Part One

A growing number of Westerners, whether they identify themselves as Buddhist or not, are discovering that Buddhism is a highly effective means of dealing with life’s great complexities.

Yet Buddha-dharma has come to the West in many different languages and systems, not in a single, problem-free, plug-and-play package. There are several characteristics of Buddhist religion as it is put into practice that, I believe, threaten to undermine the heart of Buddhist philosophy. While we applaud the growth of Buddhism in America, we should also take time to weed out mistakes that our Asian brothers and sisters have made along the path. It is a classic opportunity for the disciples to surpass their teachers—something toward which all great masters aspire.

"Fuji From the Sea off Satta, Gulf of Sugura" by Ando Hiroshige © The Newark Museum/Art Resource, NY.
“Fuji From the Sea off Satta, Gulf of Sugura” by Ando Hiroshige © The Newark Museum/Art Resource, NY.

In the many traditions in Asia we can see entrenched sectarian views, with the adherents of each believing in the superiority of his or her tradition. The Mahayana schools of China, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea see themselves as having superior motivation and skill in helping all sentient beings to overcome suffering, whereas they see Hinayana as a tradition for beginners who are interested only in their own liberation. The very term Hinayana—which means “lesser vehicle”—was coined by the Mahayanists as a pejorative rebuke to the schools of Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. The term used by these schools themselves is Theravada—or “teachings of the elders.”

For their part, Theravada practitioners sometimes argue that Mahayana is not based on the pure teachings of the historical Buddha, but rather that it contains many metaphysical and esoteric teachings concocted after the Buddha’s death. Theravada—as well as some Mahayana sects—rejects the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, Mongolia, Siberia, and the Himalayan region as outright “spirit worship,” “magic,” or “Lamaism.” Some Westerners in the Vajrayana tradition label other traditions “non-Buddhist,” which is something increasingly said about Vipassana as it grows in popularity.

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