There is no real-Buddhism but rather a gigantic tradition, a great Dharma Mountain with many meandering footpaths, refuges, and activities on its slopes. This ‘Great Dharma Mountain’ includes everything and also its opposite and yet remains one single Mountain. In fact, there were 84,000 paths taught by the Buddha 2,500 years ago and many more discovered since – many paths, one Mountain.

Celestial Buddha, Amitabul, in the Pure Land Heaven

Almost every Buddhist will tell you what Buddhism is ‘really‘ but this tells more about the likes and dislikes of the author than Buddhism. Buddhists will often insist on which beliefs and practices should be accepted and which ones disguarded and not surprisingly their favourite bits are the parts they emphasise while the others aspects, they maintain, should be discarded (how fortunate it’s not the other way round). The truth, however, is that there is a huge variety of practices and beliefs that are included in Buddhism just like there are many ways to skin a cat or many paths to climb a mountain.

There are certain strands that one can identify within the tradition but none are quintessentially Buddhist. Even the famous ‘no-self’ (anattā) which despite being a constant strand and sometimes said to be the defining feature of Buddhism it has still caused heated debate down the centuries and some sutras such as the Nirvana sutra go as far as saying:

“in truth there is the Self [ātman] in all dharmas
[phenomena]” and “The Self (ātman) is reality (tattva), the Self
is permanent (nitya), …the Self is eternal (śāśvatā), the Self
is stable (dhruva), the Self is peace (siva).”

Furthermore, other parts of the tradition argue that ‘no-self’ is to be understood as a sceptical teaching where one frees oneself from attachment to all metaphysical views and both ‘self’ and ‘no-self’ are views one must overcome.  

Within the Buddhist tradition you find every kind of idea presented and also its opposite. As already mentioned you find diverse ideas such as ‘no-self’, its opposite ‘eternal-self’ and its counterpart ‘no-views’. You find atomic realism (eg, Sarvastivada) and all kind of opposites such all reality being the creation of Mind (eg, Yogacara) or an illusion (eg, Avatamsaka) and many other teachings besides.

Some believe that Buddhism denies gods (eg, much of the Western school) while others

Emptiness (sunyata)

pray daily to celestial Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas (eg, Pure Land Buddhists) and even talk of God (eg, some Zennists) [1]. Some strains will teach that Buddhism has been revealed by Buddha and passed on in its almost perfect form (eg, Southern Buddhists) while others think that the teachings are not to be taken literally but discovered for oneself (eg, Zen). Others insist Buddha was a political liberal who was interested in reforming society while rivals claim he renounced society and politics altogether. In the Mahayana ‘emptiness’ (sunyata) is sometimes claimed to be fundamental but that would mean that nobody understood ‘real’ Buddhism until hundreds of years after the death of the Buddha including the Buddha’s own disciples.

In fact, the Venerable Ananda said in the Pali-cannon that there were 84,000 teachings he knew of (Theragatha 17.3 (vv. 1024-29)) which indicates the shear magnitude of teachings given while the historical Buddha was still alive which have magnified beyond measure through the teachings of enlightened masters since then.

It is safe therefore to conclude then that when anyone tells you that Buddhism is X,Y and Z or Buddha was ‘like this’ or ‘like that’ then they are talking about a single strand (or several strands) of the Buddhist tradition and are excluding the rest based on their own preferences. No presentation of Buddhism or the Buddha can possibly encapsulate the whole variety of ideas, stories and practices. Alarm bells should ring whenever anyone claims that they have discovered the correct strand of this huge tradition whilst the rest is an unnecessary add-on or mistake. Claims of this type are reflections of the mental state of the author and tells you little about what Buddhism is actually like. There is not one ‘true Buddhist tradition’ any-more than there is one ‘true-tree’ on a mountain. To deny the other beliefs and practices is committing the ‘no-true-Scotsman fallacy’.

The only strands that run undisputed through the whole tradition is a certain ethical code

Buddha in meditation

and the practice of mediation but even here different schools highlight some methods and practices and downplay or deny others. And even in mediation there are different understandings about the same practices leading to endless confusion and debate. There is not even agreement about the goal of meditation and different schools, teachers and sutras give a variety of ideas and interpretations about ‘enlightenment’ such as overcoming life and death (eg, Southern school), realising Buddhahood (eg, Eastern schools) or seeing the world as it really is (eg, many Western Buddhists).

To conclude then: there is no one ‘true-Buddhism’ to be separated from a ‘wrong-way’ but rather a Great Dharma Mountain of endless teachings. So let us enjoy the journey up the Mountain and I’ll race you to the top by whatever way you choose to travel.