Many think of Buddhism as a tolerant religion, one that recognizes the value of all religious traditions. In recent years, there have been growing numbers of Buddhist-Christian dialogues and Buddhist-Jewish dialogues. The Dalai Lama has even commented on the gospels. This might suggest that Buddhism holds that all religions are one, that all spiritual paths lead to the same mountaintop. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The idea of the unity of religions, at least in its popular form known today, has two important 19th-century sources, one from the West and one from the East. In America, the Theosophists, led by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott (both of whom were strong defenders of Buddhism against Christian missionaries), believed that a single mystical doctrine lay at the core of all religions. In India, the Bengali saint Ramakrishna practiced all of the major religions and claimed that they each led to the same mystical experience. Ramakrishna’s disciple, Swami Vivekananda, went on to proclaim that all religions are one. (A closer reading of his claim suggests that what he really meant is that all religions are Hinduism.)

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Buddhists have never proclaimed the unity of religions. Early Buddhist texts are filled with accounts of non-Buddhist masters claiming to have achieved enlightenment when in fact they have, at best, only achieved rebirth in the higher heavens of the immaterial realm (arupyadhatu); this was the fate of the Buddha’s first meditation teachers, Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra. One of the Buddha’s closest disciples, Mahamaudgalyayana, liked to visit the hells, see which non-Buddhist teachers had been reborn there, and then return to earth to report their fates to their disciples, just to annoy them. Some of the disciples of these teachers eventually got so annoyed that they had him murdered.

In the 13th century, the celebrated Zen master Dogen, who famously proclaimed that mountains and rivers have buddhanature, was not so sure about Daoists and Confucians, writing, “Ignorant people state that Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism are ultimately one, only the entrances are different. These misguided foolish people have a superficial view of the Buddhist Way because they lack sufficient understanding of the dharma and its origin.”

It is not particularly surprising that Buddhists would see themselves, and their path, as superior to competing religious groups, whether they were Hindus in India, Daoists in China, Confucians in Korea, or Bonpos in Tibet. What is more surprising, and more interesting, is that Buddhists would make similar claims of superiority against fellow Buddhists.

In one of his most famous essays, the renowned Japanese master Kukai laid out ten stages of religious development. Those of the lowest stage are the goat-like, who have no moral values whatsoever; the second lowest have some inclination toward self-restraint; and the third lowest level includes Hindus and Daoists. The next six levels are all various forms of Buddhism, none of which lead to buddhahood. As one might expect, this is possible only through Kukai’s own Shingon sect.

In Tibet, the famous 14th-century teacher Tsongkhapa argued that everyone who had ever achieved nirvana, even by the Hinayana path, had done so by understanding emptiness (shunyata) as set forth by what is called the Prasangika branch of Madhyamaka. Liberation from rebirth was impossible with any other Buddhist philosophical view. This raised the problem of how to understand the spiritual attainments of great Indian masters such as Asanga, who had taught different philosophical systems—in Asanga’s case, the Yogacara. Some Tibetans solve this by saying that while Asanga may have taught Yogacara, he was really a Madhyamaka at heart.

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Certain Indian and Tibetan Vajrayana systems contend that it is impossible to achieve buddhahood without practicing sexual yoga with a female consort, and that even Shakyamuni Buddha had done so. In some ways, this historical claim is not surprising, since all new claims in Buddhism must be traced to the Buddha himself; there can be no enlightenment (bodhi) higher than the complete perfect enlightenment (samyakasambodhi) that he achieved.

Historically, all Buddhists have held that liberation from rebirth is impossible via any religion other than Buddhism. Other religions can at best lead to a better rebirth, either as a human or as a god in one of the many heavens; only Buddhism leads to nirvana. Buddhists have agreed up to this point. Where they disagree is which form of Buddhism leads to nirvana, with each of the many schools across Asia claiming that theirs alone does, and often identifying other forms of Buddhism as only so many expedient stratagems (upaya) taught by the Buddha for those not yet ready for the true teaching.

[This story was first published in 2014]

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