Thursday, July 15, 2010

'Hahayana' Buddhism: Integration or Fragmentation?

The Washington Post just published an interesting piece from Chade-Meng Tan'Hahayana Buddhism', on the merits of tapping from the various schools of Buddhism:
"Theravada teachings form both the theoretical and practical foundations of my Buddhist practice, from which I became able to understand and appreciate the other schools of Buddhism. Theravada is my root, my foundation. This is the body of my practice. The body of my practice is Virtue, Concentration, and Wisdom.
. . . 
It [Tibetan Buddhism] has awed and inspired me. It has given me my Compassion practice. It inspired me to take my Bodhisattva Vows. Vajrayana is my thunder, my power. This is the heart of my practice. The heart of my practice is Emptiness and Compassion. 
I benefited tremendously from the simple directness of Zen Buddhism, which is, in my opinion, the greatest of all the Mahayana schools. True wisdom is simple and full of lightness and humor. Zen embodies it. Just be. Enlightenment is the perfection of just being. Zen is my no-self (无我). This is the soul of my practice. The soul of my practice is. Just is."
My friend, Bill Behrman, sent me the article, thinking it would speak to me:
"When he [Chade-Meng Tan] talks about open-minded Americans who seek out the best elements from all three yanas, I thought of you."
It is true, I have been doing my share of  Dharma searching . . . Starting with Theravada, my home base, just like Meng. This is the school of Buddhism that speaks to me most, at least for now, and why I have such a fondness for Insight Meditation Center, my local sangha, and the primary teacher there, Gil Fronsdal

A few months ago, inspired by my involvement with Zen Hospice Project and the wonderful zen teachers I met there, I decided to open up my horizons, and signed up for San Francisco Zen Center's one year EPP Training Program. I was drawn by the possibilities of a residential sangha, and also the aesthetics of Zen. Half-way through my first day at Zen Center, I realized this was not the place for me. While my mind was intrigued, my heart was elsewhere. I left with a renewed sense of connection with IMC. 

This week,  I will be flirting with the Tibetan school. Bill Behrman's enthusiasm for Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche's Joy of Living training, as well as hearing Spirit Rock teacher Guy Armstrong describe (22' into talk 1 of 4) his appreciation for the master's embodied emptiness, convinced me to sign up for Yinget Mingyur's retreat this coming weekend. I have some mixed feelings about it. Am I showing open mind, or  am I distracting myself from deeper practice?  The French expression "Elle ne sait pas a quel saint se vouer." - She doesn't know which saint to devote to - comes to my mind.  

Thinking about Chade-Meng's argument some more, I realize each tradition has already within it, all that is needed for awakening. Taking Theravada for instance, beautiful teachings abound there about emptiness, and compassion, and loving kindness. No need to go outside. Same with the bare bone simplicity of Zen mentioned by Chade-Meng. Aesthetics set aside, Theravada can be just as satisfying as Zen in that respect. More important than the tradition, is the teacher's level of progress along the path, and his understanding and transmission of the original teachings as taught by the Buddha.

I can spend the rest of my life looking for a 'better' tradition, a 'better' teacher. Or I can stay where I am, which is a perfectly fine place, and engage, day after day, moment after moment, in the challenging path of practice. With the support of my existing sangha, and my teacher.

I am curious to hear your thoughts on the topic. What has your own spiritual journey been? Are you 'married' to one tradition, or do you move freely from one to the other? Do you have a primary teacher, or several teachers? 


  1. I can't make up my mind. I started out thinking that Theravada would be the path for me, but the lessons of John Daido Loori speak to me as well, as does the simplicity and structure of Zen.

    For now I'm committing myself to studying the sutras and attempting to structure some sort of daily meditation practice at some point in the near future.

    The idea of pulling from many traditions intrigues me, especially since locally I have about zero options for in-the-flesh teachers.

    A very helpful post here. Thanks.

  2. This reminds of a chapter I read in A Path With Heart. Jack Kornfield talks about choosing one practice and sticking with it (I'm of course oversimplifying and paraphrasing here). It makes sense to me. We can search 'out there' and compare and compare and go back and forth or get caught up in the teachings of new traditions, but that's not really the point or the goal. Sure, the Dharma is important and worthwhile to understand, but it's more important to forge our own path and stick with a personal practice that we feel is right for us.

    Jon Kabat-Zinn uses the analogy of scaffolding. That's all that these different teachings are. They absolutely serve a purpose in supporting our practice, but at the end of the day we need to find our own answers and explore for ourselves.

    I, like you, am attracted to the insight tradition, but unfortunately there's not a strong group/sangha in the area where I live. I do feel it's important to engage with some sort of community and not do this on my own, so I'm going to a local Shambala center this weekend to see what it's all about.

  3. Interesting thoughts, Marguerite. And I love the French expression that captures this dilemma!

    My own path was actually more meandering before I got to Buddhism... I was raised as a Catholic (12 years of Catholic grammar school and high school!). That didn't work so well for me, so I tried out several kinds of Christian denominations, and eventually ended up in a Unitarian congregation for a while.

    But that didn't stick either. My first exposure to Buddhism was via Thich Nhat Hanh's tradition and the Community of Mindful Living. My root teacher is Roshi Joan Halifax, who was at that time studying with Thay. When she later began study with Roshi Bernie Glassman, I also shifted to a more traditional Zen orientation. Eventually I found my way to San Francisco Zen Center and asked Shosan Vicki Austin if she would be my teacher as well, since it felt important to have a relationship with a teacher who was right where I was living.

    I have gone to several retreats in Theravadin and Tibetan settings, but those never really took hold in me in the same way that Soto Zen has. I have a deep respect for those traditions, but my resonance is with Zen. Which surprises me since I tend to be so all over the place in other aspects of my life, and in my earlier spiritual path.

    I don't think I'd use the word "married," though. The word "resonance" feels more accurate to me. And who knows... perhaps in the future there will be something in those other traditions that feeds what I need at that time... but for now, it feels clear to me that Zen is my home.

  4. Thank you for posting this reflection on your journey, which in some respects mirrors my own. I enjoyed Meng's article because it demonstrates how one can be an island unto oneself and integrate what resonates from different traditions into one's own practice. Meng's day job, as you may know, is with Google, as its self-described 'jolly good fellow' who with humour spreads the Dhamma in that corporation. The challenges of an eclectic, or in this case, syncretic, approach is distortion for one's own self-interest of the integrity and consistency of any one tradition.

    For me, I guess, it comes down to faith and how far one is willing to go in suspending disbelief. As a Westerner, I am not prepared to go as far as Zen, with its faith-based assertion of Buddha-nature or as far as Tibetan Buddhism with its supernatural cosmos. (Thanissaro Bhikkhu has an excellent piece on the Access to Insight website on Buddha-nature.)

    That brings me back to where I started, Theravadin Buddhism, specifically the Thai Forest Tradition. The faith there is quite simply that a human being, just like ourselves, one who is born and dies, named Gotama made certain discoveries about the mind and the nature of reality that are repeatable. If after practice, one disagrees, one is free to draw one's own conclusions

    By the way, I first began to reflect on the faith-based quality of Zen after hearing a podcast of Gil on why he established a vipassana practice.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and the invitation to comment!

  5. I too have been bouncing around pretty frequently from path to path. Therevadan, Zen, Tibetan...

    Part of me worries that I'm a sort of spiritual tourist, but on the other hand, all paths lead to the same goal and cover the same territory (the human experience). If they are not weighed one against the other in an attempt to find the "best", I think all can be taken simply as they are, tools to be used along the path.

  6. Wow! thank you all for sharing. So many common threads to be found in this discussion . . . I can resonate with each one of your comments.

    I am most touched by the intensity of everyone's search. Of course, there is no right or wrong here. Only our human struggles to find the path to inner happiness.

  7. Thank you, Rod, for your Facebook invitation! I am happy to become your friend.

  8. Perhaps the biggest teaching I received from my first master, whom I learned most of my understanding of the Dhamma from, is that all the schools and denominations within them are infused with each country's indigenous religion and culture. They've been infiltrated, especially Mahāyāna, with outside teachings until what we have today are an assortment of Buddhist hybrids. My master demanded that I seek out and learn from other teachers of other traditions so I could clearly see firsthand what he was talking about. I have maintained this perspective throughout my life to such a degree that I do not consider myself belonging to, nor do I identify with, any school or denomination. Though I am ordained into a school and denomination of Buddhism, for there is currently no other way, I identify with aspects of both Theravāda and Zen, as well as neither (I've never involved myself with the Vajrayāna school). Some like to classify me as being one of those people who strive to uncover "pure" or "original" Buddhism, and I suppose that's a fair enough accusation since I do scrutinize what's taught to me or what I read intellectually, canonically, as well as taking it to the proving ground of my meditation practice and out in the field of my daily life. When I find something doesn't work or fit, I begin to dig in to find out why, ignoring the protests that I just have to have faith and all will be revealed one day. What I usually discover as the cause of the fallibility of what I was taught or for the discrepancy was that the teaching was skewed as a result of being a Buddhist hybrid as I mentioned previously. When you begin going to the source and checking your understanding with the canon then taking everything to the cushion for digestion, everything becomes clear. The perversions to the teachings become plain as day, and it's these discrepancies that cause people to create a patchwork path. Though I must point out that it's important to not get caught up in arguments of who's right and who's wrong. They are all correct, from the perspective of their denominations.

    I share your reservations and inability to identify with a school, and all of them do have value. Just because they contain outside teachings doesn't make those teachings of any less value, it simply makes them not Buddhist. However, I'm sorry, but pulling from all the extant schools and denominations is only perpetuating the insanity — it's going the opposite direction. When you have an amalgamation of teachings there are inevitably going to be discrepancies and confusions that arise. The Buddha already brightly lit up the path to nibbāna, it's just been covered over by debris throughout the millennia by mankind's natural tendency to meddle and amalgamate. Perhaps the course of action to be taken is to begin stripping away each layer of mud that's accumulated with each roll through a country instead of adding yet more layers onto the ball?

    I enjoyed this article. It's rare to find one that peaks my interest enough to comment, thank you. This is definitely an issue I feel all Western practitioners are experiencing and need to find a way of working through so it doesn't overshadow and hinder their practice.

  9. Wow! This is such a wonderful, deep, well thought out comment. I feel honored by your visit. Although I cannot claim to know as much as you do, I too feel the real challenge is to follow the Dharma as originally understood by the Buddha. One of the very comforting facts for me was to hear that the texts from the different traditions agree with each other for the most part, which would indicate that the heart of the original teachings survived all the various iterations and translations through time. I am also totally enthused by Stephen Batchelor's work of uncovering, as shared by him during his last visit to Insight Meditation Center. (I wrote a post about it, and was glad to get an email feedback from Stephen, confirming that I had gotten all of his points).

    The ultimate test eventually lies in one's confirmation of the Dharma through one's own inner experience. If it does not ring true, what is the point? The Buddha was very clear about this, and that is one of the many things that draws me to the Buddhist path.

    With much gratitude for your teaching,

    Deep bow to you.


  10. Thanks for the nice article. Very interesting. Your comments reflect a lot of my concerns and seem to reflect others too.
    A few issues come to mind:
    Firstly, as my spiritual practice deepens, I am struck by the value and validity of EVERY other spiritual tradition, including for example Christian or Muslim.
    Secondly, the key issue, for me, is my own practice. When I asked the two guides I have met, what to read or how much to pray, they said the following things:
    (1) Whatever it takes to get on the cushion, and
    (2) Be patient, your practice will mature.

    Thus, I think the key test is what helps me with my life and my practice. If a particularly teacher, centre or tradition helps you get on the cushion and makes your practice better then that's the right one for you. Of course sitting and practice are not always easy....
    Finally, for me, local is good. If you are lucky enough to have a good quality Zen centre close by - same town or city, try sitting there. A regular local sitting group, even one with no teacher, may be a much better help to your practice than a teacher or centre that is a drive or plane ride away. Of course, these two things are not exclusive.

  11. Thank you, Paul! You are so wise . . . I agree with you, the less barriers to practice, the better. Practice is hard enough already. For me, the online sanghas from Twitter and also this blog have been a great source of support, in addition to my local sangha at Insight Meditation Center. The online world has the advantage of being always there, ready at one's fingertips. The closest thing to a monastic community for householders.