Beginning Buddhists and Zen Buddhist are often surprised to find that beneath the calm exterior of Buddhism there are quiet disputes (non-violent of course) going on. Such disputes have always been a part of post-mortem Buddhism with the proliferation of many sects each with a different spin on what the Buddha taught. Usually, where there is a different sect there is more or less a dispute with another sect.
In most cases, for example in Zen, the disputes are not deep with perhaps the only exception being Dogen Zenji’s position with regard to zazen in which sitting was considered by him as being synonymous with enlightenment. When Dogen claims, "Sitting is itself the treasury of the eye of true Dharma and the mystic mind of nirvana" (Carl Bielefeldt, Dogen's Manuals of Zen Meditation, p. 169), he seems to be raising a particular physical action to the level of nirvana. Yet, nowhere in the Nikayas or Mahayana, for example, is sitting itself deemed nirvana or is nirvana dependent on the sitting posture. Japanese Rinzai didn’t buy this idea and I dare say, some of Sotoshu.
Other disputes are found in Tibetan Buddhism, that is, Vajrayana. The debate faces off between those who insist that emptiness boils down to absolute negation without positive implication (prasajya-pratisedha) which are the Rangtongpas; while the other side argues for relative negation with positive implication (paryudasa-pratisedha) this being the Shentongpas. This has implications for the correct meaning of emptiness which is not a settled theory in Tibetan circles.
The dispute most Westerners are aware of is between those who claim that the Buddha did not deny the âtman; who only taught his followers not to identify with that which is not the âtman or in Pali, anattâ; and those who insist that the Buddha did in fact deny the âtman as a true reality. In Thailand, this dispute is out in the open. It is between the Theravadins, themselves, who are split between Self and not self. This dispute is taken up in Potprecha Cholvijarn’s book (a dissertation), Nibbana as Self or Not Self: Some contemporary Thai discussions.
Closer to home, is the growing dispute between secular Buddhists and those who are against its unbridled form of revisionism. Stephen Batchelor’s book, Buddhism Without Beliefs, has become something of a manifesto of secular Buddhism. It invites skepticism of such notable tenets of Buddhism as karma, rebirth and, I would argue, the very importance of nirvana. It leans heavily in the direction of materialism. Batchelor, himself, does not believe in spirit (cp. Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. p. 68). He is no vitalist, in other words.
I don’t foresee such disputes ever coming to an end. This is why it is important for anyone serious about awakening to their true nature to live like a hermit—even an urban hermit will do! Buddhism is, as I have mentioned before, an “introspective science” in which we have to zoom in on, and break through the veil of mental phenomena, reaching a point in which we come face to face with the very essence or substance of thought which is radiant.