Three Buddhisms, Two Buddhisms, One Buddhism?

Words have meaning and names have power. ~Author Unknown

Something that has been coming up a lot for me, in blogs, chats with friends, and so on, is the discussion over classifying Buddhism(s) and Buddhists into various categories. My friend Rev. Danny Fisher has a new podcast – which is simply awesome btw, do check it out – which discusses the book Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction.

One of the ‘methodological issues’ discussed early on is that ‘s’ on Buddhist Religions. Some earlier versions of the book were called ‘The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction.’ Yes, this is what we scholars worry about sometimes; is it ‘Buddhism’ or ‘Buddhisms’?

Oh dear.

Very briefly, based on what I remember from scattered sources: ‘Buddhism’ is a Western term, coined in the 19th century. It was created to describe a religion that was distinct from Hinduism (another Western construct) in India. (Or should I say ‘Hinduisms’, but I’ll get to that in a moment.) Essentially, those who professed to follow teachings believed to originate from ‘the Buddha’, a 5th-4th century historical figure, were deemed ‘Buddhist’. And, for a very brief time, we -and by ‘we’ I mean Western scholars- had just one Buddhism.

But then ‘we’ discovered that the Buddhists in Tibet seemed awfully different than those of Sri Lanka and Thailand, and the Buddhists of Japan were different still. So we created more labels: Tibetan Buddhism, Japanese Buddhism, and so on. We began chopping Buddhism into pieces, generally by nation or region. And then we had lots of Buddhisms.

Then someone came along (not sure who exactly) and decided we really only have 3 (yes, just 3) Buddhisms: Hinayana Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. This was neat because it didn’t use Western (read colonialist) terms, but instead allowed Buddhists to describe themselves. At the same time, we were discovering that Buddhists had been doing this sort of thing pretty much all along. An early split had created the Sthaviravadins (Theravadins, Teaching of the Elders) and the Mahasamghikas (The Big Community). Before long there were all kinds of -vadins and -ikas. And soon enough, some time around the 1st century BCE, there arose a whole new -yana (vehicle or path), the Mahayana (big vehicle), which was supposed to supplant the Hinayana (little vehicle).

One intriguing and often confusing fact is that Buddhists were generally very tolerant to differing beliefs, while more strict in terms of discipline. So Buddhists of different doctrinal schools could be living together under the same rules at the same monastery.

Hinayana quickly exited Western academia (though you’ll still find it popping up sometimes) because it was discovered that Theravadins (who rejected the Mahayana teachings) didn’t like being considered ‘lesser’. Fair enough. Incidentally, Hinayana can refer simply to one’s own motivation in life. I’ve read a quote by a Tibetan who said that he as an individual was ‘Hinayana’, meaning that he felt that his own motivations did not live up to the Mahayana ideal of seeking awakening for the sake of all beings.

This is another interesting and confusing fact, as Tibetans are often all lumped in the ‘Vajrayana’ category of this nifty Three Buddhisms scheme.

Then in the late ’70s Charles Prebish, studying N. American Buddhists, suggested that there are ‘Two Buddhisms’ (ethnic and convert), which caused some uproar and a quick suggestion by Jan Nattier that, no, there are ‘Three Buddhisms’ (import, export, and baggage, focusing on modes of transmission rather than those practicing). And numerous other attempts to classify Buddhism in the West have been made since.

For an excellent recent paper on the topic see, Wakoh Shannon Hickey’s piece TWO BUDDHISMS, THREE BUDDHISMS, AND RACISM.

Suggestions of racism and priviledge, aside, I agree with Jeff Wilson, who writes that ‘While ‘maps’ such as two Buddhisms, three Buddhisms, night-stand Buddhists, and others will likely continue to prove useful, they are also incomplete and further approaches are needed.’

So it seems that we wont find one Buddhism, two Buddhisms, or even three, anywhere we look. Yet scholars and practitioners will continue the very old practice of labeling and classifying the world around them. We should be reminded of the “Questions of King Menander” when the monk Nagasena tells the King, ‘My name is Nagasena, but that is merely a convention.’ It’s just something useful for people to identify that particular pile of aggregates, or dharmas, or whatever, by.

Is ‘Two Buddhisms’ useful? Maybe, sometimes, yes. Three? Sure. One Buddhism. Sure, why not? It just depends. Perhaps there is a ‘Buddhism’ for each individual practitioner? After all, I might not appreciate being ‘lumped in’ some arbitrary scholars’s category with the sangha member next to me, because he is less Irish, or has no appreciation for Zen or Tibetan philosophy. Or perhaps we should follow Thich Nhat Hanh’s wise saying that all Buddhism is made of non-Buddhist parts.

All categorizations have pitfalls. All can reify their objects, but none necessarily do. Reification is in the mind of the beholder, as the conversation between Milinda (Menander) and Nagasena showed. Just because we understand the non-substantiality behind categories doesn’t mean we abandon them. I once heard a story about one of the early English proponents of Buddhism (I don’t recall who exactly it was). He went around refusing to speak in the first person. Everything was in the 3rd person, as if this would show his profound lack of ego or realization of no fixed self. All it actually did was aggravate and perplex his friends and family.

So while he went around irritating people in his way, we scholars will probably go on irritating people in our own, by introducing new and (we hope) ever more clever ways of categorizing Buddhists.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose; By any other name would smell as sweet. ~William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

  • Pete Hoge

    "Perhaps there is a 'Buddhism' for each individual practitioner? "Yes that is what I think.In this day and age one can dowhat they wish to some extent with"the practice". At this point I only work with"right view" and "right action"which includes the 5 precepts.Everything else I try and ignore.Other than basic mindfulness inall daily activity I don't evenbother with "meditation".

  • Firehorse

    "Any scholarly attempt to describe groups should at least consider how members describethemselves. Our descriptions must be nuanced to account for exceptions, parallels, blends,and developmental processes. They also must pay attention to the history and ongoing effectsof racism in the United States. As a white scholar, I have tried to use my own privilege to drawattention to those effects, in support of efforts to dismantle them. If we cannot do this, thenas Jan Nattier cautioned, “there will always be ‘two Buddhisms’ in America: Us and Them,however we define each other” (Nattier,1995: 49)."Thanks for sharing this!

  • Tom Armstrong

    Having been overexposed to fundamentalist Christians in the last few years, one thing that has repelled me is their confusing the word with the thing — which is naturally a problem with literalism. And then, of course, they suppose God created everything via the vehicle of words.Allow me to point out that Shakespeare's point isn't that "any word will do" so much as that the thing isn't the word.One Buddhism, Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms, Four. They are all true and none are true completely — you could say. But truly, in the realm of complex things, from whatever angle it's viewed there is a partial truth there that will contrast with views from another vantage. All understanding is incomplete. But if it is an understanding it is true.We should not confuse language confusion or logical confusion or cultural confusion with the thing. The thing's the thing. And we can only hope to know it as best we can.Steps down off soapbox.

  • Tom Armstrong

    Was I brusk? I think now my point in my earlier comment was made in the reference to Nagasena.But I am also confused about the criticisms of the Westerners who first found villages who practiced Buddhism in India and southeast Asia. I'm not sure why what they got wrong wasn't mostly an understandable (and forgivable!) problem of moving from being very ignorant toward being better informed. These Westerners were journeying about, learning things about Buddhism that those practicing the religion in Asia, in the 19th Century didn't know, because travel and focused scholarship wasn't done like that by them.I believe I am correct is saying that these Westerners were putting discordant information together that the peoples in Asia at that time couldn't. These Westerners got some information quite wrong, but they were generally truth-seekers. Their errors increasingly got corrected over the course of time.

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    Pete, working on right view and right action is probably more than a lot of self-identifying "Buddhists" out there can claim. So kudos on that :)Firehorse – glad ya liked the article; that whole journal has some real gems.Tom, yes, I think Buddhism has plenty of explicit statements about not confusing the word and the thing, finger and the moon, getting the right end of the snake, etc. In fact, I'd rephrase your statement, "The thing's the thing" with "the process is the process" for Buddhists. "Thing" is what happens when our deluded minds "fix" on a process and name it. Now the Buddha had names and words, but he didn't have the false conception of a fixed "thing" at all behind them. I think Scholars too can create categories without any false belief that they are pointing to a fixed "thing" – (that's a small disagreement I have with Hickey's article… she seems to say that the categories themselves are reifications). I agree with you about the Westerners/scholars being forgivable in their mistakes. :)

  • Rev. Danny Fisher

    Thanks for the kind word about the podcast, my friend. I'm having fun with it, and hope it's helpful.I guess this topics on a lot of minds lately. In the last day or so, I've been thinking a lot about something Robert Scharf said, which David Chapman reminded us all of at his blog…

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    Thanks for that Danny. I need to add David's blog to my list. The interesting thing, to me, about Scharf's comment was:"But all parties to the debate were presumed to share a common religious culture—a more or less shared world of texts, ideas, practices—without which there could be no real conversation…"Today it might be hard to see what common texts or practices that SGI, Vipassana, and Zen folks in the West share. Maybe ideas though. His next phrase is beautiful though, and worth repeating: "But it is important, I think, that we keep the conversation going here. It opens one up to dramatically different ways of understanding the world and our place in it. Through our participation we help shape the conversation, and the conversation, in turn, shapes us. To abandon it would be to lose something precious."Cheers, Danny. Looking forward to your next podcast!

  • Anonymous

    I agree completely with Pete. Anything past the five precepts and buddha, sangha, dharma is getting into separate philosophies which lead to delusions.All are good and right. If someone starts saying Buddhism from Vietnam is better than Buddhism from Tibet, or even in America redneck Buddhism from redneck Georgia is inferior to Buddhism from New York City…All that is delusion from the opinion holder which I don't need.

  • Richard Harrold

    As an FYI, I used the Two Buddhisms, Three Buddhisms and Racism as a source in my series on Racism in the Sangha. It truly is a great piece, very comprehensive.

  • Jayarava

    The Nyingma school apparently count 9 yānas. Buddhism is clearly highly pluralistic – often the point of mutual incomprehension! There isn't even one form of Indian, or one form of Tibetan, or one form of Japanese, or even one form of Western Buddhism. Many of us struggle to come up with a single unifying factor, other than the label Buddhism, though I still like Sangharakṣita's idea that it is saraṇa gamana: sabbaso mayaṃ buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāma.By the way, the idea that hīna means "lesser" is probably due to the Chinese translator Kumārajīva who rendered hīnayāna as 小乘 Xiǎochéng 'little vehicle' thereby obscuring the actual meaning of the word – suggesting he was aware of the explicit insult. In Sanskrit and Pāli the word primarily means "defective or forsaken". Hīnayāna means 'a vehicle that does not work', or 'a vehicle which has been abandoned'. It is used precisely this way throughout the Lotus Sutra (which surprised me when I read it). My blog on hīnayāna.

  • Buddhist_philosopher

    Richard – I've been meaning to ask if you could post a link to your piece. I looked on your blog but couldn't find it. Many thanks!Jayarava – interesting thoughts, as always. I'm doubtful about the influence of Kumārajīva for understanding hīna here. Any sign that the writers of the PED were fans of Chinese Buddhism? Like many terms in Sanskrit and Pāli, hīna seems to have its root meaning and then the many ways in which it is used idiomatically. Low or inferior seem to fit well into this latter category. As the PED states, it is referenced as the opposite of ukkaṭṭha, exhalted or high, large or comprehensive in the Vinaya. Ukkaṭṭha can also take on the meaning of arrogant or insolent, ironically, in much the same way we might say in English that someone is being "Mr. high and mighty."So perhaps the Mahāyānists were wise in choosing mahā instead of ukkaṭṭha to describe their vehicle. :) I wonder if East Asian Buddhists move (back?) to the meaning you suggest in rejecting hīnayāna, while the Tibetan teachings I've studied praise the vehicle as a necessary starting point. The Geluks in particular often say "there is no Mahāyāna Vinaya – all are from the hīnayāna – so we need hīnayāna, it's very important."

  • Richard Harrold

    Here's the link to the first part of the series link to each section can be found on my blog in the right rail under a subheading "Earlier posts worth re-reading."

  • Jayarava

    Hi Justin

    I’m not sure why you are doubtful about the influence of Kumārajīva. He is enormously influential in Mahāyāna Buddhism because his Chinese translations are often the standard: for example every English translation of the Chinese White Lotus Sutra that I’m aware of is from Kumārajīva. His translations do affect the way we understand terms in English. One cannot just set this aside. It is a fact of Buddhist history.

    I think relying on PED is a doubtful way to understand a Sanskrit idiom (at best!). There’s less reason to think that Mahāyānists were familiar with Pāḷi, or understood Sanskrit idiom via Pāḷi dictionaries, than that the PED authors were familiar with Chinese Buddhism. It was the 1920s and the two men were amongst the most widely read Buddhist scholars of their day. They would certainly have been aware of early translations of Chinese and Sanskrit Buddhist texts, and in conversation and correspondence with a wide range of scholars of Buddhism.

    I have looked very carefully at this word – its etymology and its use in both Pāḷi and Sanskrit texts, and I’m just not convinced that “small” or “lesser” are valid translations of hīna. In the case of Pāḷi “inferior” generally refers to someone of inferior birth or caste – it is not an neutral term like for example kṣulla/culla (or cūḷa), or kṣudra/khuddha.

    Often times PED is just wrong. I have published an article which explains how it got the word ‘paṭikaroti’ wrong in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. (

    As I have said in other places the effect of hearing something valued referred to as “hīna” would have been shocking to a Pāḷi or Sanskrit speaking audience. I have speculated that it would have a similar force to the word “nigger” nowadays. Hīna carried a similar burden of racism and bigotry, as is obvious from the way it is used in Sanskrit. Applying it to the Dharma was impolite to say the least. Though as my blog post shows it’s far from certain that it was being applied to the Dharma in any sense in the White Lotus Sutra. I have not had time to follow this up by looking at other Sanskrit sutras.

    The Tibetan’s seem to be caught in the loop that has doctrinally ham-strung Buddhists for centuries: the idea that nothing we inherited can be thrown away. I don’t look find such conservatism admirable, even if the term is now thoroughly decontextualised and only used by people who have no idea of what it really means.

    Hīnayāna, as a Sanskrit idiom, means precisely “a way that is ineffective”. As the Lotus Sutra (2.55) says –

    na hīnayānena nayanti buddhāḥ
    the Buddhas don’t lead by an ineffective way.

    I.e. According to the White Lotus Sutra, if there is such a thing as a “hīnayāna” it was *not* taught by the Buddhas.

    But convention cannot be over-ridden by facts it seems.

  • Justin Whitaker

    Hi Jayarava,

    Many thanks for your thoughts here. I’ll discuss hina with fellow Buddhologists next time I get a chance. If I come up with anything useful, I’ll post it here (as a comment here or as a further post).

    I’m suspect of Kumarajiva simply because he’s later and Chinese. Terms take on different meanings over time, and the Chinese often translated not literally, but rather by using their own nuances. So going back to the Pali texts, via the PED, often seems safest to me. But yes, as you point out, the PED isn’t perfect, and in 2030 or 2040 (I’m exaggerating, a bit, I hope) we’ll have a complete new Pali dictionary courtesy the great Margaret Cone.

    Getting back to Kumarajiva, you wrote:

    “the Chinese translator Kumārajīva who rendered hīnayāna as 小乘 Xiǎochéng ‘little vehicle’ thereby obscuring the actual meaning of the word – suggesting he was aware of the explicit insult.” – Can you say more about why you think he was aware of a more insulting meaning?

    The Lotus Sutra is also later, and may indeed be altering the meaning of hina in a more insulting manner. As we know, terms can change meanings, and certainly nuances, over time. I’m a bit confused about your statement of the Tibetans. If we’re talking about the inherited meanings of terms, isn’t better not to throw them away? I’ve consistently been told that the Tibetans were compulsively literal in their translations, which should be helpful to us as scholars to find what the terms meant at the time of the translation (factoring in that the Tibetan meanings have invariably shifted as well), whereas the Chinese, in part due to their very sophisticated existing philosophical structures, often interpolated new meanings.

    And, to take a stab at perhaps one way of understanding the White Lotus Sutra’s comments here, it may simply be a polemical turn… I had thought that the Lotus Sutra taught that all of the vehicles were in fact One Vehicle, Ekayana; even though the term Hina isn’t used there, if I remember correctly. The three vehicles are the pratyeka…, shravaka, and bodhisattva… — the first two being what scholars today would say were the ‘hinayana’ according to tradition (and I believe the tradition would agree).

    So how or why the Sutra would also say that hina is defective or not taught by the Buddha needs to be seen in that broader context, right?

    And one last thought – we have the reports of Chinese monks in India saying that Mahayana and Hinayana monks live together in the same monasteries, right? And that the distinction is primarily the new sutras and the Bodhisattva ideal of the Mahayana. How could they all have lived together if the hina term meant something racist or likewise? To me it would only make sense that the term is polemical – elbow in the ribs style – but not Racist.

  • Pingback: Charles Prebish on Tricyle and AAR’s Member Spotlight()

  • Pingback: Buddhism or Buddhisms? The Hegemony of Postmodern Rhetoric()