I tried ditching Buddhism altogether, but I couldn’t shake it. Buddhadharma had become my lens for understanding myself and the world. I didn’t have anything without it—no purpose, no passion. 


By Johnathon Lee

After studying Buddhism, from its start to modern times, I paused and asked, “Wtf?” 

Putting it nicely, Buddhism is a diverse religion. Putting bluntly: it’s hopelessly fragmented. It’s like if someone broke a vase, put it back together with gold, but mismatched all of the pieces first so that it isn’t remotely vase-like anymore.

Nevermind that I kind of want to try that now; let’s proceed.  

I entered Buddhism through Soto Zen a little over 10 years ago. The Sangha proved to be a bit toxic. Members competed with one another for the Priest’s approval. They spread rumors about each other. There was even a public pissing contest between the Priest and one of his Dharma brothers from another school. 

The last straw was when a member of the Sangha announced that they were dying of cancer, and that this would be their last zazenkai with us. The Sangha met this announcement with what amounted to thin sympathy cards. The Priest was, as usual, aloof and of little comfort as well. It’s as if they were trying to be Zen, or at least their idea of what Zen looks like. 

I was disgusted by all of this. Where was the good side of humanity? Where was the human connection between fellow sufferers? Where was the compassion, the willingness to feel another’s pain? 

I left in a quiet huff, biting back a tide of vulgarities and keeping my pointing finger in my pocket. “There’s no way that that’s Buddhism,” I thought. 

Next, I started practicing with a sort of universalist Zen lineage, an American experiment still in its infancy. 

My teacher and I mostly communicated through letters, which I enjoyed. There were other students, but no virtual sits. He lavished praise on me many times, which I found a bit odd, but it did feel validating. 

I was kicked out of that tradition for smoking weed. Well, technically I was kicked out for being honest about smoking weed. He dropped me right in the middle of intensive koan practice. I felt disorientated after that. I couldn’t stop the method, nor could I proceed on my own.

Please don’t drop a student during koan work, no matter what they do. Actually, just don’t drop a student… ever. Either they’ll “graduate” or leave on their own. Do not abandon them. Not even if they murder someone. 

Full of angst, I was taken on by a Vajrayana teacher. He helped me a lot, and guided me through the initiation practices. 10,000 prostrations feels more like 100,000. I should sue Buddhism and pizza for my current state of physical decay. Anyway, he abandoned teaching to focus on politics and his business. 

Then I made my way to Chan Buddhism, practicing with a teacher in Xuyun’s lineage.

I loved it. It felt like home. However, politics reared its head again, and then my teacher decided to leave the school and join another. The priests invited me to stay, but I just didn’t have it in me. My loyalty is to people, not institutions.

All of that happened in the span of four years or so, and it left me with a deep mistrust of Buddhist teachers and institutions. I’m anti-authoritian by nature, and it took a lot for me to fight that inclination. 

I tried ditching Buddhism altogether, but I couldn’t shake it. Buddhadharma had become my lens for understanding myself and the world. I didn’t have anything without it—no purpose, no passion. 

I’m a voracious reader, so I decided that the best way to understand Buddhism was to study every text that I could get my hands on.

I created a kind of self-paced curriculum, where I’d start with the Pali Canon and work my way to contemporary works. 

Studying isn’t enough on its own. To understand a text, you have to live the text—read it, take notes, ask questions and research answers, practice the methods it teaches, and accept it as it is. There’s no room for criticism in the first read. Leave your baggage outside the cover and approach it with an open, empathetic mind. Then, once you’re finished with it, you can analyze and critique it. If you do that first, then you’ll wind up analyzing ideas that aren’t really in the text at all.

You’ll reject it before you even know what you’re rejecting. 

Using this method, I went through the Suttas in the Pali Canon one by one, then all of the Sanskrit Canon I could find. Then I went through texts from Madhyamaka and Yogacara. This lead naturally into Vajrayana. Later, I backtracked and went through Chan and it’s derivatives: Zen, Seon and Thien. I had a quick stop in Pure Land and Nichiren before following Suzuki to the States. Then I tackled modern works from Theravada, Vajrayana and Zen teachers before exploring Secular and Engaged Buddhism. 

There were also some side quests into Daoism and Advaita Vedanta since they were in dialogue with Buddhism. 

I became whatever I was studying, even if it was a dead school (most of them are).

You can’t know something adequately by being outside it. You have to be it. Then you can lift the box and let what you’ve learned join with the whole. How does it fit? What did all of that lead to? Well, something kind of disappointing: there’s no such thing as Buddhism. There is no internal coherency or absolute foundation. 

Buddhism is the result of people arguing, for thousands of years, about what Buddhism is.

Some apologists tried to save the day with the idea of “skillful means,” and the “Three Turnings of the Wheel,” but there’s no reason to accept that as definitive, especially since everyone who used those ideas was trying to legitimize their own views while belittling others. 

Buddhism splintered shortly after it began. Separate schools were developing even before the Second Council and its huge schism. 

Rather than being a single religion, Buddhism is more like a family of religions, like the Abrahamic faiths or Hellenistic philosophies. There’s no consensus about anything whatsoever, with some schools giving polar opposite views. 

Christianity, by comparison, is more like a genus than a family. There are different species, sort of speak, but they share enough common doctrines to all be identifiably Christian.

Buddhism isn’t like that. It’s a family with genuses within it, with each one full of different species. The one thing that they all have in common is that they claim Siddhartha Gautama as a common ancestor. That’s it. 

Who he was, what he taught, what he meant, what the Sangha is, all of that varies from school to school to the point that some traditions barely resemble the ones they sprang from. 

I’ve never seen a religion so fragmented, and yet still so dedicated to the idea of one true way.

I think that this remarkable diversity comes from one simple fact: Buddha didn’t claim to be a god. 

The earliest teachings, which all of the rest are interpretations and rebuttals to, place empiricism center stage with the promise that, if you do X, you will get Y. Then we’re encouraged to see for ourselves. 

A teaching like that is going to create a diverse movement full of disagreements and divergence because everyone’s different. When there’s no divinely revealed text to point to for authority, debate becomes a generative force (despite early Buddhist texts criticizing debate). 

It’s still happening to this day, and it’ll keep happening until we’re overthrown by robots. 

With all of this in mind, it’s wrong speech to say, “Buddha said X,” or, “In Buddhism, Y.” It’s far better to think of each text as a thing in-itself with its own Buddha. “The Lankavatara Buddha said X,” “The Metta Buddha said Y.” 

We need to give up the idea of a definitive, historical source and accept the reality: all we have are books, and each book is a different Buddha. 

This realization can put to rest 2600 years of in-fighting and schism. Theravada is not the original teaching, Mahayana is not superior, and Secular Buddhism is not focused on the real Buddha. 

There is no original teaching, no superior or inferior schools, and no historical Buddha to be found. There are books, and there are the methods and traditions that we’ve derived from them. 

There are more Buddhist books than anyone can ever read, and each one has something unique to say.

If you study them a certain way, and follow their advice, you can practice with 10,000 Buddhas. 


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


Did you like this post? You may also like:

What is Buddhism?

As the Wheel Spins: Buddhism Shifting Throughout the Ages