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Origin and Spread of the Buddha’s Doctrine
Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions is an unprecedented book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Ven. Thubten Chodron that explores the similarities and differences within Buddhist traditions. In July 2014, Mandala’s managing editor Laura Miller had an interview with Ven. Chodron about her work on the book, which is being published by Wisdom Publications in November 2014.
Here we share an excerpt from the introductory chapter “Origin and Spread of the Buddha’s Doctrine.” (The diacritics from the original remain.)
Our Commonalities and Diversity
Sometimes people mistakenly believe that Tibetan Buddhism, especially Vajrayāna, is separate from the rest of Buddhism. When I visited Thailand many years ago, some people initially thought that Tibetans had a different religion. However, when we sat together and discussed the vinaya, sūtras, abhidharma, and such topics as the 37 aids to awakening, the four concentrations, four immaterial absorptions, four truths of the āryas, and noble eightfold path, we saw that Theravāda and Tibetan Buddhism have many common practices and teachings.
With Chinese, Korean, and many Vietnamese Buddhists, Tibetans share the monastic tradition, bodhisattva ethical restraints, Sanskrit scriptures, and the practices of Amitābha, Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, Samantabhadra, and Medicine Buddha. When Tibetan and Japanese Buddhists meet, we discuss the bodhisattva ethical restraints and sūtras such as the Saddharmapuṇḍarīka Sūtra. With the Japanese Shingon sect we share the tantric practices of the Vajradhātu maṇḍala and Vairocanābhisaṃbodhi.
While there are differences in the texts that comprise each canon, there is considerable overlap of the material discussed in them. In subsequent chapters we will explore some of these in greater depth, but here are a few examples.
The Buddha spoke at length about the disadvantages of anger and the antidotes to it in the Pāli suttas (e.g., SN 11:4-5). The teachings for overcoming anger in Śāntideva’s Bodhicaryāvatāra echo these. One sutta (SN 4:13) recounts the story of the Buddha experiencing severe pain due to his foot having been cut by a stone splinter. Nevertheless, he was not distressed, and when prodded by Māra, he responded, “I lie down full of compassion for all beings.” This is the compassion generated when doing the taking-and-giving meditation (Tib. tonglen) taught in the Sanskrit tradition, where a practitioner imagines taking the sufferings of others upon himself and giving others his own happiness.
Furthermore, the altruistic intention of bodhichitta so prominent in the Sanskrit tradition is an extension of the four brahmavihāras (four immeasurables) taught in the Pāli canon. The Pāli and Sanskrit traditions share many of the same perfections (pāramī, pāramitā). The qualities of a buddha, such as the 10 powers, four fearlessnesses, and 18 unshared qualities of an awakened one are described in scriptures from both traditions. Both traditions speak of impermanence, the unsatisfactory nature, selflessness, and emptiness. The Sanskrit tradition sees itself as containing the teachings of the Pāli tradition and elaborating on certain key points – for example, by explaining true cessation according to the Prajñāpāramitā sūtras and the true path according to the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras and some of the tantras.
The terms Thai Buddhism, Sri Lankan Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Korean Buddhism, and so on are social conventions. In each case, Buddhism in a country is not monolithic and contains many Buddhist practice traditions and tenet systems. Within these, there are sub-groups consisting of monasteries or teachers with various affiliations. Some subtraditions emphasize study, others meditation. Some stress practicing serenity (samatha, śamatha), others insight (vipassanā, vipaśyanā), and others both together.
While one country may have many traditions in it, one tradition may also be practiced in many countries. Theravāda is practiced Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and is also found in Vietnam. Within Theravāda countries, some follow early Buddhism – the suttas themselves – without relying on the commentaries very much, while others follow the explanations in the commentarial tradition. Even the robes in one country or in one tradition may vary.
Similarly, Chan is practiced in China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. While Chan practitioners in all these countries rely on the same sūtras, the teachings and meditation style vary among them.