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Is Buddhism One or Many?

In our experience, most individuals who assert that Buddhism is one are generally
not well informed or are secret (or in some cases open) advocates of hippyism!
Accordingly, the preferred scholarly position appears to be that there are many
Buddhisms. In terms of the superficial form that Buddhism assumes within a
particular culture, time, and geographic region, this assertion is perfectly true. For
example, Theravada Buddhism is prevalent throughout South East Asian countries
(e.g., Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma) and places emphasis on following the original
word of the historical Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism, which originated several
hundred years after Theravada Buddhism, is prevalent throughout East Asia (e.g.,
Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam) and places emphasis on compassionate activity
and the non-dual or empty nature of phenomena. Vajrayana Buddhism didnt
become popular until around the 7th Century and is associated with Himalayan
plateau countries such as Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Mongolia (and to a lesser extent
Japan). Compared to Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism
places greater emphasis on sacred outlook, the bond between teacher (or guru)
and student, and on various esoteric practices. Schools representing all three
Buddhist vehicles (i.e., Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) are present in the West
where to admittedly differing degrees they continue to embody the teachings and
practices of their source traditions.
Despite these differences between Buddhist vehicles (and even between the various
schools that comprise a particular vehicle), we would argue that it is still possible
from an informed/scholarly position, to assert that Buddhism is one. Such an
assertion is based on the fact that all authentic Buddhist lineages teach methods that
ultimately lead to the same result. Furthermore, most of these methods are intended
to directly or indirectly foster insight into core Buddhist principles such as suffering,

impermanence, and non-self. In essence, suffering is suffering whether you approach

it from a Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana perspective. The same applies to
impermanence and non-self. Another good example is the trishiksha principle
(Sanskrit for the three trainings; Pali: tisso-sikkha) that incorporates the three
trainings of wisdom, meditation, and ethical awareness. These three trainings form
the foundations of any authentic Buddhist path, regardless of what geographical
region or historical period it originates from.
The essential point is that the different Buddhist vehicles and their respective
traditions work with many of the same underlying principles, which they reconstitute
and teach in different ways. Furthermore, it is our experience that the further a
teacher or practitioner advances along the path of spiritual awareness, the more they
start to see similarities between the various Buddhist paths (as well as between
Buddhist and non-Buddhist paths). Perhaps this is because the teachings are
equivalent to a finger that points to the moon, but they are not the moon itself. In
other words, there are some underlying truths of reality and the diverse spiritual
teachings are methods of introducing discerning individuals to these truths.
Whenever a realised spiritual being expounds the Buddhist teachings, they provide
individuals with an entirely new path of practice. It is completely new compared to
that which has gone before because it is being taught by a different teacher, to
different students, and in a different period of time. However, although it is a new
path, it is really just a manifestation of a universal path that, as one of its defining
features, has the ability to assume new forms according to the prevailing conditions.
A suitable analogy to explain this principle might be that of a chameleon lizard that
changes its colour and complexion according to its surroundings. The chameleon
can display many different colours, but it is always the same chameleon.
Our view is that the most profound Vajrayana practices are implicit within the
simplest of Buddhist teachings, such as the discourse on the four noble truths.
Likewise, we believe that Theravada Buddhism, when correctly understood and
practiced, can, in particular circumstances, introduce spiritually ripe individuals to
what are generally regarded to be Vajrayana or tantric meditative attainments. Within
Buddhism, there are different interpretations of how to effectively practice spiritual
development, but in essence, they represent variations on the same theme.
Consequently, it is possible to make a credible argument that Buddhism is many, but
it is possible to credibly argue that it is one.
Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading
Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Mindfulness and
wellbeing: Towards a unified operational approach. In: I. Ivtzan, & T. Lomas (Eds).
Mindfulness in Positive Psychology: The Science of Meditation and Wellbeing (pp. 280-292).
Oxford: Routledge.
Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). (2015). Buddhist Foundations of
Mindfulness. New York: Springer.
Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6,
Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of
Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion
and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.
Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Buddhist emptiness theory:
Implications for psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, DOI:
Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). There is only
one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, 6,
Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). Mindfulness and
the Four Noble Truths. In: E. Shonin, W. Van Gordon, & N. N. Singh (Eds). Buddhist
Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 9-27). New York: Springer.