Is Buddhism One or Many?

Is Buddhism One or Many?

buddhism 3

In our experience, most individuals who assert that ‘Buddhism is one’ are generally not well informed or are secret (or in some cases open) advocates of ‘hippyism’! Accordingly, the preferred scholarly position appears to be that there are ‘many Buddhisms’. In terms of the superficial form that Buddhism assumes within a particular culture, time, and geographic region, this assertion is perfectly true. For example, Theravada Buddhism is prevalent throughout South East Asian countries (e.g., Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma) and places emphasis on following the original word of the historical Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism, which originated several hundred years after Theravada Buddhism, is prevalent throughout East Asia (e.g., Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam) and places emphasis on compassionate activity and the non-dual or empty nature of phenomena. Vajrayana Buddhism didn’t become popular until around the 7th Century and is associated with Himalayan plateau countries such as Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Mongolia (and to a lesser extent Japan). Compared to Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism places greater emphasis on ‘sacred outlook’, the bond between teacher (or ‘guru’) and student, and on various esoteric practices. Schools representing all three Buddhist vehicles (i.e., Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) are present in the West – where to admittedly differing degrees – they continue to embody the teachings and practices of their source traditions.

Despite these differences between Buddhist vehicles (and even between the various schools that comprise a particular vehicle), we would argue that it is still possible from an informed/scholarly position, to assert that Buddhism is one. Such an assertion is based on the fact that all authentic Buddhist lineages teach methods that ultimately lead to the same result. Furthermore, most of these methods are intended to directly or indirectly foster insight into core Buddhist principles such as suffering, impermanence, and non-self. In essence, suffering is suffering whether you approach it from a Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana perspective. The same applies to impermanence and non-self. Another good example is the trishiksha principle (Sanskrit for the ‘three trainings’; Pali: tisso-sikkha) that incorporates the three trainings of wisdom, meditation, and ethical awareness. These three trainings form the foundations of any authentic Buddhist path, regardless of what geographical region or historical period it originates from.

The essential point is that the different Buddhist vehicles and their respective traditions work with many of the same underlying principles, which they reconstitute and teach in different ways. Furthermore, it is our experience that the further a teacher or practitioner advances along the path of spiritual awareness, the more they start to see similarities between the various Buddhist paths (as well as between Buddhist and non-Buddhist paths). Perhaps this is because the teachings are equivalent to a finger that points to the moon, but they are not the moon itself. In other words, there are some underlying truths of reality and the diverse spiritual teachings are methods of introducing discerning individuals to these truths.

Whenever a realised spiritual being expounds the Buddhist teachings, they provide individuals with an entirely new path of practice. It is completely new compared to that which has gone before because it is being taught by a different teacher, to different students, and in a different period of time. However, although it is a new path, it is really just a manifestation of a ‘universal path’ that, as one of its defining features, has the ability to assume new forms according to the prevailing conditions. A suitable analogy to explain this principle might be that of a chameleon lizard that changes its colour and complexion according to its surroundings. The chameleon can display many different colours, but it is always the same chameleon.

Our view is that the most profound Vajrayana practices are implicit within the simplest of Buddhist teachings, such as the discourse on the four noble truths. Likewise, we believe that Theravada Buddhism, when correctly understood and practiced, can, in particular circumstances, introduce spiritually ripe individuals to what are generally regarded to be Vajrayana or tantric meditative attainments. Within Buddhism, there are different interpretations of how to effectively practice spiritual development, but in essence, they represent variations on the same theme. Consequently, it is possible to make a credible argument that Buddhism is many, but it is also possible to credibly argue that it is one.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Mindfulness and wellbeing: Towards a unified operational approach. In: I. Ivtzan, & T. Lomas (Eds). Mindfulness in Positive Psychology: The Science of Meditation and Wellbeing (pp. 280-292). Oxford: Routledge.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). (2015). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, DOI: 10.1037/rel0000079.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, 6, 49-56.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). Mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths. In: E. Shonin, W. Van Gordon, & N. N. Singh (Eds). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 9-27). New York: Springer.

To Enlightenment and Beyond

To Enlightenment and Beyond

oneness 1

Click here for Italian readers – Clicca qui per i lettori italiani

Most Buddhist practice systems assert that there are various stages on the path to enlightenment. Perhaps the most well-documented example is the Ten Bodhisattva Bhūmis which in Mahayana Buddhism, are understood to reflect ten stages of spiritual awakening – culminating in Buddhahood – that a Bodhisattva (a highly compassionate spiritual being) progresses through. Another  perhaps less known  example is the Four Vidyadhara Levels in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. A vidyadhara (which means ‘awareness holder’) is believed to progress through the following four stages: 1. matured vidyadhara, 2. vidyadhara with power over life, 3. mahamudra vidyadhara, and 4. spontaneously accomplished vidyadhara. In Theravada Buddhism, various states of spiritual awakening are likewise recognised, including the state of ‘Arahant’, which is generally understood to correspond to a level of spiritual awakening in which the cycle of samsara (the perpetuating round of birth, suffering, death and rebirth) has been broken, but that is still below the level of a Buddha. In order to arrive at the state of Arahant, Theravada Buddhism (and other early Buddhist schools) assert that the spiritual practitioner progresses through stages of ‘stream-enterer’ (Pāli: Sotapanna), ‘once-returner’ (Sakadagami), and ‘non-returner’ (Anāgāmi).

Although there are numerous systems of thought in Buddhism regarding levels of spiritual awakening, all Buddhist schools appear to accept that there is a state of ‘full’ Buddhahood, which is unsurpassable. The Sanskrit term is ‘anuttarā samyak-sambodhi’ (Pāli: anuttarā sammā sambodhi), which literally means ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’. There are specific references to the state of ‘anuttarā samyak-sambodhi’ in the Buddhist canonical literature (such as in the Astasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra of the Prajñāpāramitā collection), but the term is mostly employed to teach the principle that even when an individual attains a high level of spiritual realisation, there are invariably still subtle levels of ignorance that must be transcended. The state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’ is understood to be a state that does not require any deliberate effort or ‘practice’ on the part of the spiritual practitioner.

Our take on the various levels of spiritual awakening and the state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’ differs from that of many Buddhist scholars and teachers. We accept that there are different levels of spiritual awakening, but labelling these states is not as easy as most people think. Each spiritual practitioner is an individual, and their spiritual journey is unique. Therefore, although there are some common ‘signposts’ that spiritual practitioners may encounter, it is difficult (and unwise) to assign a label to a person’s level of spiritual awakening. Indeed, for the diligent spiritual practitioner, spiritual development happens (or should happen) every moment of every day. Consequently, an individual’s level of realisation in the morning, is unlikely to be the same as the evening.

Our view differs from consensus opinion even more when it comes to the state of ‘unsurpassable perfect enlightenment’. We accept that there is a state of Buddhahood, in which all forms of suffering are transcended, and in which spiritual awareness is self-sustaining (i.e., it does not require deliberate effort). We also accept that arriving at Buddhahood, a spiritual being penetrates fully, and abides as, the underlying ‘fabric’ of the universe. However, we don’t accept that there is such a thing as an ‘absolute’ level of spiritual awakening. If the state of Buddhahood reflects the upper limit of spiritual awareness, then logic dictates that there must also be a lower limit of spiritual awareness – a state of absolute spiritual ignorance. Based upon an observation of the life forms around us, it seems improbable that there is a lower limit to ignorance. Taking hatred amongst human beings as an example, it can consume a person’s mind to such an extent that they will harm and kill other humans, only to hate themselves and others more intensely. Perhaps this is what Einstein was referring to when he said: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe”.

When a person becomes a ‘stream enterer’ that we referred to earlier, they become a child of the Buddhas, and enter a completely new world. They leave behind a life of living a soap opera and their – as well as other people’s – existence, takes on new meaning. When a person enters the stream that leads to liberation, their ‘wisdom eye’ is opened, compassion takes root in their being, and they begin to emanate spiritual presence. However, a similar thing happens when that same ‘stream enterer’eventually attains Buddhahood. They are born into a completely new way of being and perceiving. In fact, the Sanskrit root of the word Buddha is ‘Budh’, which literally means, ‘to wake up’ or ‘to be awakened’ to a new way of seeing.

When a being awakens to Buddhahood, it is not the case that their spiritual journey has finished. Rather, it has just begun. A Buddha has an inconceivable amount of wisdom and compassion at their disposition, but they have to learn how to apply that wisdom, how to grow with it, and how to transcend it. Buddhahood is a dynamic state; a Buddha is continuously evolving. Therefore, there are young Buddhas, mature Buddhas, and ancient Buddhas. There are Buddhas who are learning how to harness and mould the energy of the universe, and how to best apply it in order to help suffering beings. There are also Buddhas who are primordial, who are ‘masters of reality’, and who ‘gave birth’ to other enlightened beings.

Try not to reduce spiritual development into a system of limits, levels, and labels. For as many Buddhas that exist, there are that many different levels of Buddhahood. How inspiring that there is no upper limit to the amount the mind can expand and awaken. How beautiful that the spiritual journey continues for eternity. How amazing that within every sentient being, there exists the potential to attain Buddhahood, and then go beyond.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon


Verso l’illuminazione e oltre

oneness 1

La maggior parte dei sistemi di pratica buddista affermano l’esistenza di varie tappe del percorso verso l’illuminazione. Forse l’esempio meglio documentato è quello dei Dieci Bodhisattva bhumi, che nel buddismo Mahayana riflettono le dieci fasi di risveglio spirituale, che culminano nella Buddità, attraverso cui un Bodhisattva (un essere spirituale altamente compassionevole) progredisce. Un altro esempio – forse meno conosciuto – è quello dei Quattro Livelli di Vidyadhara nella tradizione Nyingma del Buddismo Tibetano. Si ritiene che un Vidyadhara (che significa ‘detentore di consapevolezza’) progredisce attraverso le seguenti quattro fasi: 1. Vidyadhara maturato, 2. Vidyadhara con potere sulla vita, 3. Vidyadhara di mahamudra, e 4. Vidyadhara che è spontaneamente compiuto. Nel Buddismo Theravada, si ritrovano similmente vari stati di risveglio spirituale, compreso lo stato di ‘Arahant’, con cui generalmente si intende un livello di risveglio spirituale in cui il ciclo del samsara (il ciclo perpetuo di nascita, sofferenza, morte e rinascita) è stato interrotto, ma che è ancora al di sotto del livello di un Buddha. Al fine di raggiungere lo stato di Arahant, il Buddhismo Theravada (e altre scuole buddiste dello stesso periodo storico) affermano che il praticante spirituale progredisce attraverso le fasi di ‘colui che entra nella corrente’ (Pāli: Sotapanna), ‘colui che ritorna una sola volta’ (Sakadagami) e ‘Anāgāmin’ (colui che non-ritorna).

Anche se ci sono numerosi sistemi di pensiero nel Buddismo per quanto riguarda i livelli di risveglio spirituale, tutte le scuole buddiste sembrano accettare il fatto che vi sia uno stato di Buddità ‘assoluta’, che è insuperabile. Il termine Sanscrito è ‘anuttara samyak-sambodhi’ (Pali: anuttara Samma sambodhi), che letteralmente significa ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’. Ci sono riferimenti specifici allo stato di ‘anuttara samyak-sambodhi’ nella letteratura canonica buddista (come nel Astasāhasrikā Prajnaparamita Sutra della collezione di Prajñāpāramitā), ma il termine viene impiegato principalmente per insegnare il principio che, anche quando un individuo raggiunge un alto livello di realizzazione spirituale, ci sono inevitabilmente ancora sottili livelli di ignoranza che devono essere trascesi. Lo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’ è inteso come uno stato che non richiede alcuno sforzo intenzionale o ‘pratica’ da parte del praticante spirituale.

Il nostro punto di vista sui vari livelli di risveglio spirituale e sullo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’ è diverso da quello di molti studiosi e insegnanti buddisti. Accettiamo che ci siano diversi livelli di risveglio spirituale, ma l’etichettatura di questi Stati non è così facile come molti pensano. Ogni praticante spirituale è un individuo, e il suo cammino spirituale è unico. Pertanto, anche se ci sono alcuni ‘segnali’ comuni che i praticanti spirituali possono incontrare, è difficile (e non è saggio) assegnare un’etichetta al livello di risveglio spirituale di una persona. Infatti, per il praticante spirituale diligente, lo sviluppo spirituale avviene (o dovrebbe avvenire) ogni momento di ogni giorno. Di conseguenza, sarà improbabile che il livello di realizzazione di un individuo al mattino sarà come quello della sera.

Il nostro punto di vista differisce ancora di più dall’opinione diffusa per quanto riguarda lo stato di ‘illuminazione perfetta insuperabile’. Accettiamo che ci sia uno stato di Buddità, in cui tutte le forme di sofferenza sono trascese e nella quale la consapevolezza spirituale è autosufficiente (cioè, non richiede sforzo intenzionale). Accettiamo anche che, arrivando allo stato di Buddità, un essere spirituale penetra completamente – e rimane o resta come – la ‘matrice’ alla base dell’universo. Tuttavia, non accettiamo che ci sia qualcosa come un ‘assoluto’ livello di risveglio spirituale. Se lo stato di Buddità riflette il limite superiore di consapevolezza spirituale, allora la logica impone che ci debba essere anche un limite inferiore di consapevolezza spirituale – uno stato di ignoranza spirituale assoluta. Tuttavia, sulla base dell’osservazione delle forme di vita intorno a noi, sembra improbabile che ci sia un limite inferiore per l’ignoranza. Prendiamo, per esempio, l’odio tra gli esseri umani, che può consumare la mente di una persona a tal punto da nuocere e uccidere altri esseri umani, solo per odiare più intensamente se stessa e gli altri. Forse questo è ciò a cui Einstein si riferiva quando ha detto: “due cose sono infinite: l’universo e la stupidità umana; riguardo l’universo ho ancora dei dubbi”.

Quando si diventa una persona, come quella a cui abbiamo fatto riferimento in precedenza, ‘colui che entra nella corrente’, si diventa un bambino dei Buddha e si entra in un mondo completamente nuovo. Si lascia alle spalle una vita vissuta da soap opera e la sua esistenza – così come l’esistenza delle altre persone, assume un nuovo significato. Quando una persona entra nella corrente che porta alla liberazione, si apre il suo ‘occhio della saggezza’, la compassione si radica nel suo essere e comincia a emanare una presenza spirituale. Una cosa simile accade quando un praticante spirituale raggiunge alla fine lo stato di Buddità. Nasce in lui un modo completamente nuovo di essere e percepire. Infatti, la radice sanscrita della parola Buddha è ‘Budh’, che significa letteralmente,  ‘svegliarsi’ o ‘essere risvegliato’ a un nuovo modo di vedere.

Quando un essere si risveglia alla Buddità, non significa che abbia terminato il suo cammino spirituale. Piuttosto, è appena iniziato. Un Buddha ha una quantità inimmaginabile di saggezza e compassione a sua disposizione, ma deve imparare ad applicare quella saggezza, come crescere con essa, e come trascenderla. Lo stato di Buddità è uno stato dinamico; un Buddha è in continua evoluzione. Di conseguenza, ci sono giovani Buddha, Buddha maturi e Buddha antichi. Ci sono Buddha che stanno imparando a sfruttare e plasmare l’energia dell’universo e come applicarla al meglio al fine di aiutare gli esseri che soffrono. Ci sono anche Buddha che sono primordiali, che sono ‘maestri della realtà’ e che ‘hanno fatto nascere’ altri esseri illuminati.

Cercate di non ridurre lo sviluppo spirituale in un sistema di limiti, livelli ed etichette. Così come esistono molti Buddha, ci sono numerosi diversi livelli di Buddità. Quanto è stimolante il fatto che non esista un limite superiore a quanto la mente possa espandersi e risvegliarsi. Quanto è bello che il cammino spirituale continui per l’eternità. Quanto è incredibile che all’interno di ogni essere senziente, esista la possibilità di raggiungere la Buddità, e poi andare oltre.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon


The Hidden Aspects of the Five Precepts

The Hidden Aspects of the Five Precepts


The five precepts (Pāli: pañca-sīlāni) provide a basic code for living a life that is in-keeping with Buddhist ethical ideals. They are recited by lay and monastic Buddhist practitioners all over the world and a great deal has been written about their literal meaning. In today’s post, we offer an interpretation of the five precepts that focuses on their hidden meaning.

First Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing (Pānātipātā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden meaning of the first precept is that we should not kill the Buddha within. Whenever we chase after mundane goals such as wealth and status, this is killing the Buddha within. Our time on this earth is limited and sooner or later we will encounter death. At the point of death, all of our various life encounters and accomplishments mean absolutely nothing. They have no more significance than the fading memories of a dream and no matter how hard we try, nothing from this life can be taken into the next. The only exception to this is the spiritual insight that we manage to accrue on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, if we don’t use this precious human rebirth to nourish and develop ourselves spiritually, we suffocate the Buddha within.

When we are with someone who is talking with us, confiding in us, and our mind is thinking about either what we want to say or what we could be doing instead of being with that person, then we are killing the Buddha within that person and we kill the Buddha within ourselves. When we do not listen to the bird that is singing for us then we kill the Buddha within ourselves as well as the Buddha in the bird. That bird spent many lifetimes training to sing that song so that we could hear it and we spent many lifetimes training so that we could listen to what the bird has to say. The bird sang, we couldn’t care, the moment passed and we were not aware. We are as good as dead alongside the Buddha within.

Second Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given (Adinnādānā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden aspect of the second precept is that we should not steal from ourselves the opportunity to attain enlightenment in this lifetime. The second precept also means that we should not steal this opportunity from others. The opportunity to attain enlightenment is the birth-right of every living being in the universe. We steal away this opportunity from ourselves each time we practice mindless, selfish, and unskilful ways. We steal away this opportunity from others when we do not act with kindness, awareness, and gentleness in their presence.

When people set themselves up as ‘Buddhist’ teachers without having dedicated their lives to spiritual practice (or in some cases after having taken part in just one or two meditation retreats facilitated by people who have no real spiritual experience), they are putting their own spiritual lives in jeopardy. More concerning however, is that they are stealing the spiritual breath of others. They are stealing other people’s opportunity to attain enlightenment. People come to them obviously in need of spiritual nourishment and all they get is the unfortunate experience of being robbed – both spiritually and materially.

Third Precept: I undertake the training rule to avoid lustful conduct (Kāmesumicchācāra veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The innermost aspect of the third precept is that we should not lust after being a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’. Because of wanting to be somebody, people are unable to be themselves. The more we want to be someone, the more difficult it becomes to just simply be. Wanting to be a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’ causes us to develop a big ego which acts as an obstacle to spiritual growth. When we let go of the idea that we inherently exist, we cease to separate ourselves from the energy and dance of Dharmata that is all around us. Phenomena do not exist as discrete entities. They exist as one. When the universe breathes in, all of the phenomena that it contains breathe in with it. When the universe breathes out, all of the matter and space that it contains also breathes out. When we stop wanting to be a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’, we are able to relax into and once again abide in unison with the energy of all that is.

Forth Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech (Musāvādā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden aspect of the fourth precept means that we should not utter false speech by giving Dharma teachings on subjects that we have not fully and directly realised ourselves. It seems that the number of so called Dharma and meditation teachers is rapidly increasing. More and more people are writing books about the Buddhist teachings (including mindfulness), and more and more people are offering meditation retreats and courses. Whenever we try to instruct others in spiritual teachings that we ourselves have not fully realised, we lie to them and we also lie to ourselves. This false speech serves to water down the Dharma, bolster our egos, and distance us (and those listening to us) from the possibility of cultivating true meditative calm and insight.

The same applies when we utter words such as “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha”. If during our day-to-day existence, we are only concerned with the petty affairs of our lives and getting ahead in the world, then these words are untrue. If we wish to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we have to stop thinking that the world revolves around us. We have to stop living a soap opera. We have to make our entire life a spiritual practice and not just engage in (what we deem to be) Buddhist practice when it is convenient to us or when we are going through a particularly difficult time.

Fifth Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from ingesting intoxicants (Surāmerayamajjapamādatthānā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The innermost meaning of the fifth precept is that we should not fill up and intoxicate our own mind or other people’s minds with concepts, clever ideas, and wrong views. Too many people have their minds full-up. If our minds are too full then there is no room for wholesome thoughts to grow and flourish. In a full mind there is no space for simply being, and there is no emptiness to nurture and refresh our being. Having our minds full-up all of the time becomes very stressful and tiring not only for ourselves but also for those with whom we interact.

Some people that practice Buddhism fill up their minds with the idea that they are a Theravada Buddhist, a Mahayana Buddhist, or a Vajrayana Buddhist. However, a Theravada Buddhist who is caught up in the idea of being a Theravada Buddhist is not, in truth, a Theravada Buddhist. The same applies to Mahayana and Vajrayana practitioners who foolishly attach themselves to the name and label of their particular Buddhist practice modality.  In Theravada Buddhism there are strong Mahayana and Vajrayana elements, and in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism there are strong Theravada elements.

In our work as Buddhist monks, we meet lots of people that proudly introduce themselves as (for example) a vegetarian, vegan, spiritual teacher, meditator, or philanthropist. If people want to be a vegetarian or a vegan that’s great – good for them. But if they over-identify with the idea of being a vegetarian and/or believe that it somehow makes them a more spiritual or virtuous person, then they have allowed their life choices to intoxicate their mind. We abstain from intoxicating the mind with concepts and wrong views when we observe but do not attach ourselves to thoughts and feelings. When we allow thoughts, feelings, and other mental processes to roll freely through the mind and not to stick to it, the mind becomes completely immune to all forms of intoxicant.

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon