Is Buddhism Best?

All the great traditions have at least one thing in common – the belief that “our” way is best. Such thinking is sometimes used to attack and repress those who follow other paths and in this way can be dangerous.

Buddhism is not immune from this as we can see in modern times in Sri Lanka and Burma. And perhaps in our own hearts.

Katagiri Roshi often observed with more than a touch of the ironic, “Under the beautiful flag of religion, we fight.”

What do you really believe in your heart? Is Buddhism best?

The issue is up for me today because of my work as the instructor/coach for the Vine of Obstacles: Online Support of Zen Training (click here for the most recent description). Our first course is “Guidelines for Studying the Way,” Dogen’s missive with ten cautions, beginning with the importance of arousing the Way Seeking Heart and then moving through other key topics like training for the sake of the truth and culminating with the importance of studying with a teacher and dropping body and mind.

The seventh guideline begins with this provocative sentence: “The buddhadharma is superior to any other teaching.”

If a student is going to get riled, this is often the place where it happens. Not nearly everyone gets charged, of course, and some students respond to this by saying simply, “Of course, it’s best. I agree.”

Others approach it more individually and relativistically, saying in effect, “Of course, I think it is the best way for me – otherwise, why would I undertake this training? I can’t really know if it is best for others or if other ways might after all be best for me.”

At least one student has worked it this way: “The buddhadharma is ‘superior’ in the sense that it is all inclusive. Because everything is included, at least it could be said that there can be nothing that is better.”

What is right?

Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t have a “right” answer to this one and my role in the course is to primarily to encourage reflection on the teaching and the practice that springs from such reflection. Not getting riled is not better than getting riled.

There is, however, an important aspect of studying the buddhadharma and Dogen that can become clear here – we don’t incite approaching this work as doctrinal. Dogen’s writing is not used as a source text for us to admire the great human then memorize his words and regurgitate them all over our friends and family.

Here’s a bit of how I frame Dogen study from the introduction to the Guidelines course:

Because the work is almost 800 years old, it is important to reflect on the timeless truths woven into the work (i.e., impermanence of self and other) and the cultural context in which Dogen lived (feudal Japan with a traditional power structure). I invite you to look for these elements in your study, using your body-mind as the laboratory for testing truth.

Dogen, in other words, could be way wrong. Even Buddha could be a bit wrong. And so too could each of us. The teaching is offered for us to take it up, examine it, and actualize it.

In this “the buddhadharma is superior” case, when Dogen refers to “other teaching,” he’s probably thinking about Confucianism, Taoism, and Shinto because he’d have had no exposure to Judaism, Islam or Christianity. But my sense of the passage is that if he’d known about these “other teachings” he’d have included them too.

Digging a bit deeper into this, I wonder if every path has strengths and weaknesses (like everything else in the human world). We then might ask, in what way is the buddhadharma best? What do we have to bring to the global spiritual conversation?

Well, the buddhadharma has one heck-of-a-philosophical framework, rigorously worked through for 2,50o years by the best and the brightest minds in Asia. Emptiness is hard to beat, after all.

And then there’s the path.

In this, I’ve benefited from a friend who is a minister in an evangelical Christian denomination. He speaks about the “born again” experience in such a way that I sense that the base experience might sometimes, at least, be what we in the Zen tradition calls “kensho.”

The evangelical Christian and Zen traditions have their own ways of contextualizing the before and after of break through, of course, variously likening it to the beginning of a personal and everlasting relationship with God or in Zen with expressions like “seeing true nature” and “beyond time and space.”

But it seems that we’re accessing the same root experience of going beyond our tiny large-brain-primate perspectives.

If so, what does the buddhadharma have to offer?

A few things come to mind. First, the koan tradition’s focused method for approaching break through. Second, the follow-up process for checking the experience carefully to discern if it is the real thing. And third, helping us put break through to work in our lives.

And then there’s the general practice in many traditions of the buddhadharma, of taking up a question, studying it with our body and heart, and as Rilke said, “loving the question itself.”

Is Buddhism best?

  • Robert Schenck

    To conclude the day during Rohatsu at Heartland, we would recite a chant which in part declared: “I take refuge in Buddha as the perfect teacher. I take refuge in Dharma as the perfect teaching. I take refuge in Sangha as the perfect life.” At first it made me uncomfortable to chant this. The Christianity of my youth also liked the word “perfect” in such contexts. I wondered if Shakyamuni Buddha would have approved of such a recitation. I found a way to interpret and to understand it that was acceptable to me, but I still suspect that in the parliament of world religions such statements sow more division than harmony.

  • urownexperience

    Buddha said that his teachings were just a method to become free from stress. Nothing more. Use them, then discard them. The way he put it was that “When you reach the other shore, why carry your boat on your back?

    • doshoport

      Citation call! What sutta are you quoting “urownexperience?”

      • Axel

        I think it’s from Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhism. The Middle Length Discourses (Majjhima Nikaya). Sutra/Sutta Nr. 22 (Alagaddupama). The simile of the raft:


        “I shall show you, monks, the Teaching’s similitude to a raft: as having the purpose of crossing over, not the purpose of being clung to. Listen, monks, and heed well what I shall say” — “Yes, Lord,” replied the monks. and the Blessed One spoke thus:

        “Suppose, monks, there is a man journeying on a road and he sees a vast expanse of water of which this shore is perilous and fearful, while the other shore is safe and free from danger. But there is no boat for crossing nor is there a bridge for going over from this side to the other. So the man thinks: ‘This is a vast expanse of water; and this shore is perilous and fearful, but the other shore is safe and free from danger. There is, however, no boat here for crossing, nor a bridge for going over from this side to the other. Suppose I gather reeds, sticks, branches and foliage, and bind them into a raft.’ Now that man collects reeds, sticks, branches and foliage, and binds them into a raft. Carried by that raft, laboring with hands and feet, he safely crosses over to the other shore. Having crossed and arrived at the other shore, he thinks: ‘This raft, indeed, has been very helpful to me. Carried by it, laboring with hands and feet, I got safely across to the other shore. Should I not lift this raft on my head or put it on my shoulders, and go where I like?’

        “What do you think about it, O monks? Will this man by acting thus, do what should be done with a raft?” — “No, Lord” — “How then, monks, would he be doing what ought to be done with a raft? Here, monks, having got across and arrived at the other shore, the man thinks: ‘This raft, indeed, has been very helpful to me. Carried by it, and laboring with hands and feet, I got safely across to the other shore. Should I not pull it up now to the dry land or let it float in the water, and then go as I please?’ By acting thus, monks, would that man do what should be done with a raft.

        “In the same way, monks, have I shown to you the Teaching’s similitude to a raft: as having the purpose of crossing over, not the purpose of being clung to.

        “You, O monks, who understand the Teaching’s similitude to a raft, you should let go even (good) teachings,[..] how much more false ones!


        Regards – Axel

        • doshoport

          Thanks, Axel! However, I didn’t ask clearly! I was wondering about the “Buddha said that his teachings were just a method to become free from stress” piece. Maybe free from suffering/dukkha … and I suppose there’s the “stress” connotation, there … but freedom from dukkha isn’t just being relaxed….

  • Bob O’Hearn

    In reviewing the growing body of testimonies from people who have crossed over during near death experiences, one common theme is the realization that the only thing that really matters is the love that they shared (or didn’t) while alive, not their philosophy or religious persuasion. No report I am aware of includes a decision to become a Buddhist, once returned to this side. On the contrary, it is more common to hear that “returnees” avoid religious affiliations, instead choosing to live out the rest of their life with as much integrity and compassion as they can muster, based upon what they learned during their nde.

  • Larry Anderson

    Hey Dosho,

    I just finished a fine book a while back by a theologian named Paul F. Knitter, titled: Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. As a sort of Buddhist/Christian, I found it very instructive, informative and articulate.

    There are also a number of other authors who have covered this subject of the world religions quite thoroughly and with a clear-eyed, magnanimous mind and a big Heart: Of course, there’s the brilliant Alan Watts (who the more puritan Buddhist tends to scoff at and dismiss), there’s Huston Smith, Joseph Campbell, Father Matthew Fox, Father John Keating, Ken Wilber and Karen Armstrong (who I’ve been reading most recently), among others. As the world has become smaller, these various Ways have all become our inheritance, and should not be ignored even though we may choose a particular one as our Way. They all hold a common fertile Ground-less-ness within the Infinite.

    Zen itself is really a hybrid of Confucianism, Taoism and Indian Buddhism, with probably a little Shinto thrown in there too.

    Dogen is not the only Zen Patriarch worth studying, nor necessarily the best. He tends toward establishing some kind of orthodoxy which may actually be counter to Zen spirit.
    I’ve always loved Huang Po, Layman Pang and Bankei as well as Rinzai. Both the Suzuki’s are important modern teachers, as was Hojo-san.

    Bow Wow!!!


  • Larry Anderson

    Maybe Dogen should not be taken so literally in his proclamation about the superiority of the Buddha Dharma. Perhaps it’s more an expression of joy, as a result of his practice, as when I tell my little dog LuLu that she’s the best of dogs, or that my Dad is the best of dads, or when I’m at the Hut and feel like “it just doesn’t get any better than this!” A somewhat exuberant and biased expression of affection and delight???
    Otherwise it smells of the same kind of stinky thinking that insists that Jesus is the best and only way. Which is pure God Shit!
    May your Way be the best Way for you,

  • togeika

    A friend was at a conference and Joseph Campbell was asked which of the great traditions were the best. His reply was, “Nobody has done it better than the Buddha.”