American Folk Buddhism (2)

Full Moon, Uposatha, April 6, 2012

Essential Buddhism

Last week I introduced but did not fully explain the distinction between Essential Buddhism and Folk Buddhism. In brief, when people criticize Asian Buddhists as not being real Buddhists or as caught in a mesh of superstition and religiosity, they are probably talking about Asian Folk Buddhism; Asian Essential Buddhism is generally just fine. When people criticize American Buddhism as being watered down Buddhism, they are probably talking about American Folk Buddhism; American Essential Buddhism is developing just fine, thought it is not yet as firmly planted here as in most of Asia. Most of Buddhism as it is lived and practiced by millions of people is Folk Buddhism, it has always been that way since Buddhism expanded beyond the Buddha’s immediate disciples and will always be that way. Folk Buddhism is fine too as long as it is kept wholesome. We will begin to look at what “wholesome” means next week.

The reason why Folk Buddhism is so overwhelmingly popular is that Essential Buddhism is so incredibly sophisticated and subtle that it will inevitably be understood substantially (let alone fully) by the relatively few. Essential Buddhism is rooted in the most ancient teachings of the Buddha while Folk Buddhism is a generally culturally conditioned more naïve popular understanding of Buddhism, or sometimes a complete misunderstanding, or sometimes an accretion of elements that have no historical relation to Essential Buddhism at all but are nevertheless thought of as Buddhist in a particular culture.

This is much the situation with science, music, philosophy, engineering or many other areas wherever popular interest and narrow achievement exist side by side. A professional physicist, for instance, has a very sophisticated understanding developed through education, training and perhaps personal research that the rest of us fall far short of. Yet we are all physicists at at least a naïve level insofar as we must deal with the world of mass and motion, light and liquids. Try asking some naïve physicists things like: What keeps the moon and airplanes up but us down? Why is the back of the refrigerator so warm? How can radio waves carry sounds and pictures? What makes water freeze? … and you may receive in return some astonishing examples of naïve understandings. Beyond naïve understandings folk science trails off into misunderstandings, superstition and “wive’s tales.” Buddhism is no different, never has been since the early days and never will be.

Elements of Essential Buddhism

So what is this more sophisticated Essential Buddhism?

The easiest and obvious answer would be that it is the Dharma-Vinaya taught by the Buddha, as somewhat reliably attested by the early Pali Suttas, but also in the Chinese Agamas and the Vinaya in many languages. I take care to tack “Vinaya,” monastic discipline, which carries most of the institutional aspects of Buddhism, onto “Dharma” in this context, first, because the Buddha normally used “Dharma-Vinaya” to refer to the entirety of his teachings, and secondly and more importantly, because the Vinaya is directly relevant to the relationship of Essential and Folk Buddhism.

Essential Buddhism defined in this way includes a variety of understandings, practices and institutions that include, for instance, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Four Noble Truths, Nirvana, Samsara, Dependent Origination, the Marks of Existence (impermanence, suffering and no-self), karma, meditation practice, renunciation, kindness, generosity, the Three Refuges, the monastic lifestyle and obligations, and so on. “Understanding” here is much deeper than intellectual understanding but rather depends on the direct experience of these elements on the basis of deep and prolonged practice.

I want to qualify this definition. First, there was probably already a vibrant Folk Buddhism even in the Buddha’s day, cobbled together from elements of essential Buddhism along with popular folk beliefs and this Folk Buddhism is also probably reported in the earliest scriptural sources, for instance, in the Buddha’s discourses to village people as opposed to those spoken to his closest disciples. So this definition may be a bit too broad.

Second, and more importantly, Essential Buddhism itself has gone through a historical process of evolution, particularly as it has been transmitted into novel cultural contexts, and is evolving in the West as well. This Essential Buddhism, though expressed in different ways has retained its functional integrity in very diverse schools. One of my interests has been in assessing the claim with regard to Zen Mahayana Buddhism in which I was ordained for a number of years before ordaining in the Theravada tradition. In practice and understanding Zen is actually very close to the Theravada Forest Tradition even though its language and teachings are heavily influenced by Taoism and Confucianism. In my recent series on meditation I compared Zen shikantaza and modern vipassana techniques both favorably with Buddha’s original teachings. So the definition of Essential Buddhism as first stated above may also be too narrow; anyway it is not the unique property of a single school of Buddhism.

Maintaining the Integrity of Essential Buddhism

Essential Buddhism is only able to maintain its integrity in spite of evolution because of adepts. In particular, without the involvement of strong practitioners with, or who develop, deep understanding of its essential functions, who are able to at least glimpse Nirvana and experience the Path of development that heads unwaveringly in that direction, the sophisticated teachings of Essential Buddhism will not make full sense, are likely to be misinterpreted, will probably shed their most head-scratching aspects and will be unable to recover from past misunderstandings. Traditionally the adepts with this level of attainment are called stream enterers, and as a group are called the ariya sangha (noble community). With adepts practicing sincerely, false or incomplete understandings cannot survive and the integrity of Essential Buddhism will be upheld. For an example, in my blog series on meditation I described how Buddhist meditation in particular seems to have retained its integrity or even to have self-corrected when it has deviated functionally from the Buddha’s original intention, even as the way it has been taught and described has changed.

A primary function of the monastic institution is to ensure a steady stream of new stream enterers. This is much of the reason that the Buddha included the Vinaya as a critical aspect of Essential Buddhism. Monastic practice not only enforces a personal discipline fully aligned with Dharma, that supports progress on the Path, but also creates a social and economic context that protects practice from aspects of common samasaric life that would otherwise suck the monastic back into self-centered responsiveness. Because it entails a strict renunciate practice that most cannot sustain and many cannot fathom without a great deal of affinity for the Buddha’s Path, it effectively provides a means of self-qualification. The mutually supporting community of those in the monastic path is the monastic sangha.

In short Buddhism supports the monastic sangha institutionally to provide the ideal context for Buddhist practice, thereby also producing most of the adepts who will ensure the survival of Essential Buddhism. The monastic sangha is the institutional, and visible, counterpart of the ariya sangha. Not all monastics are ariyas, but an ariya is most likely a monastic. In a number of Theravada sources it is maintained with great confidence that as long as monastics are following the Vinaya, the integrity of the Dharma is assured, because these are people who are living wholly according to Dharma. This has in fact preserved Essential Buddhism for many centuries throughout Asia.

Science works much the same way. Maintaining the integrity of science would be practically impossible without a community of adapts. Science is simply too sophisticated to be sustained by amateurs and hobbyists alone. Institutionally modern societies support a class of professional scientists who are qualified and then given the support, academic appointments and leisure to pursue their disciplines. Not all scientists produce great breakthroughs, but if someone produces a great scientific breakthrough she is most likely a professional scientist. There are exceptions to this: Einstein’s earthshaking early work was produced as a kind of hobby without the support of an academic appointment, yet he was one step away from the professionals who trained him. Similarly non-monastics become ariyas, yet they are seldom if ever far removed from the influence of monastics.

Essential-ish and Folk-ish Buddhisms

I have been describing Essential Buddhism and Folk Buddhism as two distinct things. This is actually a simplified model of the reality. First, there may be different Folk Buddhisms existing side by side. More importantly any Buddhist’s understanding will probably fall somewhere between pure Essential Buddhism and pure Folk Buddhism and probably nobody’s will actually be pure Essential Buddhism or pure Folk Buddhism. We can actually envision within any culture an indefinite number of hybrid Buddhisms varying in their mix of Essential and Folk elements.

For instance, it is very common for very learned Burmese monks, who can discuss the Suttas at length and even recite many of them for you, to also share many beliefs, say, in miracles associated with Buddhist religious objects, relics and Buddhists of high attainment, with the bulk of the Burmese population. Maybe they are right, but these beliefs are not a part of my thinking and I do not feel I am less of a Buddhist for it. It is hardly surprising that learned monks have these beliefs since they first grew up as Folk Buddhists and only later overlaid their early understanding with the study of Essential Buddhism.

Another possibility that I suspect has happened in some schools of Asian Buddhism is that an Essential-Folk hybrid has become authoritative, that is has displaced Essential Buddhism. This might be the case, for instance, if the most adept in that school have lost sight of Nirvana as the goal and have set their sights on a lesser goal, such as felicitous rebirth in a deva realm. Still another possibility is that Folk elements may become integrated into Essential Buddhism, that is, may come to fulfill an essential function. For instance, ritual aspects already present in Chinese culture before the arrival of Buddhism seem to have been integrated as effective aids to developing mindfulness and in that context are a part of Essential Buddhism.

Although the relationship of Essential and Folk Buddhism is more complex than initially portrayed, the simple model of regarding Essential and Fok Buddhism as two distinct things will serve, I think, for the purposes of this series. I just want to caution that when it comes to examining certain elements of your practice, for instance, they may be difficult to classify. Since I don’t advocate expunging Folk elements, only bringing them in line with Essential Buddhism, this should not be a problem.

2 Responses to “American Folk Buddhism (2)”

  1. longboardjimmy Says:

    thank you Bhante, lots to think about here. looking forward to part3,


  2. viscid Says:

    A most appropriate choice of portraiture to accompany this article!


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