The structure of Buddhism

my Buddhist structure chart

George Box: “All models are wrong. Some are useful.”

Culturally, I have the impression we’re leaving post-modernism behind and that it hasn’t worked. Anecdotally I hear expressions of confusion and lostness. It’s like we’ve come adrift from the past; we’re floating around in a sea of debris trying to make sense of it all. We’re confronted with multiple mashups without reliable tools for discerning which to engage with and which to discard. Approaching Buddhism, mindfulness and meditation can be like this. How do we know what will work and what won’t?

One way is to understand where things come from, how they got to be like they are. Figuring out lineages of ideas and practices makes it possible to relate them to them meaningfully. It’s always useful to ask how a method is supposed to function, what is the supposed result? How does that work in practice? Understanding how things got to be like they are is helpful in figuring out whether or not they are still relevant.

Nebulosity is important, but unless you understand underlying structures in its context, it can cause a muddle and a mess. I made the chart above during some twitter conversations. The threads are discussions about how different types of Buddhism relate to each other, and what they might mean for personal practice. There are quite a few offshoots, tangents and other threads, but if you are interested you can follow some of them from these tweets.

This one leads to a conversation with my friend @xuenay about movement between renunciative and non-renunciative worldviews:

https://twitter.com/_awbery_/status/1118910490929799168

The following links to a conversation with many tangents about how bits of Buddhism relate to each other:

Below is some text that I discarded from an old post. At the time I thought that focusing on categories might not be useful or interesting, but following the recent twitter interest, I’ve resurrected it from the trashcan of posts past and am sticking it here:

Dzogchen categorization of Buddhist paths

One way to map Buddhism is by categorizing it into Sutrayana, Tantrayana and Dzogchen. These are distinct paths. They have different starting points, methodology and results, and the language used to describe how their practices work is distinctly congruent with the worldview of each. This is a relatively late style of categorization. It is a retrospective view of most Buddhist practice from the perspective of how it functions.

The reason I like this particular map is not only due to it providing a categorization of all Buddhist activity in terms of its functionality – though that is reason enough itself: uniquely it also presents Buddhist Tantra in a category of its own. From this perspective, Tantra is a ‘complete’ system in and of itself. It stands alone. This means we can approach Tantric practice on its own terms, using a language singularly appropriate to its principle and function, without indirection.

Sutric practice, when described in terms of its function, centers on liberation from samsara, the cycle of habitual grasping to attraction, aversion and indifference that causes suffering. The path is renunciative.

Tantric practice focuses on turning unhelpful, distorted emotions and activity into well-aligned, practically useful response. The path is transformative.

Dzogchen practice is spontaneous, congruent response based in nondual perception. The path is liberative.

 

9 thoughts on “The structure of Buddhism”

  1. George Box: “All models are wrong. Some are useful.” Jajaja. That’s a good try of a sentence!
    Maybe we can moderate the first statement to avoid both becoming one sided and this idea of write and wrong. Moving to the scenario of usefulness is a good start, like translating samma (ditthi, sankapa, vaca, and so on) for suitable or appropiate instead of right or wrong.

  2. Great chart I find it interesting how the Nyingmapas see the whole system. The Kagyus would use a very similar chart but some different words and a slight difference of the Tantra classes.

    I am not so offended by the word wrong. I think I can see what was meant here. For example everything that one does is not 100% correct all the time.

    I have a question do you really think that the Hinayana and ahartship is really technically different from the vajrayana enlightenment?

    My chart would likely have included some spaghetti sauce because I like spaghetti 🙂 .

    QP

    1. I have a question do you really think that the Hinayana and ahartship is really technically different from the vajrayana enlightenment?

      Yes, I think so. They seem to describe different experiences. Examples that go into some detail in an attempt to describe the result seem valuable.

      My chart would likely have included some spaghetti sauce because I like spaghetti 🙂 .

      That’s funny! Nobody who knows me would be surprised to hear that it’s a coffee stain on my chart ☕️

      1. I am having a discussion with a dharma friend about this very important difference between vajrayana and Theravada right now. Do you have any examples. I only know that there is a difference between enlightenment and liberation, and that there are very little teachings about helping others for example boddhisattva actions. If you know more it would be helpful.

        1. Difficult to know what would be helpful for your discussion. I’ve never come across a systematic comparison of anecdotal accounts from different paths. That might be an interesting and useful thing for someone to do…although descriptions of experience tend to couch themselves in the language inherited from particular traditions, so it wouldn’t be easy.

          Maybe some discussion forums would give some useful experiential accounts. There’s very little from the Vajrayana perspective; I think there’s a norm of not talking so much about one’s practice experience there, whereas practitioners of Theravadan-derived meditation do tend to discuss practice.

          There’s the pragmatic dharma discussion board:
          https://www.dharmaoverground.org/web/guest/discussion/-/message_boards/recent-posts

          And on stream entry:
          https://www.reddit.com/r/streamentry

          On the Bodhisattva way, there’s always Shantideva’s guide…
          https://www.tibethouse.jp/about/buddhism/text/pdfs/Bodhisattvas_way_English.pdf

          but it needs an awful lot of parsing to summarize into some guidelines that would have contemporary resonance.

          Good luck, it sounds like an interesting discussion!

  3. Hi Rin’dzin, I’ve been following your work and @Meaningness for a while.

    I’m appreciative of the chart, and the view of distinctions, functions & principles that underly and in-form the chart.
    The only thing I would add to the discussion is that I think it’s useful to understand the cross-fertilization that Buddhist Tantra experienced with Shaiva tantra during its development. The best way to do this is to introduce a historic – evolutionary – etic perspective. I think for any modern/post- or metamodern practitioner, it is more useful than not to look at one’s practice from this perspective.

    Check out this thread (in a niche vajrayana discussion group on reddit). There’s a link to a scholarly article examining the co-evolution of Buddhist and Shaiva tantra, and then in the comments below I riff a bit on how the Indic cultural matrix influences the development of Buddhist yanas at three crucial points their development.

    1. I think it’s useful to understand the cross-fertilization that Buddhist Tantra experienced with Shaiva tantra during its development.

      Agreed, good point. Tantric history is complex and has multi-faceted, interweaving threads. From your comment later in the thread you link, I think you may already have come across Geoffrey Samuel’s book on the Origins of Yoga and Tantra – but I’ll mention it here for other readers to check out too. It follows different cross-fertilizations in Tantric history, including the interplay of Yaksa, Jain and Buddhist strands with Saivism.

      Check out this thread (in a niche vajrayana discussion group on reddit). There’s a link to a scholarly article examining the co-evolution of Buddhist and Shaiva tantra, and then in the comments below I riff a bit on how the Indic cultural matrix influences the development of Buddhist yanas at three crucial points their development.

      Thanks for the pointer, I hadn’t come across that discussion group before.

  4. Hello Rind’zin.

    I found your blog, linked from David’s, just a few days ago and have read most of it. It has been great, at moments even a bit puzzling, to see a complete stranger say things in the same way I would. Your posts are common sensical, without much, if any, religious identity, which is very rare in the world today. That you openly ask and try to find out what actually is the problem and how the problem is actually solved, is the very essence of spiritual life, which few paths are able to give answers, without getting all tangled up in religious thought. So thank you and looking for to read more.

    -Kim Katami

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