This article was selected for publication in Lion’s Roar magazine. It’s about the Buddhist experience from a skeptical perspective. Please click on it and give it a read.
These are the three Yanas, or the three great sects, of Buddhism.
If we’re going to compare the three yanas to western religion, I think the appropriate thing is to liken them to the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Although they have essentially the same foundation, those religions have some big differences. Buddhism is the same way. And just like those religions, Buddhism has many many subsects within the three yanas. We can’t suggest that these yanas are 100% separate, as each of them does penetrate the others a little. Vajrayana especially has lots of elements of the other two yanas within it. All three of these yanas have come to the west.
Hinayana is called “the path of the worthy ones”. It’s the oldest of the three yanas. It’s said that there were 18 hinayana sects and only one, Theravada (the way of the elders) has survived into the modern era. Hinayana is pragmatic and deep-rooted. It’s emphasis is on the core Buddhist teachings: the nature of the mind, meditation, suffering, impermanence, egolessness, personal development. It’s based on training in mindfulness, awareness, cultivating virtue and equanimity. It’s foundation is the refuge vow. Theravada Buddhism is mainly practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.
Mahayana is called “the path of the awakened beings”. It’s the biggest of the three yanas and there are numerous sects within the Mahayana, to name a few: zen, pure land, tendai, nichiren, and many many others. It’s founded upon the premise of combining wisdom and compassionate action. It’s about serving and saving others. In the Mahayana we cultivate wisdom through the view of emptiness. We practice lojong (mind training) based on cultivating the six perfections; generosity, virtue, patience, diligence, concentration, and wisdom. It’s foundation is the bodhisattva vow. It’s mainly found in China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam.
Vajrayana is called “the path of fearless engagement”. It’s by far the smallest of the three yanas, but it’s well known because of figures like the Dalai Lama and Chogyam Trungpa. It’s based on devotion to one’s teacher, spiritual empowerment rituals, visualization meditations, and devotional practices that are almost like prayer. It’s considered a whole hearted practice, one you engage in with all of your energy. It’s foundation is samaya vows, vows of devotion to one’s teacher. Vajrayana Buddhism is mainly practiced by Tibetans (many of whom don’t live in Tibet) but there are also some Vajrayana branches from Japan that still exist.
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Krishna was a nice old Indian man. He was always in a good mood and very pleasant to be around. He was very nice.
He sat next to me at work for two years and he talked to me every single day.
I think a lot of the time we don’t really think of the people we work with as having a big part in our lives.
I’m not sure it’s right to call us close or even friends, really. But he passed away and I am feeling the loss. Now that desk to my left at work is empty.
I remember the first time we talked. Two years ago he asked me if I was a Buddhist. Everyone knows that I am. I’m as “out of the meditation closet” as you can be. I have Buddhist tattoos. Everyone knows I’m a Buddhist and that it’s a big part of my life.
I told him that I am a Buddhist. He asked if I have a temple that I go to and I told him about the Rime Center. He told me that he attends the Hindu temple in Shawnee, which I had actually visited that same year.
He told me he was Hindu. He had been raised in Hinduism and he was really interested in talking about spirituality with me. He didn’t know much about Buddhism, but he really like discussing where our beliefs intersected.
There was one other thing.
He asked me about the Dalai Lama’s health. Really he asked if the Dalai Lama’s health was a big concern, something people were worried about.
I said, “Well, I know he’s been having health problems for years now. I don’t know if he will die soon, but he is in his late 70s…so, you know…” (the Dalai Lama is 81 at the time of this writing. )
Krishna just laughed and said, “I’m in my late 70s. What do you mean?”
So, that was embarrassing. But, luckily he was such a positive thinking person that he didn’t get offended at all.
I was clueless. I have trouble realizing how old people are sometimes.
It was a rude thing to say anyway, but I believe in being completely open and honest here. I hope the Dalai Lama lives for many more years.
Anyway, I sat by Krishna for 2 years. We talked about spirituality a lot.
Some of you reading this may not be aware that Hinduism and Buddhism have the same roots and they have a lot of similarities. He thought talking to me was interesting.
Earlier this year he asked me to tell him how to meditate. This was surreal. He had been raised as a Hindu. He had been practicing Hinduism for much longer than I had even been alive. And Hinduism is a meditative religion, just like Buddhism is.
There something we don’t always realize here in the west. There are plenty of people who were raised in Hinduism and Buddhism that don’t meditate, that don’t even know how.
That sounds weird, until we think about how many people raised in Christianity don’t pray or study the Bible. Plenty of them, right?
Anyway, I taught him how to practice breathing meditation. I guess at the temple he went to there was a lot of chanting and bowing, but not all that much meditation instruction.
Last week he told me he wanted to learn more about Buddhism. He asked me to bring a book in, something he could read and get through pretty fast, something simple. A lot of people ask me to recommend books. This is not a big deal.
I did bring in a book for him. I brought it in last week. But I never had the opportunity to give it to him. He never came to work again. And he passed away over the weekend.
He lived a full life and he died surrounded by his loved ones. His death was not a big surprise. He had been struggling with his health for a while.
It occurred to me that if my own father hadn’t passed away 21 years ago, he’d be the same age as Krishna.
Krishna was a wonderful man and my heart is with his family today.
Zen is my favorite Buddhist tradition and I think everyone knows that. But, I am part of a non-sectarian Tibetan Buddhist community, and I love this community very much. I volunteer there and I teach classes there.
But sometimes people—especially people who follow my writing—ask me questions about Zen.
An entire book could be written on the subject, I’m sure. But I will answer as briefly as I can so that it’s not so long that no one reads it.
Here in the West Zen and Tibetan style are the two most well known branches of Buddhism.
Tibetan Buddhism is really well known. This is largely due to the popularity of the Dalai Lama and the efforts of Chogyam Trungpa, and there are other factors as well. But worldwide, Tibetan Buddhism is actually not all that common. It’s usually considered the smallest branch of Buddhism, even with all of it’s different lineages. It only seems big here. There are branches of Buddhism like Pure Land that are really common in Asia, but have barely taken root here.
Zen, on the other hand, is common here and worldwide as well. It’s been here in the West longer (since the late 1800s at least) and it’s taken root in a lot of places.
So, here we go.
Zen really emerged as a distinct sect when Buddhism entered China and Buddhist ideas merged with some of the Taoist philosophy that was already there. Tibetan Buddhism emerged when Buddhism entered Tibet and Buddhist ideas merged with the religion that was already present—a shamanic religion called Bon—that included a lot of things like nature spirits and ancestor worship.
Because that’s what Buddhism does. It mingles with whatever cultures are there already. Buddhism adapts to local conditions in a way that other religions don’t always. It’s a very versatile spiritual path. Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism both have several different lineages that emphasize different things, so I can only really write about this in broad strokes right now, although I may go deeper in a later article.
The really short answer is this: Zen Buddhism is minimalist and Tibetan Buddhism is much more elaborate.
Zen meditation is mainly about following the breath as well as emptying the mind. It also includes a few deeper things like meditative inquiry and riddles. Tibetan meditation often includes things like mantras and visualizations and concentrating on really complex thoughts.
Tibetan Buddhism is more what we would think of as religious. There are a number of divine beings and Bodhisattvas that are talked about, visualized, and even prayed to. There are also very complex rituals and prayers. Zen Buddhism has rituals too. Practitioners are expected to bow a certain way and enter the temple a certain way, but things are just a less complicated.
And how are they similar?
They both talk about lineage. Who your teacher was matters a great deal. They both emphasize Buddha nature—the teaching that we are Enlightened already—we just have to realize it.
I don’t think one is better than the other. They are both authentic forms of Buddhism. If you like elaborate ritual, then Tibetan style is probably right for you. If you don’t, then Zen might be a better choice.