As my diagram above illustrates, Buddhism in America comes in three major flavors or “schools”: Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. For many people, their nightstand “spiritual diet” consists of a mix of Buddhist books from these three schools without an understanding that they often offer conflicting views of reality and very different approaches to life.
This confusion is exacerbated by most Buddhist authors who don’t devote any pages declaring to which school they belong nor telling their readers how their Buddhism differs from other Buddhisms. After all, for them, there is only one Buddhism. So in effect, these authors are actually proselytizing and pushing their favorite brand without granting the reader enough respect to inform her or him that there are other choices. These authors practice unabashed prescriptivism. So reading a mix of traditions, the unwary reader either ends up with a hodgepodge of conflicting views in their head or ignores the parts that don’t agree with their own personal spirituality.
David Chapman, a non-monastic Vajrayana Buddhist practicing in a Nyingma sect called “Aro”, has done a fantastic post called: “Wholeness, connection, and meditation: Competing visions” where he illustrates three conflicting Buddhist approaches to, what my blog calls, the “many selves” model. These three answers are: (1) Renunciation (2) Monism and (3) Tantra. Though each school of Buddhism contains a mix of these answers, generally speaking, they predominately cluster in different schools:
- Theravada –> the Renunciation answer
- Mahayana –> the Monism answer
- Vajrayana –> the Tantra answer
David is refreshing because he clarifies the contradictory Buddhist views. Please read at least the first half of David’s post if you are interested in understanding these conflicting answers.
The “Many Selves Model” is the psychological view I use to understand how much of the mind works — and is critical to understanding many of my posts. It is based on the same observations which David mentions in the beginning of his post: multiple personalities in different settings and multiple allegiances to conflicting systems. But David tells us that mainstream Western Buddhism (not his Buddhism, btw) has concluded that:
This fragmentation and isolation seems unhealthy, unnatural, unsustainable.
He then tells us the solutions offered by renunciate Theravadans, monists Mahayanists and tantric Vajrayanists. Of these three, I have always been attracted to the Tantric answer which is probably the minority stance in American Buddhism. (See, you are going to have to read David’s post).
But apparently, unlike many Western Buddhists, I have observed that the “many selves” is very natural and obviously sustainable since it helps me perform often important contrary functions in my daily life. Meditation simply made the observation of many-selves more obvious and I did not see them as a problem. Instead, slowly understanding these many-selves/no-self allowed me to take the phenomena less seriously, to stop being surprised by it and to gain a little more control of the process so I could enjoy it more.
So as for the three “solutions” to the “problem” of many-selves:
I don’t incline toward (1) the renunciate model (Theravada). But over the years, as my blog confesses, I have been tempted many times toward (2) the monist model where the goal is merging with a passive God (monkey God) or the Divine or the matrix of the Universe or Buddha Mind or whatever single homogenizing principle you wish to name. Yet meditation and daily life have again and again reminded me that this is an illusion. So monism, though a temptation, is not how I view reality either — it is not the Buddhism I identify with. The third option David discusses is (3) tantra which always has struck a resonance in me.
My particular Buddhish flavor has slowly evolved from my experiences with yoga, occasional periods of visiting Buddhist groups and my readings of many Buddhist books. There should be a name for animals like me — a pejorative one, I am sure. But the reasons I have never joined a Buddhist group and am probably best called “BuddhisH” instead of “BuddhisT” are several:
- I strongly disagree with the renunciate and the monist habits which predominated the Buddhist groups I have visited.
- I do not have a commitment to the mantra that “Life is Suffering” that many Buddhist teachers and books tell us is key to commitment to the Buddhist path.
- The tantric groups seemed too full of Tibetan tradition and lots of gods and superstitious magic.
- Many Western Buddhists are enamored by Asia and their religiosity is tied up in finding their own special identity in another culture.
- Western Buddhists can be so serious, so sappy sweet and so politically correct that I do not fit in well.
- And the final irony: I have never found a group that can tolerate my questions, doubts and speculations — they are all a bit too busy being religious, it seems.
But meditating continues to be useful for me, and the insights/skills gathered continues to be decisive in how I view and live my life. My present bedstand spirituality consists of poetry, history, some Tantric Buddhist stuff, science and math books. Fortunately, I have the blessing of a generally happy temperament and a balanced life of sorts. I have never felt a pressing need to find a cure for life — I just look for greater ways to enjoy it. What keeps me visiting Buddhist groups is that I am a very social creature who loves company. I also enjoy the intellectual stimulus and the inspiration of practicing together when the above items do not distract.
But when asked by friends for books on Buddhism, I can not recommend any because of flavors of either Monism or Renunciation that fills many Buddhist books. And most of the Buddhist books I know point to groups with the problems I list above. What to do?
Well, if you are interested, read David’s post. My comment on David’s blog became too long so I transformed it into this post. I hope my diagram, along with David’s writtings, have given you a tool to sort through some of the hodgepodge called “Buddhism”.