When I first became interested in Buddhism, I was shocked--perhaps naively--to discover how divided the Buddhist community often can be. The Theravada/Mahayana split is the most obvious, though even amongst Mahayana schools there exists a rivalry regarding who has the "authentic" Dharma. Vajrayana claims that Tantra is the "highest" teachings is a great example. It's the old, "My school is better than yours" routine. The irony, of course, is that the Buddha warned us not to get attached to the forms in which the Dharma manifests itself--when we're done with the raft, we should abandon it. That the Dharma is a finger pointing at the moon, but not the moon itself. Despite these words of caution, many Buddhists wind up clinging jingoishly to traditions they practice. This degenerates into elitism and sectarianism.
Rita M. Gross recently addressed this issue in her article "Buddhist History for Buddhist Practitioners" (found in the latest issue of Tricycle). Gross is an author, Dharma teacher, and professor of comparative studies in religion. In her essay, she offers several suggestions on how to approach Buddhist history without privileging one tradition over another. One of her recommendations, which I have always agreed with, is to drop the term Hinayana (meaning "Lesser Vehicle," as compared to Mahayana, or "Great Vehicle"). It's insensitive and elitist. Elevating one school of Buddhism at the expense of denigrating another is a waste of time and energy that could be spent teaching or practicing the Dharma. I'm shocked that some Buddhists still think it's acceptable to use this word. It's got to go. The appropriate term is Theravada. It's 2010, let's get it straight.
Another suggestion that Gross offers is aimed at Theravadins themselves. It's equally elitist and divisive for Theravadans to claim that the Pali Canon is purer or more authentic (because it's older) than Mahayana sutras, or worse, that Mahayana sutras are disingenuous. On the other hand, the same goes for Mahayanists when they claim that their teachings are more advanced, and that the Pali Canon is a form of primitive or early Buddhism. Or that Bodhisattvas are superior to the Theravadin Arahants--just another ego trap that turns altruism into a competitive form of of holier-than-thou. This also applies to Vajrayana Buddhists who boast that Tantra is the highest or most sophisticated Buddhist teachings. It's jingoism, plain and simple; and more importantly, it gets us nowhere.
As Gross writes, "At the heart of sectarianism is the tendency to regard difference as deficiency." And this is simply not the case.
No one has cornered the market on the Dharma. Each time it blossoms in new soil, it changes form to suit the needs and times of its new environment; hence the emergence of Pure Land, Zen, Vajrayana, etc. For why should the Dharma be impervious to the very laws of impermanence that it itself espouses?
We live in a highly divided world where religions often degenerate into open hostility towards one another. (Just think of the Terry Joneses of the world.) Now more than ever, the Buddhist community needs solidarity, not division. For if we truly believe that the Dharma is the medicine to heal the suffering of the world, then we need to stop squabbling over whose Dharma is the best. As long as a tradition is consonant with the Buddha's core teachings--the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, impermanence, no-self/emptiness, dependent origination, etc.--then I would call it Buddhist. We need to drop the tendency to rank traditions like a football draft, and embrace our differences. All of this in the hopes of creating a global community for both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike.
I am optimistic that this can and will happen. When I scan the names and faces of my friends on Facebook, they're from all over the world--from almost every Buddhist tradition. That tells me that we can unite to conquer sectarianism.