Sects vs. Schools

Casual observers in the West tend to have a romanticized view of Buddhism. The popular notion is that Buddhism is an easy-going religion with a focus on mediation, karma, and reincarnation. All of these things are true, of course. But this is a grossly simplistic view that ignores the more nuanced and/or controversial aspects of the faith. There are, for example, Buddhist fundamentalists in Sri Lanka who persecute Muslims. 20th-century Japanese militarism was given both support and social credibility by certain influential Zen priests. There have been periods in Chinese history where certain Buddhist leaders exerted political influence to harass and persecute rival monks or teachers. My point, of course, is not that Buddhism is “bad” or somehow flawed. Quite the contrary. Rather, that Buddhism does not somehow make its adherents magically moral, unselfish, and non-violent. One must put the tenets of the faith into practice in order to cultivate a compassionate mindset and nature. The same is true of any religious faith.

Even recognizing that Buddhism — in the abstract — is not some cure-all for spiritual malaise, I do believe that there are some aspects of Buddhist thought that are potentially instructive for Western religionists. One aspect worth pondering is the general Buddhist approach to mediating opposing views. There is no central authority in Buddhism and while some forms of Buddhism — most notably Tibetan Buddhism whose spiritual leader is the Dalai Llama — emphasize the role of clergy-as-authority, Buddhist thought is generaly anathema to any strident commitment to abstract belief and notions of authority. This lack of central control has two primary effects. First, it creates an environment where the fundamentals of Buddhist thought (the Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Dependent Origination, etc.) can be molded an adapted to fit both culture and time without losing or diluting any core aspects of the ideas themselves. As a result, Buddhism has been incredibly successful and popular across diverse cultures. When the first Indian Buddhists brought the religion to China it was not simply picked up wholesale by new Chinese adherents. Rather, the fundamental ideas of Buddhism were adopted and modified to complement existing Chinese social mores and religious attitudes.

The second effect arising from a lack of central authority is what I would describe — quite broadly — as a level of respect and acceptance even in the face of serious doctrinal disagreement. Such respect is reflected in the plethora of Buddhist schools. Differing positions within the Sangha on the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings began even before the Buddha’s death. And, in the simplest terms, when those positions diverged sufficiently, new schools emerged. The most significant division within Buddhist thought is reflected in the differing of the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Theravada is the first of all Buddhist schools and keepers of the Pali Canon, the oldest Buddhist scriptures. Not surprisingly, Theravada Buddhism is more conservative and more philosophically dualistic than is Mahayana. Mahayana came much later than Theravada and was an attempt to demonstrate that despite their surface differences, Mahayana (the great vehicle) and Theravada (Hinayana, or lesser vehicle) teach the same fundamental Dharma.

This isn’t to say that differing Buddhist schools are not critical of one another. The very name of “lesser vehicle” Mahayana Buddhists applied to Theravada is itself a critique, albeit delivered politely. One of my favorite Buddhist scholars is a Western-born Theravada monk. In this monk’s writings — especially when commenting on the Pali Canon — arguments for the correctness of Theravada views are confidently put forward. And while other Buddhist traditions are not mentioned by name is is quite obvious that this monk takes exception to broad Mahayana views of enlightenment and especially Japanese Zen-inspired metaphysics. He does not condemn these views but instead demonstrates his position that certain doctrines are well-supported by the Pali Canon while other — and generally later — views are not. Such differences go well beyond mere semantics. The difference in metaphysical outlook could not be more stark between some of the largest and most well-known Buddhist traditions.

But when we refer to our fellow religionists as beloning to a separate “school” as opposed to a competing “sect” we communicate both respect and an acknowledgment of legitimacy. Neither of which imply agreement. Of course, in the Eastern traditions such an approach is made easier by the foundational cosmology and the near-complete absence of eschatology. But at the same time, the disagreements between Christians — disagreements so severe as to cause schisms and animosity even to the point of violence — tend to be about issues considered central to the Christian faith much the same way as fundamental disagreements give rise to various Buddhist schools. And yet in the West, our impulse is to divide and delegitimize — as if our preferred view is the only acceptable one. How arrogant! How insulting to the very idea of an emenent God.

Of course, in Protestantism sects are generally considered “schools” by other Protestants. The Methodists, for example, fully accept Anglicans as fellow Christians. Baptists accept the Assemblies of God. Only the most radical of Protestants would claim Catholics are not real Christians. Just as only the most radical — and I would argue completely misguided — Buddhists persecute Muslims.

I just can’t help but think that religious dialogue in the West could be improved by simply dropping the idea of sects and embracing the notion of schools.