On Buddhism’s Schisms by Prof. Ian Cook

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On Buddhism’s Schisms
Prof. Ian Cook
Murdoch University, Perth

Someone who has set out in the Bodhisattva-vehicle should produce a thought in this manner: ‘all beings I must lead to Nirvana, into that Realm of Nirvana which leaves nothing behind; and yet, after beings have thus been led to Nirvana, no being at all has been led to Nirvana, no being at all has thus been led to Nirvana’. And why? If in a Bodhisattva the notion of a ‘being’ should take place, [s/]he could not be called a ‘Bodhibeing.’ And likewise if the notion of a soul, or a person should take place in [her/]him. And why? [S/]He who has set out in the Bodhisattva-vehicle—[s/]he is not one of the Dharmas. (Conze, 1975, pp. 57-8)

I wrote the first draft of a very different paper, as I will explain, before I realised that what I thought was the problem was not the problem. I thought the problem was that there are very different sects and schools of Buddhism. But then, after writing most of that other paper (the one I will explain below), I realised that it wasn’t that interesting a problem for a Buddhist. Of course, this meant deciding what it was to be a Buddhist and, as I will also explain below, I decided that this meant that you wanted to wake up, or, in more Buddhist phraseology, you want to become an Awakened One (a Buddha). I will get back to this later. But, once I realised that it is about waking up, I realised that the real question concerned whether and why Buddha decided that to teach people about waking up and, as a consequence, what is the relationship between the Arhat and Bodhisattva paths to awakening. There seem to be lots of good reasons that he should not have done so. The Bodhisattva Explanation is that it is only through and with others that we can achieve awakening, but the Arhat tradition suggests otherwise. For those of the Arhat Tradition, to become an Arhat does not require that it be communicated or preserved. Unlike the Pratyekabuddha, who awakens on her or his own, and may not even know of Buddhism (as Gautama/ Sakyamuni Buddha), the Arhat learns of Buddhism from others. But even this communication to the aspiring Arhat can be done pupil to master, and no one else need to know what it contained (this may be more consistent with Vajrayana Buddhism ). So the real question concerns why Buddha taught and allowed his teachings to be recalled… or why a Buddha might. We know that serving others is required for awakening in the Bodhisattva tradition, but this is not every Buddhist’s tradition. The only place to look is, for me, is to a commitment to awakening and, as a consequence, to the Four Noble Truths. They are beyond schism and represent my spiritual minimum of Buddhism. Once we are at this point, though, we find that the two paths are not so obviously two paths; that the path might be a dual one.

The Other Paper

I have almost finished another paper entitled ‘On Buddhism’s Schisms’. This is the introduction I wrote for that paper:

This paper is in three parts that reflect the two sources of schism in Buddhism. The first part addresses the everyday schisms that reflect Buddhism’s functioning as a religion. Here I explain, what I refer to as, the four vehicles of Buddhism. Buddhism is usually understood to have three vehicles (Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana/Tantrayana) and to these I add a fourth (Western Buddhism). Most Buddhists recognise that the four vehicles differ in important ways. To understand these and other differences amongst Buddhists I discuss the way that the master-initiate relationship, the use of ‘skilful means’ to facilitate Buddhism’s spread and the relationship between Buddhism and particular political orders have helped produce diversity amongst Buddhists. In the second part I work toward something of a spiritual minimum and seek to identify positions or concepts basic to Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold path are identified as being common to all Buddhists. There is no room for schism and, more importantly, no way to modify these doctrines to accommodate them to local circumstances. They do not avail themselves of multiple interpretations, but they do not resolve all questions of practice. The final aspect of the spiritual minimum, which is more contentious than the preceding doctrinal principles, is a commitment to awakening. This is a source of many of the issues that result in differences of practice amongst Buddhists. The third part approaches schism in terms of practical differences (that is, differences of practice) amongst Buddhists that might be taken to evidence schism. I suggest that these can be understood to be practical differences because, for me, they don’t so much divide Buddhists as reflect questions with which we engage as Buddhists. Questions concerning the texts upon which we base our practice, whether we should adopt the model of the wandering ascetic or the monk in the monastery and whether our responsibilities as a Buddhist can be satisfied by simply honouring awakening or whether Buddhist’s acquire social obligations in the process of pursuing awakening.

But I have struggled to complete that paper. It did not attract me fully. So, rather than pushing through and finishing it (as I might otherwise have done and will do), I decided to start again with what I found to be interesting here.

Why people from other religions get obsessed with schisms in Buddhism

I’d gotten myself into the trap of thinking that I was interested in a question because I’d heard it asked so many times and had come to think of it as a good question. The question seemed a good one during those times I found myself surrounded by monks from a variety of different sects and schools, some of whom were fasting and some who weren’t, some of whom were eating meat when others were not. Just looking at their different coloured robes made you wonder what divided them, that is, those of whom who were choosing to wear robes on all occasions. Other, you knew, were not choosing to wear robes as a matter of course, which suggested yet another form of division. And then I reflect on the fact that I am neither a Buddhist by tradition nor one who has been properly trained and yet have no other was to describe my spiritual commitments than as Buddhist.

Why it is less interesting to most Buddhists

So I developed an account of some of the different forms of Buddhism. I followed the Three Vehicles formula, which I know is a Mahayana teaching that belittles the Hinayana tradition, of which the Theravādan is the principal extant expression. But I thought that I could avoid the fact that ‘Mahayana’ has the connotation of ‘greater’ and ‘Hinayana’ of ‘lesser’ by thinking of them simply as vehicles or ways of transporting Buddhism to various potential audiences (to which, as you’ll have seen, I added a Fourth Vehicle: Western Buddhism – the Third vehicle is – for maps of the vehicles see: Mahayana/Vajrayana and Theravada and Spread of Buddhism ). I was going to use the, again Mahayana, notion of skilful or artful means to explain how Buddha authorized the modification of Buddhist dharma to allow it to make sense to people of different cultures and ethnicities and which explains some of the variety in Buddhism.

The problem then becomes that many people mistake these different ways of representing the path of Buddhism for different religions and faiths. I posited a “spiritual minimum” that could not be changed through cultural or ethnic adaptation as a way to understand the different schools or sects of Buddhism as different, though very closely related, ways of conceiving and pursuing the spiritual ends that are a minimum for Buddhists: the recognition of the necessity for and benefits from awakening and the commitment to the pursuit of awakening that are manifested in the Four Noble Truths.

Taking the Four Noble Truths to be the spiritual minimum of Buddhism has a variety of benefits. Not least among these is that, while other aspects of Buddhist dharma may be more accessible from within one culture than another, I could, largely, lay them aside. I focused more on practical questions that arose from the Four Noble Truths on the other paper, so I did not get to how a Fourth, specifically Western, Vehicle might be imagined. It didn’t really matter. Imagining such a vehicle might be more useful here, by way of treating the next questions as independent of culture, which I will do. But it is not that important here.

The real question to which it leads concerns Why Buddha Taught Others of the Four Noble Truths

So, if we know that to be a Buddhist requires, at a minimum, a commitment to awakening and, as a consequence, recognition of the Four Noble Truths, then the schisms lose much of their interest as anything more than consequences of Buddha allowing his word to become teachings. Either someone accepts the Four Noble Truths or they don’t. If you do, then you are doing the minimum it takes to be a Buddhist. But this minimum is a lot different from Christianity’s Ten Commandments, in that it requires rectitude across eight aspects of being (including our thinking, our way of life and our relationships) that go to the very core of who we are. There are some people who can legitimately claim to be Buddhist but not accept the Four Noble Truths. They can still claim to be Buddhist in the way that I have to recognize that I am a Christian, even though I do not accept Christ’s basic teaching (that there is a single self-conscious creator being, aka God). I grew up in a culture and family that was Christian and it will always be a part of me. No matter what I might claim to be… that is, should I claim to be anything, which I would if the spiritual minimum were to be widely accepted. We are not sure which of the sutras, other than that derived from the sermon at Benares (the Four Noble Truths teaching), are definitely taken from Buddha’s words. Some of the texts represented as the sermon seems to add unnecessarily to its simple messages (this is the text I prefer: Benares_Sermon_of_Buddha.pdf), and its simplest form seems more likely to capture the essence of Buddha’s insight.

The traditional answer is that the gods asked him to teach others

And the question that we might meaningfully ask here concerns why Buddha chose to teach and not focus on his own awakening and any enlightenment that might follow. I distinguish between awakening, which is something that I can understand (it is the sense of the Four Noble Truths), and enlightenment, which, if it means more than awakening to the sense of the Four Noble Truths, is something that I can’t understand. It may also be understood as the difference between knowledge of dependent origination and knowledge of nirvana (“First there is the Knowledge of dependent co-arising, then there is the Knowledge of Nibbana” (The Meaning of the Buddha’s Awakening).

As Jones has suggested, the episode in which Buddha agrees to Brahma’s request to teach, “in various forms, is found in all versions of the Buddha’s traditional life-story...” (Jones, 2009, p. 85). I am not treating the story of Brahma as true, as I don’t accept Brahma’s real existence. But I am treating it as significant for more than an exercise in skilful means (as a way of using Brahma to authorize Buddhism, as Jones suggests), even though this may be true. What’s important to me here is that I’d not be writing about schisms if Buddha had not allowed his words to become teachings and had fallen into silence and sought the same from his followers.

I disagree, though, with Jones’s explanation that “from an early stage it has also been regarded as problematic, since it portrays the hesitant Buddha as less than perfectly compassionate” (Jones, 2009, p. 85). This is an obviously Mahayana/Vajrayana reading of Buddha’s response, as it is consistent with their veneration of the Bodhisattva and their rejection of the approach taken by the Arhat or Arhant. “Arhant can be translated as deathless…”. And it is “by realizing the true nature of phenomenological existence [that] we transcend the cycle of life and death and become deathless in a spiritual sense” (Arhat). This was Buddha’s awakening, the realisation that his suffering was caused by his failures to live through the eightfold path and avoid the cycle of life and death.

I agree with Jones, though, when he notes that there are good reasons that Buddha might have chosen the life of a recluse, within a monastery or forest, over that of a wandering mendicant teacher. Choosing a life of quiet devotion makes considerable sense from a Buddhist perspective. There is no pressing reason to accept the Mahayana position that achieving awakening has anything to do with others (either as the means to achieve awakening or a responsibility that attend having achieved awakening). And the choice was not as simple as Buddha either teaching or doing nothing.

Although the Buddha’s initial inclination to live at ease in the episode of Brahmā’s request was interpreted as an apparently uncompassionate lifestyle choice, ‘living at ease’ is not in fact represented negatively elsewhere in the Pali canon. In the stock phrase ‘living at ease, keeping silent and still (appossuko tuṇhībhūto saṅkasāyati)’, it has a positive meaning. A monk who stops reciting and turns to ‘living at ease, keeping silent and still’ turns out to be an arahant. A tortoise withdraws into its shell to protect itself, ‘living at ease, keeping silent and still’, and so should a bhikkhu withdraw from Māra, by guarding the senses. ‘Living at ease’ most positively means simply dwelling in the jhānas. The phrase therefore signifies a strategic and positive withdrawal from the world, but is given a rhetorical twist in the episode of Brahmā’s request that does not really accord with the Buddha’s own evaluation of such withdrawal evident in his reported taste for solitude, silence and meditation. ( (Jones, 2009, p. 93).

If nothing else, Buddha might have waited at the end of some arduous journey for those who demonstrate their worth (the western cliché is of the guru waiting at the top of the mountain for the disciple to find when s/he is ready (see below)).

But I am not a traditional Buddhist, so that answer doesn’t work for me, and nor does simply adopting the Mahayana position to approach this question.

The bottom line, though, is that Buddha could not have chosen to teach others in relation to some request from Brahma because there was and is no Brahma. Nor do I accept, without question, the Mahayana position that awakening requires or is expressed in a commitment to facilitating others’ awakening, if not their achieving awakening. For those who take the Bodhisattva Vow commit themselves to becoming “one who works to lead all sentient beings to perfect enlightenment”. From this perspective, one cannot choose a path of Awakening and not chose the path of the Bodhisattva. “In Buddhism, a bodhisattva (Sanskrit: bodhisattva; Pali: Bodhisatta) is either an Enlightened (Bodhi) existence (sattva) or an Enlightenment-being or, given the variant Sanskrit spelling satva rather than sattva, ‘heroic-minded one (satva) for Enlightenment (Bodhi).’”

There are good reasons to think Buddha should not have taught others, as this is a source of schism

To teach is to create a series of distinctions, each of which is troubling. The first distinction it forms is that between a leader and followers. While Buddha was the one who went first, at least as far as our history is concerned, the question of whether he can be followed, or whether he can create and has created a path that can be followed is the next question; which is, more or less, the same question as that with respect to whether we can do what Buddha did by doing what Buddha did. The next matter that arises, in this context, concerns whether our seeing ourselves as followers of Buddha will facilitate or impede our actually following Buddha’s example and waking up. It seems almost automatic that this will lead to questions of what it is to be a true follower of Buddha. Certainly this is a necessary consequence of treating Buddha as an authority. Authority is one form of political power in that it produces conformity on the parts of those who accept someone as an authority. Once again, the question of whether looking to authorities will facilitate or impede our awakening. And while we can take heed of ‘authorities’ because they might be in a position to punish us; here we accept authority as a matter of faith. We need to have confidence, or faith, that the person who teaches us has something to teach (whether or not they are particularly effective at teaching it).

And with faith, more often than not, comes religion, as the institutionalization of authority. Being an authority often brings tangible benefits. The wealthier ones followers, the wealthier ones religion becomes. Patronage from those in positions of political power is both a form of power itself and brings with it financial and other benefits. It is a relationship of mutual cost and benefit. Those who have political power benefit from support from leading religious figures; at the cost of being open to censure, even challenge, from the same leading religious figures. Those in leading positions in religions benefit from being politically authorized and supported; at the cost of having to support the policy programs of those who have political power.

We’ve all seen how being linked to political power results in the corruption of religious leaders. Even when they do not succumb to the temptations that authority brings and the adulation that those with faith bestow on those in whom they have faith, having a following is likely to become a problem for those who lead. And is this not what teaching others immediately produces? So there are many reasons why Buddha might not have taught others and, more importantly, not have delivered transmissible teachings.

Notes on The Bodhisattva and The Arhat Traditions

The question, for me then, is whether I prevent my awakening by seeing myself as a teacher of others and allowing my words to become teachings. But Buddha chose to teach and have his teachings recorded and passed on. And yet he did so after an extended period of isolation out of which his awakening occurred. The two possibilities expressed herein might be understood to map onto the two phases of Buddha’s life: The period he spent as a wandering ascetic, during which he learnt mediation practices from Masters that he used, and went beyond, to achieve awakening under the Bo, or Bodhi, Tree (which might be understood, as I’ll suggest, as Buddha as Arhat or even Pratyekabuddha). And the period in which he wandered, sometimes stopping in a certain places during rainy seasons, seeking to pass on his awakening to others, as Buddha as Bodhisattva. In the end, then, it might be thought that Buddha set two examples and that these are the source of meaningful division within Buddhism, as here we find a clear differentiation of the Arhat (Arhant) Tradition and the Bodhisattva Tradition. While some suggest a basic symmetry between these two positions, I am more interested in them as alternative notions of Buddhist practice that support meaningful differences between Buddhist’s practices, though not necessarily schism (even this was sometimes a result of the difference of practice).

Actually, following from Conze’s suggestions mentioned earlier, there might be three paths to awakening. In the Diamond and Heart Sutras, Conze contends, “three such ‘vehicles’ are distinguished – that of the Arhats, that of the Pratyekabuddha, that of the Bodhisattvas” (Conze, Buddhist Wisdom Books, 1975, p. 24). The Arhats (arahats, arahants) were followers of Buddha who listened and learnt. “Śrāvakayāna… was… used by Mahayana Buddhist texts to describe one hypothetical path to Enlightenment. Śrāvakayāna is the path that meets the goals of a Arhat – an individual who achieves liberation as a result of listening to the teachings (or lineage) of a Bodhisattva Buddha” (Śrāvakayāna). Pratyekabuddhas, “or ‘self-awakened’ are socalled because, having a more profound depth of wisdom than the shravakas, they manifest their own awakening through the power of their own wisdom, without needing to rely on other masters” (Pratyekabuddha-yana). The Pratyekabuddha, is “one enlightened by [her] himself, i.e. one who has attained full enlightenment, but who dies without proclaiming the truth to the world” (Conze, 1959, p. 123). Whereas, “traditionally, a bodhisattva is anyone who, motivated by great Compassion, has generated Bodhicitta, which is a spontaneous wish to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all Sentient beings” (Bodhisattva).

Problems, and indeed schism, arises when one of the approaches it taken to be superior to the others. Indeed, no problems arise when we believe that each of us “by character and temperament, belongs to one of those three groups, and… must use the means which suit… [our] makeup.” But, as Conze went on to point out, “some Mahayanists agreed to leave it at that. Others, however, insisted that there is but one way to final salvation-the Buddha [[[cbe:Mahayana|Mahayana]] Bodhisattva] vehicle…” (Conze, 1959, p. 123). These two Mahayana views manifest “two conflicting emotions. Sectarian bias, together with concern for self-justification and desire for superiority, struggled with tolerance, loving kindness and modesty” (Conze, 1959, p. 122); though Conze adds that “the hesitation of the Mahayanists concerning the relative value of the two vehicles seems to indicate that a sense of sectarian superiority cannot be organically incorporated into the Buddhist doctrine.” (Conze, 1959, p. 123).

A crucial part of the problem, for me, lies in the way that Mahayana Buddhism describes bodhisattvas and the bodhichitta they are to manifest. Bodhichitta is defined as a mind, motivated by compassion for all living beings, that spontaneously seeks enlightenment. ... Without great compassion, the spontaneous wish to protect all living beings from suffering, bodhichitta cannot arise in our mind; but if we have great compassion, especially the great compassion generated through exchanging self with others, bodhichitta will arise naturally. The strength of our bodhichitta depends entirely upon the strength of our great compassion. ... This profoundly compassionate mind is the very essence of the Bodhisattva’s training. Developing the good heart of bodhichitta enables us to perfect all our virtues, solve all our problems, fulfill all our wishes, and develop the power to help others in the most appropriate and beneficial ways. Bodhichitta is the best friend we can have and the highest quality we can develop. We generally consider someone who is kind to his or her friends, takes care of his parents, and gives freely to worthwhile causes to be a good person; but how much more praiseworthy is a person who has dedicated his or her whole life to relieving the suffering of each and every sentient being? (Bodhicitta).

It is hard to imagine that any alternative path could be preferred to this path to awakening. It seems much more positive or engaged than the Arhat “in whom the ‘outflows’ (i.e. sense desire, becoming, ignorance, wrong views) have dried up…, who is no longer bound to ‘becoming,’ who… has shed all attachments to I and mine, is secluded, zealous, and earnest, inwardly free, fully controlled,… self-restrained, dispassionate and austere” (Conze, 1959, pp. 93-4).

I agree with Welbon, though, who suggests that western scholars of Buddhism have failed to notice that the path of the bohisattva is not a path to nirvana because it requires staying on the material plane.

On the Bodhisattva doctrine. How does one explain the return to earth of beings who have attained nirvana? It is difficult to ask Barthelemy Saint-Hilaire that question, for he ignores the point completely. Foucaux points to texts which testify to the belief that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas return to earth after attaining nirvana in order ‘to render witness to the terrestrial Buddhas or to explain the sense of the law to the faithful.’ Unaccountably, Foucuax displays little interest and knowledge in the Bodhisattva theories as Barthelemy Saint-Hilaire. The important point in the Mahayana doctrine that the Bodhisattvas have not yet entered nirvana is lost to both (Welbon, 1968, p. 97).

So, for me, the Bodhisattva path is definitely one of awakening, but may not result in enlightenment in its fullest sense.

I seek no solution to the problem of whether teaching others is a, or even the, path to enlightenment here; in that it is not a matter of arguing for either the path of Arhat or that of the Bodhisattva. Such arguments lead to schism and return us to the mundane factors that prevent our connection with the spirituality of Buddhism, rather than the positions held by one or other Buddhist seeking to awaken. As Conze might be understood to suggest, Buddhism requires that we walk two paths at the same time. One, that of the Arhat, in which we recognise Skandhas for the traps they are; and one, of the Bodhisattva, in which we commit to alleviating the suffering of all sentient beings. Put another way, we have to internalize the schism that divides Buddhists. As Conze himself put it:

Buddhism has at its disposal two methods by which it reduces the sense of separateness on the part of individuals. The one is the culture of the social emotions, or sentiments, such as friendliness and compassion. The other consists in acquiring the habit of regarding whatever one thinks, feels or does as an interplay of impersonal forces--called Dharmas-- weaning oneself slowly from such ideas as ‘I’ or ‘mine’ or ‘self.’ There is a logical contradiction between the method of wisdom, which sees no persons at all, but only Dharma, and the method of the Unlimited which cultivates relations to people as persons. (Conze, 1959, pp. 128-9).

Buddhists, as far as I understand them, do not fear contradiction, reject the law of the excluded middle, though, so this ‘solution’ can be readily embraced. The result, as Conze goes on to explain, is that the task of the Buddhist is to carry on with both contradictory methods at the same time. As the method of Dharmas leads to boundless contraction of the self—because everything is emptied out of it— so the method of the Unlimited leads to a boundless expansion of the self—because one identifies oneself with more and more living beings. As the method of wisdom explodes the idea that there are any persons at all in the world, so the method of the Unlimited increased the awareness of the personal problems of more and more persons. (Conze, 1959, p. 129).

So, one way of thinking about the duality of Arhat- Bodhisattva is in terms of the duality of the path to awakening.


Before I leave this discussion of schism a couple of preliminary points need to be made. The first is that, by not authorizing any specific recitation of a sutra as his words and by not naming a successor Buddha allowed for the sorts of differences in understanding and practice that we find amongst Buddhists. But, in doing so, Buddha also removed himself as final authority whose name could be invoked to resolve an argument by supporting one interpretation against another. I must also acknowledge, as a political scientist, that I think the method for choosing successors of the Dalai Lama is quite brilliant as a way to transfer political power, though we have to be careful about the selectors and those who train the new Lama.

In being left with Buddha’s example, that of someone who has awakened to the Truth of the Four Noble Truths, we may not have two different paths between which we must always choose, rather than the apparent singularity represented by the construction of the Arhat and Bodhisattva paths as alternatives. Perhaps they are both paths to awakening, as Conze suggested (see above). Perhaps they are dual paths that cross and recross. My purpose was to address the question of schism within Buddhism. Certainly, schism is a function of the promulgation of Buddhism in different places and at different times and of mundane factors associated with leading and following, faith and religion. But it is also a way of understanding the dual paths that Buddhism seems to have manifested. I don’t know. I’m not trying to teach anyone anything here, so this seems a good place to stop.