The Two Kinds of Buddhism

by Rev. Marvin Harada.

Normally when we speak of the two kinds of Buddhism, we usually refer to Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism, the two major streams of Buddhism. But I would like to present what I feel is another way to categorize, or organize Buddhism. I don’t think anyone has approached Buddhism from this perspective, so don’t try to find it in any books on Buddhism. I will take all the blame if this way of looking at Buddhism is way out there in right field.

I think that in our modern, contemporary world that we live in, we have to talk about Buddhism from two standpoints. One is Practical Buddhism, and the other is Truth Level Buddhism. Modern people are very pragmatic and practical. People want to know what Buddhism can do for them in their life. Will it help them to be more serene? Will it help to deal with stress? Will it help to resolve big and small issues in life? Will it make them happier? Will it at least help to ease one’s suffering? If Buddhism has no practical application to one’s everyday life, then why should one pursue it? Why should one go to the trouble of learning about it and delving deeply into it? If it has no practical applications, then a person might as well pursue some other religion or teaching that offers some kind of practical application to life.

I think that we all start from this standpoint. We all begin with practical Buddhism.

However, if we stick to it, and remain on the path, then the practical, pragmatic Buddhism that we had been following, begins to deepen. As we come to receive the teachings in more depth, we begin to be less concerned about the practical side of Buddhism, as we come to begin to see the truth level aspect of Buddhism. All the great Masters of the Buddhist tradition speak from this truth level of Buddhism. But this level can easily go over our heads if we are at the practical level of Buddhism. It doesn’t fit our experience or our level of understanding. I am sure that we have all sat through a sermon or lecture that we felt just went flying over our heads. The sermon could have been a tremendous sermon, but it didn’t fit our level of experience or understanding, so it went right over us.

When we first begin to read Buddhist texts, such as the sutras or Shinran Shonin’s writings, we feel this way, as if it is a language from another world almost, because it is so far removed from our level of understanding and experience.

But we should not be discouraged or give up the path, because Practical Buddhism is intimately connected to Truth Level Buddhism. They are one and the same path, but different points of the journey. Both are equally important. If you make a long journey, the first mile of the journey is just as important as the last mile, isn’t it? Someone who stands at the point of Truth Level Buddhism can look back on the spiritual journey of one’s life and feel deeply grateful for each and every step of the path. The person who just embarks on the journey, and is standing on the level of Practical Buddhism, can look forward to the unfolding of truth in their life. What wonders await? What insights will be unfolded? What great teachings and teachers will there be to meet? If Buddhism makes sense and has practical implications to my life now, then how much greater will it be someday when I arrive at the Truth Level of Buddhism?

I think that Shin Buddhism has been hesitant about bringing out this practical dimension of Buddhism. Of course we do not go so far as to say that Shin Buddhism will make you rich, or that it will cure cancer. But we can positively say that Shin Buddhism can enrich your spiritual life, and that Shin Buddhism can help you to face and deal with a terrible illness like cancer, in a manner that no doctor or treatment can help with.

When Shinran Shonin makes a statement such as Only the nembutsu is true and real, it does not mean that our homes, our jobs, our families, are totally worthless and meaningless. It means that Shinran Shonin has come to receive the nembutsu on the level of truth, that goes beyond a nice or shabby home, beyond whether one has a good job or no job, and beyond whether one has a harmonious or dysfunctional family. A person who encounters the nembutsu at that level of truth does not ask if the nembutsu makes his family life better, or if it will help him to get a promotion. However, at this level of truth, a person lives the nembutsu at home, at work and at play.

I think that we have yet to develop the practical side of Shin Buddhism, in a manner that resonates and makes pragmatic sense to the average person. When we do, then not only will more people come to listen to the Shin Buddhist teachings from a practical standpoint, but there will also be many more lifelong listeners and seekers of the Shin Buddhist path that will come to know the teachings at the truth level. When that occurs, then we will truly have both Practical Buddhism and Truth Level Buddhism manifested in this country.


Rev. Marvin Harada