One Dharma, Many Paths

“There are 84,000 paths to enlightenment.” This teaching expresses Shakyamuni Buddha’s understanding that individuals have their own path to enlightenment. During his forty-five years of sharing the Buddhadharma, Shakyamuni presented various practices and approaches. Buddhism in all its forms arose from these collected teachings, known as sutras.

The initial compilation of the sutras occurred a few months after the Buddha’s passing. Disciples from throughout India gathered to share what they had learned. They recited the stories and teachings of the Buddha. Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin who had traveled with him throughout the past forty-five years, verified these recollections as true. During this period, twenty-five hundred years ago, little written material existed and few could read. An oral tradition was the most efficient way to preserve and share the teachings. Thus began the still practiced tradition of chanting the sutras.

The first major division in Buddhism occurred approximately three hundred years later. Once again, disciples from throughout the Indian subcontinent gathered. Out of this gathering emerged the formation of the two major approaches to the Buddhadharma, the Hinyana, now known as Theravada, and the Mahayana school. The historical Theravada belief is that only through meditation and a monastic lifestyle is one able to attain enlightenment. This was the practice of the original disciples and as such, they felt it to be the only true path. The Mahayana school rejected this approach. They focused on the sutras in which Shakyamuni spoke of the path of compassion and the ability of all to attain enlightenment. The Dharma teachings were available to all, not just monastics. During the centuries to follow, Theravada became the primary form in southern Asia. Mahayana moved across northern Asia through China, to Korea and Japan. The two best-known forms of Mahayana Buddhism in America are Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, although the other sects are also widespread.

As Buddhism moved eastward, it constantly evolved. The Buddhadharma deals with life as it is, therefore, each new location comes with a different set of circumstances. In the various Asian countries, the local Buddhist practice often incorporated existing local beliefs and customs. This has led to many different interpretations, and sometimes distortions, of the original teachings. Now that Buddhism has come to America, the evolution continues.

In most Asian countries, only one or two forms of Buddhism exist. In America, all the traditions thrive. Drawing upon the availability of all the forms of practice, Americans are able to select the path that is best for them. However, a problem has arisen. Since Buddhism is still new to America, people can be confused and mislead by practices calling themselves “Buddhism”. The Dalai Lama had a wonderful comment on this situation. He said, “Everyone is free to believe whatever they want, however, if they call it Buddhism, it must have a basis.” This basis is the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path. All Dharma paths start with these.

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