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Ask the Teachers

Zenkei Blanche Hartman, Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, and Narayan Helen Liebenson

Q: I don’t identify exclusively with any one Buddhist tradition but rather find it helpful to learn from various ones, such as Zen, Vajrayana, Theravada, and Pure Land. Sometimes I’m criticized for not focusing solely on one tradition, but I don’t see what the problem is. Why shouldn’t we make the most of this incredible opportunity to learn from the many Buddhist traditions that have come to the West? After all, I even see Buddhist teachers studying with teachers outside of their tradition.

Narayan Helen Liebenson: You hear this kind of criticism because of a well-founded concern that one’s practice may become superficial and thus bring superficial results. Moving from tradition to tradition without being at home in any one of them is said to be like digging many small holes instead of one deep hole.

On the other hand, in the West, and especially in the U.S., there is a wonderful and remarkable coming together of a rich array of Buddhist traditions. In the past, most Asian countries had one tradition and sometimes only offered one way of practice. If it wasn’t the right one for you, you were pretty much out of luck. Here, almost anyone can find a practice that suits them.

It is true that a number of Buddhist teachers study with teachers outside of their tradition. For me, although I am most at home in the Insight Meditation tradition, I am also deeply connected to the Chan tradition and practiced with Master Sheng Yen for ten years. I remain connected to this lineage in unexpected ways.

One piece of advice I received on this same question came while I was practicing with Ajahn Maha Boowa in a Thai Forest monastery many years ago. The advice was to remain with one teacher for five years and give it your all. After this initial training period, it’s okay to move on if you want because you will have a firm foundation upon which to rest. This advice was for monks and had to do with teachers and monasteries, not lineages and traditions, but I see it as applying to your question as well. If someone is dedicated to the path of liberation, five years seems like the minimum time commitment needed to thoroughly learn one tradition.

Some people will remain in one tradition for their entire practice lives, and that will be enough. Others, like you, will be open to the many traditions within Buddhism. For me, it’s not that there was or is anything lacking in the Theravada tradition; I simply met a teacher in the Chan lineage with whom I had a strong affinity.

I don’t see your openness as necessarily problematic so long as you have wise view and know precisely how to practice. But if you find yourself succumbing to confusion, you need to choose one tradition and stick with it.

Excerpted from the Summer 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.

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Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center.

Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet

Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center

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