I have heard that Buddha spoke of 84,000 Dharma "Doors," or approaches to enlightenment, but I had always considered this a gross exaggeration. What I'm finding in my study of Mahayana is drawing me closer to appreciating the tremendous scope and diversity of the teachings.
My previous experiences with Buddhism were focused on the "flavors" of Japanese and ancient Chinese Buddhism - Nichiren, Shin, and Zen (Chan in Chinese.) The approach to the Dharma of these various schools is what I'd describe as "Protestant." Although they do have their various chants, iconic representations i.e. Gohonzons and Scrolls, they, for the most part focus on the more stark aspects of Buddha's teachings, stripped of many of the rituals and practices found in other schools.
THE "PROTESTANT" APPROACH TO BUDDHISM
The Nichiren Buddhist approach is focused on drawing out the inherent Buddha nature that is within all living beings through focusing the mind on the meaning of the Lotus Sutra and the practice of venerating its teachings.
The Shin Buddhist approach focuses on the futility of using our own deluded mind to realize our Buddha nature - perceiving correctly perhaps that we cannot solve our human problems with the mind that creates them. So the focus of Shin Buddhism is not on a particular sutra or scripture, but rather on the source of the sutra - the personification of the source of Buddha's compassion - in the form of Amida Buddha.
Zen, on the other hand, focuses less on the character of Buddha and the Sutra practices - and emphasizes the direct experience of Buddha through self-directed discipline and diminishing of the ego and focuses on transcending the duality of consciousness. It is the iconoclastic approach to Buddhism. It could be said that Zen is to Buddhism what Quakerism is to Christianity.
THE "CATHOLIC" APPROACH TO BUDDHISM
My latest passion in Buddhist teachings is from New Kadampa Buddhism, which although rooted in Vajrayana - is actually an independent school within Mahayana, based on the teachings of Buddha interpreted by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso - who I think maybe the closest thing to a modern day Buddha - at least an emanation of Buddha.
What draws me to the New Kadampa approach is the emphasis on using the imagination to change the "wiring" in our thinking - to visualize the mind that we want to obtain - the mind of Bodhichitta (the mind of enlightenment.)
The New Kadampa movement is the more Catholic version of Buddhism in that it engages the mind together with the body in a devotional approach to Buddha and his legacy of teachers and masters - all the senses are engaged in practicing the Dharma. It uses prayers to open the heart, mantras to focus the mind, and contemplation to deepen the awareness of the state of the mind.
I have always found it difficult to meditate on the breath or on a mantra - but adding the visualization of an alternate reality with the imagined emotional states that result - helps to bring about a change in consciousness.
The path of the Kadampas is a comprehensive approach that uses all of the tools of the mind to bring about the experiences of emptiness, or potentiality of the true nature of reality. It isn't an easy path by any means - actually it is probably not correct to call it a path - because it is really a means to realizing the present reality of Buddhahood that is our true being.
I feel at home with this form of Buddhism. It fits me very comfortably. It offers the perfect balance of inner peace and outward altruism - fueling my good intention of becoming a Buddha for the benefit of all.
"May everyone be happy,
May everyone be free from misery,
May no one ever be separated from their happiness,
May everyone have equanimity, free from hatred and attachment."