By Gary Gach

"What is the difference between a Buddhist and a non-Buddhist?" Answer: "A non-Buddhist thinks that there is a difference." ~ Dr. Mark Epstein

Sermon in the Deer Park: Source public domainDzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche has likened Buddhism to crystal clear water that takes on characteristics of the particular cup in which it's poured. Here's a primer on some basic schools of practice popular in the West. You might also consider them as branches of a tree, or paths. I think you'll sense, by the end of this brief tour, that whether you drink from paper cup or ivory chalice, crystal goblet or backpack thermos, all waters return to the Source. This universal watershed can quench your inmost thirst.

For starters, there's Theravada, sometimes known as Original Buddhism (also associated with Vipassana, or Insight Meditation). It originates in such South and Southeast Asian cultures as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam. When we say "Buddha," here, we're referring to the historical figure, and his teachings as recorded in Pali. Since he discovered that the seeds of his Enlightenment are within everyone, some mottos in this tradition are: "Look within" and "Be a lamp." Mindfulness meditation comes to us from this general school, with its viable applications for medicine, psychology, the workplace, etc., as well as the movement toward emotional intelligence.

Then there's Zen. The word Zen means meditation. (What isn't potentially an opportunity for meditation?) One option within Zen is the Rinzai school contemplation of koans, levers of enlightenment using words to go beyond words (such as "What is the sound of one hand?" And "Show me your Original Face, before your mother or father were born."). Another option is the Soto school of "just sitting " (silent illumination). (In America, elements of both schools are often taught in the same temple.) First flourishing in China, where it found resonance with Taoism, Zen was brought to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Along with the historical personage of the Buddha, Zen also pays particular attention to the seeds of enlightenment ("Buddha nature") within all beings. Stressing intuition and spontaneity, it might balk at surveys such as this, preferring a plain, everyday motto like "Just do it." If life were a movie, its motto might be: "Keep a blank screen."

The next formal branch, Pure Land, is the biggest in the world and in America (where it's also the oldest, going back many generations now). The Pure Land can refer to a cosmological realm neighboring nirvana, and also the clarified field of one's own awakened mind. Also originating in East Asia, its sense of the Buddha is not only as the historical figure but also as bodhisattva -- motivated out of utmost compassion with a goal of enlightenment for everyone. Here the motto is simply the name of the Buddha.  Whether you call the act chanting or recitation, it's yet another entry into Buddha mind, an awakened way of being.

The most recent tradition to reach Western shores is Vajrayana. Originating in high mountain Himalayan culture, it comes to us from Mongolia, Bhutan, and Tibet. Here keen analytic discernment is married to heartfelt compassion. Buddha is seen as but one of tens of thousands from throughout time and space. Advanced practitioners are taught complex visualizations, with a plentiful pantheon of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as objects of meditation, and which embody different aspects of enlightened mind: wisdom, compassion, skillful action, etc. A unique aspect here is tantra, integrating elemental forces interwoven throughout cosmic and the human realms. Of its many pithy mottos, a primary one is "Honor the resistance."

The above is a convenient grouping. Looking closer, the plot thickens. The Pure Land path, for example, includes different iterations by region (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam), as well as traditional and modern interpretations of each. (In the West, two leading Pure Land branches with multiple practice centers include Jodo Shinshu, and Fo Guang Shan.) Pure Land's emphasis on recitation is often mistaken for Nichiren and Soka Gakkai, themselves outgrowths of yet another path based on the Lotus Sutra (Tendai). Soka Gakkai has the most racially diverse membership in the West and is known too for its energetic promulgation of Dharma, and its engaged stand for world peace.

As another example of how simple elements give rise to complexity, Tibetan Buddhism itself can be seen as consisting of four distinct branches (Nyingma, Sakya, Gelug, Kagyu). Of particular interest of late have been the Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachings within Vajrayana, which are resonant with Zen. Vajrayana also includes esoteric practice, requiring initiation, as does the Japanese school Shingon

But I don't wish to over-complicate the picture lest it lead to spiritual materialism -- shopping for enlightenment. I heartily subscribe to what Joseph Goldstein recently termed One Dharma*. Recall what Yogi Berra suggests: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!" Seriously, please bear in mind Buddhism isn't really in a book or on a website -- even Patheos. That is, it's nothing you can pull down off of a shelf. (In fact, it's not a thing.) Rather, it's intimacy with your own life: experiencing life genuinely, completely, just as it is.  When you're ready to learn more, there are teachers and fellow travelers along the Path.

To open this out, and touch a bit deeper, I'll use my own life as an example. I came to Buddhism through a vision that came to me when I was 6 years old. By age 11, I realized it was best explained by Buddhism. That is, it explains to me my true nature in harmony with the nature of the universe.

My root practice lineage is in the tradition of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, which marries a few schools. This is natural, given Vietnam's proximity to both India and China. He's also coined the phrase "engaged Buddhism" -- taking place within a growing, wider movement of engaged spirituality where work on the inner and outer tangle is as one. Plus my teacher's studies in comparative religion nourish a viable, vital interfaith awareness*, as reflected in his widely-read book Living Buddha, Living Christ. Speaking of which, I might mention I'm Jewish. I don't feel I'm betraying my ancestors but rather fulfilling my mitzvot (ethics) through this practice that waters my Jewish roots and gives it new wings.

I also study with Zen priest Dairyu Michael Wenger. Similarly, it's not uncommon today to find students and teachers who've studied in different lineages. A distinct example might be Stephen Batchelor. After he immersed himself in Tibetan Buddhist studies, then studied Korean Zen, he "disrobed" (became a lay practitioner) and teaches a unique, modern Western style he calls Buddhism without beliefs; such Buddhist agnosticism isn't without debate, as seen in current online discussion of his new book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist.

Remember too, the Buddha wasn't a Buddhist. (Was Jesus a Christian?) And here's a really interesting statistic. Respected pollsters Wuthnow and Cadge discovered that one in eight Americans answered yes when asked if they'd heard any teachings of the Buddha that they take to be of lasting value and influence in their lives. That's interesting. Whether or not you identify as "Buddhist," we're coming to the teachings of the Buddha much like those of Einstein without our having to say we're Einsteinian. (Might you already be Buddhist, and not even know it?)

In the end, the teachings of the Buddha depend on how you put them into practice -- how you walk the Path.


Adapted from a blog posted by the author at the PBS website in conjunction with David Grubin's feature Faces of the Buddha.

For further reading see One Dharma by Joseph Goldstein and Patheos' Public Square articles and resources on interfaith.

Gary Gach manages the Buddhist portal at Patheos. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buddhism, editor of  What Book!?: Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop, and translator of three books by the Korean Buddhist poet Ko Un.