Monday, June 25, 2012

Choosing a Buddhist Tradition to Follow

It is often said that one should choose one path or vehicle ("yana") of Buddhism to follow. Within Buddhism there are a few main yanas or vehicles, i.e. Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. And within these three, there are the sub-vehicles. In Therevada, different Sayadaws, for example, adopt different approaches to meditation - from slightly different to quite different. If you are not aware of these differences between Theravadan masters, you really need to find out. Whereas in Mahayana system, we have  Pure Land, Ch'an or Zen, Tien Tai, Avatamsaka School, Lotus Sutra School, Mantra or sometimes called the Secret School, which includes the Vajrayana Path. But due to Tibetan Buddhism's distinct culture and practices, Vajrayana is often perceived as a separate vehicle of Buddhism. It actually is part of Mahayana. And even within Pure Land, we have many different types of Pure Land, such as Chinese Pure Land, Japanese Pure Land which is again divided into Jodoshinshu, Jodoshu, Ji-shu and Yuzu-nembutsu-shu and several other variants. Within Zen, we have Soto and Rinzai Zen as well as the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and probably other lineages of Soto, Rinzai and/or a combination of both.  Within Tibetan Buddhism, we have the different lineages particularly the four main lineages of Nyingmapa, Sakyapa, Kagyupa and Gelugpa. Then within the lineages of Nyingmapa, Sakyapa and Kagyupa, there are other sub-lineages and sub-sub-lineages. The tantric or secret school is not only found in Tibet. It is also found in China, Mongolia and Japan. These traditions have their own lineage masters.  On top of these schools and lineages, there are many dharma teachers for each school/tradition or lineages. Hence we have myriad dharma paths of Budhdism. In the Sutras, this is expressed as the 84,000 dharma doors! 

While the many different paths or vehicles are rightfully to be seen as provisioning of the appropriate dharma according to the propensities of sentient beings, just like appropriate medicine for each ailment, many Buddhists are now confronted with this issue of too many choices and not knowing which one to follow. Actually this is a ridiculous situation if you think of it as not knowing which medicine to take since there are so many medicines.

I cannot advise anyone which vehicle or path to follow. I think nobody can. Nobody should. Ultimately it is up to you. But, I can share with you my experiences with the different paths. For me, I have either studied or come across these different paths in my over 30 years of Buddhism. Not counting my previous lives, of course, even though I have reasons to believe that I have studied and practiced the dharma before in my previous lives. It was not a conscious choice for me for most of these dharma doors, as in for me to decide, “Oh, now I am going to study Pure Land Buddhism.” It did not happen that way at all. It was all a case of opportunities. In high school, since the national curriculum for Buddhism was Theravada in nature, and moreover, the teacher advisor then was a Theravadan, therefore I studied formal Theravadan teachings in school. But I had a group of friends that were also interested in Mahayana Buddhism, and there was a growing interest in the teachings of Master Hsuan Hua. So, with an open mind I also followed suit. Within Mahayana, I was introduced to Chinese and Japanese Pure Land, then through sheer luck (some people interprets that as karma) I met a Zen teacher who introduced me to Zen. But prior to that, while studying Master Hsuan Hua, I had always been fascinated with all the Ch’an stories. With Mahayana, it was natural to just expand the scope to cover Tibetan Buddhism. In my home town, the Karma Kagyu Society was among the first to establish itself. Through some friends, I was invited to attend the teachings of the visiting Lamas. Eventually, the doors to Nyingma, Sakya and Gelug opened themselves. It was good that throughout all these, I did not have any preconceived wrong idea as to which one is the truest path. I just allowed myself to learn and learn. Over the years, I developed a reasonable grasp of each method or “dharma door”.

I feel that it is not wrong to learn all these. It is only in choosing a meditation technique that you need to stick with one. Otherwise you will not progress if you do not develop one technique long enough.  You will also not achieve any results if you did not focus on it for some time. So, for that one technique, you definitely need to learn and receive guidance from one particular teacher. You can refer sometimes to a group of teachers with the same technique, but you should have a teacher whom you are closest to whom you receive most of the guidance. You need different techniques for different spiritual levels. I also happen to follow Je Tsongkhapa’s graduated path. According to him, only if you are skilled in the common general path (i.e. sutra and paramita path), then only you should enter the tantric path. In accordance with this guidance, one should develop one’s meditation skill first on any technique, before one embarks on the tantric generation and completion practices. However, you can use the lower tantric practices or simple Mahamudra practice to develop the common general path, as mentioned. Or, you can use the Zen techniques. The key is to develop your samatha and vipasyana first. But I am aware that many people nowadays just go direct to highest yoga tantra. Then in highest yoga tantra, they only start to learn about concentration, which is different from the common general paths. That’s because in Tibetan techniques, during meditation, many of them involves objects that move during meditation through visualisations. So, many beginners in HYT find it difficult to achieve one-pointed concentration. Therefore, ideally, one should first develop the basic meditational skill (using any technique) and achieve samatha-vipasyana first before embarking on higher tantric practices. Then you can drop the previous technique and start practising the tantric methods.

So, I find that all the paths and dharma doors that I have studied and practiced is not beyond Je Tsongkhapa’s graduated path. Some people may have the idea that I am fickle minded in not sticking to one path or lineage but in fact, I have done nothing incorrect as far as practising Sakyamuni Buddha’s teachings is concerned. In fact I have been doing it correctly if you listen to what Je Tsongkhapa had to say.

Je Tsongkhapa encouraged people to study more than one path/vehicle. In Lam Rim Chen Mo, he said, “Each Mahayana scripture – from summaries to the most extensive texts – gives a great many teachings on the profound meaning, but also leaves many things out. So you must draw points that are not taught in certain texts from other texts that do teach them, and you must draw points that are not taught extensively in certain texts from other texts where they are taught extensively. You should understand that this is true for the category of the vast bodhisattva deeds as well. A partial path, in which either the profound or the vast is missing, cannot be considered complete. This is why it is often said that you must be skilled in all vehicles in order to be a guru who is fully qualified to teach the path.”

For me that is a most important guidance, which I have just found out recently. Je Rinpoche was not only good in Mahayana scriptures, he was good in Theravada texts as well, as evident from the many Theravada texts he quoted in his writing. All the while, I have been learning from all different types of vehicles and texts. Now I realise that I have been subconsciously in fact been following the path of Je Tsongkhapa and Sakyamuni Buddha, who both learned from many teachers before their own accomplishments. Je Tsongkhapa learned from Drikung, Nyingma, Sakya and other Kagyu masters. Sakyamuni Buddha sought teachings from Hindu-like teachers at that time. Whoever thinks that I have been mistaken in not sticking to one particular lineage or tradition is mistaken.

But I also do recognise that not everyone is cut out to follow the path that I am following, which is following the quintessential path of Sakyamuni and Je Tsongkhapa.  Most people have to follow one tradition or path from beginning to end. I would recommend you to try and if one is not giving you the results as expected by the dharma, or a majority of people (which is different from as “expected by your own self”), then you seek other paths. Remember that it is not about a certain path meeting with your own set of expectations. For example, if you have been doing Tibetan deity visualisations for many years but still unable to achieve a calm mind (i.e. your mind is still wandering wildly), then perhaps deity visualisations are not for me. Seek advice from your guru but also remain open for other methods, such as recitation of the Buddha’s Name (Pure Land method), recitation of mantra, or doing Zen koan investigations. When you have seen some progress, then stick to that technique. But often it is due to karma that we are attracted to a certain tradition or path over others. For example, sometimes the Zen tradition that we like may not be so convenient for us because their centre or temple is too far away from our home. And then we have a Tibetan centre that is closer to us. This happened to me in the 1990s. I could not find a Zen centre to practice. So, my Zen interest went into cold storage for more than a decade until it recently resurfaced. My karma for Zen has ripened. So, if it is karma, do not worry so much. Important thing is you get to doing it and reducing your greed, hatred and ignorance, because that is the fundamental goal of every Buddhist path and tradition. If you can achieve that, it does not matter which path you have been walking on, does it? Putting it another way, so long as your illness can be cured, does it matter that you know what medicine was it that you have been taking? Think about it. Those who have been reading my blog posts on "Zen or Tibetan Buddhism" topics will find this post related. I hope someone finds this post of some use.  Then I would not have wasted my time. Amitabha!


s said...

Like you, i am interested in both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. I find totally no conflict or even any kind of 'borders' between them. I am sometimes surprised why people would find any difference. Zen is perhaps just less form-based than some parts of Tibetan Buddhism. But if you look at Mahamudra or Dzogchen, Zen is completely similar. All paths leads to the discovery of the sole true nature of mind. When that is discovered and progressively refined, then freedom and liberation occurs.

s said...

Like you, i am interested in both Zen and Tibetan Buddhism. I find totally no conflict or even any kind of 'borders' between them. I am sometimes surprised why people would find any difference. Zen is perhaps just less form-based than some parts of Tibetan Buddhism. But if you look at Mahamudra or Dzogchen, Zen is completely similar. All paths leads to the discovery of the sole true nature of mind. When that is discovered and progressively refined, then freedom and liberation occurs.