On the Historical Continuity of Buddhist Schools

Among contemporary Buddhist schools, many lay claim to be the authentic heirs of the teaching of the Buddha. Yet there is considerable variety among the Buddhist schools in precepts, ethics and philosophy. As one scholar of Buddhism has said, it is as if the whole corpus of philosophy has been gone through in Buddhist form. So how can we choose? Which school is the closest to the teachings we find in the earliest Buddhist texts?

The earliest Buddhism we know presents us with an elitist teaching for men of superior intellectual acumen in whom an intense appetite for the transcendental was present. I say men, since women were officially excluded and only later did the Buddha allow himself to be persuaded to let women join the movement. True, the Buddha sometimes offers advice, instruction and comfort for the common folk, but a sharp line is drawn between those who would walk the path of awakening and become monks, and the ordinary people whom the Buddhists merely counseled. When the Buddhists later opened their ranks to laypeople, this represented a decadence and fall in metaphysical level compared to the Olympian heroism and Doric bareness of the original Buddhist order.

Around the start of the Common Era, Buddhism separated into the Hinayana and Mahayana schools. Neither of these are identical with the older forms of Buddhism. Hinayana became the custodians of the original Buddhist texts. A strong focus was placed on orthodoxy and scripture. It was heavily monastic and taught the importance of an ethical, puritan and ascetic way of life. Now Mahayana, on the other hand, was much more open to innovation. So much so, in fact, that the Russian scholar of Buddhism Shcherbatskoy has said that Mahayana Buddhism practically turned all of the prior teachings of Buddhism on their heads.

If you could say that Hinayana had somewhat expanded on the teachings of the Buddha, encumbering them with numerous ethical and claustral concerns, the same is doubly true of Mahayana. Except in this case the unsolicited expansion concerns the outgrowth of Buddhism from a series of individualistic practices, turning self-overcoming into a bona fide religion. Here, anyone could be a Buddha and instead of the personal goal of transcendence into nirvana, we find an almost Christian attention to the salvation of the masses, the common folk and their well-being. Original Buddhism had said very little about the gods, yet as with Catholicism, we find in Mahayana a phantasmagoria of gods, demigods and non-historical Buddhas, who can help the practitioner reach the other shore.

Thus we can see that both Hinayana and Mahayana have embellished considerably on the teachings of the Buddha and both have crowded out his doctrine thereby. So which contemporary school of Buddhism is the closest to original Buddhism?

In medieval times, a variant of Mahayana known as Cha’an or Zen emerged – it arose in China and then spread to Japan. Zen Buddhists have many fanciful legends about how their doctrine is actually the direct transmission of the original teachings from the Buddha himself, but these legends have nothing substantial at all to support them and so they must be regarded as fabrications.

On the other hand, in mixing with the endogenous warrior culture of Japan, Zen revived many of the elitist and individualistic elements of Buddhism that had otherwise been lost to both Hinayana and Mahayana. In Zen we find the view that all formalization and ritualistic practice actually dilutes and blunts the efforts of the initiate, making it harder for him to overcome his conditioned self and reach transcendental reality. (When we ask which contemporary school of Buddhism is the closest to the original teachings, we should here remind ourselves that the Buddha was from the warrior caste and that his teaching was intended, in part, as a revolt against the elaborate ritualization of the priestly caste.) Doctrines and dogmas, yes, even the doctrine of “Buddhism” itself represent nothing but a stifling of the superior man’s efforts to reach unconditioned reality and thus we find Zen practitioners saying that the Buddha was a turd or that they’d like to kill him. It was all a strong reaction against the outsourcing of one’s own spiritual development to a new priestly caste, preaching a codified version of Buddhism that was just as stripped of Buddhism’s original exigency as the Brahmanical religion had become at the time of the Buddha.

On this basis, it should be easy to see how Zen’s relentless focus on spiritual awakening and its conception of it as an individual affair, requiring exceptional virility, self-control and the readiness for any sacrifice that self-overcoming may require, are closer in spirit to original Buddhism than the Hinayanist wardens of the original texts and traditions with their formalized, communitarian and ritualistic approach. But we can also see how Zen, while indebted to Mahayana and in every sense an outgrowth of it, is a branch that turns on its trunk and lays bare how far the original teachings of the enlightened one were from the trappings of more traditional religions (trappings which, indeed, most contemporary Westerners erroneously regard as the heart of Buddhism).

With regards to Jungian typology, we may thus say that while Hinayana is undoubtedly the closest to original Buddhism in terms of factual harmonies and historical continuity – indeed all outer doctrines and unities – Zen alone continues the Olympian, iconoclastic, individualistic and (spiritually) aristocratic mindset that fostered original Buddhism. In other words, when we want to answer the question of which contemporary school of Buddhism is the closest to the teaching of the Buddha himself, we find that Hinayana is the closest in terms of Sensation, while Zen is the closest in terms of Intuition.