• Theravada
  • Mahayana (Zen, Tibetan, Pure Land... all three very different from each other!)
  • Vajrayana

Since Shakyamuni's awakening, buddhism has evolved in many different ways throughout Asia. Each of these way has a different interpretation of the Buddha's teachings.

Then, how are we supposed to answer a question about, let's say, daily life for a buddhist or the concept of being "clear" of thought while meditating (this not how Zen would put it, for instance)?

The use of relevant tags maybe? But even then, it might not be enough, for instance, people who are not practitioners and therefore do not belong to any tradition, but are just eager to know more about buddhism, how should we answer their questions? For instance, should we talk about Enlightnment for every and each tradition each time there is a question about it?


3 Answers 3



The easy ones

Sect-agnostic questions

Some questions are reasonably sect-agnostic and are unlikely to elicit different responses from followers of different sects. Questions about the life of the Buddha (which is probably mostly agreed upon by all sects, unlike some of his teachings) are likely to fall into this category, as are questions about the historical evolution of Buddhism, and maybe some questions about meditation (among others). So these questions shouldn't cause us too much trouble.

Sect-specific questions

Other questions are obviously sect-specific, and the question asker knows it: e.g. What is the purpose of using a wand to hit a monk in Zen meditation?. In this case, it is obvious what to do - tag the question with an appropriate sect-related tag. At the broadest level, I suppose we have , , or - but there are also finer classifications that may be of use, e.g. , , etc.

I think it is a matter of the questioner's taste whether s/he would rather use one of the three top-level tags or something more specific, though of course we should be open to retagging a question with some other sect if would help the questioner get more relevant answers. Either way, the use of a sect-specific tag signals that the questioner knows what s/he's asking about, and wants an answer in the same vein.

The tricky ones

Then we get to the real mess - questions by laypeople that have vaguely-defined ideas about things that Buddhists do and who are unaware of the fine distinctions between the sects (disclaimer: I'm pretty much one of them). This is the tough part.

Christianity.SE, which is the most mature religion SE site, has declared these questions off-topic: "a survey of all Christian views on a particular subject" and "what the Bible says about a subject (unless you specify a doctrine/tradition)" are on the do-not-ask list. This is going to be a bigger problem for us than for them - because of the demographics of Stack Exchange, we're going to have far more non-Buddhists asking questions than they have non-Christians asking questions (relative to the size of the site).

The site is already full of questions like these - as a rough estimate, I'd say at least half fall into this category. On the other hand, I expect that there will be relatively fewer of them going forward - there's only so many generic questions that can be asked.

The easy solution is to ban them outright, like Christianity.SE did - but I don't know if we want to do that. These questions have tangible value both in terms of growth for the site (i.e. these general questions are the ones that are going to draw the most visitors) and as a view into the different sects within Buddhism that would be difficult to attain if we had to fragment these answers across multiple questions like "How do I attain enlightenment in Theravada?" and "How do I attain enlightenment in Zen?" and "How do I attain enlightenment in Bon?".

I don't know what the best thing to do is here; this is going to take a fair bit of discussion to figure out.


To the easy ones

To sect-agnostic questions

Since these questions are inherently sect-agnostic, it shouldn't matter too much what sect you follow. Nonetheless, it behooves you to make clear where you're coming from. If your answer is based on a passage from the Pali Canon, mention that. If you're drawing on something you heard in a talk by a Zen master, mention that. This helps place the answers in context.

To sect-specific questions.

Well, to start with, you obviously shouldn't answer a question tagged with Theravada teachings unless 1.) you have a really good contribution to make, or 2.) the particular teachings you're using happen to be shared with Zen.

Other than that, we should proceed as above - mention what you're drawing your answer from. If it's from the teachings of a particular subsect or a particular teacher, make a note of that in your answer, because, after all, there can be differing interpretations even within a sect.

To the tricky ones

As long as we allow these questions, it is incredibly important that these questions be answered with an explicit mention of the tradition on which the answer is based. It does nobody any good to see a question like "How do I attain enlightenment?" with a dozen contradictory answers and no explanation of why they are contradictory.

I strongly believe that we, as a community, should discourage answers that lack an indication of the tradition/sect/whatever on which the answer is based by 1.) commenting on the answer and politely but firmly asking the answerer to edit their answer with a mention of what scripture/tradition/etc their answer is based on; and 2.) downvoting if, after some time, they have not done that.

  • I totally agree, thank you @senshin, very nice answer. Now, what is the process to have it added to the site rules and guidelines?
    – CTZStef
    Jun 21, 2014 at 12:51
  • @CTZStef Once we get pro tempore moderators in another week or two, they will be able to edit the various FAQ pages on the site to integrate information like this in. For now, though, we should make sure to wait and see if this answer is where community consensus lies, or if there are other approaches that might be better. (Also, would you be okay with removing the accept checkmark from this answer for now? I feel that we shouldn't imply that the issue has been fully settled yet.)
    – senshin
    Jun 21, 2014 at 23:10
  • No problem, I liked your answer so much I couldn't help but accept it ;)
    – CTZStef
    Jun 22, 2014 at 2:29
  • Absolutely agree with your last statement; I think it makes a good rule for stopping us from posing as the authoritative word on any given topic. I don't think it's terribly important in the case of answers to sect-agnostic questions, provided it is clear that the question is on something truly sect-agnostic. I would think answers to such a question would have to be sect-agnostic themselves, regardless of the sources they quote. Jun 22, 2014 at 19:54
  • My stance on providing references remains the same. By restricting authoritative answers we would deny first-hand experience and limit ourselves to speculative theory. Given the situation in Buddhism, when most so-called practitioners do not even operate from the right frame of reference, denying people access to expert opinion is detrimental.
    – Andriy Volkov Mod
    Jun 28, 2014 at 2:19

Encourage people to tag their questions with the sect/tradition in which they want an answer.

In fact, without a tag, every question could turn into a survey of the dozens of schools.

e.g. "Where do Buddhists stand on Abortion/Homosexuality/the existence of the Realms?" Well, Dalai Lama says X, Dharma Drum Mountain say Y, Insight Meditation Community says Z, Shin Buddhists say A, and so on, including I say , my aunt says, and people say "...."

We may end up with a lot of questions/answers that look like doubles, but wouldn't be if they are dealing with things from a different framework-- I suspect that would be fine.

I remember one question elsewhere... "how to repent (in the Buddhist fashion) doing an abortion?" The person was asking a sincere answer wanted to know from the Chinese Buddhist standpoint. It would have been useless to try to convince them that at such and such a meditation center in Indiana, that it is a non issue since they don't repent, nor put abortion on the list of wrongdoings. In the Chinese system repentance is efficacious and abortion is a first precept violation.

From the standpoint of someone with a problem, they want the problem solved in their framework. The solution in half a dozen other frameworks isn't very useful for putting them into action.


I also think having a tag for the sect from which you want an answer is helpful. Diversity in sects means some questions look completely off topic may have relevance to some sects. Also if someone from another sect brings their stand point then others should be respectful of it also as long as the answer is formulated within an acceptable framework. Again sometime these answers may look irrelevant from another sects point of view. This should be tolerated.

Also maybe Theravada, Zen, maybe too brought something as within Theravada there would be subtle variation in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. In case you think if there appears to be some variations some one can point out in a comment or can be edited in that there is some variation.

Not mentioning the tradition need not attract down votes but someone who spots that there are subtleties relating to tradition can edit the answer to point this out.

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