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Buddhists/Schools of Buddhism



I have long been interested in Buddhism and am looking in to attending classes.  There are classes in various schools where I live and was wondering if you could give me a brief summary of the differences between the 3 main schools of Buddhism.

Thanks for your help!

Hi Brittany,
I cannot give you a description of the other schools of Buddhism.  You should ask those who promote those schools to describe their own school and then you decide what you want.  It’s like asking a Christian what a Christian is, you will find a belief in Christ as a commonality but you will find many other strong and striking differences.  I’ve had evangelical Christians tell me that Catholics are not Christian.  So you will find the same thing in Buddhism, some people not agreeing that others are following or practicing it correctly.

 Zen is perhaps the most distilled version of Buddhism in that it’s emphasis is not in the study of Buddhism but to realize what the historical Buddha himself realized.  It is said that Zen is that which is ‘not relying on words or letters’.  What that means is that Zen is not at all interested in the study of Buddhism but in the awakening of the individual through whatever means possible.  There is a sutra in Buddhism called the poison arrow sutra and the crux of it is this:  there are two men hit by a poison arrow, one wants to know who shot it, what the poison is composed of and the design of the arrow and the other just wants to get the arrow out.  This is the difference between Zen and the other schools of Buddhism.  Zen is not concerned with history, ritual or doctrine but want to bring the individual to the point of awakening, here and now.  Zen began with Bodhidharma.
   Bodhidharma was a Brahman who brought Buddhism to China in about 520 A.D.  He is called the wall gazing Brahman and the first Patriarch of Zen.  In the story of Bodhidharma a man approaches him one day by the name of Hui ka.  Hui ka came to Bodhi’s cave and waited for the monk to accept him.  As the legend goes he stood there for days but the Brahman did not come forth.  It started snowing and the snow reached Hui’s waist and finally Bodhi came out and asked, “ What is it you want?”  To that Hui replied ‘ My heart mind is not at ease’ (I have great existential anxiety).  Bodhi replied “ the way is long and difficult’.  With that Hui took out his sword and chopped off his left arm and handed it to Bodhi.  This obviously symbolizes the great dedication that he had to solving his problem.  With that Bodhi says he will accept him and asks again “ what is your problem?”  Hui replies “ My heart/mind is not at ease”.  Then Bodhi replies, “ Hand it to me that I may pacify it”.  With that Hui realized the true self and was awakened.  
  Please note here that Bodhidharma did not tell him to meditate, chant, pray or to do any other technique and he is the founder of Zen.  What he did do was to tell Hui to face himself, here and now in the immediate and present the source of his problem.  This forced Huikka to see that he himself was the problem.  Now it is obvious in this story that Hui had gone through an arduous process of searching to reach the point of such extremity that his concept of self would be shattered by Bodhi’s words.  Bodhi wanted him to open his eyes to himself and the process that his mind was creating.  It is the object of Zen to stop the ruminations of the mind, to answer the question “who is it that seeks” above all other questions first.  This is not done by ritual or chanting or any other device but by a deep and profound inquiry of the individual to the point that he realizes that the very act of searching itself is self-defeating.  This is the point where we realize that we ourselves are the problem and we reach the paradox of self overcoming self to become awakened.  The first of the eightfold path is right thought and it’s extremely important to understand that we must realize with every fiber in our body that the mind cannot realize awakening and yet may be the vehicle to that realization.  Awakening cannot be contingent upon body posture or chanting or any other particular physical manifestation but any one of those things might trigger it.  Historically in Zen those on the path have been so involved with answering their own existential dilemma or natural koan that anything can trigger awakening when the moment is ripe.  This is why you have stories of monks or laymen becoming awakened when a bird chirps, a bell rings, rock hits bamboo or keys drop.  Any one of these things was at the right moment in the striving of the individual.
   It seems other schools of Buddhism, including some Zen schools, are concerned with teaching ritual and doctrine as the way so you will find disagreement here too.  For Zen the crux should be ‘who is asking the question”?
    I hope this has helped you.  
Take care,


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Joe McSorley


I can answer questions dealing with Taoist philosophy and Zen and not the historicity and religion of Buddhism and its different schools. I studied under Dr. Richard DeMartino and Masao Abe of the Kyoto School of Zen.

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