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

"►Are you seeing Buddhist centers offering classes in mindfulness►YES. The national RSVP network is offering ..."

A Buddhist (re)Appropriation of Mindfulness Meditation
"And what country do you fly your banner for?"

A Buddhist (re)Appropriation of Mindfulness Meditation

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment