84,000 doors to Enlightenment: mystical Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, intellectual Buddhist, devotional Buddhist, hipster Buddhist: many doors, one destination
Buddha taught many skilful means or paths. In Buddhism, these are typically described with the vehicle, path or doors metaphors.
In the Pali Canon, it is said “There are 84,000 doors to Enlightenment” . Clearly, in Buddha’s time, “hipster Buddhist” wasn’t one of these doors; in modern times, with the growing population of Buddhists, the saying might have been 84 million doors to Enlightenment.
Football is my analogy of choice for labeling the different Buddhist paths: we may play on different teams (Yanas), with different styles of coaches (Gurus, teachers), but we play for the love of the game (Dharma), and aim for the same goal (Enlightenment).
Although many of us cheer for a particular team — we might think of ourselves as Zen or Vajrayana — sheer diversity has led to personalization of our approach. Today, we might think of ourselves as a Zen Intellectual Buddhist, or a Vajrayana Mystical Buddhist, or an Athiest Theravadan Buddhist, a Shamanistic Bon Buddhist, or a Scientific Western Buddhist — or any ecclectic mix of paths. Generally, this is not encouraged by teachers of lineage — because of the risk of confusion and dilution — but it is the modern reality. Dr. Alexander Berzin wrote :
“Because not everyone has the same inclinations and interests, the Buddha taught a wide variety of methods to suit different people. With this in mind, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that it’s wonderful that so many different religions exist in the world. Just as one food will not appeal to everybody, it’s true that one religion or set of beliefs will not satisfy everyone’s needs.”
Besides paths, doors and football, other allegories include elephants or fashion. Regardless of trope, this is no more than “labelling” — which is normally discouraged in Buddhist philosophy and practice — but necessary for basic communication.
No label is satisfactory, and no one path is the only right or authentic one. Dharma is normally seen as a method (a path), not a dogma or unbreakable rules. As scholars have pointed out for decades, Buddhism tends to absorb and adapt to each culture it contacts: blending or absorbing Daoism, Shintoism, Hinduism, shamanism, and any other “ism” you can label.
While the inclusiveness of Buddhism is a strength and a skilful means, the various permutations can lead to a “team” mentality — my team against your team — instead of an all-inclusive love of the “game” — to use the football metaphor.
“…people become more insecure and develop a football team mentality – where competition and fighting is the norm. Holding this kind of attitude is very sad, whether it occurs among religions or among the various Buddhist traditions.” — Dr. Alexander Berzin
Football, pants, and elephants
Ultimately — in this football metaphor, it is the game that matters. Players can be traded from team to team. Fans can move from city to city and might change team allegiances. But they still love the game. (Okay, enough football!)
The fortunate reality of Buddhism is there are, generally, no heresies, because there are no unshakable, dogmas. There’s no “it’s this way or the highway.” You can be an atheist and be Buddhist. You can go to Guan Yin’s temple one day, and a Catholic Church the next. You can be baptized in a Christian Church, and be married by a Lama. You can bounce around from the profound Theravadan vipassana meditation to the serenity of Zen zazen, then on to deeply mystical deity practices in Vajrayana, and finally end up as an eclectic hipster Buddhist — without raising any eyebrows amongst fellow Buddhists.
In a fascinating feature in Tricycle by Brent R. Oliver, he contemplates, “What do you look for in a Buddhist tradition?”  He described how he jumped from “intoxicating” Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana) to Zen “with its clean lines and stripped down practice” to “Buddhist hipster”:
Is Theravada too simple? Is Zen too chilly and austere? Is Vajrayana too mystical, scary, and outlandish? Where are my pants?
Ultimately, we choose our “pants” or our “team” based on what works for us, what resonates with us. The choice is not made because one is right and one is wrong as a method. The choice is made because they are right or wrong for us, personally. They are all paths to one destination, and they all have a history of people who navigated the path successfully: great Enlightened masters, Yogis, Yoginis, Zen Masters, Bodhisattvas. In other words, there is NO wrong path or vehicle, as long as it works for you.
Six blind men or six blind elephants?
The famous Buddhist/Hindu/Jain parable of the blind men and the elephant carries a similar message. Found in Udana 6.4 (dated to 1st millennium BCE):
A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “elephant is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.
In some versions of the parable, the blind men argue, suspecting each other of lying, and come to blows. Each had their view of the truth — but all were describing the same animal.
Equally profound, there is the “inverted” parable:
Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, ‘Men are flat.’ After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.
Werner Heisenberg, explained the moral of this “inverted” parable:
“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” 
Readers lament — What prompted this feature
What prompted this feature were several separate letters or comments to Buddha Weekly over the last few weeks. One reader lamented the decline of the supernatural and mystical in Buddhism, complaining that Western Buddhists tend to intellectualize everything. (This email was a response to our recent story on “How Buddhism views demons”. [Story here>>]) On the flip side of this are readers who have written in, asserting that Buddhism is not a religion, and, in fact, is suited for “intellectuals.” Another commented on Vajrayana seeming to be a little too mystical. Still, another asked, “Is there common ground between Buddhism and Shamanism?” A few have asked about the compatibility of practising both Buddhism and Christianity.
In the past, we’ve also received letters from people asking “Which are the real suttas of the Buddha?” — referring to the scholarly debate over Pali Sutta versus Mahayana Sutra, or from people who adamantly claim only their tradition is authentic.
Millions of paths; one destination
Buddhism, ultimately, is a self-development path. Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path, and various skilful means — but the rest was always up to us. This is why the great traditions are labeled as “yanas” (translates as “vehicles” — Mahayana, Vajrayana, or any other yana). We can choose a path that suits us. There is no fear of being wrong.
In the book Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, by the Dalai Lama and Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron, they wrote:
“Not all people think alike. They have different needs, interests, and dispositions in almost every area of life, including religion. As a skillful teacher, the Buddha gave various teachings to correspond to the varieties of sentient beings.”
There are millions of permutations in Buddhism — simply because there are hundreds-of-millions of Buddhists. Ultimately, we are all travelling to the same destination — which is where the vehicle metaphor isn’t a bad one. We might travel the same path for a while with like-minded Buddhists (Sangha) — but ultimately, we are encouraged by the teachings, to choose or travel our own route, at our own pace, in our own way — guided by the Eightfold Path, or course. As the teachers say, “I cannot walk the path for you.” In the end, the path becomes our own path.
Yana more or less means “vehicle”, and though it seems derogatory, scholars have grouped these into three or more yanas: Sravakayana (“hearer vehicle”), Pratyekabuddhayana (“solitary realizer vehicle”), Bodhisattvayana (“bodhisattva vehicle”). There are many other vehicles, too: Mahayana (“greater vehicle”) Vajrayana (“Lightning” — or fast — “vehicle”), Mantrayana (“mantra vehicle”), Tantrayana (“Tantric vehicle”) — and as many thousands or million or variations as you can imagine. These labels, as with all labels, are unsatisfying yet useful, as they describe the “method” or skilful means, but not the profound realizations they lead to (the destination.)
The Dalai Lama used Vajrayana as one example to help explain the commonalities :
“Sometimes people mistakenly believe that Tibetan Buddhism, especially Vajrayāna, is separate from the rest of Buddhism. When I visited Thailand many years ago, some people initially thought that Tibetans had a different religion. However, when we sat together and discussed the vinaya, sūtras, abhidharma, and such topics as the 37 aids to awakening, the four concentrations, four immaterial absorptions, four truths of the āryas, and noble eightfold path, we saw that Theravāda and Tibetan Buddhism have many common practices and teachings.”
Ultimately, there is no right and no wrong. Or, you could say, all are right, and none are wrong. If you choose the path of devotion, and your entire practice is chanting the name of a Buddha, that is still a focused practice that can lead to realizations. If you find yourself on the path of the mystic, you have ventured into Vajrayana with all its exotic richness, symbolism and supernatural spiciness. Or, you could just sit, and Zen out. These might be different “teams” but they are all playing the same game, with the same goal.
A controlled experiment
Every variation is a departure from the original teachings, ultimately, but no less authentic.
Just as in science, each discovery made builds on the established findings of the past — a new theory today might build on Einsteins’ theories — in Buddhist practice, we also respect and rely on the lineage traditions, but not to the point where there is no further progress. Life is like that as well. We live today, using technologies developed throughout history. We take for granted the airplane, the automobile, and electricity — but only because the greats of the past ventured down the untravelled path — the “undiscovered country” to quote from Hamlet  Buddhism today, might be inspired by authentic traditions of the past, but even tradition is subject to “impermanance.”
What inspires a modern Buddhist, may not the same thing that inspired a Buddhist of 2,000 years ago, even though the core teachings haven’t changed.
The original teachings, the Eightfold Path, is common to all paths, but even if we navigate the same map with the same basic rules as other Buddhists, we start to choose our own route. Many Buddhists are wildly eclectic, combining Zen, Vajrayana and Pure Land freely and interchangeably. That doesn’t mean lineage and heritage and tradition are thrown out. It’s still the reliable base. Because of Newton, other scientists could build on his findings.
To carry on the science analogy, in a controlled experiment, we don’t start over again, trying to prove any theories previously established as factual. We build on that, first by replicating — as we learn our skills in the lab — then by expanding beyond. Not everything works. Experiments fail. But we look for the breakthrough based on logical experimentation — and we only need one breakthrough to make a big difference.
Buddhist practice can be similar. True, many people are born into a tradition and stay there for life, content to absorb the wisdom of past masters. But even those who stay true and firm to their core tradition, as they grow, learn and practice, the hope is they will evolve their practice, and ultimately, develop realizations.
As Yogi Berra famously said ,
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
 “Buddhist view of other religions” Study Buddhism, by Dr Alexander Berzin.
 “Five Reasons I haven’t Settled on a Buddhist School” by Brent R. Oliver, tricycle
 Physics and philosophy: the revolution in modern science, by Werner Heisenberg
 Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, HH the Dalai Lama and Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron
 Khuddaka Nikaya, Theragatha 1024
 Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, William Shakespeare.
 The Yogi Book, 1998
Please support the "Spread the Dharma" mission as one of our heroic Dharma Supporting Members, or with a one-time donation.
Please Help Support the “Spread the Dharma” Mission!
Be a part of the noble mission as a supporting member or a patron, or a volunteer contributor of content.
The power of Dharma to help sentient beings, in part, lies in ensuring access to Buddha’s precious Dharma — the mission of Buddha Weekly. We can’t do it without you!
A non-profit association since 2007, Buddha Weekly published many feature articles, videos, and, podcasts. Please consider supporting the mission to preserve and “Spread the Dharma." Your support as either a patron or a supporting member helps defray the high costs of producing quality Dharma content. Thank you! Learn more here, or become one of our super karma heroes on Patreon.
Author | Buddha Weekly
Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly.