“The two major schools of Buddhism, Theravada and the Mahayana, are to be understood as different expressions of the same teaching of the historical Buddha.”
There are four major schools of Buddhism in the United States. This is not necessarily all of the schools of Buddhism in the world. This study focuses on the United States on the assumption that most readers will live here. If you live elsewhere, and/or know of schools other than the ones I discuss here, by all means explore them. In examining schools of Buddhism, it is worthwhile to know that people do make stuff up and that lineages with the longest verifiable histories are the most reliable. Remember, Buddhism is a tradition that is older than Christianity, so any school that claims to be part of it should be able to trace its roots back quite a way.
The most basic division among the schools is between Theravadan and Mahayana schools. Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism and Zen are both Mahayana schools. The Theravadans claim to adhere most closely to the Pali Canon. One of many good things about Buddhism is that Buddhists from different schools do not snipe at or argue with Buddhists from other schools. You will routinely hear Theravadan teachers refer to texts and teachers from both Zen and Vajrayana traditions, and vice versa. Chogyam Trungpa, a major Vajrayana figure, had enormous respect for Zen Buddhism. As we have seen, the only litmus test the Dalai Lama has is recognition of the Four Noble Truths as a central teaching. So, pick a school you like, using whatever criteria you choose, but do not think your school is any better than anyone else’s or that you have any reason to criticize anyone else’s choice. The kind of mental habits that lead us to argue over such things are precisely what we’re trying to get rid of.
Mahayana Buddhists rely on the Pali Canon as well, of course, since it is the primary repository of what we know about what the Buddha himself said, but they also rely on additional, Mahayana texts from subsequent teachers. Mahayana Buddhists also recognize figures other than Shakyamuni Buddha as Buddhas. If one accepts Shakyamuni’s claim that his achievement is possible for any sentient creature, it only makes sense that other persons in 2,600 years would also make it that far.
As we saw in discussing the question of seeking a guru, Tibetan Vajrayana practitioners emphasize heavily the need for a guru. We noted that our exemplary Tibetan Buddhist, Sogyal Rinpoche, revered his primary teacher as a guru and claims to have witnessed him perform miracles. This is partly explicable by reference to the fact that Vajrayana is an esoteric tradition, meaning that the highest achievements in it depend on transmission of secret knowledge that only the guru possesses. Again, we contrasted a Buddhist guru to me as a history professor noting that, on principle, all of the knowledge I impart in a history class is readily available elsewhere, mostly in the nearest library (assuming the nearest library is a research library). In the esoteric, Vajrayana tradition, you can practice until you’re blue in the face, but you won’t achieve complete liberation, you won’t enlightenment fully, until/unless you have a guru give you the secret transmission. Whether you choose to believe that is up to you.
Interestingly, on the one hand, as a historical question, we have put Vajrayana and Zen together in the Mahayana school of Buddhism. On the other hand, we also contrasted Sogyal Rinpoche’s reverence for his guru with Zen practitioner Brad Warner’s irreverence toward everything, and his bald claim that Buddhism is about not needing any authority figure at all. As Alan Watts makes clear in his important book, The Way of Zen, Zen Buddhism is really a Taoist cake with Buddhist icing on it. Zen’s emphasis on subverting ordinary rational processes and accumulated intellectual and emotional habits to achieve experience with the least possible mediation militates strongly against any claim of esoteric knowledge. Again, Warner respects his first Zen teacher and likes him, but he also makes very clear that he never expects to receive any secret transmission from him.
Thereavadan teachers fall out somewhere in the middle on this issue. On the one hand, like Zen teachers, they are quite happy to teach whoever comes along (as are Vajrayana teachers — you will get a warm welcome at any Vajrayana Buddhist center as a beginner, but they may reserve certain teachings for practitioners who have met some prerequisites) absolutely anything and everything they know. And, unlike Warner’s Zen teacher, they put no store at all in apparently deliberately frustrating their students as part of subverting their habitual thought processes.
The outlier among U.S. Buddhist schools is Pure Land, which veers closest to Christianity in putting enormous emphasis on faith in the figure of Amitabha Buddha, focusing attention on him by chanting his name in the hope of being reborn in the Pure Land where humans enjoy relief from the besetting disappointments and distractions that prevent complete enlightenment in this lifetime. Pure Land, thus, more than any of the other schools, requires a faith that is closer to the faith of Christianity and posits a specific figure who operates more nearly like the Christ figure in Christianity, although not exactly. Pure Land is still distinctively Buddhist in part in that it assumes reincarnation in the Pure Land as the operative goal for humans. Unlike the salvation of Christianity, rebirth in the Pure Land is an interim step. Pure Land is much like the god realm we discussed earlier in being a much easier place than the human realm, but differs in being a place that enables, rather than inhibiting, complete enlightenment.
Given his fame as a spiritual rock star, you may wish to know about which school the Dalai Lama represents. Obviously, he is Tibetan. Tibetan Buddhism has four schools. The Dalai Lama is a member of the Gelugpa school. The other three are Nyigma, Kagyu, and Sakya. All of them have living leaders whose names may become almost as familiar as that of the Dalai Lama if you pay attention to Tibetan Buddhism. The differences among these schools consist of extremely fine distinctions of theory and practice that you can explore for yourself if you have the interest.
A specific school of Tibetan Buddhism that is mostly Kagyu, but has some affinity for Nyingma as well, and is of particular interest because it is Tibetan Buddhism transplanted very deliberately in the United States is the Shambhala lineage. The founder of Shambhala Buddhism was Chogyam Trungpa, who was born in Tibet and, like the Dalai Lama, escaped after the Chinese invaded. Unlike the Dalai Lama, Chogyam Trungpa traveled first to England, where he abandoned his monk’s robes and married an English girl, then eventually traveled to the United States, where he founded Naropa University and a Buddhist lineage that now has centers all over the world. According to Tibetan tradition, Trungpa was a tulku, meaning he was the reincarnation of a previous, famous teacher. The same is true of the Dalai Lama. Trungpa was somewhat controversial during his lifetime, and he died relatively young, but not before establishing his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, as his successor.
So, Buddhists do not fight among themselves over which school is best. Choose a school that makes sense to you. Proximity to a center is a perfectly reasonable basis for choosing a school. If you want to rely on more abstract criteria, whether a school relies exclusively on the original Buddhist texts (Theravada), or adds in texts that come from historically subsequent teachers (Mahayana), or just doesn’t much address the issue (Pure Land) is one you might use. Whether you feel you would benefit from interaction with a guru (Vajrayana) or not (Zen, or Theravadan, which has many teachers, none of whom represents her/himself as a guru), is another. Although there are no rules on the issue, it is likely a good idea to pick a school and stick with it. Although they all overlap significantly, at least in recognizing the Four Noble Truths as core teaching, they also differ significantly, and each is a more or less self-contained, internally consistent system. Again, the idea is to adopt a worldview that changes you fundamentally, and although they all aim at the same goal, their means of getting there vary sufficiently that starting down one path, only to hop over to another, may at a minimum retard your progress and may, at a maximum, cause significant confusion.