Is It Buddhism or Buddhisms?

"Buddhisms" Versus the Dharma

Paintings of Buddha
Buddha paintings on display in Chiang Mai, Thailand. © Gavriel Jecan / Getty Images

"Buddhisms" -- as opposed to the singular "Buddhism" --  is a coinage currently popular in western academia. For example, I have in front of me a new, revised edition of a textbook used in many college courses. From the Preface:

"... is there one or are there many Buddhisms? Is the Buddhism found today in Sri Lanka (for example) similar enough to the Buddhism found in Japan or Western Europe, or Tibet, or any other place, for them all to be said to be somehow part of the same religion?" [John S. Strong, Buddhisms: An Introduction (OneWorld, 2015)]

Some people who use "Buddhisms," argue that Buddhism should be considered a family of religions, not one religion. That's fair, I think. However, this argument hinges on what you mean by "religion," which as most people define it is a western cultural construct that doesn't exactly fit most Asian spiritual traditions.

For that matter, "Buddhism" is an English word coined by a British surgeon in the late 18th century. I understand there is no equivalent word in Asian languages. And I'm not sure every English speaker who uses it means the same thing.

Not everyone holds the "family of religions" view. Some religious studies scholars argue that Buddhism is fractured into a multitude of traditions with little in common but some shared vocabulary.  Bernard Faure, professor of Japanese religion at Columbia University, New York, wrote:

"In a word, there is no generic, fundamental (or even mainstream) Buddhism. It may not even be sufficient to say that we are dealing with a multivocal tradition, or multiple traditions that we could call 'Buddhisms.' Rather, we are dealing with a variety of people who call themselves Buddhists." [Buddhist Warfare, edited by Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer (Oxford, 2010) ]

In other words, according to Faure, there is no Buddhism, only people who self-identify as Buddhists. And "Buddhism" is anything a self-identified Buddhist says it is.

Let's think about this.

Many Paths or One Path?

As many of your know, I'm a Soto Zen student. I recently met a woman who had been a Soto Zen student for many years, but then she discovered the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and began working with a teacher in that tradition.

According to the "Buddhisms" people, Soto Zen and Karma Kagyu are entirely different "Buddhisms." They have very different practices and rituals. They don't look anything alike.

But the Karma Kagyu student certainly didn't feel she had changed religions; she had just found a dharma gate that "worked" better for her. Indeed, Soto Zen and Karma Kagyu share much of the same doctrinal and philosophical foundation. They both count Nagarjuna as a patriarch. They were both deeply influenced by Madhyamika and Yogacara philosophy.

The central practice of Kagyu Buddhism is called Mahamurdra. Some years ago someone gave me a copy of a Mahamudra prayer written by the Third Karmapa of the Karma Kagyu school, and it knocked me out because I recognized the prayer was pointing to the same thing my koan-spouting Zen teacher was always going on about.

So are these two traditions really separate "Buddhisms"?

Defining Buddhism

I like what Francis Dojun Cook wrote in How to Raise an Ox (Wisdom, 2002):

"One way to make sense of the bewildering proliferation of Buddhist schools, doctrines, and practices over the last 2,500 years is to see them as a single, creative, ongoing effort to deal with the central problem of samsaric existence, which is the erroneous belief in an enduring, permanent self. Whether it is Zen, Pure Land, Theravada, or Tibetan Buddhist practice, all Buddhist paths teach practices that will effectively destroy the belief in this self."

It's true that there have been been heated sectarian conflicts among various Buddhist schools over the centuries and claims that one school or another is the only "true" Buddhism. This shows us that shaving one's head and wearing a robe doesn't automatically cure one of delusions. But as far as I know, no other spiritual tradition teaches that belief in a permanent self is delusional.

Here's another brief definition of Buddhism that I like:

"Perhaps the chief difference between Buddhism and the world's other major faith traditions lies in its presentation of our core identity. The existence of the soul or self, which is affirmed in different ways by Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is not only firmly denied in Buddhism; belief in it is identified as the chief source of all our misery. The Buddhist path is fundamentally a process of learning to recognize this essential nonexistence of the self, while seeking to help other sentient beings to recognize it as well." [Nicholas Vreeland, from the Foreword to A Profound Mind: Cultivating Wisdom in Everyday Life by His Holiness the Dalai Lam.]

It's true that there are many people who self-identify as Buddhists who would not recognize this definition, but this is a definition that, I think, would be accepted in all schools.

What else might all those Buddhisms have in common?

The core of all Buddhist teaching is the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Eightfold Path. Although the Truths and the Path are not presented and actualized in exactly the same way in every school, they are still the basis of every school.

Beyond that there are the Four Dharma Seals. It is said that all schools of Buddhism based on the Buddha's teachings accept the Four Seals as the distinction between an authentic Buddhist teaching and "sorta looks like Buddhism."

Although there are exceptions to just about everything, I'd say that most English-speaking Buddhists consider "Buddhism" to be the many diverse methods, approaches and dharma gates that point to the Buddha Dharma. Making the word plural doesn't clarify anything for me.

Spirituality or Anthropology?

As I've written elsewhere (see "Who Defines Buddhism?"), a big reason religious studies professors and practicing Buddhists talk past each other, in my opinion, is that the professors are looking at Buddhism through the filter of anthropology, while the practitioners are actualizing a spiritual path.

Keep in mind that as recently as the 1970s, I've been told, most of western academia was teaching "Buddhism" as an artifact of "Oriental" culture. It's true that Buddhism has intermingled with countless folk traditions in Asia, and you can find many Buddhist-cultural phenomena unique to one particular place. Nat veneration in Burmese Buddhism comes to mind. So if one is looking at Buddhism purely as an expression of Asian culture, then the plural "Buddhisms" does make some sense.

But does this framing of Buddhism make sense in a religious studies class? In my view, many professors seem unable to distinguish between what might be called the cultural traditions of Buddhism from Buddha Dharma.

To use Christianity as an analogy, it's like being unable to distinguish between the relative significance of the Resurrection and the Easter Bunny.

Difference and Sameness

Can we make useful taxonomic distinctions in Buddhism by using variations in ritual forms? For example, Korean Buddhists developed a unique practice of touching burning incense to a bare arm during the Taking Refuge ceremony. I once encountered a scholar who argued that this makes Korean Buddhism an entirely distinct Buddhism, because nobody else does that.

I believe all schools of Buddhism have some kind of Taking Refuge ceremony, even though they may have come up with umpteen different ways to do it. This doesn't seem to be a huge enough difference by itself to justify the plural "Buddhisms."

From the Buddhist perspective, there's nothing magic about the forms of ritual; they are just expedient means. Even within the same school, individual temples often will develop unique practices not found elsewhere. Buddhist abbots traditionally have had considerably more autonomy than, say, Catholic abbots in deciding how things are done in their own temples.

For that reason, anyone trying to classify "Buddhisms" according to differences in ritual forms is going to make himself crazy and learn nothing substantive about Buddhism in the process.

Many Filters

You can sort Buddhist traditions all kinds of ways, depending on what filters you use. For example, I consider Vajrayana to be an extension of Mahayana, not an entirely separate "yana" (vehicle). Some people disagree with that. But Tibetan lamas call their spiritual path Mahayana as well as Vajrayana. The schools of Vajrayana are all based on Mahayana philosophy; Vajrayana is the means for realizing and actualizing that philosophy.  So is that one yana, or two?

How about western versus eastern Buddhism? How different are they, really? Most schools of Buddhism in the West maintain ties with the Asian "home office" and rely on Asian teachers, so I'm not seeing a clear distinction there. Western Buddhism has unfortunately sorted itself into "ethnic" and "convert" Buddhism, in which ethnic Asian communities and non-ethnic Asian converts attend entirely different temples and mostly practice in entirely different schools. I'm seeing this division fade, slowly, although certainly it still exists. I'm optimistic much of this ethnic-convert division will have disappeared in another two or three generations, however.

In researching this editorial article I learned that part of western academia is spinning its wheels over the practice of sorting Buddhism into national types -- "Chinese Buddhism," for example. This wheel-spinning seems hopelessly anal to me. Depending on context, "Chinese Buddhism" might refer to Buddhism as it exists within the People's Republic of China, or to Buddhist traditions found in ethnic Chinese populations. It could refer to schools of Buddhism that developed within China and go by the Chinese Canon of scriptures, which would take in a lot of Buddhism outside China itself. But it doesn't make sense to me to make "Chinese Buddhism" a fixed category.

This brings us back to Buddhism versus Buddhisms. To me, "Buddhism" is a useful word I intend to keep using, although I can appreciate "Buddhisms" in some contexts.

But what we're really talking about here is just conceptual packaging. We humans have a strong compulsions to learn about things by fitting them into the conceptual filing cabinets in our heads. We learn new things by relating them to things we already know. This tendency saves us a lot of time but can also steer us wrong, if the new thing is entirely different from what we already know.