Our understanding of Buddhism is helped by seeing the stuctures of the entire spiritual path, by understanding its essence and how it brings about human happiness and freedom.
The essential path taught by the Buddha has three parts to it. The first is kindness of heart, which is practiced by a combination of virtue and generosity. The second is inner stillness or concentration. The third aspect of all Buddhist practice is the development of liberating wisdom. All Buddhist practices are ways of developing virture that entails the non-harming of other beings and a generosity of heart. There are ways of developing concentration, stillness, steadiness, clarity or depth of mind; and there are ways of developing insight or wisdom, a wise relationship to the whole body and mind, and the freedom that comes from it. These three aspects of practice themselves are but the means to the final freedom of the heart. As the Buddha himself said, "The purpose of my teaching of the holy life of the Dharma is not for merit, nor good deeds, nor rapture, nor concentration, nor insight, but the sure heart's release." This and this alone is the reason for the teaching of the Buddha. The purpose of all these practices of virtue, kindness, non-harming, generosity, concentration, steadiness of mind, and the understanding and wisdom that arises, is to bring us to freedom.
The many practices of Buddhism are like paths up a mountain, outwardly different approaches that are appropriate for different personalities and character types. Yet, through skillful guidance and skillful teachers, many of these paths can be used to lead one to universal vision at the summit of the mountain.
Lama Govinda uses the image of a seed and a tree as a nondualistic way of illustrating the variety of Buddhist practices available. Two thousand five hundred years ago, Siddhartha Gotama, through his extraordinary realization, planted a seed of timeless wisdom and compassion. Over the centuries, the seed has grown and produced an enormous and wonderful tree, which has a trunk and branches, flower and fruit. Some people claim that the roots are the true Buddhism; others claim, "No, it's the great trunk of the tree," or "the fruit of Vajrayana," or "the roots of Theravada Buddhism." In fact, all parts of the tree support one another. The leaves give nourishment back to the roots; the roots draw moisture and minerals, bringing nourishment up to the leaves, and they in turn provide support for the flowers and the fruit. It is all part of the whole, and to understand that is to see the creative and dynamic forces that were set loose from the seed of the Buddha's awakening.
As Buddhism comes to North America, a wonderful new process is happeining. All of us want what was mostly the special dispensation of monks in Asia: the real practice of the Buddha. We, too, want to live the realizations of the Buddha and bring him into our hearts, our lives, and our time. This is why so many Americans have been drawn to Buddhist practice. Somehow we have an intuitive sense of the potential of human freedom and the heart of basic goodness, the timeless discovery of the Buddha. We are drawn not just to study it and understand it, but to practice it, realize it, and live it in our lives. When we pracitce with devotion and a love for truth, we can each find the timeless freedom and compassion of the Buddha in our very own heart.
Jack Kornfield. "Is Buddhism Changing?" Buddhist America. Santa Fe: John Muir, 1988.