Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions is an unprecedented book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Venerable Thubten Chodron that explores the similarities and differences within Buddhist traditions. In July 2014, Mandala’s managing editor Laura Miller had an interview with Venerable Chodron about her work on the book, which is being published by Wisdom Publications in November 2014.
Here we share an excerpt from the introductory chapter “Origin and Spread of the Buddha’s Doctrine.” (The diacritics from the original remain.)
Not all people think alike. They have different needs, interests, and dispositions in almost every area of life, including religion. As a skillful teacher, the Buddha gave various teachings to correspond to the varieties of sentient beings. We’re going to look at the development of the two major Buddhist traditions containing these teachings, the Pāli and Sanskrit traditions. But first, we begin with the life story of Śākyamuni Buddha.
The Buddha’s life
In the view common to both traditions, Siddhārtha Gautama, a prince from the Śākya clan, was born and grew up near what is now the India-Nepal border in the 5th or 6th century B.C.E. As a child, he had a kind heart and excelled in the arts and studies of his time. He lived a sheltered life in the palace during his early years, but as a young man he ventured out beyond the palace walls. In the town, he saw a sick person, an old person, and a corpse, prompting him to reflect on the suffering nature of life. Seeing a wandering mendicant, he considered the possibility of liberation from saṃsāra. And so, at age 29, he left the palace, shed his royal attire, and adopted the lifestyle of a wandering mendicant.
He studied with the great teachers of his time, and he mastered their meditation techniques but discovered they did not lead to liberation. For six years he pursued severe ascetic practices in the forest, but realizing that torturing the body doesn’t tame the mind, he adopted the middle way of keeping the body healthy for the sake of spiritual practice without indulging in unnecessary comforts.
Sitting under the bodhi tree in what is present-day Bodhgaya, India, he vowed not to arise until he had attained full awakening. On the full moon of the fourth lunar month, he finished the process of cleansing his mind of all obscurations and developing all good qualities, and he became a fully awakened buddha (sammāsambuddha, samyaksaṃbuddha). 35 years old at the time, he spent the next 45 years teaching what he had discovered through his own experience to whoever came to hear.
The Buddha taught men and women from all social classes, races, and ages. Many of those chose to relinquish the householder’s life and adopt the monastic life, and thus the saṅgha community was born. As his followers attained realizations and became skilled teachers, they shared with others what they had learned, spreading the teachings throughout ancient India. In subsequent centuries, the Buddhadharma spread south to Sri Lanka; west into present-day Afghanistan; northeast to China, Korea, and Japan; southeast to Southeast Asia and Indonesia; and north to Central Asia, Tibet, and Mongolia. In recent years, many Dharma centers have opened in Europe, the Americas, the former Soviet republics, Australia, and Africa.
I feel a deep connection to Gautama Buddha as well as profound gratitude for his teachings and for the example of his life. He had insights into the workings of the mind that were previously unknown. He taught that our outlook impacts our experience and that our experiences of suffering and happiness are not thrust upon us by others but are a product of the ignorance and afflictions in our minds. Liberation and full awakening are likewise states of mind, not the external environment.
Buddhist canons and the spread of the Dharma
“Vehicle” and “path” are synonymous. While they are sometimes used to refer to a progressive set of spiritual practices, technically speaking they refer to a wisdom consciousness conjoined with uncontrived renunciation.
The Buddha turned the Dharma wheel, setting forth practices of three vehicles: the Hearer Vehicle (Sāvakayāna, Śrāvakayāna), the Solitary Realizer Vehicle (Paccekabuddhayāna, Pratyekabuddhayāna), and the Bodhisattva Vehicle (Bodhisattayāna, Bodhisattvayāna). According to the Sanskrit tradition, the three vehicles are differentiated in terms of their motivation to attain a specific goal, their principal meditation object, and the amount of merit and time necessary to attain their goals. Teachings and practitioners of all three vehicles exist in both the Pāli and Sanskrit traditions. In general, those practicing the Hearer Vehicle principally follow the Pāli tradition, and those practicing the Bodhisattva Vehicle principally follow the Sanskrit tradition. Nowadays in our world, hardly anyone follows the Solitary Realizer Vehicle.
The Buddha’s teaching spread widely in India in the centuries after the Buddha lived and was brought to Sri Lanka from India by King Aśoka’s son and daughter in the 3rd century B.C.E. The early suttas were transmitted orally by the bhāṇakas—monastics whose job it was to memorize the suttas—and according to Sri Lankan sources, they were written down about the 1st century B.C.E. to form what is now the Pāli canon. Over the centuries, beginning in India and later augmented by Sinhala monks in the old Sinhala language, a body of commentaries to the scriptures built up. In the 5th century the great translator and commentator Buddhaghosa compiled the ancient commentaries and translated them into Pāli. He also wrote his famous masterwork the Visuddhimagga and numerous commentaries. Another South Indian monk, Dhammapāla, lived a century later and also wrote many commentaries in Pāli. Pāli is now the scriptural language uniting all Theravāda Buddhists.
Beginning in the 1st century B.C.E., the Sanskrit tradition came into view and gradually spread in India. Philosophical systems in India—Vaibhāṣika, Sautrāntika, Yogācāra (a.k.a. Cittamātra or Vijñānavāda), and Madhyamaka—evolved as scholars developed divergent views on points not explained explicitly in the sūtras. Although many tenets of the Pāli tradition are shared with one or another of these four tenet systems, it cannot be equated with any of them.
Several monastic universities arose—Nālandā, Odantapuri, and Vikramaśīla—and there Buddhists from various traditions and philosophical schools studied and practiced together. Philosophical debate was a widespread ancient Indian custom; the losers were expected to convert to the winners’ schools. Buddhists sages developed logical arguments and reasonings to prove the validity of Buddhist doctrine and to deflect the philosophical attacks of non-Buddhists. The renowned Buddhist debaters were also great practitioners. Of course not all Buddhist practitioners were interested in this approach. Many preferred to study the sūtras or to practice meditation in hermitages.
Nowadays, three canons exist: the Pāli, Chinese, and Tibetan; a Sanskrit canon was not compiled in India. Each canon is divided into three “baskets” (piṭaka)—or categories of teachings—which are correlated with the three higher trainings. The Vinaya basket deals chiefly with monastic discipline, the Sūtra basket emphasizes meditative concentration, and the Abhidharma basket is mainly concerned with wisdom.
The Chinese canon was first published in 983, and several other renditions were published later. The standard edition used now is the Taishō Shinshū Daizōkyō, published in Tokyo in 1934. It consists of four parts: sūtras, vinaya, śāstras (treatises), and miscellaneous texts originally written in Chinese. The Chinese canon is very inclusive, sharing many texts with both the Pāli and Tibetan canons. In particular, the Āgamas in the Chinese canon correspond with the first four Nikāyas in the Pāli canon.
The Tibetan canon was redacted and codified by Buton Rinpoche in the 14th century. The first rendition of the Tibetan canon was published in 1411 in Beijing. Later editions were published in Tibet in Nartang in 1731-42 and later in Dergé and Choné. The Tibetan canon is composed of the Kangyur—the Buddha’s word in 108 volumes and the Tengyur—the great Indian commentaries in 225 volumes. Most of these volumes were translated into Tibetan directly from Indian languages, chiefly Sanskrit, although a few were translated from Chinese and Central Asian languages.
Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka, China, and Southeast Asia many centuries before coming to Tibet. As our elder brothers and sisters, I pay respect to you.
Modern-day Theravāda was derived from the Sthaviravāda, one of the 18 schools in ancient India. The name Theravāda does not seem to have indicated a school in India prior to Buddhism having gone to Sri Lanka. The Sinhala historical chronicle Dīpavaṃsa used the name Theravāda in the 4th century to describe the Buddhists on the island. There were three Theravāda subgroups, each with a monastery bearing its name: Abhayagiri (Dharmaruci), Mahāvihāra, and Jetavana. Abhayagiri Theravādins had close connections with India and brought in many Sanskrit elements. The Jetavanins did this as well, but to a lesser extent, while the Mahāvihārins maintained the orthodox Theravāda teachings. In the 12th century the king abolished the Abhayagiri and Jetavana traditions and amalgamated those monks with the Mahāvihāra, which has since remained prominent.
Buddhism suffered greatly after the Sri Lankan capital fell to the Coḷa forces in 1017. The bhikkhu and bhikkhunī orders were destroyed, although the bhikkhu order was restored when the Sri Lankan king invited monks from Burma to come and give the ordination. The Buddhadhamma thrived once again in Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka came to be seen as the center of the Theravāda world. When the state of Theravāda teachings or its ordination lineages in one country were adversely affected, leaders would request monks from another Theravāda country to come and give ordination. This has continued up to the present day.
In late 18th-century Thailand, King Rāma I began to remove elements of Brahmanism and tantric practice, although traces live on today with many Thai Buddhist temples hosting a statue of four-faced Brahmā in their courtyard. King Rāma IV (r. 1851-68), a monk for nearly 30 years before ascending the throne, witnessed the relaxed state of monastic discipline and Buddhist education and instituted a wide range of saṅgha reforms. Importing an ordination lineage from Burma, he began the Dhammayuttikā Nikāya, unified the other sects into the Mahā Nikāya, instructed both sects to keep the monastic precepts more strictly, and placed both under a single ecclesiastical authority. Revamping monastic education, he wrote a series of textbooks expressing a more rational approach to Dhamma and eliminated elements of non-Buddhist folk culture attached to Thai Buddhism. As Thailand became more centralized, the government assumed the authority to appoint preceptors to give ordination. The Saṅgha Act of 1902 brought all monastics under royal control by centralizing administrative authority for the entire saṅgha in the Supreme Saṅgha Council (Mahathera Samakhom) headed by the saṅgharāja. King Rāma V’s half-brother, Prince Wachirayan, wrote new textbooks that were the basis for national saṅgha exams. These exams improved the monks’ knowledge as well as distinguished the monks who would advance in ecclesiastical rank.
Colonialism hurt Buddhism in Sri Lanka, but the interest of a few Westerners in Buddhism, especially theosophists Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott, spurred lay Buddhists such as Anagārika Dhammapāla to present Buddhism in more rational terms and to connect with Buddhists internationally. Buddhism provided a rallying point for Sri Lankans in dealing with colonialism and establishing an independent nation.
Colonialism did not harm Buddhism in Burma as much, and it actually stimulated the king to request monks to teach vipassanā meditation in the court. This resulted in laypeople from all social classes learning to meditate. The monks Ledi Sayadaw (1846-1923) and Mingon Sayadaw (1868-1955) set up lay meditation centers, and Mahasi Sayadaw (1904-82) passed his teachings to lay teachers. This meditation style is now popular in Burma.
The means to select a saṅgharāja differs. In Thailand, they are generally appointed by the king. In other countries monastic seniority or a semidemocratic process are used. The authority of saṅgharājas varies: some are figureheads; others such as the late Mahā Ghosananda of Cambodia have great influence by virtue of their practice, beneficial works, and advancement of social change. Thailand’s saṅgharāja, a position existing since the 18th century, is part of a national hierarchy handling issues of importance to the saṅgha. He has legal authority over monastics, works with the secular government, and is assisted by the Supreme Saṅgha Council. In Cambodia the saṅgharāja position disappeared during the Khmer period, but in 1981 the government reestablished it.
In many cases, national governments instituted changes that had the side effect of lessening the saṅgha’s traditional roles as teachers and doctors and supplanting them with secular systems of modern education and medicine. As a result, Theravāda monastics, as well as their brethren in countries following the Sanskrit tradition, have had to rethink their role in society in the face of modernization.
Buddhism in China
Buddhism entered China in the 1st century C.E., first via the Silk Road from Central Asian lands where Buddhism flourished and later by sea from India and Sri Lanka. By the 2nd century, a Chinese Buddhist monastery existed, and translation of Buddhist texts into Chinese was under way. Early translations employed inconsistent terminology, leading to some misunderstanding of Buddhist thought, but by the 5th century, translation terms became more settled. The early 5th century also marked the translation of more vinaya texts. For many centuries, emperors sponsored translation teams, so a wealth of Buddhist sūtras, treatises, and commentaries from India and Central Asia were translated into Chinese.
Chinese Buddhism contains a diversity of schools. Some views and practices are common to all schools, while others are unique to individual schools. Some schools are differentiated based on their philosophical tenets, others on their manner of practice, others by their principal texts. Historically, 10 major schools developed in China.
Chan (J. Zen) was brought to China by the Indian meditation master Bodhidharma in the early 6th century. He was the 28th Indian patriarch and the first Chinese patriarch of this school. Currently, two sub-branches of Chan exist, Linji (J. Rinzai) and Caodong (J. Sōtō). Linji primarily uses hua-tous (koans)—puzzling statements that challenge practitioners to go beyond the limits of the conceptual mind—and speaks of sudden awakening. Caodong focuses more on “just sitting” and takes a more gradual approach.
Early Chan masters relied on the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and on Prajñāpāramitā sūtras such as the Vajracchedikā Sūtra, and some later adopted tathāgatagarbha, or “buddha essence,” ideas. The Śūraṅgama Sūtra is popular in Chinese Chan. Nowadays most Korean Chan practitioners and some Chinese ones learn Madhyamaka—Middle Way philosophy. Dōgen Zenji and Myōan Eisai were instrumental in bringing Zen to Japan in the 13th century.
The Pure Land (C. Jingtu, J. Jōdo) school is based on the three Pure Land sūtras—the smaller and larger Sukhāvatīvyūha sūtras and the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra. It emphasizes chanting the name of Amitābha Buddha and making fervent prayers to be reborn in his pure land, which provides all circumstances necessary to practice the Dharma and attain full awakening. The pure land can also be viewed as the pure nature of our own minds. Chinese masters such as Zhiyi, Hanshan Deqing, and Ouyi Zhixu wrote commentaries on the Pure Land practice, discussing how to attain serenity and realize the nature of reality while meditating on Amitābha. After the 9th century, Pure Land practice was integrated into many other Chinese schools, and today many Chinese monasteries practice both Chan and Pure Land. Hōnen took the Pure Land teachings to Japan in the late 12th century.
Tiantai (J. Tendai) was founded by Huisi (515-76). His disciple Zhiyi (538-97) established a gradual progression of practice from the easier to the most profound, with the ultimate teachings found in the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra, the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, and Nāgārjuna’s Mahāprajnāpāramitā-upadeśa. This school balances study and practice.
Huayan (J. Kegon) is based on the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, translated into Chinese around 420. Dushun (557-640) and Zongmi (781-841) were great Huayan masters. Huayan emphasizes the interdependence of all people and phenomena and the interpenetration of their worlds. The individual affects the world, and the world affects the individual. Huayan philosophy also emphasizes the bodhisattvas’ activities in the world to benefit all beings.
The Sanlun (J. Sanron) or Madhyamaka school was founded by the great Indian translator Kumārajīva (334-413) and principally relies on the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā and Dvādaśanikāya Śāstra by Nāgārjuna and the Śataka Śāstra of Āryadeva. Sometimes Nāgārjuna’s Mahāprajnāpāramitā-upadeśa is added as the fourth principal Sanlun text. Sanlun relies on the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and follows the Akṣayamatinirdeśa Sūtra in asserting that these sūtras reveal the definitive meaning of the Buddha’s teachings.
Yogācāra (C. Faxiang, J. Hossō) is based on the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra and on the Yogācāryabhūmi Śāstra, Vijnaptimātrasiddhi Śāstra, and other treatises by Maitreya, Asaṅga, and Vasubandhu. Xuanzang (602-64) translated these important texts and established this school after his return from India.
Vajrayāna (C. Zhenyan, J. Shingon) is based on the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, Vajraśekhara Sūtra, Adhyardhaśatikā Prajnāpāramitā Sūtra, and Susiddhikara Sūtra, which explain yoga tantra practices. Never widespread in China, this school was brought to Japan by Kukai (774-835) and is still extant there.
The Vinaya (C. Lu, J. Ritshū) school was founded by Daoxuan (596-667) and principally relies on the Dharmaguptaka vinaya, translated into Chinese in 412. Four other vinayas were also translated into Chinese.
The Satyasiddhi (C. Chengshi, J. Jōjitsu) school is based on the Satyasiddhi Śāstra, an Abhidharma-style text that discusses emptiness among other topics. Some say it emphasizes the Śrāvaka Vehicle, others say it bridges the Śrāvaka Vehicle and Bodhisattva Vehicle. This school is not extant now.
The Abhidharma (C. Kośa, J. Kusha) school was based on the Abhidharmakośa by Vasubandhu and was introduced into China by Xuanzang. While this school was popular in the “golden age of Buddhism” during the Tang dynasty (618-907), it is small now.
Some of the 10 schools still exist as separate schools. The tenets and practices of those that do not have been incorporated into existing schools. Although the Vinaya school does not exist as a separate entity now, the practice of vinaya has been integrated into the remaining schools, and the saṅgha is flourishing in Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam. While no longer distinct schools, the Abhidharma, Yogācāra, and Madhyamaka philosophies are studied and meditated upon in the indigenous Chinese schools as well as in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.
Changes in society in the early 20th century spurred Buddhist reform and renewal in China. The fall of the Qing dynasty in 1917 stopped imperial patronage and support of the saṅgha, and the government, military, and educational institutions wanted to confiscate monasteries’ property for secular use. Buddhists wondered what role Buddhadharma could play in their encounter with modernity, science, and foreign cultures.
This social change provoked a variety of reactions. Taixu (1890-1947), perhaps the most well-known Chinese monk of that time, renewed the study of Madhyamaka and Yogācāra and began new educational institutes for the saṅgha using modern educational methods. He also incorporated the best from secular knowledge and urged Buddhists to be more socially engaged. Traveling in Europe and Asia, he contacted Buddhists of other traditions and established branches of the World Buddhist Studies Institute. He encouraged Chinese to go to Tibet, Japan, and Sri Lanka to study, and he established seminaries in China that taught Tibetan, Japanese, and Pāli scriptures. Taixu also formulated “Humanistic Buddhism,” in which practitioners strive to purify the world by enacting bodhisattvas’ deeds right now as well as to purify their minds through meditation.
Several young Chinese monks studied Buddhism in Tibet in the 1920s and 30s. Fazun (1902-80), a disciple of Taixu, was a monk at Drepung Monastery, where he studied and later translated into Chinese several great Indian treatises and some of Tsongkhapa’s works. The monk Nenghai (1886-1967) studied at Drepung Monastery and, upon returning to China, established several monasteries following Tsongkhapa’s teachings. Bisong (a.k.a. Xing Suzhi 1916-) also studied at Drepung Monastery and in 1945 became the first Chinese geshe lharampa.
The scholar Lucheng made a list of works in the Tibetan and Chinese canons to translate into the other’s language in order to expand Buddhist material available to Chinese and Tibetan practitioners and scholars. In the first half of the 20th century, Chinese lay followers had increased interest in Tibetan Buddhism, especially in tantra, and invited several Tibetan teachers to teach in China. They and their Chinese disciples translated mostly tantric materials.
Taixu’s disciple Yinshun (1906-2005) was an erudite scholar who studied the sūtras and commentaries of the Pāli, Chinese, and Tibetan canons. A prolific writer, he was especially attracted to Tsongkhapa’s explanations. Due to Yinshun’s emphasis on Madhyamaka and the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras, many Chinese Buddhists have renewed interest in this view. He developed the schema of the major philosophical systems in Chinese Buddhism today: (1) False and unreal mind only (C. Weishi) is the Yogācāra view. (2) Truly permanent mind only (C. Zenru) is the tathāgatagarbha doctrine, which is popular in China and has strong impact on practice traditions. (3) Empty nature, mere name (C. Buruo) is the Madhyamaka view based on the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras. Yinshun also encouraged Humanistic Buddhism.
Buddhism in Tibet
Tibetan Buddhism is rooted in Indian monastic universities such as Nālandā. Beginning in the early centuries of the Common Era and lasting until the early 13th century, Nālandā and other monastic universities consisted of many erudite scholars and practitioners emphasizing different sūtras and espousing a variety of Buddhist philosophical tenets.
Buddhism first came to Tibet in the 7th century through two wives of the Tibetan monarch Songtsen Gampo (605 or 617-49), one a Nepali princess the other a Chinese princess, who brought Buddhist statues to Tibet. Buddhist texts in Sanskrit and Chinese soon followed. From the late 8th century onward, Tibetans preferred the texts coming directly from India, and these formed the bulk of Buddhist literature translated into Tibetan.
Buddhism flourished in Tibet during the reign of King Trisong Detsen (r. 756-ca. 800), who invited the monk, Madhaymaka philosopher, and logician Śāntarakṣita from Nālandā and the Indian tantric yogi Padmasambhava to come to Tibet. Śāntarakṣita ordained Tibetan monks, establishing the saṅgha in Tibet, while Padmasambhava gave tantric initiations and teachings.
Śāntarakṣita also encouraged the Tibetan king to have Buddhist texts translated into Tibetan. In the early 9th century, many translations were done, and a commission of Tibetan and Indian scholars standardized many technical terms and compiled a Sanskrit-Tibetan glossary. However, Buddhism was persecuted during the reign of King Langdarma (838-42), and monastic institutions were closed. Since Dharma texts were no longer available, people’s practice became fragmented, and they no longer knew how to practice all the various teachings as a unified whole.
At this crucial juncture Atiśa (982-1054), a scholar-practitioner from the Nālandā tradition, was invited to Tibet. He taught extensively, and to rectify misconceptions, he wrote the Bodhipathapradīpa, explaining that both sutra and tantra teachings could be practiced by an individual in a systematic, noncontradictory manner. As a result, people came to understand that the monastic discipline of the Vinaya, the bodhisattva ideal of the Sūtrayana, and the transformative practices of the Vajrayāna could be practiced in a mutually complementary way. Monasteries were again built, and the Dharma flourished in Tibet.
The Buddhism in Tibet prior to Atiśa became known as the Nyingma or “old translation” school. The new lineages of teachings entering Tibet beginning in the 11th century became the “new translation” (sarma) schools, and these slowly crystallized to form the Kadam, Kagyü, and Sakya traditions. The Kadam lineage eventually became known as the Gelug tradition. All four Tibetan Buddhist traditions that exist today—Nyingma, Kagyü, Sakya, and Gelug—emphasize the Bodhisattva Vehicle, follow both the sūtras and tantras, and have the Madhyamaka philosophical view. Following the example of Śāntarakṣita, many Tibetan monastics engage in rigorous study and debate in addition to meditation.
Some misnomers from the past—the terms “Lamaism,” “living buddha,” and “god king”—unfortunately persist. Westerners who came in contact with Tibetan Buddhism in the 19th century called it Lamaism, a term originally coined by the Chinese, perhaps because they saw so many monks in Tibet and mistakenly believed all of them were lamas (teachers). Or perhaps they saw the respect disciples had for their teachers and erroneously thought they worshiped their teachers. In either case, Tibetan Buddhism should not be called Lamaism.
Lamas and tulkus (identified incarnations of spiritual masters) are respected in Tibetan society. However, in some cases these titles are simply social status, and calling certain people tulku, rinpoche, or lama has led to corruption. It saddens me that people put so much value on titles. Buddhism is not about social status. It is much more important to check a person’s qualifications and qualities before taking that person as one’s spiritual mentor. Teachers must practice diligently and be worthy of respect, whether or not they have titles.
Some people mistakenly believed that since tulkus are recognized as incarnations of previous great Buddhist masters, they must be buddhas and thus called them “living buddha” (C. huofo). However, not all tulkus are bodhisattvas, let alone buddhas.
“Godking” may have originated with the Western press and was attributed to the position of the Dalai Lama. Since Tibetans see the Dalai Lama as the embodiment of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, these journalists assumed he was a “god,” and since he was the political leader of Tibet, he was considered a king. However, since I currently hold the position of Dalai Lama, I repeatedly remind people that I am a simple Buddhist monk, nothing more. The Dalai Lama is not a god, and since the Central Tibetan Administration located in Dharamsala, India, is now headed by a prime minister, he is not a king.
Some people mistakenly think the position of the Dalai Lama is like a Buddhist pope. The four principal Tibetan Buddhist traditions and their many sub-branches operate more or less independently. The abbots, rinpoches, and other respected teachers meet together from time to time to discuss issues of mutual interest under the auspices of Central Tibetan Administration’s Department of Religion and Culture. The Dalai Lama does not control their decisions. Similarly the Dalai Lama is not the head of any of the four traditions. The Gelug is headed by the Ganden Tripa, a rotating position, and the other traditions have their own methods of selecting leaders.
Our commonalities and diversity
Sometimes people mistakenly believe that Tibetan Buddhism, especially Vajrayāna, is separate from the rest of Buddhism. When I visited Thailand many years ago, some people initially thought that Tibetans had a different religion. However, when we sat together and discussed the vinaya, sūtras, abhidharma, and such topics as the 37 aids to awakening, the four concentrations, four immaterial absorptions, four truths of the āryas, and noble eightfold path, we saw that Theravāda and Tibetan Buddhism have many common practices and teachings.
With Chinese, Korean, and many Vietnamese Buddhists, Tibetans share the monastic tradition, bodhisattva ethical restraints, Sanskrit scriptures, and the practices of Amitābha, Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, Samantabhadra, and Medicine Buddha. When Tibetan and Japanese Buddhists meet, we discuss the bodhisattva ethical restraints and sūtras such as the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra. With the Japanese Shingon sect we share the tantric practices of the Vajradhātu maṇḍala and Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi.
While there are differences in the texts that comprise each canon, there is considerable overlap of the material discussed in them. In subsequent chapters we will explore some of these in greater depth, but here are a few examples.
The Buddha spoke at length about the disadvantages of anger and the antidotes to it in the Pāli suttas (e.g., SN 11:4-5). The teachings for overcoming anger in Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra echo these. One sutta (SN 4:13) recounts the story of the Buddha experiencing severe pain due to his foot having been cut by a stone splinter. Nevertheless, he was not distressed, and when prodded by Māra, he responded, “I lie down full of compassion for all beings.” This is the compassion generated when doing the taking-and-giving meditation (Tib. tonglen) taught in the Sanskrit tradition, where a practitioner imagines taking the sufferings of others upon himself and giving others his own happiness.
Furthermore, the altruistic intention of bodhichitta so prominent in the Sanskrit tradition is an extension of the four brahmavihāras (four immeasurables) taught in the Pāli canon. The Pāli and Sanskrit traditions share many of the same perfections (pāramī, pāramitā). The qualities of a buddha, such as the 10 powers, four fearlessnesses, and 18 unshared qualities of an awakened one are described in scriptures from both traditions. Both traditions speak of impermanence, the unsatisfactory nature, selflessness, and emptiness. The Sanskrit tradition sees itself as containing the teachings of the Pāli tradition and elaborating on certain key points—for example, by explaining true cessation according to the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and the true path according to the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras and some of the tantras.
The terms Thai Buddhism, Sri Lankan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, and so on are social conventions. In each case, Buddhism in a country is not monolithic and contains many Buddhist practice traditions and tenet systems. Within these, there are sub-groups consisting of monasteries or teachers with various affiliations. Some subtraditions emphasize study, others meditation. Some stress practicing serenity (samatha, śamatha), others insight (vipassanā, vipaśyanā), and others both together.
While one country may have many traditions in it, one tradition may also be practiced in many countries. Theravāda is practiced Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and is also found in Vietnam. Within Theravāda countries, some follow early Buddhism—the suttas themselves—without relying on the commentaries very much, while others follow the explanations in the commentarial tradition. Even the robes in one country or in one tradition may vary.
Similarly, Chan is practiced in China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. While Chan practitioners in all these countries rely on the same sūtras, the teachings and meditation style vary among them.
In Western countries, Buddhism from many different traditions and countries are present. Some groups consist primarily of Asian immigrants, and their temples are both religious and community centers where people can speak their native language, eat familiar food, and teach their children the culture of their homeland. Other groups in the West are composed mostly of Western converts. A few are mixed.
As followers of the Buddha, let’s keep these variations in mind and not think that everything we hear or learn about another tradition applies to everyone in that tradition. Similarly not everything we hear about how Buddhism is practiced in a particular country applies to all traditions or temples in that country.
Indeed we are a huge and diverse Buddhist family following the same wise and compassionate Teacher, Śākyamuni Buddha. I believe our diversity is one of our strengths. It has allowed Buddhism to spread throughout the world and to benefit billions of people on this planet.
Reprinted from Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions by The Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron with permission from Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm Street, Somerville, MA 02144 USA. www.wisdompubs.org