Mahayana/Theravada Finale: In the Land of the Fork.

Mahayana/Theravada Finale: In the Land of the Fork.

This is the last in the series on Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. I'm
sorry I have not been able to say much about Vajrayana or Tibetan
Buddhism, because I know little about it. Although it is normally
classed as a branch of Mahayana, it has its own unique properties as
well. Let me summarize what we've discussed so far:

The Theravada and the Mahayana differ in geographical and cultural
distribution, in doctrine, and in practice. The Theravada is found in
Southern Asia, primarily in those countries historically within the
Indian sphere of cultural influence, the Land of the Fingers. The
Mahayana is found in Northern Asia, primarily in those countries
historically within the Chinese sphere of influence, the Land of the
Chopsticks. Both are found in the West, in the same countries, in the
same cities, often on the same blocks, in the Land of the Fork.

Doctrinally, beginning in India the Mahayana has shown a greater
tendency to differ from the original teachings of the Buddha, as we
understand them. Although some common themes and concepts are
characteristic of the Mahayana, such as Buddha Nature and the
Bodhisattva Ideal, it is actually hard to define the Mahayana clearly;
it is not monolithic. The Mahayana seems to be heir to a creative
period of Indian Buddhism that partially predates the name "Mahayana"
while the Theravada was forming in remote Sri Lanka. This creative
period actually represents a variety of doctrinal perspectives, many
of which might be fairly conservative, but have later been claimed as
Mahayana. In China the Mahayana came under the influence of Chinese
religious influences, especially Taoism, and other aspects of the
Chinese world view.

There appears never to have been a substantial schism in India around
the development of the Mahayana schools as distinguished from the
Hinayana, including Theravada, in spite of traditional claims. Rather
Mahayana and Hinayana monks lived together in harmony, as reported by
Chinese pilgrims to India. A schism is when one group of monks goes
off in a huff to practice on their own.

Today there is a tendency for Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists to
disparage each other, particularly in Asia, where there has been
geographical separation between the two groups for many centuries.

My recommendations for those in the Land of the Fork are as follows:

We should not worry about the question of which Buddhism is most
appropriate for the West, Theravada or Mahayana: It is in the long run
moot. Most of the substantial differences between Theravada and
Mahayana have arisen from differences in the cultures of India and
China. The West is yet another culture, out of which a merging of the
two great traditions will arise. By the way, many in the West
anticipate a radically new form of Buddhism as Buddhism leaves Asia. I
think it is important to bear in mind that the cultures of India and
China are probably at least as far apart as Western culture is from
either of them. We should not anticipate that Western Buddhism will be
in a different ballpark.

On the other hand, the Buddhism of the West needs to regain its
moorings. It has been set adrift on an ocean of eagerness to build a
comfortable religion. Fork People have been pruning away at it without
knowing what it is they are pruning and what it was they had in the
first place. It is like removing the safety cover on an electric saw,
not understanding its function, because it makes it more difficult to
see the board you are sawing. Buddhism is a whole system of
interlocking parts: Practicing generosity and virtue; understanding
the teaching of non-self; training the mind to distinguish wholesome
and unwholesome intentions, and to free it of the latter;
renunciation; the task of monastics in propagating and sustaining
Buddhism; faith in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha; and so on. You can't
just start removing parts from under the hood of your car to make room
for luggage unless you are very very sure you know what those parts
are. I'm afraid that is what we are doing to Buddhism in the Land of
the Fork.

It seems to be more difficult for Westerners to find one's moorings in
the Mahayana tradition. I think this has at least two causes. First,
the scriptural basis is so fluid. Different schools of Mahayana
subscribe to different sutras and shastras. The Vinaya is the most
common foundation, but that is largely ignored in the West. One does
not know where to go for a complete picture. Second, Buddhism in the
Land of the Chopstick has been leaning on Taoism and especially
Confucianism for hundreds of years. When that prop is removed, it
collapses. For instance, Zen Buddhism puts very little emphasis on
following Precepts, in fact in Japan taking precepts is often
considered to be a purely symbolic act. But traditional Chinese
culture is permeated with Confucian ethics, rendering the Buddhist
ethical system rather redundant. In the West we've imported Buddhism
from the Land of the Chopstick, but not the Confucian ethic to
complement it.

The Theravada tradition, on the other hand, is generally much more
clearly moored in the original teachings of the Buddha in their
entirety than the Mahayana. This does not mean one should abandon the
Mahayana tradition one has been trained in. But at this juncture, as
Buddhism makes its historic move to the Land of the Fork, it is
appropriate to study the Core-pus, the Suttanta and the Vinaya, or
derivative literature. This is the historic foundation of all of
Buddhism. Of course not all of you have the time that, say, I have,
to make a careful study of this corpus, but your teachers should. It
will be a useful exercise, not necessarily to change your current
views, but at least to understand what they are.

At the same time, I think it should be appreciated that all Buddhist
do not have to conform to a strict orthodoxy, to have exactly the same
understanding as everyone else. In fact debate and consideration of
alternative viewpoints is probably much more likely to give rise to a
more proper understanding than simply adhering to orthodoxy. It often
happens that an erroneous understanding becomes orthodox, and without
differences in viewpoint and debate it is impossible for the orthodoxy
to recover from the erroneous viewpoint. A simple example is the
Theravada view, not represented in the Core-pus, by the way, but in
the Commentaries of Buddhaghosa, that the language of the Buddha was
Pali. The best scholarship indicates that that is almost certainly
not the case, but the view persists, even among Asian Theravada

The Mahayana tradition is much more one of innovation and trying out
novel means of expression. Zen is even playful with orthodox teachings
and has a reputation for iconoclasm. Dogen is well-known for turning
even Zen teachings that had become orthodox by his time on their head.
But I think it is important to recognize how Zen has kept its moorings
through the years. First, it has been a rather intense monastic
tradition, in which practitioners were in an ideal position to find
verification in their own experience. Second, my impression is that
the study of very traditional teachings actually was fairly thorough
in spite of what Bodhidharma was later reputed to have said about
"Without Reliance on Words and Letters." I predict that Buddhism will
retain much of this spirit of innovation and debate in the Land of the
Fork. Consider that science, now a very old tradition, thrives on
innovation and debate.

That said, it is remarkable to me how on-the-same-page most of the
various sects of Buddhism actually are. Throughout Buddhism there is
the idea that humans get ourselves and each other into trouble because
we misperceive reality, from which liberation is possible through our
own contemplative effort to purify the mind. This and considerable
more detain is found in schools of Buddhism that had no communication
for many hundreds of years. If you compare Christianity to Buddhism,
for instance, I don't think you find as great a degree of doctrinal
agreement, even though Christians at least, by and large, agree on
what the scriptures are. What holds Buddhism together? There is an
orthodox Theravada teaching about that, and that is that as long as
the monastic sangha is living in harmony according to the Vinaya, the
doctrine will be preserved just fine. (Why that should be so, will
await the series of postings I have planned on Buddha's Teachings on

Let me end this series on Theravada and Mahayana on a personal note,
and with maybe a few more conflicting metaphors than necessary. (I've
also been in the Left-Wing all my life, so I find it strange to
suddenly view myself below as a conservative.)

Ten months ago I ordained as a Theravada monk after living as a
Mahayana Zen priest/monk for six years. I have an enormous love for
the Mahayana scriptures and the quirky Zen stories and in general for
the creativity of the Mahayana tradition. But I personally decided to
set a more conservative example in my own life, to be a representative
of the original wonderfully profound teachings of the Buddha, to live
the way the Buddha thought the Sangha should live. The reason is that
in the West everybody wants to be an innovator; but someone has to
worry about the moorings. I fear that the ship of Buddhism is already
floating aimlessly in the Ocean of the Fork. I hope that the readers
of this blog will join me in making sure that we assemble and drive
the whole car before we decide what parts to remove or modify.

NOTE: I cannot view this blog directly from Myanmar. If anyone is
posting responses I am not seeing them. However, please feel free to
respond to me directly at

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