Although I always considered Theravada to be the most "pure", "the real thing" or as close as one can get to that, from the first time I discovered Buddhism and tried to get my head around all the different varieties, all my understanding of Buddhism was theoretical in the beginning for many years, and I did not even have any confidence that anyone anywhere in the world today could be practicing "the real thing". I thought today they must be certainly all into embellished nonsense everywhere in the world. There's no way to escape that. The world is so full of nonsense, our heads are full of nonsense. No one can possibly really understand what the Buddha taught anymore. Having read all the stories from the good old times in the suttas, I was so pessimistic.
But the first monk who really inspired me was Matthieu Ricard, a French monk ordained in the Tibetan tradition, who has been mentioned in some thread here
recently. He wrote fabulous books which are really inspiring, written from the heart but with so much intelligence and intellectual tactfulness, it's amazing. You can really feel his way of life and inner development in his writing. (If you'd want to check him out I would most recommend his book "The monk and the philosopher", great stuff). So yeah, I really like this monk. But I have given away all of his books that I had, because I wouldn't read them again. Just because I've already read them.
Pema Chödrön I also found quite nice for some time when I was (trying to) getting into meditation. But now I can't get much out of that anymore. But she was inspiring.
There was also this other Tibetan-ordained nun who gave some nice talks which I liked but whose name I forgot.
My first meditation retreat was under the tutelage of a Tibetan-inspired laywoman.
These Tibetan-ordained western monastics or Tibetan-inspired laypeople often seem to have a particularly skilled way to approach things from the emotional side, although sometimes then I find that a bit over the top, a bit too much. Don't know if I make sense. Anyhow, a lot of good stuff I've seen there.
My second meditation retreat was under the guidance of a Tibetan-ordained Italian monk. But it was Vipassana as he had learnt it from some Theravada teachers, don't know which. So that was a really nice thing and he was a really great guide in that. The monk was really inspiring and encouraging, a great teacher.
Thich Nhat Hanh is also quite nice I think from what I've read and heard, and from the people I've seen who are inspired by that. But I don't have too much experience with that.
Zen is something I don't understand.
So Buddhism is not so divided, or should not be seen that way as it is often made out, I think.
There are sincere practitioners in all traditions for sure. But on the theoretical level Theravada is the only thing that I can really make sense of. As for specifically Mahayana texts, I mostly could not make any sense of them at all. And on a practical level I have since also learnt to put things into use from the Theravada framework, and so my interest has converged to that quite exclusively after all.
But in terms of practice, Theravada is also very varied, as is Mahayana. Different people, different traditions, different approaches.
So I'm happy that I found what's right for me but still appreciate that there are other ways. And I'm glad that I found a nice meditation center close to me which is mostly Theravada but also hosts many other groups from different traditions. Although people (including me) still stick to their groups there, there's some general openness and possibility for exchange there which is nice, and I hope that will be preserved for a long time. The people who have established and manage that place have really done great work.
Okay. Sorry for so much rambling. Sometimes I don't know how to be concise. The answers to your specific questions are somewhere in that. I hope you find them.