Get-What-You-Want Buddhism

Jan Nattier is a scholar of Early Indian Buddhism, Early Mahayana Buddhism, and Chinese Buddhist Translation and author of A Few Good Men (Studies in the Buddhist Traditions). She was a professor of Buddhist Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University and held the post of the Shinnyōen Consulting Professor (Buddhist Studies) at Stanford University during the spring quarter 2014.

Her ideas on get-what-you-want Buddhism get us to think about what we can do to get a respite from suffering. Even our thirst for nirvana is as much of a craving a for getting that new job or buying a larger house.

“Get-What-You-Want” Buddhism

Some of us already have the material basics; some of us do not. All of us want a respite from suffering. And the thirst for nirvana is no less a desire than is the hope for a better job or the wish that one’s grandchildren will carry on the family’s Buddhist traditions. We all practice get-what-you-want Buddhism; we just want different things.

– Jan Nattier, “Visible & Invisible”


Buddhism first appeared in India many years after the parinirvana of the Buddha. By around 250 BCE, two distinct schools began to evolve, the Theravada and the Mahayana. Buddhism later was exported to China in 500 CE where the Mahayana school was call Chan. and then, later to Japan where it is known as Zen. The Vajrayana school came out of India to Tibet around the same time.

During the same period, Theravada Buddhism spread to Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. With influences from the North from China and the South from Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam had a mixture of both. I have learned about both schools from my teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.

The environment in the West for Buddhist converts consists of mixtures of Mahayana, Theravada, and Vajrayna traditions. This gives many practitioners a type of get-what-you-want Buddhism. We have many teachings to choose from and this can become confusing.

I have learned a lot from all three traditions. They have many things in common such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Four Immeasurable Minds, the Three Poisons, the Five Remembrances, and the 6 (Mahayana and Vajrayana) or 10 (Theravada) Paramitas. Each one of these has been treated in other articles, so please click on the links if you are so inclined.

I’m sure that some of this information is inaccurate. If you know of any corrections, won’t you please let me know? I’d really appreciate your feedback on this.

Books by Jan Nattier

A Few Good Men (Studies in the Buddhist Traditions)

Jan Nattier

A Few Good Men is a study and translation of The Inquiry of Ugra (Ugrapariprccha), one of the most influential Mahayana sutras on the bodhisattva path, but also one of the most neglected texts in Western treatments of Buddhism. To achieve a better understanding of the universe of ideas, activities, … [Read More…]

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