By John Lee Pendall
There are so many different styles of Buddhism that can be practiced. What type of Buddhism is right for you?
I’ve been practicing Buddhism for five years now, which isn’t really all that long. For the most part, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I probably still don’t, really.
It’s mostly been a lot of research, diligent practice, taking advice from Dharma friends, and—above all else—trial and error. I practice on my own without a teacher, so that’s the demographic I write for. That’s who this article is for.
There have been thousands of different Buddhist schools throughout the years, but the big four these days are (from the most pragmatic to the most fantastic): Theravada, Zen, Pure Land, and Vajrayana. There’s also Nichiren Buddhism, but I recommend steering clear of that. It’s pretty much The Secret meets Buddhadharma with a hint of world domination, and the proselytizing zeal of Jehovah’s Witnesses thrown in for good measure.
Here are some rule of thumb stereotypes to point you toward a path that might suit you well:
If you like straightforward teachings that avoid fluff and metaphysics, and are reportedly closer to the Buddha’s actual teachings, then you might enjoy Theravada. If you’ve got a Zen streak in you, I’d recommend the Thai Forest Tradition. Maybe all of that applies to you, but you’re allergic to words like karma, and you’re also really interested in the science behind practice. If so, then check out Secular Buddhism.
Do you have a poetic side? Do you dig deep shit like nonduality, the Tao, esoteric poetry or the Original Unborn Mind? Do you like riddles, paradoxes, mind-blowing insights and open awareness? If so, then you might enjoy Zen. For the gentle heart, Soto is the way to go. If you have a more balls-to-the-wall approach to things, then Rinzai.
Zen was my entrance into Buddhism, and there’s a lot to say about it, but nothing that can really be said about it. It’s deceptively simple, so much so that it’s easy to make it into something complicated.
If you’re interested in Buddhism, but feel like the teachings are impossible to actualize in such a degenerate age, then you might vibe with Pure Land.
Pure Land Buddhism could also be a great for you if you’re coming to Buddhism from a theistic background and don’t want to give up on God. In Pure Land, your deity is Amitabha Buddha, and the practice involves reciting his mantra so that you can be reborn in his kingdom after death. Many modern Chinese Zen (Chan) practitioners also practice Pure Land, but they usually take it as a metaphor for the awakened mind.
Vajrayana (also called Tantrayana and Tibetan Buddhism) is a whole bunch of different Tibetan Buddhist lineages, and they’re all a little different. What I like about Vajrayana is that it considers all Buddhist schools to be valid skillful means, with each one serving as a stepping stone to the next. But, of course, the end of the Path just so happens to be whichever lineage you’re practicing with.
You might vibe with Vajrayana if you’re into chants, mantras, psychedelic visualizations, other-worldly deities, astral bodies, cosmic consciousness, quantum physics, and mind-bending philosophies.
And, I guess, if you want a new car, a better job, a BJ from a super model, or maybe enlightenment, check out Nichiren. Mind you that, in Nichiren, everything bad that happens to you in life is your fault due to the harmful karma you’ve generated. That includes headaches, losing your job, getting mugged in an alley, or having your house demolished by a tornado.
As a former Catholic, I’ve gotta admit that the opportunity to keep my guilt and self-loathing alive and practice Buddhism at the same time is a little bit enticing.
You can practice any type of Buddhism you like; you can even mix-and-match.
But, if you’re interested in Zen or Vajrayana, a lot of people are gonna press you to find a teacher. There are good reasons for that. With Theravada and Secular Buddhism, the information is so upfront and laid out clearly in books that you pretty much just need to study, and then find the motivation to do the work.
With Zen and Vajrayana, things get a little trickier because a lot of the things you’ll study require a special decoder ring to understand. That’s hyperbole, but it isn’t too far from the truth. Vajrayana is especially anal about you needing a guru. In fact, a huge part of the practice involves guru veneration. Just be on the lookout for groping.
Pure Land is pretty easy to understand and put into practice on your own, even though the Sutras (Buddhist scriptures) that the school is based on are pretty hard to follow without some general knowledge of Mahayana Buddhism.
Now here are some honorable mentions for styles of Buddhism:
Yogacara is a dead Buddhist school that sought to bridge the gap between the early teachings and the later ones. The focus is on the mind and subjective experience, progressive practice through different stages, and the non-separation between experiencer and experienced. Some of the Yogacarin teachings are still around, though. You’ll find them scattered about in Zen, Pure Land, and Vajrayana—albeit in distorted forms.
Philosophical Taoism is Zen Buddhism without the Buddhism.
The two main texts are the Tao Te Ching and the teachings of Chuang-tzu. The Tao Te Ching came about in China at roughly the same time Buddha was teaching in India and Nepal. Unless you have a New Age flair, I’d stay away from anything else, though. Taoism got pretty funky later on, and Funky Taoism is what’s continued on to this day.
If you’re just starting to practice, I recommend looking for a book or website that gives introductions to all the extant Buddhist schools. Do some research into the main texts each one relies on and check them out. If you still don’t know which direction you want to go, you can treat Buddhism like you would a degree at a university: spend some time learning about each one and practicing the practices before moving onto the next. After Zen, I went to the early schools and then worked my way to the most recent ones.
It’s definitely important to settle at some point, though. It’s impossible to practice effectively when you’re moving around from one school/method/doctrine to another, because that’s pretty much just another form of mind wandering.
A wandering mind is a miserable mind.
You’ll eventually have to put down roots somewhere and stick with it through thick and thin if you want to make any worthwhile progress. The challenge is finding which type of Buddhism both suits you and challenges you at the same time. It has to attract you in some way, but it can’t fit like a glove either because that can make us lazy.
I eventually settled with the early teachings. I’m an intellectual, so Zen and Vajrayana were both way too attractive to me, way too easy for me to get distracted by theories. So, I turned around and went the opposite way, depriving myself of big philosophies and instead focusing on down-to-earth perspectives.
It’s all very confusing, going it alone.
You’ve gotta know yourself, know your habits and hangups; know when to grab hold of something and when to let it go. It takes a lot of mistakes to get the hang of it, and a high tolerance for criticism helps too.
Mostly, it’s vital that we don’t lie to ourselves or take the easy road just because it’s easy.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".