Is Buddhism One or Many?
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
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.