The Different Forms of Buddhism

Information pertaining to four of Buddhism’s most prominent sects. The following is some introductory information to get you started.

  • Theravada, the most ancient form of Buddhism, is the dominant school in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, and Laos). Its name translates to “Doctrine of the Elders,” and it centers around the Pali scriptures, transcribed from the oral tradition taught by the Buddha. By studying these ancient texts, meditating, and following the eightfold path, Theravada Buddhists believe they will achieve Enlightenment. Strong emphasis is also placed on the monastic community and on heeding the advice of the wise.
  • Mahayana Buddhism developed out of the Theravada tradition roughly 500 years after the Buddha attained Enlightenment. A number of individual schools and traditions have formed under the banner of Mahayana, including Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Tantric Buddhism. Mahayana Buddhism focuses on the idea of compassion and touts bodhisattvas, which are beings that work out of compassion to liberate other sentient beings from their suffering, as central devotional figures.
  • Vajrayana was last of the three ancient forms to develop and provides a quicker path to Enlightenment than either the Theravada or Mahayana schools. They believe that the physical has an effect on the spiritual and that the spiritual, in turn, affects the physical. Vajrayana Buddhists encourage rituals, chanting, and tantra techniques, along with a fundamental understanding of Theravada and Mahayana schools, as the way to attain Enlightenment.
  • Zen Buddhism is said to have originated in China with the teachings of the monk Bodhidharma. Zen Buddhism treats zazen meditation and daily practice as essential for attaining Enlightenment and deemphasizes the rigorous study of scripture.

Because Buddhism is a system based on practice and individual experience rather than on theology or dogma, the different forms that have emerged differ less in what they believe the Buddha’s teachings to be than in how they believe Buddhism should be practiced in daily life.


Eating Gatha

In this food,
I see clearly
the entire universe
supporting my existence.

Another eating Gatha

  • This food is a gift of the entire universe – the earth, the sky and much hard work.
  • May we eat in mindfulness so as to be worthy to receive this food.

The Five Contemplations

  • This food is a gift of the entire universe – the earth, the sky and much hard work.
  • May we eat in mindfulness so as to be worthy to receive this food.
  • May we transform our unskillful states of mind and eat with moderation.
  • May we take only those foods that nourish us and prevent illness.
  • May we accept this food to realize the path of understanding and love.

Looking at your plate after eating

My plate is empty. My hunger is satisfied. May my life benefit all beings.

1 – I resolve not to kill — but to cherish all life.

This seems like an easy one; don’t kill people. But a resolve not to kill, to cherish all life, is much deeper than that. Yet, still simple.

I can easily avoiding killing people and have done so to the best of my knowledge so far. But cherishing life is not a passive thing, but instead an active one. It requires that I am a vegetarian, as taking a life for my pleasure (which is the only reason I eat animals, the pleasure of the taste, nutrition can be gained elsewhere).  It allows for eating eggs and drinking milk if I can be confident that the life of the animal isn’t one of unnecessary suffering (the images of a egg laying machinery in the movie Samsara are not easily forgotten).

And then cherishing people. All people, the ones I judge as jerks or bigots or arseholes or whatever term I use to put myself as better than them. Can I cherish all people even if it is a situation where the person is causing harm, or unskillful, or someone that I need to avoid for my health? It helps if I know that I don’t know.  Meaning I don’t know any ones full story, and until I do, my judgement about them is based on half truths through my biased opinions.


The Heart Sutra has continued to vex me since I’ve first heard it. And the reason is emptiness.

The dictionary says emptiness is:

the state of containing nothing.
“the vast emptiness of space”

the quality of lacking meaning or sincerity; meaninglessness.
“he realizes the emptiness of his statement”

But in the Mahayana tradition, emptiness is Sunyata, which refers to the tenet that “all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature”.


“Body is nothing more than emptiness, 
emptiness is nothing more than body
The body is exactly empty, 
and emptiness is exactly body.

The other four aspects of human existence — 
feeling, thought, will, and consciousness — 
are likewise nothing more than emptiness, 
and emptiness nothing more than they.

All things are empty: 
Nothing is born, nothing dies, 
nothing is pure, nothing is stained, 
nothing increases and nothing decreases”

From the Heart Sutra,

Gatha for Well Wishing

May all suffering ones be suffering free,
And the fear-struck, fearless be.
May the grieving shed all grief,
And the sick find health-relief.


Gāthā is Sanskrit for “song” or “verse” and is derived from the root word gai meaning to sing, speak or recite. Gathas come to us from several traditions including Jain, Buddhist and Zoroastrian.

Gathas in contemporary mindfulness practice are short sayings or verses – usually recited silently – that help focus our minds on the here and now. These short sayings draw our attention to the beauty and wonder of ordinary, day-to-day experiences and activities.

A Gatha is a fresh flower, a solid mountain, a child’s smile, the rising sun, a ringing bell, a bowl of berries, reflections in a tumbling stream.

Breathe in while reciting the first line; breathe out with the second line.

Present moment.
Wonderful moment.


Practice Generosity

One area where I am in need of having a better practice is when it comes to generosity. All of the rest of my practice – introspection, mindfulness, study of the dharma, etc – is all crap unless it ends up with a greater level of generosity and compassion. This is the dharma.

There have been times when I am there; when being generous was natural and done without thought. And without being spoken about. Just done.

But other times…I am too worried about my time, my to do list, my judgment, my notion about you to allow generosity to flow.

So I bring this back to the focus and remind myself and at some point perhaps it will be just a part of me instead of something I strive for.

Suffering of a cat

In finding out that there was a tiny kitten, lost and stuck in a building, we saw its suffering and took it in, giving it a home.
It must have suffered, as once it caught its breath, it has become a very affectionate and needy cat, meowing her sorrowful alone song until you come and see her. And when she sees you, she will follow you and climb on you, as if to say ‘thank you for saving me’. We have indeed reduced the kittens suffering.

In this same house, the cat that already lived there hisses and growls whenever she sees the kitten. She hides and will not come out for belly time or her good morning nudge, only appearing for treats. The cat, going from a stable home and known foundation to a new world with an animal she does not like or tolerates, has had her suffering increased.

We take an action and that action reduces suffering, and that same action increases suffering as well.

How do we navigate through such a life? If our desire is to reduce suffering, reduce unhappiness, how do we know that what we do isn’t actually just increasing suffering elsewhere?

How can one act if you know that what you will do will reduce suffering…but will increase suffering elsewhere?

Is this the path of a monk? To try to gain enough wisdom that you have a net effect of reducing suffering overall? This leads to negative mindstates of why bother and what is the point. That is the first part to be addressed, and thus, reduce our own suffering.

Do I need a teacher?

Many Buddhist suggest there is a value of having a teacher as you follow the path of Buddhism. But we have all heard of stories of teachers that have lead students astray. So, do you need a formal teacher to practice or grow in Buddhism? What is the actual value when we are already complete beings?

Some of the commentaries around the necessity of a teacher include Dogen, Japanese Buddhist priest, and founder of the Sōtō school of Zen in Japan, who is quoted as saying, “If you cannot find a true teacher, it is better not to study (Buddhism) at all”.

My own tradition, under the Recommended Reading page, starts off with the book list with this comment:

The 3 steps of starting a Zen Practice


  • Quit reading and start sitting
  • Find a teacher
  • Continue sitting


Once you have established a regular meditation practice and joined a Sanga then restart reading.


There are stories that Buddha himself was taught Buddhism on another realm prior to his birth. You may view that as the way of it or just that he became independently enlightened after interactions with the two teachers he had before he sat under a Bodhi tree.

Regardless, you’ll find the idea of value in finding a teacher prevalent in Buddhism.


Now, on the other hand, there are instances of Buddhist teachers that do more harm than good. As recently as May of this year, the Kalapa Council, the international leaders of Shambhala tradition, released a statement that said: “In our complex history there have been instances of sexual harm and inappropriate relations between members and between teachers and students. We are still emerging from a time in which such cases were not always addressed with care and skill”. Further, we can’t forget the Aum Shinrikyo cult who in 1996 used a deadly nerve gas in a Tokyo subway killing 12 people. Although these horrible examples are exceptions to the common teacher/student experience, they do lead many of us to decide to avoid the whole teacher thing altogether. We either go it alone, or with the support of internet groups, or with real-time or virtual Sanghas.


My own experience is that for many years, I was being taught by books and podcast. At a point, I realized that I needed more, and after some Sangha shopping, found peers in Open Sangha. It was and continues to be of great value; hearing many voices, sharing different views, keeping an open mind and realizing there are many dharmas, an important piece of my path.


But there got to be a point where I realized that I only studied what I wanted; since historical Buddhism was boring to me, I ignored it. Since I didn’t believe in realms of heaven and hells, I ignored all teaching around it. My mind was already set to a certain path and I created no energy to change that.


When I only did what I thought was valuable, based on my own experience and perception, I became closed to that which was outside of my narrow view. Although I would think of myself as open-minded, I was much like a political fanatic; I had my belief and it was locked in – we could discuss another view, but I was really just waiting my turn to rebuke or ignore yours.


So for me, finding a teacher was so that I broke free of having My dharma and to be reminded that there are many dharmas. That Buddhism had 2500 years of text, history, teachers, philosophies, and traditions and that there was value in seeing more than my limited vision can see. This doesn’t mean I accept all dharmas as being of value to me – I still do not believe in literal realms of heaven and hells. But the study of it, of the concept, may well lead me to understand something that does assist me. And sometimes I do feel like I am trapped on the plain of hungry ghost.


One of the first things my current teacher, Thay Z, said to me was his job isn’t to tell me what to do. He would offer advice and suggestions on occasion, but he was really doing nothing more than holding up a mirror. And to make sure that I looked at that mirror on occasion and to help me question what I saw.


Thay Z asked me about my current practice and said “that is good” or “you should do more of that” but keeps putting things back on my lap. That is to say, he guides, but it is a light touch. He didn’t say “read this book”, he sent me a box of books and then asks me what I am reading.


Another example is he never said “shave off your goatee”; what he did say was “in our order, many find it valuable” and that lead me to think about it. And in processing that, I found my ego was attached to my appearance, and decided shaving would be valuable, and did so.


Finding the right teacher for you is often a challenge.


My first teacher, I found right here in Columbus, but I wasn’t ready. Or better said, I wanted to be a monk, and thus sought out a teacher to move me along becoming a monk. I realized as we went along that my desire was incorrect, and retired from that training.


Years later, I noticed a fellow I’ve known since 2009 posting some insightful stuff on Facebook. We had a similar background and I has a good feel for who he was and that we aligned ethically. So when I saw him walking around an event in his monk’s robes, neither of us was surprised when I asked him to formally take me on as a teacher.   


Brad Warner, on finding a teacher, says

“In the end, it may come down more to instinct than anything else. When you find a good teacher you’ll have a gut feeling that he or she is right. But be very careful here not to follow your emotions because a deeply ingrained emotional response can often feel like intuition when it’s really nothing of the kind. Examine your reaction quietly. Don’t worry about your own likes or dislikes. I intensely disliked my ordaining teacher, Nishijima Roshi, when I first encountered him. Yet I knew somehow that what he was saying was right even if I hated it” (From


The Apple of Emptiness

As I continue to explore the concept of emptiness, I was struck by the Heart Sutra and the five skandhas and the line “No Form, Sound, Smell, Taste, Touch or Mind Object”. And the below story struck me.

What does an apple taste like? Your answer is incomplete.
Does a red apple taste like a green apple? Does a small apple taste the same as a large apple?
What do some apples taste like? Your answer is incomplete.
Does an apple taste the same to you that it does to someone else? Do all people like spicy food? Do all people use pepper?
What does an apple taste like to you? Your answer is incomplete.
Do you remember what the last apple tasted like? Was your answer free from what you thought it might taste like, free from how you feel about apples, free from whatever emotional state you were in – hungry or disinterested or happy?

The only way to answer what an apple taste like is to put it in your mouth and taste it.

Don’t talk with your mind full and your mouth empty.

Skandhas (Sanskrit) or khandhas (Pāḷi) means “heaps, aggregates, collections, groupings”. … The five aggregates or heaps are: form (or matter or body) (rupa), sensations (or feelings, received from form) (vedana), perceptions (samjna), mental activity or formations (sankhara), and consciousness (vijnana) –


Recently I have adopted a mantra of ‘all of my unhappiness comes from judgment’. This isn’t exactly true, but it is right, in a way. But better said would be ‘that which moves me out of equanimity is judgment’. I am not sure if I am more judgmental than other people, or I am just aware of how often I judge, but I do it constantly. I don’t see one thing – ‘car cuts me off’ – without adding a judgment to it – ‘license plate if from (fill in a state)/probably some (state-based judgment)  yokel’. ‘Car cut me off’ is a simple fact. ‘Car cut ME off’ is a thought that throws off my balance.

This is all evolving, changing, growing. Today’s words are not going to be right tomorrow. But for today….

  1. What is, is
  2. When my wanting is different from what is, my ego reacts
  3. When I judge anything, my equanimity is lost