There are no Buddhist Traditions

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By Bhante Sathi

Buddha’s Caste

Siddhartha Gothama was born to a high caste family. After becoming the awakened one, he visited his country. The second day of his visit he went out for food collection as he had always done from the day he left the palace long ago. It was a huge shock to his family that their son was begging in the streets.

His father, King Suddhodana, came to him and asked, “What are you doing? This is an insult to our family! We never beg for food.” Buddha calmly replied, “I am following the way of all previous Buddhas who did the same. I do not belong to a caste anymore. I am free from cast and tradition.

Buddha’s Tradition

One day I was reading a book on a flight to New York. The person on the other end of the isle started talking to me. He asked me where I am from and many details about my life. He explained that he has been to Tibet and he is Buddhist. He asked about the book that I was reading. I gave it to him, but he handed it back to me, saying, “This is not Tibetan Buddhism. I am not interested.”

One day I got a call from somebody who was interested in Buddha’s teaching and meditation practice. I told him there is a temple close to where he lives where he can visit monks and borrow some books. He said, “That temple is not in my tradition.”

I started to think, “Whose mistake caused this confusion? This is not the teaching of Buddha.” In Buddha’s time monks were ordained from various traditions and various castes but they shared equal status as monks. Buddha said as the four main rivers in India flow to the ocean and finally unite as the same sea. Similarly, whoever follows Buddha’s path becomes equals as soon as they enter that path. There are no traditions inside the teaching. Anyone should be able to understand the core of the teachings, regardless of different backgrounds.

Buddhist Way Of Life

Still, today we can see several methods of Buddhist practice. Examples are Theravada (Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia), Mahayana (China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea), Vajrayana (Tibet) and Zen Buddhism. We see these varieties as Buddhist cultures because each tradition has their own way of practicing Buddhism and slightly different ideas about Buddha. Buddhism came to the West with an adjective such as Sri Lankan Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, Cambodian Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism. Sometimes Westerners can be confused with this identification as they compare this concept with the hundreds of sects of Chrisitanity. Many people have been misled by misunderstanding the cultural influences on Buddhist teaching in different countries. Even the Theravada traditions in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia monks have their own rituals which are different from each other as well as Mahayana and Vajrayana.

To understand this it is better to refer to the history of Buddhism. Buddhism originated in India around 2500 years ago. India was well populated by this time and several cultures had developed in different regions. Buddha’s teachings spread in the countries where people embraced the teaching through the context of their culture. Later these cultures adjusted to the Buddha’s teaching and were nourished by Buddhism. For example, the culture may begin to avoid hunting out of compassion for animals.

At the same time these cultures continued some of their original cultural practices and habits. As an example there are no Mantras or prayers to Buddha in the elder traditions of Buddhism because Buddha’s teaching is a way of life

Water Pot

Buddha’s teaching is just like water. Water takes the shapes of its container. When one fills a pot with water, it becomes a water pot. If one pours water into a cup, it becomes a water cup. In the same way, we get Sri Lankan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism. We need a container to hold water in the same way we need culture to hold a Buddhist way of life.

We can decorate the container with beautiful colors and still it is empty. We do not drink the container, we drink water. We need wisdom to separate the water from the container, but without a solid container we cannot hold water. Culture is flexible; it is always changing with our thoughts. We can shape a culture that supports us to hold dhamma.

Do Not Store Medicine

Buddha said that he is like a doctor who pointed out a medicine for pain and suffering. The foolish store this medicine without using it or even testing it. They prefer to just read the label and marvel at it. Buddha said, “My teaching is not for them. My teaching is for people who test the dhamma.” Also he said, “One who sees me sees the Dhamma. One who sees the Dhamma sees me.”

Drink From Your Cup

Everyone has their own cup, or culture, to drink from. We have to get Dhamma in to that cup. If we borrow a foreign cup to drink the Dhamma, we might be misled. We cannot just follow blindly. We have to be wise enough to get the Dhamma into our own cup and decorate our cup with Dhamma. We should know the purpose of something before we do it. If we follow the traditions without knowing what they are for, we could miss the benefit of that tradition. If we know what we are doing we are not acting blindly. In that way Buddhism is not a tradition, but Buddhist followers can have their own traditions which they may call Buddhist traditions.

Do Not Just Pass the Cup

One does not drink the cup, they drink water. It is our responsibility to fill the container with water.

Buddha’s teaching is here to help us make our lives easier and find inner peace. We have to be smart enough test the Dhamma. Buddha said, “My teaching is a subject for the wise, not the foolish.” (nayam Dhammo pannatassa, nayam duppannassa

Buddha said, “This Dhamma is like a poisoned snake. If one holds this snake from head he will survive, but if one holds it by the tail it may turn and bite.

May this article help us to hold the snake wisely and use it well.