When I was very young I went to a Lutheran church. I went to church on Sunday with my mom as my Dad did not have any patience for the preachy religious type of people. While there I went to Sunday school like most kids did back in those days. I liked to hear the different stories from the bible and had a keen interest from a very young age but often got in trouble for interrupting and asking too many questions. When I as around 8 years old we stopped going to church but my whole life I had a very strong natural interest in religious topics.
So growing up in America my only point of reference was Christianity and what I had learned from reading parts of books (when I was young I hated reading and never read an entire book until about 10th grade) on other religions in the school library. So when I started trying to understand what this Swastika was doing on this Buddha statue I was faced with a difficult choice. Where and how to begin? When I went to the base library there were books about meditation, Zen, Pure land, Tibetan, Indian, Chinese, Japanese Buddhism….. Then it sort of hit me that a westerner trying to learn about Buddhism was like someone from a remote part of India or the Middle East trying to understand what Christianity is all about. If they would start looking they would see Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah Witness, Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran……… Looking at all these groups from the outside and then trying to figure out what Christianity taught would be a very tall task! On the surface they all seem very different and even conflicting at times. In Catholics churches they have statues of Mary and the Saints. Baptist think that these are idols and against Christianity. So someone new to Christianity would be thinking “how can they be practicing the same religion and all call themselves Christian?” So this is sort of what the westerner is up against when they delve into Buddhism. We in the west are also used to most of these Christian denominations claiming that only their group has the right understanding and the others are not only wrong but following them could cause you to end up in a very bad place! This is generally not the case with Buddhism. Most Buddhist believe that the many different types (denominations) are just a different path to the same end. Although there have been a few fundamentalist monks who made claims that they had cornered the market on Enlightenment, it is rare. If there are arguments they are more about which path will get you to Enlightenment the fastest or about which of the various monastic rules should be followed by monks.
When Siddhartha Gautama began his journey to Enlightenment he was first and foremost a Hindu just as when Christ started his ministry he was a practicing Jew. There was no Buddhism prior to the Buddha and no Christianity prior to Christ. This observation may not seem that important but it is where our initial confusion about Buddhist concepts begin. Since the Buddha was a Hindu the concepts of that religion were the foundation of his thought. Although he later formed his own ideas and came up with variations of Hindu concepts he never the less began as a Hindu. So it is not surprising that many Buddhist ideas have a Hindu predecessor. Some of the confusion can arise when you look up something that is common in name to both Hinduism and Buddhism but may have a very different interpretation.
Another thing that is often overlooked when people start trying to learn about Buddhism is that in almost all of the early writings of what the Buddha taught (Pali-Sutta, Sanskrit-Sutra) he was speaking directly to the monks that belonged to his monastic order. What was expected of a practicing monk and what was expected from a lay practitioner was different. One of the reasons for this is that the lay practitioner (commonly referred to as a householder) had responsibilities of work, maintaining a household and worrying about the welfare those in their family. It does not change the truth in what the Buddha is saying it just pertains to a difference in the way of life between the monastic and the lay person. Since the monks were mendicant (they had no possessions or money) they relied on the lay people when they went on their alms rounds for food and clothing and other essential items. This allowed the monastic to concentrate fully on their religious development by not having to worry about the concerns of the house holder.
When you start looking at different books on Buddhism produced by the various denominations you soon start to get confused. The monks in Thailand wear saffron colored robes while the Zen monks of Japan wear black robes. The altar in Cambodia only has a single image of the historical Buddha while the Chinese altar has several images with many arms and faces. The Tibetans have Tulkus (a lama that has been reborn) but in Vietnam they do not. The Buddhist holidays in one country are not practiced on the same dates as in the other. This is all very confusing and I found it to be disheartening as well. How am I going to get my mind around this thing called Buddhism when all these things I see and read about seem so different? Which one is right? Where do I begin?
The answer is that they are all “right” and the best way to begin is to go straight to the heart of the matter. It is much easier to focus on what is common between these different groups and countries then to try to sort out the differences. You might ask “why are there all these differences in the first place?” Buddhism began in the Buddha’s homeland of India. Remember he was also a Hindu first before he started his own teaching. So as it (Buddhism) migrated to the other countries in Asia it brought with it some of the Hindu and Indian cultural traditions. When the teaching started to flourish in China for example the Chinese gave it the flavor of their cultural traditions and also blended some of their own native religious idea’s (such as Taoism) with the Buddhism they practiced. And just like you they had to interpret these new ideas through their religious and cultural lens. In 804 the Japanese monk Kukai went to China to study. When he returned to Japan he brought back with him Esoteric Buddhism (which he called Shingon or True Word). In 1223 the Japanese monk Dogen went to China to study and he brought back the Ch’an or Zen school of Buddhism which the Japanese refer to as Soto Zen. Even though both of these monks traveled to the same country, China, they brought back to Japan two different forms of Buddhism. When these two forms were established in Japan they were both influenced by Japanese culture and it indigenous religions such as Shinto.
So I believe a much easier task for the westerner is to not try and learn all the cultures and religions of these far off places but to concentrate on the core Buddhist teachings that are common to all. I will list some of the as a starting point:
The Four Noble Truths
The Middle Way
The Ti-lakkhana or the “Three marks of existence” – Impermanence, Not-self, and Dukkha
The Five Precepts
The Three Refuges
If you start here as you begin to develop your understanding the other concepts or practices will make more sense because you have these as a foundation. If at some point you join a specific group or temple all of these concepts will apply to what you will be learning and practicing.