I often use the term ‘Buddhist’ to describe my approach to life, but that usage is mainly a convention to make it easier for people to get some basic concept about where I might be coming from – and in general it works fairly well. If, however, I say that I am Jodo Shinshu (or a Shin Buddhist), this seldom works out very well (in fact, it is usually an epic fail) because people have so many preconceived ideas about what this might mean – ideas seldom based upon intimate experience of my (or any other individual’s) understanding and practice of Jodo Shinshu.
If a person, upon hearing that myself (or any other) person is Jodo Shinshu, thinks: “Ah, so he/she is a Shin Buddhist – that means he/she believes in an external savior-figure who will take him/her to some sort of perfect world or Buddhist heaven when he/she dies, which also means he/she probably has no comprehension of the theory or practice of REAL Buddhism,” such is more a comment on that person’s own understanding, than a comment on the understanding of any given Shin Buddhist. However, I will be the first to acknowledge that this ‘image’ or ‘stereotype’ exists because there are many persons who do indeed fit that description (more or less). However, were a person to take the time to investigate what the specific individual in question understood regarding the theory and practice of Shin Buddhism, such an investigation might very well reveal something rather different from the stereotype.
As with everything else in this world, there are probably as many forms of Buddhism as there are people. Every person has a mental image of Buddhism (with a capital ‘B’), and carries that image around, super-imposing it upon everyone else’s version (with a lowercase ‘b’), thinking: “This is not a match.” I do not exclude myself from this characterization. This is simply the way the either/or mind works … it is a difference engine.
Some people are very willing to accommodate the fact we all have our own version of Buddhism in our heads without necessarily understanding that this also means that some of those images of Buddhism are likely to be more or less accurate (relative to others) in regard to reflecting either the historical reality of Buddhism or the ultimate reality of Dharma as such. Also some versions of Buddhism may be very well suited to bring about awakening in people with certain constellations of klesas, while others might actually hinder that awakening, while the opposite may be true for
persons with different constellations of klesas.
Regarding historical Buddhism, is there anyone who knows for sure what Shakyamuni taught? Are we even certain that his teaching reflected reality as such? I am not saying it didn’t, what I am saying is that there are things one cannot know through the usual methods of knowing. I did not hear Shakyamuni teach, and I don’t know who recorded the sutras, or when they were recorded, or with what degree of accuracy. Therefore, all pretense at getting at the truth of historical Buddhism is exactly that: pretense.
Which is all to say, if we go about always asking, “Will the REAL BUDDHISM please stand up,” it is unlikely we would recognise it even if it did. And if we did, could we be sure that we would be ready, willing and able to make efficient and effective use of it? Or, is there any reason to believe that a historically factual Buddhism would be something worth practicing? Questions worth asking, IMHO …
And, in the end, if Shakyamuni was truly an enlightened being, he was enlightened to and by the Dharma, Tathata … so, in regard to the theory and practice of the Dharma, it may be best for us to seek the reality behind both Buddha and Buddhism, and not make the historical buddha and his teaching our bedrock, for we may never be able to determine the specifics of the latter with any degree of certainty, but reality is right there in front of us, ever offering its wordless dharma.