not their dominant forms. In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes provides an interesting and well-researched analysis that brings this fact to light: human beings became conscious when an increasingly complex world made them lose the ability to receive effective, direct guidance from their intuition and inner voices. At that point, the mental matrix of ancient religions began to manifest in the form of prophets, priests and other intermediaries between people and their gods (or God). I believe that Buddhism and mystical traditions within other religions reaffirm our capacity for spiritual self-sufficiency and are different from dominant forms where the word of God is handed down rather than heard. This requires a type of faith that is unneeded in Buddhism or mysticism and makes personal experience anathema as a form of rebellion against the established order. No wonder that some would consider Buddhism, in essence, a mystical tradition. This is not to diminish the role of teachers and direct transmission, outside books and words, particularly within Zen and the Tibetan traditions, just like in Sufism, for example.

  7. Wow, and I just remembered Wallace’s name as a contributer to the book “Destructive Emotions” — about the conference on Emotions. How ironic.

    But your post offers no suggestions. How are we to remain critical of each other and yet not destructive? Are you calling Wallace’s writing an indiscretion on “Right Speech”. Wasn’t Wallace trying to protect something he feels is threatened.

    Should we passively let others attack what is precious to us?
    I think the key here is that Batchelor is touching on deeply “religious feelings” — feelings common to all religious people. I think your hope, like mine, is that Buddhism not be religious — I think that is Batchelor’s hope too.

    I am new to the academic side of this. But when did Buddhism start calling itself “Buddhism”? It seems like that is what Wallace and some of your commenters are trying to fervently defend. Maybe people need to give up Buddhism and go back to their practice of limiting suffering.

    1. Sabio,

      One can explain where one disagrees with another and where one thinks the other’s argument is deficient with care and affection. Attacking is something extra and unnecessary. What/who is being threatened and what/who needs protection? Does the Dharma need protection? If someone disagrees with us, what needs to be defended?

      As far as the term “Buddhism” is concerned, Buddhism is a Western construct. Asian’s didn’t need a term other than “the Dharma” or “the way (“gyu” in Tibetan).”

      I’m not too hung up on whether Buddhism is a religion or not. It has aspects of a religion, of a philosophy, and of a psychology. You are free to take from it what you find useful. Many Buddhists throughout the world never meditate and practice primarily to obtain merit. Other Buddhists, especially in the West, read Buddhism as a rational philosophy. While I am a non-theist, I do possess a sense of the sacred, and seeing what is sacred in all things and showing the appropriate reverence and respect for life is part of my practice. This seems religious to me.

  8. @ Seth
    I agree totally — couldn’t have said better myself.
    I do wonder about how to speak out against autraucities (subtle or gross). Martin Buber and Ghandi apparently wrote letters to each other debating this issue. Buber felt that non-violence worked in a culture that respected it but otherwise, millions of innocents could be exterminated. I think he was right.
    But on an everyday level, care and affection do well. Yet both in Tibetan and Japanese Buddhist literature there is crazy wisdom stories of abrupt masters. We know that harshness sometime is very effective — the question is long term effects. I don’t think anyone has that figured out. (though they may say they do)

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