July 03, 2014

One Way to Nirvana

It’s not just the Buddha Way that’s different—the Buddhist mountaintop is different, too.Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.

This article is the tenth in the Tricycle blog series 10 Misconceptions about Buddhism with scholars Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr. 

Many think of Buddhism as a tolerant religion, one that recognizes the value of all religious traditions. In recent years, there have been growing numbers of Buddhist-Christian dialogues and Buddhist-Jewish dialogues. The Dalai Lama has even commented on the gospels. This might suggest that Buddhism holds that all religions are one, that all spiritual paths lead to the same mountaintop. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The idea of the unity of religions, at least in its popular form known today, has two important 19th-century sources, one from the West and one from the East. In America, the Theosophists, led by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott (both of whom were strong defenders of Buddhism against Christian missionaries), believed that a single mystical doctrine lay at the core of all religions. In India, the Bengali saint Ramakrishna practiced all of the major religions and claimed that they each led to the same mystical experience. Ramakrishna’s disciple, Swami Vivekananda, went on to proclaim that all religions are one. (A closer reading of his claim suggests that what he really meant is that all religions are Hinduism.)

Buddhists have never proclaimed the unity of religions. Early Buddhist texts are filled with accounts of non-Buddhist masters claiming to have achieved enlightenment when in fact they have, at best, only achieved rebirth in the higher heavens of the immaterial realm (arupyadhatu); this was the fate of the Buddha’s first meditation teachers, Arada Kalama and Udraka Ramaputra. One of the Buddha’s closest disciples, Mahamaudgalyayana, liked to visit the hells, see which non-Buddhist teachers had been reborn there, and then return to earth to report their fates to their disciples, just to annoy them. Some of the disciples of these teachers eventually got so annoyed that they had him murdered.

In the 13th century, the celebrated Zen master Dogen, who famously proclaimed that mountains and rivers have buddhanature, was not so sure about Daoists and Confucians, writing, “Ignorant people state that Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism are ultimately one, only the entrances are different. These misguided foolish people have a superficial view of the Buddhist Way because they lack sufficient understanding of the dharma and its origin.”

It is not particularly surprising that Buddhists would see themselves, and their path, as superior to competing religious groups, whether they were Hindus in India, Daoists in China, Confucians in Korea, or Bonpos in Tibet. What is more surprising, and more interesting, is that Buddhists would make similar claims of superiority against fellow Buddhists.

In one of his most famous essays, the renowned Japanese master Kukai laid out ten stages of religious development. Those of the lowest stage are the goat-like, who have no moral values whatsoever; the second lowest have some inclination toward self-restraint; and the third lowest level includes Hindus and Daoists. The next six levels are all various forms of Buddhism, none of which lead to buddhahood. As one might expect, this is possible only through Kukai’s own Shingon sect.

In Tibet, the famous 14th-century teacher Tsongkhapa argued that everyone who had ever achieved nirvana, even by the Hinayana path, had done so by understanding emptiness (shunyata) as set forth by what is called the Prasangika branch of Madhyamaka. Liberation from rebirth was impossible with any other Buddhist philosophical view. This raised the problem of how to understand the spiritual attainments of great Indian masters such as Asanga, who had taught different philosophical systems—in Asanga’s case, the Yogacara. Some Tibetans solve this by saying that while Asanga may have taught Yogacara, he was really a Madhyamaka at heart.

Certain Indian and Tibetan Vajrayana systems contend that it is impossible to achieve buddhahood without practicing sexual yoga with a female consort, and that even Shakyamuni Buddha had done so. In some ways, this historical claim is not surprising, since all new claims in Buddhism must be traced to the Buddha himself; there can be no enlightenment (bodhi) higher than the complete perfect enlightenment (samyakasambodhi) that he achieved.

Historically, all Buddhists have held that liberation from rebirth is impossible via any religion other than Buddhism. Other religions can at best lead to a better rebirth, either as a human or as a god in one of the many heavens; only Buddhism leads to nirvana. Buddhists have agreed up to this point. Where they disagree is which form of Buddhism leads to nirvana, with each of the many schools across Asia claiming that theirs alone does, and often identifying other forms of Buddhism as only so many expedient stratagems (upaya) taught by the Buddha for those not yet ready for the true teaching.

Robert E. Buswell Jr. holds the Irving and Jean Stone Endowed Chair in Humanities at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is also Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies and founding director of the Center for Buddhist Studies. Donald S. Lopez Jr., a Tricycle contributing editor, is the Arthur E. Link Distinguished University Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan. They are coauthors of the recently released Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism.

More at Tricycle:


The Zen tradition’s “sudden enlightenment”
may not be so sudden after all. On the blog,
two leading scholars weigh in on sudden awakening.


In this new video teaching, Mingyur Rinpoche explains the Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind, a foundational teaching of Tibetan Buddhism. Part one of the four part retreat is open for all to enjoy—become a Supporting or Sustaining Member to view all four teachings.

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Jayson's picture

The universalist argument did make sense to me at one time in my life, but Dr. Buswell and Dr. Lopez are correct. This is consistent with what the Buddha taught. The final goal of Buddhism is nirvana, which simply isn't the same as other paths. That doesn't mean other paths can't lead to spiritual fulfillment or a promising afterlife. We should also still show goodwill to those who develop virtuous qualities according to their paths.

Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote an excellent essay on "Tolerance and Diversity" in Buddhism: http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_24.html

drleroi's picture

Has anyone actually left the cycle of rebirth lately? Karmapa, HH, etc. seem to stick around, probably for our benefit.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Seems to bear out the possibility that actually leaving it is a delusion.

Edel Maex's picture

How could I be so deluded? Until now I thought that the path of Buddhism went down from the mountain top towards all sentient beings.

pierre.vangilbergen's picture

I love this Edel's touch (private joke). Rebel buddhist, always against the stream. And you're right.

Dominic Gomez's picture

You underestimate your potential. The truth is not "up there". It's "in here" (touching heart).

drleroi's picture

Am intrigued by the idea of visiting hell realms. So far, I only find myself there.

wsking's picture

I did not think Prof. Buswell's story of Ven. Moggallana was quite correct. But it was the fuller story than I knew. Here is the link to the complete story if you are interested. There is also a video of the spot where the murder occurred. You can recognize it by the Tibetan prayer flags!! Of course!



wsking's picture

Does anybody know how to contact the Tricycle layout crew for this webpage? Please let me know. I have an idea they might like.

Im also sad the series is ending. Its so good. There must be tons of more things we could usefully know.

candor's picture

Yeah, it's odd that humans would disagree with each other over religious claims.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"And so these men of Hindustan Disputed loud and long, Each in his own opinion Exceeding stiff and strong, Though each was partly in the right And all were in the wrong."
~John Godfrey Saxe

wsking's picture

Mr. Gomez, I really think that under the circumstances copying the whole thing would be worthwhile. It is a wonderful poem to memorize and is instructive to little children and other creatures.:-)


American poet John Godfrey Saxe
based the following poem on a fable which was told in India many years ago.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

The First approached the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“ ‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!?

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!
(A Possible) Moral:
So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

sanghadass's picture

I find it curious how this wise tale could be percieved from different cultural viewpoints. My father, who was an old-school British bigot - with a beautiful loving heart - may have taken this tale as proof of his convictions. He believed that any 'thought' that had come out of India was, by necessity, of an inferior nature. The colonies lacked the sophistication of the colonizers. An attitude which is still prevalent though concealed in another guise!

candor's picture

By contrast to me, who may lack the loving heart of your father, and who thinks equally of all religious claims (ergo lacks the bigotry), regardless of their origin. ;-)

sanghadass's picture

Your loving nature is sure and true. xxoo

candor's picture

When the three poisons are subdued, loving nature is sure and true in us all. :-)

candor's picture


Dominic Gomez's picture

Thank you, wsking. I assumed most readers know the story of 5 blind men trying to describe a whole elephant by just the parts each has come in contact with. So it is with the universal Law (dharma). All religions and philosophies are like so many streams and rivers, each seemingly complete in itself but in reality joining together to become part of the great ocean, i.e. the Law of the universe.

wsking's picture

Many people are young and don't know. Many people are not well-educated. Some people are from a different culture or language group. Many people don't like to read. Quite a few people hate poetry or never had a history of English Lit. class. You never know. Its so delightful that I thot I'd offer it, just in case. I hope you won't mind?

wsking's picture

Am I mistaken? I thought that the point of Profs. B and L's article is that it's actually just the opposite. All religions are not different paths up the same mountain. Not at all. Not true at all. Isn't their point that even between the different schools of Buddhism the mountain and its summit look very different?
Isn't their point just that the different traditions don't join together, but jealously guard their differences.( Nicely for us, as they have survived to the present that way.)

As Lama Yeshe always said, regarding your statement above, "You Americans always try to make soup.! Its not soup! You cannot say everything is soup!"
This happened after the first time he saw a Whirring Blender and watched us make soup with it.

Im very suspicious about this "Great Ocean/Law of the Universe" stuff. Its too touchy feely for me. The Law of Indra's Net states that all things operate with their own laws and that all realms interpenetrate at every level, but never interfere with each other. That means that laws per realm are discrete and function perfectly within that realm alone. Desu ne?
I have many questions about this and would like to discuss it. Primarily because it is said that on reaching Enlightenment, the minds of individuals become indistinguishable from the mind of "all" the Buddhas. So are we saying that the Mind of All the Buddhas is the Great Ocean=Law of the Universe? Is that just another way to say the same thing?

Dominic Gomez's picture

It depends on what "the summit" actually is. Buddhism understands it to be the ultimate reality underlying all phenomena. Buddhas are those awakened to this core reality, i.e. "great ocean".

wsking's picture

Where exactly do you get this "Great Ocean" stuff from?
I've read a lot of sutras and history books and don't recall it from anywhere. The only place "Great Ocean" pops up is in HHDL's title "Da lai" in Mongolian. PS. Tomorrow is his birthday, 79th.

Dominic Gomez's picture

It's a metophor for the true nature of reality. "When the wind blows, it creates ripples on the water's surface. Those ripples are our lives. They represent the workings of the life of the universe. Therefore, if the wind disappears, the ripples, too, will disappear, and the water will return to its original state."~ Josei Toda

"When we liken the universe to the ocean, our lives are like the waves that appear and disappear on the surface of the ocean of the universe."~ Daisaku Ikeda

"There is no separate 'you' to get something out of the universe… As the ocean 'waves' so the universe 'peoples'… What we therefore see as 'death,' empty space or nothingness is only the trough between the crests of this endless waving ocean of life."~ Alan Watts

sanghadass's picture

Sit still my heart, do not raise your dust.
Let the world find its way to you. - Tagore

candor's picture

Yeah, I think Christians, Jews, and Muslims would differ. Buddhists and Brahmin might quarrel among themselves. LOL. Thanks for providing evidence of my sarcastic point.

Mushim's picture

I'm sad that this article is the last in this series, and hope that the authors and Tricycle consider "10 More Misconceptions about Buddhism"! Buswell and Lopez's writing is so clear (no academic jargon!), their knowledge so broad and deep, and their viewpoint so refreshingly real, that I guess the only thing I can now do for comfort is to (luckily) turn to browsing around some more in their Princeton dictionary of Buddhism. I am not a Buddhist scholar, but I've been proofreading academic Buddhist texts for years and, just as Lopez and Buswell report, have found ample evidence of various Buddhist schools claiming exclusive supremacy, insulting other Buddhist schools, and praising themselves. Now, learning from this article that the Ven. Mahamaudgalyayana used his extraordinary powers to taunt disciples of teachers who were presumably in hell and not all that they had been cracked up to be, I throw up my hands. Really? On the other hand, this is such a human thing to do that I must gloomily return to the verse in the Dhammapada, which in one translation reads: "The awakened are few and hard to find." It sure seems that way.

wsking's picture

Please see the link above to the complete story of Ven. Moggallana's murder.
Gassho _/|\_

John Haspel's picture

Thank You Mr. Buswell and Mr. Lopez. I have great respect for both of you. I agree that to follow the Dhamma is to put aside all views founded in superstition and false beliefs. Being tolerant of other’s view does not mean that one needs to incorporate those views. The push for a “unified religion” or a “unified view” I believe is the cause of much of the frustrations some fundamentalist feel and this is what leads to inter-religious hatred and violence.

This desire for a unified view is also a distraction from the Buddha’s Dhamma. Much of the teachings on The Four Noble Truths, the core of the Buddha’s teachings, have been altered, embellished, or discarded to fit into modern religious belief and modern sensibilities.

True tolerance as a practitioner of the Dhamma is to recognize the preciousness of the Three Jewels and let others to their own beliefs. True tolerance is to “work diligently for one’s own salvation.”

The Buddha did not teach a component-based religion that had individual parts that could indiscriminately be fit into other belief systems. The Buddha taught a way of putting aside all views and is this not the ultimate in tolerance, to hold no views that have arisen from greed, hatred and delusional thinking?

John Haspel

sanghadass's picture

The Blessed One said, "In any doctrine & discipline where the noble eightfold path is not found, no contemplative of the first... second... third... fourth order... is found. But in any doctrine & discipline where the noble eightfold path is found, contemplatives of the first... second... third... fourth order are found... Other teachings are empty of knowledgeable contemplatives. And if the monks dwell rightly, this world will not be empty of arahants." DN-16

The Buddha gave the teaching above, in response to a question about some of the well-known teachers/teachings of the day. The Buddha seems to have been 'less than impressed' with the teachings of other prominent spiritual communities around at the time. We need to remember that the teachings arose in the context of a particular time and place. There is quite a lot of inter-communal tension and rivalry - political and religious - to be found in the early texts. Although the Dharma's important themes are timeless! Some teachings that have appeared in the wake of the Buddha's heart-felt offerings may contain all the eight factors of the path. Some may have indirectly benefitted from the Buddha's wisdom and compassion. There is no particular reason why they would need to identify as Buddhist. As long as the eight factors are present awakening is possible.

I know that many people believe that Buddhist's have a monopoly on awakening. It may just be the case that the Buddha's awakening became well known because of the clarity and power of his teachings. Also, the Buddha's life story might have singled him out for special attention. Having started life in a high caste family and then renouncing it all! A number of things may have contributed to the success of the Buddha and his teachings?

The Buddha's emphasis on a path that leads to direct knowledge and vision seems to be a real draw card. We may all wake up and see for ourselves the truth which liberates! The ritualism of the Brahmins was loosing its grip on many people before and, during the Buddha's lifetime. The discipline and devotion of the Sangha is important as well! I believe it is the Sangha's commitment to sharing the Dharma, that is the key factor in the spread of the teaching. Whereas, other awakened beings prior to, during and, after the Buddha - who were not members of the Buddha's Sangha - may have come and gone, without the same kind of impact.

wsking's picture

I just bought Professors Buswell&Lopez' dictionary from Amazon. It has arrived and is fantastic. The answer to your question is surely in there. Its also on sale right now. $50 instead of $80. Don't miss the chance. It is wonderful. What I have been looking for my whole life. A great gift for sangha scholars.


prayerdrum's picture

Agreed, Dominic... I thought I would read an article about different religious conceptions and ended up reading an article on human stupidity (maybe they are the same :-) )

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism understands human stupidity as one of 3 innate poisons (the other 2 are greed and belligerence).

glenzorn's picture

Stupidity is not the same as ignorance.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Ignorance is when people stupidly operate without their wits about them.

sanghadass's picture

An inability to exercise due care. A lack of sensitivity. ''Forgive them, for they know not what they do! " - Christ
Ignorance is an attempt to stay safe at the expense of fully being here. Where we loose contact with ourselves, with others, with the world. The wisdom of an open heart is when we are willing to take risks, become vulnerable, truly meet each other and, love unconditionally! xxoo

Dominic Gomez's picture

The sub-title of the article is not addressed. What are the different notions of nirvana each religion or school teaches?

Danny's picture

Nagarjuna's Madhyamaka: Nirvana is simply Samsara without reification, attachment or delusion.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Lotus Sutra's definition: nirvana IS samsara. Life is what you make it, heaven or hell.