There is a lot of division, and even derision, in the Buddhist world. And I plan on contributing divisive perspectives and sarcasm as much as I can. See, I’m asshole enough to argue that there is only One True Buddhism, and that’s the one based on the Buddha’s actual words.
It seems to me that the Pali Canon, which is purported to be the words of the Buddha himself, is by far the clearest and most understandable of all the ancient Buddhist writings. I base this on the fact that I can understand the Pali Canon, and I can’t understand the “other stuff,” you know, the Mahayana Sutras. I never claimed to be the best reader in the world, but give me a break. I have a masters degree. I know bullshit when I read it.
There was a 300 year gap between the Buddha’s sermons and their recording, and I have heard that as an excuse for looking askance at the contents of the Pali Canon. But it is not that much of a stretch to believe that disciplined monks couldn’t pass this wisdom down pretty much verbatim for three centuries, since that was what their whole lives were about. Many cultures had oral traditions that survived for thousands of years before being written down.
But whereas the Pali Canon is unsullied by the geopolitics of the eras in which other “holy” Buddhist writings were accomplished, the Pali Canon, for millennia, has been sneered at and looked down upon by the Chinese and Japanese and Tibetans and Westerners who have come up with their own “Dharmas” suitable for supporting the elites against the common masses. Buddhism didn’t come full circle and return to its simple, egalitarian roots until the Chan/Zen movement, which I have been told was started in rebellion to the doctrines of the more bull-shitty incarnations of Mahayana Buddhism. There is even a Buddhism with an eternal heaven called “Pure Land” Buddhism. If you’re into religion, go be a Christian or a Muslim. There is no heaven in Buddhism.
Seriously. There is more than one story about Westerners who yearned to follow the path and studied Buddhism at the Tibetan temples of Dharmasala, India for years, took vacations to sit with the Theravada monks of Sri Lanka, and never returned to Dalai Lama land. Tibetans worship deities. Fuck deities.
Think of Theravada Buddhism as the “mother church,” stern, insisting on the renunciation of sense-pleasures. Reformed in the 20th Century, there are plenty of demigods, heavens and hells in the Theravada belief system – none of it taken seriously. Some Mahayana Buddhists lost those parts of Dhamma they didn’t like (like “don’t think with your dick”) and replaced them with Hindu “tantra,” creating a “Buddhism” of self-indulgence, especially sexually. Theravada, the “Keepers of the Pali Canon,” known as “The Way of the Elders,” is primarily practiced in Sri Lanka and most of Southeast Asia/Indochina (Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand). Vietnam has its own Zen that is very rooted in the principles of the Pali Canon.
I’ve been writing about Buddhism for fifteen years, and as such, must eat, live with, sleep with, and constantly study Buddhism. And it has been my intention (read my book!) to take stuff that is kind of hard to understand at first, and make it easy to understand. That’s why I write for lunks. See, if you can read it and understand it, then you don’t need geshes and other guys in funny hats to explain it to you. The wise man on the mountaintop might be sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck, drinking a beer.
The Pali Canon is the gospel of truth. It’s a big book (The Dhammapada), like, Bible big. (The Tipitaka is enormous, and the Dhammapada is only a volume in it.) But unlike either the Bible or the enormous collection of “Sutras” purported to be authentic Buddhist wisdom (and to be fair, most of it is wisdom), you can read the Dhammapada because it’s easy to understand. Not most of that other stuff!
Alas, there is not much Theravada Buddhism available in the U.S., and what there is, tends to be ethnocentric. It depends on community size. Most common would be Thai temples and monasteries, less so Burmese, Cambodian, Laotian, and Sri Lankan. And certainly don’t write off the Vietnamese. The vast majority of Temple congregants are Asian, but they draw earnest Americans as well who are not adverse to swapping skills, or money, of course, for wisdom. In Tibetan temples they start hitting you up for money as soon as you walk through the door.
But it’s also not as rare as you’d think. The proprietors of Thai restaurants are good people to ask if you want to link up with a Theravadan monk. And a relationship with a monk or two can make all the difference in the world if it is your intention to benefit from the wisdom of the Buddha.
But Buddhism doesn’t come to you, there are no hellfire and brimstone monks standing on street corners admonishing strangers not to kill or harm any sentient beings. You have to go to Buddhism. Seek and ye shall find. If what you might encounter seems fishy to you, it probably is fishy, and if it seems snobby to you, it probably is snobby. Not Buddhist by definition.
If you want it bad enough you might want to take two or three months off and volunteer to teach English at a temple in Theravada country, in exchange for wisdom. They’ll feed you and give you a bunk to sleep in, but malaria prevention might be on your own. Don’t expect travel expenses. For that matter, don’t expect air conditioning, refrigeration, flush toilets or toilet paper.
Miracles (i.e., paradigm shifts) happen in the jungle. If you cannot renounce fucking your wife for 90 days, and do something of benefit for awhile, then you are not meant to follow the Way of the Elders. There is a Great White Sangha waiting for you over with the Tibetans, out in the burbs.