We’re all blessed to live in an age of the Dharma. There is an ocean of helpful video, audio, and print resources that expound Buddhist beliefs and practice, and it has never been easier to engage with skilled teachers from all traditions, even in parts of the world far from Buddhist homelands. The canons of the great traditions, their commentaries, primers on the Path, training manuals, and biographies of great practitioners can be read in whole, in part, or in summary in a wide variety of the world’s languages.
A Taiwanese educational foundation, for example, freely distributes copies of books written in Tok Pisin (the official language of Papua New Guinea), Shona (a Bantu language of Southern Africa), Hungarian, Czech, Italian, French, and Spanish. Who could have imagined two hundred years ago that the Dharma would be available to so many? Who could have imagined that a worldwide network called the Internet would be used to help an ocean of souls understand and manage their suffering, live better lives, and profoundly understand the nature of reality?
And yet, many have doubts and concerns. When it comes to spiritual guidance, quality is more important than quantity:
A single word of truth
which calms the mind
is better to hear than a thousand
irrelevant words. (A Dhammapada for Contemplation, Ajahn Munindo, verse 100)
And exposure to information requires practice to generate benefit for humanity:
As a beautiful flower
with a delightful fragrance is pleasing,
so is wise and lovely speech
when matched with right action. (A Dhammapada for Contemplation, Ajahn Munindo, verse 52)
Still others are concerned about those who mix up elements of different self-contained traditions. In my experience this claim has merit. There is a reason, in a traditional mode of practice at least, why training is conducted in a certain way, and why texts emphasize certain concepts in a certain fashion. A set of methods will naturally cultivate specific spiritual fruits. Regardless, I’m with Bhikkhu Analayo insofar as respect for other traditions is concerned:
The middle way approach… is one that does not dogmatically assert the correctness of one tradition over another, be this a form of Western Buddhism or any particular Asian tradition. Such an assertion would be one extreme. Nor does such a middle way approach try to amalgamate all traditions indiscriminately into a single form of practice without sufficient sensitivity to their historical origins. This would be the other extreme… Each tradition has its own rightness and correctness when and as long as it is employed within the philosophical and practical context out of which it arose. (“Mindfulness in Different Buddhist Traditions”, Bhikkhu Analayo)
To be clear, I am a lay Theravada practitioner. I find the teachings of the Pali Canon to be immediately helpful, sublimely true, powerfully pithy, and ultimately conducive to Bliss, and Cessation. The dhamma is my home, and the sangha is my spiritual family. My point is merely that our attitude toward different traditions should be characterized by compassionate understanding, and (to the extent permitted by theological concerns) benevolent curiosity. And in closing, I’d like to suggest that we can generate immense joy and gratitude in ourselves by dwelling on this incredible gift of the Dharma in our lives, and the auspiciousness of a life in which it can be put into practice:
“For a brief instant on a gloomy night, a sudden flash of lightning allows you to see the entire landscape with all its vivid colors and contrasts. Similarly, a Buddha appears in the world only very rarely and briefly… Therefore when you listen to the Dharma you should think, ‘I am hearing a wonderful teaching that is as rare and precious as a jewel.'” (Steps on the Path to Enlightenment: A Commentary on Tsongkhapa’s Lamrim Chenmo, Volume 1, Geshe Lhundub Sopa)