Different Traditions in Buddhism

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By Bhante Sathi

 

I would like to talk about different traditions in Buddhism and how, in my opinion, all of us are working on the same wonderful project.

Once there was a man taking a walk, and as he was walking, he saw a very peaceful, happy person sitting under a tree. The person was so peaceful and happy that he was radiant. And the man thought to himself, “this person looks so very peaceful; he must be a god.”

So, The man went over to this peaceful person, and asked: “Are you a god?”

He replied, “No”

So he asked, “Are you a magician?”

The replay came “No”

“Are you a celestial being?”

He replied “No”

Are you an extraordinary being?”

He replied “No”

Finally he asked, “Are you a man?”

Then the person replied, “Men have defilements, but I no longer have defilements, so I am not a man.” Gods, magicians, celestial beings, and extraordinary beings – all these beings have defilements, but I no longer have defilements, so I am none of these things.

The man asked further, “What are you then?”

And he answered, “I am awake. That is why they call me the Buddha.”

Prince Siddhartha was born into this world, just like you and me?
He tried many, many paths to understand himself.
Finally he understood his own true nature and the nature of this world.

He compared this process of understanding self, to the growth of the Lotus seed.  We find the Lotus seed buried deeply in muddy waters. But it emerges from those muddy waters and becomes a very beautiful flower. When Siddhartha finally
understood the true path, he became a fully enlightened being, just as the lotus emerges from the muddy waters into a perfectly beautiful flower.

That process of growth is what “Buddhism” is all about. How to develop the mind? How to free the mind of its suffering and find true happiness?

Today we hear of many different types of Buddhism. We hear about “zen”, about Therevada or Mahayana traditions, about Tibetan Buddhism, and so forth. All of these traditions are concerned with this essential project of freeing the mind
from its suffering. Each tradition contributes something special to our understanding of this essential Dharma.

Buddha explained to us that there were some non-essential aspects of this teaching, which could be changed, so that they could adapt better to other cultures.

100 years after the death of the Buddha the community of monks had the second council meeting. After that meeting, one group within the community decided that it was necessary for them to make some changes in these less important
rules of the teachings. This was the beginning of the distinction between the Therevadan and the Mahayanan traditions. And still today these are the two main schools of thought within Buddhism.

Of course, most of us monks are not enlightened, and so sometimes we get very attached to our traditions and we think, “We’re right! They’re wrong!” But really it’s not that simple. It’s liked the story Buddha told about the blind man and the elephant. The view of each tradition has its limitations, because unenlightened human beings and their cultures have limitations. That’s just the way it is.

The main area of difference between Therevada and Mahayana Buddhism has to do with the understanding of the Bodhisattva. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattva Way, the practice of compassion, is the practice necessary to
achieve enlightenment, to truly develop the mind. In Therevada Buddhism, the emphasis is on first developing one’s own mind through the practice of right mindfulness. In Therevada practice, Bodhisattva qualities, and all of the other
characteristics of a Buddha, develop as a natural consequence of mindfulness.  Therevada Buddhism also has strong teachings on the practice of compassion and loving kindness, but these practices are always understood in the context of
mindfulness. Mindfulness practice is really the practice of compassion toward oneself. In some ways it’s like a chicken-or-the-egg question. Mahayana tradition teaches that the door to perfect mindfulness is the practice of compassion. Therevada tradition teaches that the door to perfect compassion is the practice of mindfulness.

Maybe both traditions are right in a way because these things – mindfulness and compassion – are so deeply connected that they arise together in the mind. So wherever one is, the other is always there too. But we can’t just say “both are right!”. Each tradition has some important concerns that we need to think about.

One concern that the Mahayana Buddhists have is that learning the practice of mindfulness meditation is much more difficult than learning the practice of compassion. Few people other than monks have the time and the discipline to
practice meditation this way. But all people can learn how to practice compassion. Another concern the Mahayana has is that the Therevada’s interest in achieving enlightenment just for oneself, for one’s own mind, may be concealing defilement; (it may be based on greed and selfishness). And if that is true then it won’t lead to enlightenment. Those are very good concerns that are worth considering mindfully.

On the other hand, the Theravada Buddhists are concerned that compassion has to begin at home. The attempt to free our own minds from suffering is an act of compassion toward ourselves. It’s all connected: you can’t have compassion for
me unless you have compassion for yourself. Compassion toward self automatically becomes compassion toward the world. If you don’t have compassion for the world, you don’t have compassion for yourself. Another concern is that what seem like compassionate acts for others may really not be. Everything depends on what is motivating them in the mind. So the Therevadan’s point is that without an emphasis on our own individual mindfulness, we can’t really know what we’re practicing. Maybe it’s compassion, or maybe it’s patronizing, or maybe its just delight with how compassionate we think we are. How do we know unless we are practicing mindfulness?

These are also very good concerns that we have to consider mindfully.

Wisdom also begins at home. Before you can really understand others and the world you have to understand yourself. When you understand yourself accurately, you automatically understand others and the world.

Tibetan Buddhism needs to be understood apart from Mahayana. In important ways, Tibetan Buddhism has similarities with Therevada Buddhism because their monastic code (Vinaya) and the Therevada monastic code are essentially the same.

Now think about this. Buddhism is like pure water. Buddha served that pure water to several groups. Some people received it in bottles, others in bowls, others in cups. Different groups received it in different containers. Our traditions – Therevada, Mahayana, and Tibetan – are like these containers. It’s human nature to grasp onto the containers, give them labels, as we’re doing now.  But these are just the containers. We need to try to focus not on the container, but to simply use the container to access the water within. We have to realize that this is just a container. Still, where would the water be if there was no container?

Once there was a group of princes who paid a woman to entertain him and his friends. After a few days, this woman left, stealing the riches of the princes.  They began searching, trying to find her and their riches, and on the way they met up with the Buddha. Buddha said to them, “Why are you searching for her?  Instead, you should be searching for yourselves. They understood his meaning and immediately became enlightened. Then they went out and taught Dhamma throughout the country.

They had received no formal “teachings”. All they received was self-understanding. In that wisdom was contained with everything, the whole Dharma. Then, they had a lot to give to others. First, though, they had to understand themselves.

You know many things about this world. You even know about other planets, and many other things. But if I asked you now to say something about yourself,  about who you are, what would you say?

Think about these things. Is your name your self? If “John” is yourself, then what about all the other “Johns”? So your name is not you.  Is your age you? What if one year had 100 days, instead of 365? Or, what if it had 1000 days? Your age would change.

Really all of these sentences are not you. They are just superficial details.

Sometimes we try to understand who we are by what we think we possess. You may think your wife/husband is yours, or that your children are yours, and certainly that your mother and father are yours. That, we think, will certainly not change. But if they are yours, then they should act as you want. But that is not so. We can’t control them. They do what they want. And also, they get sick. And they even die, in spite of our wishes.

So we can’t really understand who we are in terms of the things or people we  think we possess.

So who are you? If we can find an answer to that question we will be enlightened. Those 30 princes found the answer. They were enlightened because they understood who they were. All enlightened beings understand who they are.

Once there was a Buddhist monastery, and the high priest wanted to know who would be the next high priest in the monastery. There were two who could qualify. One was older in years than the other but they were both ordained on the same day. So the high priest decided to do an examination. He called everyone to the Dharma Hall, and he said, “I want to know which of the two of you will be the next high priest.”

Then he gave a blackboard to each of them. He told them, “On this, you have to write down the entire Dharma that you have understood in your life in just one sentence. The one who writes best sentence I will select to be the next high
priest.” The younger one said to the older one, “you write down something and you can be the next high priest. I will write nothing because I don’t want the job. The older one wrote down, “Mind is a mirror.” Everyone came in the
morning to see the blackboard. They saw two sentences on the blackboard. One was “Mind is a mirror.” And the second one was “Defilement is the dust on the mirror.”

Consider these two sentences.

After reflecting on the two sentences, the high priest said “the one who wrote the second one will be the high priest.” The older one then said to the younger one “you lied! you said you wouldn’t write anything on the board, but you did!”
The younger one said, “no, I didn’t. I didn’t write anything!” Everyone started asking, “Then, who wrote it?” Finally they discovered that the one who had written the second sentence was a person working in the temple kitchen. The teacher went to this man, and asked him to leave the temple and to go somewhere else because by rights he should be the high priest here, but people would never accept him. So he left the temple and started one of his own, which became the first Zen temple in Japan.

Think about those two sentences: “Mind is a mirror.” And “Defilement is the dust on the mirror.”

If you have ink on your face, how can you know?

1. One way is to find a person who can see it. If you ask a blind person they cannot help you. Many others cannot see my defilements because they are blind. 2. The other way, is to see it through our own mirror. But here we are faced with the same problem if there is dust on our mirror. What to do? Clean the dust off the mirror. If we can do that we can see ourselves as we are.

What do we do usually? We draw pictures on the mirror. We draw pictures of this kind of person with these kinds of qualities and these kinds of degrees and toys, etc. We draw pictures of Arahats or Bodhisattvas, etc.

That is the ego. We don’t want to remove the dust, we are making art on top of the dust.

I am a Buddhist monk from the Therevada tradition. But I just told you a story from the Zen tradition.

If a Zen Master or a Tibetan Lama can help me clean the dust off of my mirror, that is good! Let’s work together!

That’s the heart of Buddhist practice. If it doesn’t help clean the dust off the mirror, then it’s not essentially Buddhist. Because that’s what Buddhism is all about. That is the wonderful project that we are all working on in each of the
different traditions.

We need one another. Buddhists from other cultures can sometimes help us understand the Dharma better, because they don’t have the same cultural biases that we have. Tibetans can help Sri Lankans. Sri Lankans can help Japanese.
Westerners can help Asians, and Asians can help Westerners. The Dharma does not “belong” to any one culture. It is beyond culture.

But we are not beyond culture. We belong to a certain culture. And our culture affects how we understand Dharma. Culture can also be like dust on the mirror. That is why we need one another so much. Together, helping one another compassionately, we can come to a more pure understanding of the Buddha’s teachings.