American Folk Buddhism (1)

First Quarter Moon, Uposatha, March 30, 2012


How did it happen that Western Buddhists so quickly gained a monopoly on real Buddhism? We in the West certainly don’t seem to have gained much of a handle on Christianity over many centuries, and the average citizen of my country is pretty clueless about science., history, and almost everything else outside of popular entertainment. Yet we meditate and study Buddhist philosophy while people in Asian temples burn money and appease spirits through elaborate rituals. How were we the ones to arrive at this precise understanding of something as sophisticated and refined as Buddhist thought and practice?

There is a common kind of hubris in the West that often goes as far as trying to save Buddhism from Asian misunderstanding. I began wondering about this some years ago after many years of training in the Western American context. Often Americans who come to Buddhism are dismayed at what gets included in Buddhism in Asia, and yet American Buddhism sprang out of the Asian communities and was inspired by Asian teachers. This does not add up. What gives?

It is true that if we try to accept the whole package things get muddled in our Western way of thinking very quickly. Meditation is widely acclaimed and the Four Noble Truths and the Refuges are broadly accepted, but then there are choices to consider: when to blend in Tantric elements, whether to walk the Bodhisattva Path or the Path of the Arahat, which precepts to follow, not to mention the daunting plethora of meditation techniques. OK, that goes with the territory. But then there is this renunciation thing, ritual with a lot of bowing, community and social functions where a go-it-alone individual endeavor would seem preferable, devotional practices, gaudy garb, ancestor worship, appeasing tree spirits, appealing to bodhisattvas or simply the power of Buddha to save us from misfortune, gaining merit to attain a felicitous rebirth and blaming misfortune on one’s past karma. Some of this is certainly over the edge, … isn’t it?

For a Western newcomer and many a seasoned practitioner Buddhism as a whole appears as a tangle of bushes with a few edible berries but in general no clear path or order. Unfortunately the individual or collective Western response has often much like that of the landowner who discovers an overgrown but still potentially productive corn field on his property and with limited understanding of both corn and non-corn dauntlessly hacks away with a machete only to destroy half of the corn and to leave half of the undergrowth, then plants one row of Monsanto super-corn and row of squash to make it look right. It looks pretty good, so we call it Western Buddhism.

To make better sense of this historical process in which we Western Buddhists participate I want to suggest that we are actually in a process of developing two distinct Western Buddhisms, and that when we look at any particular Asian tradition we are actually looking at two distinct Asian Buddhisms. The two Buddhisms in each case exist in a symbiotic relationship. Often we confuse the two.

Essential Buddhism is like the corn in the simile. Although it is generally regarded as authoritative in a Buddhist community, it is so sophisticated that it is understood only by the adept few, often fully understood by the none.

Folk Buddhism is like the undergrowth. It represents the popular understanding of Buddhism. Individually we each feed on Essential and Folk Buddhism to varying degrees, but Folk Buddhism is the most nibbled and gnawed.

The super-corn and the squash represent new innovations, of Essential and Folk Buddhism respectively. Of course hacking away with a machete is also innovative as well. Essential Buddhism tends to be the more conservative, yet is still subject to innovation and culture-specific understandings. Folk Buddhisms on the other hand tend to vary wildly.

Understanding the difference between Essential Buddhism and Folk Buddhism is by no means intended as an aid for elimination of the undergrowth in favor of the corn. Buddhism has always been ecologically more sustainable than that; Roundup is eschewed. Undergrowth is a universal and inevitable part of Buddhism and already characterizes American Buddhism though I don’t think this is generally recognized. In fact it already feeds more critters by far than Essential Buddhism will ever feed.

Understanding the difference between Essential and Folk Buddhism is to bring the two into a proper and mutually beneficial relationship. First, our corn should grow straight and tall. Maintaining the integrity of Essential Buddhism is for the adepts and those with adept tendencies and it is for future generations. It also serves to protect the undergrowth and plays a corrective role, to ensure that Folk Buddhism thrives is a wholesome and beneficial form. Second, our undergrowth should bring wholesome values and practices into the lives of Buddhists. It should serve to bring benefit and remove harm. It should also take refuge under Essential Buddhism, to remain consistent in expression with the teachings, wisdom, standards and advice of the corn. The power of Folk Buddhism is in its immediate appeal to the largest masses of Buddhists through its simplicity and cultural consistency, but if it escapes the influence of Essential Buddhism it becomes a marginal cult of Buddhism at best.

Understanding the difference between Essential and Folk Buddhism is to recognize where our relationship with our Asian big brothers and sisters goes askew. Folk Buddhism is strongly bound to the local culture, one land’s Folk Buddhism is unlikely to made sense to the Folk Buddhists of a distant land. Moreover Folk Buddhists generally do not understand the extent to which they are Folk Buddhists. Yet the Essential Buddhism of a distant land, while not identical, is likely to accord with the local Essential Buddhism.

Parenthetically let me note that I will use “American” and “Western” almost interchangeably, preferring “American” where, as a North American “convert” Buddhist, I am a little unclear whether what I am about to assert really carries over to Europe or Australia, or Costa Rica. And even “Western” could generally be swapped with “Global” to apply to the cultures of not technically Western countries like modern India in which Buddhism is on the rise among an educated class, or even certain Westernized classes in some of the traditionally Buddhist countries, like iPod-toting Thais.

Today I am beginning this series on American Folk Buddhism. Next week I will try to get clearer about what Essential Buddhism is and how it can vary, particularly with culture. After that I will develop the theme of Folk Buddhism taking as my primary examples the two Folk Buddhisms that I am most familiar with: American and Burmese. In the end I will show what the implications of this are for thinking about and participating in the development of Western Buddhism.

Sound reasonable?




2 Responses to “American Folk Buddhism (1)”

  1. Hickersonia Says:

    I very much look forward to reading through this series of articles. 🙂 A very reasonable, and hopefully beneficial, endeavor. Thank you.

  2. Æ Says:

    Thanks for commenting on this Venerable. I look forward to your thoguhts as this is an issue I plan to tackle in my film on Buddhism in America.

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