Finding Our Center

Last night during the tea time another perennial question came up – how are we supposed to relate to the differences between the Buddhist traditions, and which practices should we take up or avoid?

The first part of the question is mostly historical. The three main branches of Buddhism – Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana – are designations for styles of practice from different regions and cultures. Theravada (tare – uh – vahd – uh) came from India and migrated to Southeast Asia; Mahayana branched up through China and to the Far East, and Vajrayana is centered around Tibet and Nepal.

What differs in terms of doctrine or beliefs between the three branches is (mostly) centered around the willingness to recognize teachings from after the Buddha. The Theravada formed out of a desire to focus again and again on the original teachings and commentaries, while the Mahayana and Vajrayana flourished through recognizing new ideas and source material. None of the three stances is definitive, and each person tends to know intuitively what resonates with them.

It might seem that you could categorically describe any of the three branches by their chanting, or vows, or favorite teachings, but the more you travel and look around the more you see how diverse each branch is. They are each over a thousand years old and encompass numerous cultures. Any practice or austerity you can find in one is found somewhere in the others. They all draw their inspiration from Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha, and the realized and well-practiced proponents of each branch dwell in harmony and respect for the others. In the beginning, the roots of all three schools dwelt together in central India, even in the same monasteries. While they might not practice the same, it’s as though they say, “What you do works too. Practice well!”

The spirit of the tolerance of differences is at the heart of the Buddha’s most famous teachings. In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha encourages the Kalama people to give up hearsay, blind faith and guesswork, and instead ask, “When I practice in this way, do wholesome states increase and unwholesome states decrease?”

This is the standard we can use when we are visiting other centers or seeking a practice to call our own. Don’t just trust what you’ve heard about others or make snap judgments. Try it and see for yourself. If it doesn’t work for you, trust your judgment. Move on when you have a better option.

We have a blessing that is also a curse in the modern world. Choice. Virtually anywhere you go you will have access to all three Buddhist traditions and a buffet of options for practice. I’m currently staying in a hilltown in western Masschusetts with a population of 850 – and yet all three traditions are represented at the weekly meditation group.

We have access to all the teachers, all the books, all the chants and rituals … how do we pick? Should we pick, or should we just use them all? I say this is also a curse because, perhaps you’ve heard the simile of the hundred wells? “Which is more likely to find water: digging one hundred one-foot wells or one, one-hundred foot well?” The answer is fairly obvious. Picking and choosing will make us a very balanced practitioner on the surface, but as the goal of the practice leads in the direction of learning from discomfort and relinquishing preferences, forever shopping around will prevent us from reaching the deeper truths each tradition seeks.

Yet plugging away at a practice that doesn’t suit us for decades is no more likely to bear fruit. This is the balance we strike, the ever-evolving Middle Way. We can be clear about which teachers we choose, which practices, which colors and bells and bows – all without being attached. Neither clinging to, nor pushing away. We trust ourselves; we trust what works for us.

This is the simplest advice to offer one trying to find their place in the world of spiritual practice: Your seeking for the right conditions and right fit for you is actually part of the practice. Learning both to let go and to devote yourself fully will develop your faith and wisdom. So don’t be afraid to try new things – the Buddhist world is vast – but when you find something that works, go for it.