Unity and diversity
The Buddha, who was a very skillful teacher, gave a variety of teachings suitable for people of different interests and inclinations. Not everyone is expected to practice in the same way, and thus Buddhists welcome the diversity of Buddhist traditions as well as the diversity of religions in the world.
Although Buddhism is one of the oldest religions, there has never been a war fought in its name or over its doctrine. Sectarianism is considered extremely destructive, for to say one tradition is good and another is bad is to criticize the teaching the Buddha gave to a particular group of people.
That doesn’t contradict the benefit of debate among the traditions, or even between two practitioners of the same tradition. Buddhist debate is done with the positive motivation of increasing the participants’ understanding. By debating, students think more deeply and iron out their own and their debate partner’s misunderstandings. Thus Buddhist masters encourage their students to question and discuss the teachings.
Newcomers are sometimes confused by the variety of Buddhist traditions. Therefore a brief explanation follows, although it doesn’t do justice to the richness of the traditions. Although there are many Buddhist traditions, here only the practices of the most prominent are discussed: Theravada, Pure Land, Zen and Vajrayana.
The Theravada, or Tradition of the Elders, emphasizes two meditation practic-es: samatha (calm abiding) and vipassana (special insight). The practice of calm abiding develops concentration, ceasing the torrent of chattering thoughts and en-gendering the ability to focus on the meditation object single-pointedly. The in-and-out flow of the breath is the primary object used in this meditation, and developing concentration upon it leads to a serenely settled state of mind.
Special insight is cultivated through the four mindfulnesses: observing the body, feelings, mind and phenomena. One gains insight into their impermanence, problematic nature and lack of self-identity.
Another practice, loving-kindness meditation, is done to develop a sincere wish for everyone to be well and happy. In addition, the Theravada tradition encourages keeping precepts: either the five precepts of a lay practitioner or the vows of a monk or nun.
In the intervals between meditation sessions, Theravada practitioners do walking meditation. By walking extremely slowly, they maintain mindfulness of every movement. This is a very useful technique to anchor one in the present moment and make one more attentive to what is happening here and now. The Theravada tradition aims at attaining arhatship, liberation from cyclic existence.
The Pure Land tradition stresses the practice of Buddha Amitabha: chanting his name and meditating on him. Practitioners of this tradition seek rebirth in Sukhavati, the Western Pure Land, where all conditions necessary for Dharma practice are readily available. Having been reborn there, they’ll be able to complete the path and attain Buddhahood without hindrance.
To be reborn in Sukhavati, Pure Land practitioners imagine Amitabha, contemplate his enlightened qualities and chant his name. In addition, they try to live ethically and to develop the altruistic intention. To gain calm abiding they concentrate single-pointedly on the visualized image of Amitabha, and to develop special insight, they analyze the ultimate nature of Amitabha and themselves.
Pure Land, Zen (Ch’an) and Vajrayana are all Mahayana traditions. Therefore the practitioners aim to become Buddhas, and the bodhisattva precepts are given to those who wish. Nowadays, the practices of Pure Land and Zen have been blended in many temples.
Zen emphasizes that all beings have the Buddha nature. Thus, if someone cuts through all false conceptualization and realizes the empty nature of the mind, he or she will become Buddha in this lifetime. Zen practitioners meditate on the breath and also on the mind.
Zen is rich with short stories that can be contemplated at length. One of my favorites is about Bankei, a Zen master conducting a meditation retreat. A student was caught stealing, and the incident was reported to Bankei with a request that the person be expelled. Bankei ignored the request. This happened again and was similarly ignored. Angered, the other students submitted a petition asking that the culprit be dismissed and stating that they would leave if he weren’t.
Bankei called everyone together and said, “You are wise. You know what is right and wrong. You may go somewhere else to study if you wish. But this poor student doesn’t even know right from wrong. If I don’t teach him, who will? I want him to stay here even if the rest of you leave.”
At that point, the student who had stolen began to cry. He no longer had any desire to steal.
Within Zen, there are two traditions. Soto Zen does the practice of “just sitting” to develop calm abiding and special insight into the workings and nature of the mind. Practitioners of Rinzai Zen contemplate koans, sayings that are incomprehensible to the ordinary intellect and emotions. Understanding a koan requires freeing the mind of ordinary views. An example is the following:
Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said the flag was moving. The other said the wind was moving. The Sixth Patriarch passed by and told them, “Not the wind, not the flag; the mind is moving.”
Zen practitioners are encouraged to do physical work, this being a chance to apply what is gained in meditation to daily activities. Zen also uses artistic expression as an opportunity to develop mindfulness, and in this atmosphere the exquisite practices of the tea ceremony and flower arrangement have developed.
In places where Ch’an from China is practiced, the monks and nuns are celibate. However, in Japan the government wanted the sangha to marry, and in the last half of the nineteenth century it ordered the abolition of the celibacy requirement. Thus in Japan Zen priests may marry, for their system of vows is different from that of other Buddhist traditions.
The Vajrayana, or Tantra, is practiced by Tibetan Buddhists and also the Japanese Shingon tradition. Vajrayana practice is based on the three principal realizations of the path: the determination to be free, the altruistic intention and the wisdom realizing emptiness. Vajrayana is a branch of the Mahayana, which in turn is based on the Theravada. One can’t jump over the initial practices which are in common with the Theravada and general Mahayana, and directly enter the Vajrayana. If one ignores the three principal realizations and instead has the fanciful attitude, “I’m going to practice Vajrayana because it’s the highest and quickest way to enlightenment,” then one’s practice won’t bear the desired fruits.
This is an important point, for nowadays many people are enchanted with the idea of gaining special powers and seek the tantra for that reason. However, such a motivation isn’t the proper one. The Vajrayana practice isn’t for worldly power and fame. It’s done to attain enlightenment and thus be able to benefit others most effectively.
To undertake the Vajrayana practice, one’s mind must be well-trained in the preliminary subjects. These include meditation on death and impermanence, the Four Noble Truths, the determination to be free, the altruistic intention and the wisdom realizing emptiness. By first training in the basic meditations, one becomes a suitable vessel for receiving empowerment into a tantric practice.
One enters the Vajrayana by taking an empowerment (often called initiation) from a qualified master. During an empowerment, the master gives instruction on how to meditate, and the disciples do the meditation. Just sitting in the room and drinking blessed water isn’t taking an empowerment. The purpose of an empowerment is to help the students make a connection with a particular manifestation of the Buddha and introduce them to the meditation practice of that Buddha. It is extremely important to keep the vows and commitments taken during an empowerment.
After the empowerment, one asks a qualified teacher for instructions on the vows and commitments taken during the empowerment. Teachings on that meditation practice may also be requested. One receives a sadhana, a ritual text with the visualizations, prayers and meditation of that Buddha, and the spiritual master gives instructions on it. Having received these instructions, one does the meditation properly.
The Vajrayana emphasizes developing a positive self-image. In ordinary life, if we can’t imagine graduating from school, we’ll never try to and we’ll never do it. Similarly, if we can’t imagine becoming a Buddha, we’ll never become one. The visualizations done in the Vajrayana practice help us to develop a positive self-image and to expand our altruistic intention.
There are several meditation techniques found in the Vajrayana. Certain preliminary practices purify negative imprints and build up positive potentials. The recitation of mantras calms the mind and aids in the development of concentration. Within the Vajrayana are also found techniques for quickly developing single-pointed concentration and for making manifest an extremely subtle state of mind that realizes emptiness. Vajrayana also includes meditations to transform the death and rebirth process into the path to enlightenment.
All of these meditations are based on an understanding of the three principal aspects of the path. By practicing such a gradual path to enlightenment, we can totally eliminate all defilements from our minds and transform them into the minds of Buddhas. With perfectly developed compassion, wisdom and skillful means, we’ll be able to benefit others extensively.