One Dharma or Many?
Buddhism has proliferated in the world by changing and integrating other cultures and religions. As it moved from India eastward, it was influenced by Taoism and Confucianism in China, by Shinto in Japan, and Bon in Tibet. Now Buddhism has arrived in the West. In many cases the traditions from the East have been imported and replicated here, but as Westerners practice and also lead these communities, is a new form of Buddhism emerging? Is there a Western dharma? An American dharma?
These are questions that the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein poses in his book, One Dharma. What works to free Asians from suffering may not work for Westerners. At the same time, there is a risk that adapting the teachings to Western soil will dilute them or corrupt them into something else.
The basic teachings of the Buddha provide what is required for a non-sectarian form of Buddhist practice. It's all in the Four Noble Truths, and the core is overcoming suffering and dissatisfaction (dukkha) and living with mindfulness and compassion. All dharmas, that is, manifestations of Buddhism, share this in common: be mindful, be compassionate. And the poet Jane Hirshfield's seven-word definition of Buddhism may also point towards one dharma: “Everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.”
Saints and Teachers
Like most religious traditions, Buddhism has its founders and saints. However, unlike most religious traditions, Buddhism looks to the Buddha as the paradigm for awakening. As a role model, he shows his followers the way to salvation but does not play a direct role in facilitating that salvation. The Buddha's earliest disciples are the closest things to saints. They were all arhats (“worthy ones”) and included Ananda, Shariptura, Maudgalyay-ana (Moggalana), and Kashyapa.
Korean Zen master Seung Sahn, founder of the Kwan Um School of Zen, was famous for “Don't Know Mind” that is similar to the “Beginner's Mind” of another famous Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. These pithy sayings reflect an important teaching of the Buddha wherein a lack of intellectualism and arrogance can lead to openness and insight.
Tibetan Buddhists revere bodhisattvas who take the form of tulkus or rinpoche, who are lamas who have taken rebirth. His Holiness the Dalai Lama would be the most well known example of a living tulku. His status as lama indicates that he is a teacher (lama translates to “teacher” in Tibetan as guru translates to “teacher” in Sanskrit). The purpose of the saint or the teacher is to transmit the dharma — just as the Buddha did 2,500 years ago.
Many of the founders of new forms of Buddhism in different countries are also revered as saints, such as Bodhidharma, who brought Buddhism to China and founded Chan, and Dogen, who brought Chan to Japan and founded Zen.
In many Buddhist traditions, especially Tibetan and Zen, your relationship with the teacher is an integral component to your spiritual path, and you would expect to have a close relationship with this master to initiate you on the path of the dharma, to transmit the teachings, and guide you on this spiritual path. Lineage is therefore extremely important in these traditions, and teacher lineages may stretch back over a thousand years.
The two best known Buddhist masters in the world today are, as already mentioned, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the other is Tich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen monk who has written extensively, been a peace activist, and has taught throughout the world. These men are revered for their wisdom, compassion, and ability to teach the dharma to wide audiences.