The Meditation of Life

The Meditation of Life

Without exception, everything that has happened in your life, every choice you have made, has brought you to where you are now. And where are you now? You are reading this blog post. Depending on your frame of mind, you will engage with the words in this post to a greater or lesser extent. This blog post, as well as every other experience and encounter you have ever had, will be a causal factor in terms of bringing you into contact with all of your future experiences. The process of accumulating experiences that each influence who we are and what we do, is called life. Perhaps we can think of life as a big snowball rolling down a hill. The snowball grows and accumulates snow as it rolls, and this accumulation – as well as the gradient and texture of the terrain – keeps causing the snowball’s weight, size, shape, velocity, and direction, to change.

If a person was to stop the snowball and look at it, they might only see a big ball of snow that they want to play with or take photographs of. Alternatively, if they have sufficient insight, they might see the snowball as the product of the journey it has undertaken. In this case, when they look at the snowball, they will see how it has grown, the choices it has made, the terrain and landscape it has passed through, and the different bumps and jumps it encountered along the way. The same applies when we look at ourselves and other people. If we have sufficient skill and insight, when we meet somebody we can glean understanding into the journey they have undertaken. We can see how they have grown, what motivates them, what scars they have accumulated, and whether they live only for themselves or for the betterment of humanity. Furthermore, based on the trajectory of their choices and journey thus far, we might be able to estimate the direction that they will go in next.

The difference between a skilled and mediocre meditator is that when the skilled meditator looks at a person, situation, or object, they see the whole story. They see that a person or object is comprised of its past, present, and future. If we can understand the trajectory that a person is travelling on, it means we are better able to decide what intervention, if any, might be possible to help shift that trajectory into one that will bring them wisdom and happiness.

Another difference between a skilled and mediocre meditator is that the skilled meditator doesn’t actually practise meditation. To practise meditation implies that a person tries to be mindful or regularly sits in meditation in order to cultivate mental tranquillity or clarity. However, the truth is that whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, we are all partaking in a meditation. This mediation is called life. Life brings us into contact with new experiences each moment of every day. These experiences are pregnant with wisdom. They are our teacher, if we want them to be. This applies to seemingly boring situations just as much as it does to circumstances that appear to be out of the ordinary or that we find challenging.

In other words, we don’t need to strain ourselves in meditation to look for spiritual insights because they are all around us. Everything we do, every sound we hear, every person we meet, are opportunities to grow and encounter spiritual insight. All we have to do is open our eyes, heart, and mind. Don’t you see that you have been meditating since before the moment you were born? As soon as we realise we are partaking in a meditation, we start to wake up and see how each moment of our lives connects to, and influences, the next. Moreover, we encounter the complex web of the universe and begin to see how each moment of our lives connects to each moment of the life of every other living and non-living entity.

Meditation isn’t about sitting with our legs crossed and working ourselves into a state of calm. Rather, it is the art of fully experiencing every aspect of normal daily living and using it as the raw material to foster spiritual awakening. Meditation is both joyful and painful. There is nothing mystical about meditation. It is the process of allowing life to be our teacher. Eating a piece of toast is our teacher. Getting drenched by the rain is our teacher. Missing the bus is our teacher. Being cheated out of money is our teacher. Making love is our teacher. Taking a dump is our teacher. The death of a loved one is our teacher. Winning is our teacher. Losing is our teacher. Getting old is our teacher. Meditation is being awake to what is unfolding in front of us and having the courage to embrace life as the training ground for cultivating our full potential for love and wisdom.

Dr Edo Shonin & Dr William Van Gordon

Letting Go

Letting Go

The following post is from a friend in Thailand. Roughly, the words translate as: ‘If you let go, time will heal’. This is sound advice. However, better still is not to hold on in the first place! This is the path of meditation.

Condivido il seguente post da un’amica in Thailandia. Grossomodo, le parole si traducono come: ‘Se si lascia andare le cose, con il tempo tutte le cose possano guarire’. Questo è un consiglio sano. Tuttavia, Forse è meglio non trattenere delle cose già dall’inizio! Questo è il percorso della meditazione.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & William Van Gordon

Being Too Buddhist: A Teacher-Student Dialogue

Being Too Buddhist: A Teacher-Student Dialogue


Student: Are you busy?

Teacher: Why?

S: May I talk with you for a short while?

T: Yes.

S: I’ve been practising meditation for over ten years. I’ve studied the scriptures and received teachings from great meditation masters. I’ve written a book on meditation and I’ve even been awarded a PhD in Buddhist Studies. I’ve completed a three-year long retreat and practised advanced Mahāmudrā techniques. This was all before I came to practice with you, and I’ve followed your teachings for over 18 months now.

T: (remains silent)

S: It’s just that I feel ready to become a teacher myself. I feel I’m ready to leave and start teaching others.

T: (remains silent)

S: I want to know if I have your blessing to leave and teach?

T: You can leave whenever you want.

S: But do I have your blessing?

T: Why do you want to teach?

S: I want to help others. I want to tell them what I know and ease their suffering.

T: So, you came to me only to seek my approval for you to teach?

S: No, of course not. I came to follow your teachings. I came to learn from you.

T: But you haven’t followed my teachings. You haven’t learned a thing.

S: What do you mean?

T: You’ve wasted your time here.

S: But I’ve been so focussed on learning all there is to know.

T: That’s why you haven’t learned anything. Your head is full of useless information. You wish to learn only so you can impress yourself and others with how much you know. However, although you might be able to recite entire scriptures, you haven’t grasped their inner meaning.

S: What’s your point.

T: My point is that you’ve missed the point.

S: Your talking in riddles.

T: It’s not only during the last 18 months that you’ve wasted your time. You say that you’ve been practising meditation for ten years, but you don’t have ten years’ meditation experience. You have one years’ experience ten times. You haven’t continued to grow and to learn. This isn’t the same as having ten years’ experience.

S: Well, you’re not holding back with your words. In fact, I’m offended by what you’ve said.

T: You need to start from the beginning. You need to let go of what you think you know and relearn the foundation practices.

S: And how long will that take? When, in your so-called wise opinion, will I be ready to become a teacher in my own right?

T: When you no longer have the desire to become a teacher?

S: That doesn’t make sense. Why do you always talk in riddles?

T: It’s not a riddle.

S: You’re saying that I should abandon my wish to help others by teaching them the path. Isn’t this what you have been teaching us to do all along?

T: I am saying that you should abandon your ego.

S: But wanting to help others is an act of selflessness. How can there be ego involved?

T: You’re full of ego. You’re full of shit. Your words carry no weight because you don’t have the experience to back them up. When I talk about people corrupting the teachings, I’m talking about people like you. Your entire approach to Buddhist practice is governed by your ego. You’re a selfish egoistic pig, and in terms of spiritual progress, you’re worse off than somebody that hasn’t encountered the teachings. Your problem is that you’re ‘too Buddhist’.

S: How rude of you to say these things. I completely disagree with everything you have said.

T: To become a teacher, you must let go of the idea of being a teacher. A teacher simply teaches. They teach with each breath they take. They teach by the way they walk and by the way the sit down. They teach through their being, not through their words. A true Spiritual teacher has no interest in gathering followers. They are just as happy teaching a butterfly or a dog, as they are a gathering of 10,000 people. In fact, they humbly accept the butterfly or dog as their teacher. A true teacher doesn’t label themselves as a ‘teacher’.

S: In my opinion, a ‘true teacher’ doesn’t speak to people in the manner that you have just done. You tell us to show kindness to one another, yet you’re not following your own advice. Perhaps it’s you who hasn’t grasped the inner meaning of the teachings.

T: (remains silent)

S: You think you’re some kind of enlightened Zen master that can go around talking in riddles and being rude to people. People have feelings you know. In fact, you’re right, I did come here to seek your approval. If I want to teach, I require the approval of an established teacher. However, I don’t want your approval anymore. I no longer wish to be affiliated with you. I’ll find a teacher who can see my true qualities.

T: Do you see my point now?

S: What do you mean?

T: Look at how easily your ego flares up. Look at how red and tense your face is. You’re offended. You’re angry. Your ego is raging. In your book, you stated that “a person who has transcended their ego can’t be offended”. Are these not your words?

S: It’s true that I said that.

T: You also said that “people should see themselves as if looking in a mirror”. Can you see yourself now?

S: (puts head down and remains silent)

T: I’m asking you a question. Can you see yourself now?

S: (starts to cry)

T: I keep telling people that they need to make a choice. A choice between walking an authentic spiritual path or remaining in ignorance. These aren’t just words. This isn’t a game. I’m not talking about working towards a professional or academic qualification. You can’t pay lip service to spiritual practice. You must live it and breathe it. You must completely abandon yourself to the path. You can’t practice meditation to make a career out of it. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

S: I think you might be right. I’ve been wasting my time.

T: At least you see it now. This makes you more fortunate than most people in your position.

S: Having a partial knowledge of the teachings has done me more harm than good. I wish I had met you sooner.

T: You weren’t ready to meet me before now. You met me when you were supposed to.

S: How do I turn the situation around?

T: Take a step back and breathe. Breathe and know that you are breathing. Be and know that you are being. Let go of wanting to be a teacher. Let go of being a Buddhist. Sit at the centre of the universe and observe your mind as it engages with the world.

S: (laughs)

T: Why did you laugh?

S: It’s just that in my book, I wrote that “people caught up in being a Buddhist have missed the point of Buddhism”. Its only now that I truly understand the meaning of my own words.

T: It seems that you have taught yourself something. Perhaps you’re already a teacher without knowing it.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Vita: un’esperienza prossima della morte

Vita: un’esperienza prossima della morte

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“Non perseguire il passato. Non perderti nel futuro. Il passato è la storia. Il futuro deve ancora arrivare. Guardando in profondità la vita così com’è nell’ hic et nunc, il praticante rimane incrollabile e libero nel cuore. Oggi dobbiamo essere diligenti, perché la morte può colpire domani. Non c’è nessuna contrattazione con il Signore della morte” – The Buddha, 500 BCE (sutra 131, MajjhimaNikaya)

 Nel 1960 e 1970, la psichiatra Elizabeth Kubler-Ross e lo psicologo e medico Raymond Moody hanno giocato un ruolo fondamentale nel portare il fenomeno definito in inglese “Near Death Experience” (NDE l’esperienza prossima della morte) all’attenzione del grande pubblico e della comunità scientifica. Lo studio scientifico delle NDE – soprattutto prima del 1990 – ha incontrato un certo scetticismo tra psicologi e medici professionisti. Tuttavia, negli ultimi anni, le comunità psicologica e medica sono diventati più aperti alla possibilità che la NDE è un fenomeno vero che rientra nella gamma delle possibili esperienze umane.

La NDE è tipicamente associata ad un insieme o un modello di esperienze che possono verificarsi quando una persona è vicino alla morte (ad esempio, a causa di una malattia), quando credono di essere vicino alla morte (cioè, situazioni di pericolo di vita), o quando si trovano nel periodo tra la morte clinica e la rianimazione.1-3Le NDE spesso comportano una combinazione delle seguenti caratteristiche: un’esperienza fuori dal corpo, l’esperienza di muoversi attraverso un tunnel, la comunicazione con un essere di luce, osservazione di un paesaggio celeste, incontro con persone decedute, e / o di una revisione della vita.1-3

Piuttosto che l’approccio tradizionale di vedere l’NDE come fenomeno esplicitamente associato con la morte o la minaccia imminente di essa, qui adottiamo un punto di vista leggermente diverso, più ampio, prendendo in considerazione l’esistenza umana e la vita più in generale come un’esperienza di premorte.

Secondo la US Central Intelligence Agency4, il tasso di mortalità mondiale per il 2013 è di 7,9 morti ogni 1000 persone all’anno (cioè, 0,79%). Sulla base di queste cifre, una media di 107 persone muoiono ogni minuto. Questo significa, per rendere ulteriormente l’idea, che se sei una persona che normalmente va a letto alle ore 23.00 e dorme per otto ore, quando ti svegli alle ore 7.00 del mattino successivo oltre 50.000 persone sono morte. La morte è un evento molto comune. Non esistono casi scientificamente verificabili di qualsiasi essere senziente – umani e non – in grado di sconfiggere la morte. La causa più comune di morte è la malattia (in particolare la malattia in età avanzata). Altre cause della morte molto frequenti includono l’incidente, il suicidio e l’omicidio. Cause meno comuni di morte sono la combustione umana spontanea e la morte da colpo di fulmine (anche se queste morti potrebbero essere classificate come accidentali).

Il corpo umano è un’entità bellissima e meravigliosa – ma l’invincibilità non è uno dei suoi punti di forza. Una piccola puntura di spillo, il contatto con una padella calda, un dito intrappolato in una porta – questi sono solo alcuni esempi di come il più piccolo incidente può causare enorme dolore e disagio. In realtà, basta solo che ci sia il minimo squilibrio nell’ambiente esterno per far si che il corpo umano incominci a spegnersi rapidamente. Condizioni ambientali estreme tipo il troppo caldo, o il troppo freddo, una carenza di acqua o la mancanza di cibo possono rapidamente portare alla morte. Anche piccole situazioni come mangiare un boccone di cibo avariato, prendere un comune microbo dell’influenza, o scivolare sul ghiaccio possono portare alla morte. Infatti, in qualsiasi momento, l’unica cosa che ci separa dalla morte è un “unico respiro”. Sembra che l’essere umano disponga di un sistema di sopravvivenza che possiamo definire di “appena in tempo”, per indicare che anche il minimo ritardo nel prendere aria, acqua o cibo può essere fatale.

Dal momento in cui nasciamo, ogni singolo secondo che passa ci avvicina alla nostra morte. Il fatto stesso di essere giovani non fornisce alcuna garanzia di vita perché la morte può verificarsi a qualsiasi età. Infatti, alcune persone muoiono mentre sono ancora nel grembo materno, alcuni nell’infanzia e altri ancora durante l’adolescenza. Alcune persone muoiono nel fiore dell’età adulta e alcuni nella vecchiaia. La vita è come la sabbia che si muove attraverso una clessidra – alcune persone iniziano con più sabbia di altri, ma alla fine si esaurisce lo stesso.

Per aiutare a capire questo concetto, in modo leggermente diverso, possiamo citare gli insegnamenti buddisti che usano l’analogia del prigioniero che viene portato alla propria esecuzione e ogni singolo passo che fa si avvicina alla morte.Nasciamo, viviamo e moriremo. Tutti i fenomeni sono transitori e sono soggetti al decadimento e alla dissoluzione. Assolutamente nulla sfugge al ciclo dell’impermanenza. Il corpo umano è impermanente, gli amici e la famiglia sono impermanenti, il pianeta su cui viviamo è impermanente, e anche l’universo, in ultima analisi, cessa di esistere.

Questo è ciò che il Buddha ha detto circa la natura fugace dell’esistenza:

Questa nostra esistenza è transitoria come le foglie d’autunno. A guardare la nascita e la morte degli esseri è come guardare i movimenti di una danza. Una vita è come un lampo nel cielo, che scorre via, come un torrente lungo una ripida montagna.”

In generale, c’è una diffusa tendenza tra le persone a non accettare il concetto della morte e ad assumere anzi il convincimento che a loro non accadrà mai. Tuttavia, questa non accettazione scomparirà rapidamente quando le persone si troveranno alle soglie della morte. Quando arriva il momento, spesso molte persone provano sentimenti travolgenti come: rammarico, rabbia, paura. Infatti, al momento della morte, le persone manifestano spesso una forte fissazione e un forte attaccamento verso la loro famiglia, i loro successi, gli amici, i beni materiali, la propria reputazione e la vita. Tuttavia, quando gli ultimi granelli di sabbia sono in procinto di scivolare attraverso la clessidra – queste cose non contano assolutamente nulla e non possono essere portate con sé. Dobbiamo lasciare la vita esattamente nello stesso modo in cui siamo entrati – da soli.

Si potrebbe pensare che è inopportuno discutere la realtà della morte in modo cosi diretto e aperto come stiamo facendo in questo articolo. Tuttavia, a nostro modesto parere, prima una persona inizia ad accettare completamente che a un certo punto senza nessun dubbio morirà, e prima può iniziare a prepararsi per la morte, piuttosto che aspettare fino all’ultimo quando poi è troppo tardi.

In un articolo che è stato recentemente pubblicato sulla rivista dell’American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality,6 abbiamo discusso che imparare ad accettare la natura impermanente della vita può effettivamente essere un processo molto gratificante.

In effetti, la letteratura accademica indica che la consapevolezza dell’impermanenza può effettivamente fungere come un buffer (protezione) contro la psicopatologia. Inoltre è stato dimostrato che una maggiore accettazione e internalizzazione dell’impermanenza può aiutare nei confronti di una crescita post-traumatica.7,8

Gli insegnamenti buddhisti spiegano che una persona veramente saggia è colui che, in ogni singolo respiro e in ogni singolo battito cardiaco, è profondamente consapevole dell’incertezza della propria vita e di come la morte sia effettivamente inevitabile.5

Si ritiene che questa consapevolezza dell’impermanenza aiuta una persona a privilegiare ciò che è importante nella vita.6 I risultati della nostra ricerca indicano che coltivando una radicata comprensione dell’impermanenza si può arrivare ad una grande gioia e ci si può arricchire spiritualmente.9,10

Consentendo al concetto dell’impermanenza di infondere tutto il nostro essere, possiamo gradualmente imparare a non attaccarsi strettamente alle cose.

Questo significa che quando le persone e le cose che amiamo sono presenti, noi possiamo veramente amarle, ma quando si dissolvono possiamo lasciarli andare più liberamente. Una cosa utile da ricordare è che ogni volta che facciamo qualcosa, lo facciamo per la prima e l’ultima volta. Un momento di tempo non si ripete mai.

Riconoscere questo aspetto ci permette di dare grande significato alle cose che facciamo e diciamo. Noi non dobbiamo essere dei sonnambuli all’interno della nostra vita – non dobbiamo diventare dei cadaveri ambulanti.

Sulla base di alcune considerazioni, le NDE non sono particolarmente comuni e riguardano soprattutto quello che alcune persone potrebbero definire come esperienze “mistiche”. Tuttavia, dato che la vita è incredibilmente fragile e utilizzando criteri di definizione leggermente diversi, crediamo che ogni singolo essere senziente sta essenzialmente, in questo stesso momento, partecipando a una esperienza di premorte (NDE).

Vorremmo concludere questo post con una breve riflessione sulla morte dal titolo “una bolla nel vento”:

Una Bolla nel Vento

“La vita è come una bolla trasportata dal vento. Alcune bolle scoppiano presto, altre più tardi. Alcune scoppiano di loro spontanea volontà, altre per caso. Alcune vengono deliberatamente scoppiate. Ciononostante, in un modo o nell’altro, tutte le bolle scoppiano. La differenza tra il praticante spirituale realizzato e la persona comune, è che il praticante riconosce di non essere solo una bolla, ma anche il vento che dolcemente lo trasporta.

Quel vento non ha alcun punto di origine ed è senza meta. Soffia liberamente dove le pare. Che meraviglia!”

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon


  1. Ring, K. (1980).Life at death. A scientific investigation of the near death experience. New York: Coward, Mc Cann and Geoghenan.
  2. Lommel, P.V., Wees, R.V., &Meyers, V.,et al. (2001). Near death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet, 358: 2039-45.
  3. Moody, R.A. (1975). Life after Life. New York: Bantam Books.
  4. Central Intelligence Agency. (2013). The World Fact Book.Available from (Accessed, 15th January 2014).
  5. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.
  6. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integrations. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality,in press.
  7. Kumar, S. M. (2005). Grieving mindfully: A compassionate and spiritual guide to coping with loss. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  8. Wada, K., & Park, J. (2009). Integrating Buddhist psychology into grief counseling. Death Studies, 33, 657-683.
  9. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths M. D. (2013a). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for improved psychological wellbeing: A qualitative examination of participant experiences. Journal ofReligion and Health, DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9679-0.
  10. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). The treatment of workaholism with Meditation Awareness Training: A Case Study. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, in press.

Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation

Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation

breath 2

We recently had a paper accepted for publication in the Mindfulness in Practice section of Mindfulness. The paper is entitled ‘Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation’. It can be downloaded (for free) by clicking here  The Universal Breath_Mindfulness 2016 EYS or by accessing the journal’s website directly:

The full reference is as follows:

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2016). Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-016-0570-4.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

A Big Pair of Dharma Balls

A Big Pair of Dharma Balls

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Today, perhaps more than ever before, it is easy to be drawn into what we call the cycle of soap-opera living. Soap-opera living is, unfortunately, rather common. A person caught up in soap-opera living is like a piece of plankton in the ocean that is continuously driven in different directions by the changing currents and tides. Despite being under the impression that they are making independent decisions, people living a soap opera do not have their eyes open enough to be able to truly to take control of their lives.

Individuals living a soap opera are highly influenced by whatever beliefs, behaviours, and pastimes are trending in society. Because the majority of individuals around them spend their time worrying about money, reputation, career, and relationships, the individual living the soap opera believes that they should do the same. If there is an atmosphere of stress at work because of a deadline approaching, or at university because exams are looming, the individual immersed in soap-opera living is drawn into and contributes to this stress. Because others are obsessed with what their friends and peers think of them, so is the person following the path of soap-opera living. They are pulled along by their own unregulated thoughts and desires, and by the thoughts and desires of those around them.

Walking an authentic spiritual path – Buddhist or otherwise – takes warrior-like courage. It takes courage because the spiritual practitioner has to break free of the cycle of soap-opera living when almost everyone around them is consciously or sub-consciously enticing them to remain firmly stuck in it. It takes courage because the spiritual practitioner has to leave behind the world that they have become accustomed to and enter unchartered territory. It also takes courage because the type of warriorship that fosters spiritual awaking requires the practitioner to blend together an attitude of fearlessness, with one of unwavering love and compassion for individuals who choose to remain stuck in the mire of soap opera life.

Leaving behind soap-opera living is easier said than done and should be seen as a life-long endeavour. As people move from the realm of the soap opera to that of awakened perception, there is a tendency for them to continuously try to find reference points or footholds where they feel safe. For example, they may have previously considered themselves a ‘businessman’ or ‘businesswomen’ but now they see themselves as a ‘Buddhist’ walking the path of Dharma. However, in order to progress along the path, the spiritual practitioner should try to avoid attaching labels to themselves. They have to let go of their old self and embrace a new self, but then they have to let go of the new self as well. Eventually, the spiritual practitioner has to find the courage to let go altogether – they have to let go without seeking to reinvent themselves.

Nothing in life is certain and all things change all of the time. If we try to create a ‘fixed self’ under such conditions, we are inevitably going to become unstuck. We need to be able to adapt to, and flow with, the changing conditions around us. From the spiritual practitioner’s point of view, this means seeing the teachings in a completely new way each day. Where the spiritual path once led them to embrace solitary meditation or a life of renunciation, it may at a subsequent point require them to fully immerse themselves in society and relinquish the notion that meditation is something that is ‘practiced’ rather than ‘lived’. Where the path of Dharma once required them to be a penniless mendicant, it may subsequently require them to rule a kingdom. Where it once required them to practise non-reactivity, it may require them – in the interests of compassion – to assume a more wrathful demeanour. Embracing such changes and challenges takes real warriorship as well as conviction in one’s chosen path.

In short, to walk the Buddhist or any other spiritual path effectively, the authentic spiritual practitioner must remain unattached to their current circumstances. They must come to understand that with every breath or footstep taken in awareness, they venture into the unchartered territory of the present moment. In short, being an authentic spiritual practitioner and leaving behind soap-opera living requires having a big pair of Dharma balls. Embracing life itself as the spiritual path and continuously letting go of who we think we are takes tremendous courage. However, with perseverance, this fearless approach to embracing reality yields unconditional happiness and profound spiritual insight. This is the path walked by all those who have attained Buddhahood in the past, and all those who will attain it in the future.


Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Is Buddhism One or Many?

Is Buddhism One or Many?

buddhism 3

In our experience, most individuals who assert that ‘Buddhism is one’ are generally not well informed or are secret (or in some cases open) advocates of ‘hippyism’! Accordingly, the preferred scholarly position appears to be that there are ‘many Buddhisms’. In terms of the superficial form that Buddhism assumes within a particular culture, time, and geographic region, this assertion is perfectly true. For example, Theravada Buddhism is prevalent throughout South East Asian countries (e.g., Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma) and places emphasis on following the original word of the historical Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism, which originated several hundred years after Theravada Buddhism, is prevalent throughout East Asia (e.g., Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam) and places emphasis on compassionate activity and the non-dual or empty nature of phenomena. Vajrayana Buddhism didn’t become popular until around the 7th Century and is associated with Himalayan plateau countries such as Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Mongolia (and to a lesser extent Japan). Compared to Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism places greater emphasis on ‘sacred outlook’, the bond between teacher (or ‘guru’) and student, and on various esoteric practices. Schools representing all three Buddhist vehicles (i.e., Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) are present in the West – where to admittedly differing degrees – they continue to embody the teachings and practices of their source traditions.

Despite these differences between Buddhist vehicles (and even between the various schools that comprise a particular vehicle), we would argue that it is still possible from an informed/scholarly position, to assert that Buddhism is one. Such an assertion is based on the fact that all authentic Buddhist lineages teach methods that ultimately lead to the same result. Furthermore, most of these methods are intended to directly or indirectly foster insight into core Buddhist principles such as suffering, impermanence, and non-self. In essence, suffering is suffering whether you approach it from a Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana perspective. The same applies to impermanence and non-self. Another good example is the trishiksha principle (Sanskrit for the ‘three trainings’; Pali: tisso-sikkha) that incorporates the three trainings of wisdom, meditation, and ethical awareness. These three trainings form the foundations of any authentic Buddhist path, regardless of what geographical region or historical period it originates from.

The essential point is that the different Buddhist vehicles and their respective traditions work with many of the same underlying principles, which they reconstitute and teach in different ways. Furthermore, it is our experience that the further a teacher or practitioner advances along the path of spiritual awareness, the more they start to see similarities between the various Buddhist paths (as well as between Buddhist and non-Buddhist paths). Perhaps this is because the teachings are equivalent to a finger that points to the moon, but they are not the moon itself. In other words, there are some underlying truths of reality and the diverse spiritual teachings are methods of introducing discerning individuals to these truths.

Whenever a realised spiritual being expounds the Buddhist teachings, they provide individuals with an entirely new path of practice. It is completely new compared to that which has gone before because it is being taught by a different teacher, to different students, and in a different period of time. However, although it is a new path, it is really just a manifestation of a ‘universal path’ that, as one of its defining features, has the ability to assume new forms according to the prevailing conditions. A suitable analogy to explain this principle might be that of a chameleon lizard that changes its colour and complexion according to its surroundings. The chameleon can display many different colours, but it is always the same chameleon.

Our view is that the most profound Vajrayana practices are implicit within the simplest of Buddhist teachings, such as the discourse on the four noble truths. Likewise, we believe that Theravada Buddhism, when correctly understood and practiced, can, in particular circumstances, introduce spiritually ripe individuals to what are generally regarded to be Vajrayana or tantric meditative attainments. Within Buddhism, there are different interpretations of how to effectively practice spiritual development, but in essence, they represent variations on the same theme. Consequently, it is possible to make a credible argument that Buddhism is many, but it is also possible to credibly argue that it is one.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Mindfulness and wellbeing: Towards a unified operational approach. In: I. Ivtzan, & T. Lomas (Eds). Mindfulness in Positive Psychology: The Science of Meditation and Wellbeing (pp. 280-292). Oxford: Routledge.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). (2015). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, DOI: 10.1037/rel0000079.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, 6, 49-56.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). Mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths. In: E. Shonin, W. Van Gordon, & N. N. Singh (Eds). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 9-27). New York: Springer.