Last Quarter Moon, Uposatha, April 14, 2012
3. Folk Buddhism
Essential Buddhism is the corn, the Buddhism that sustains and is most directly sustained by the adepts. Folk Buddhism is the undergrowth that nourishes far more beings. Last week we considered Essential Buddhism, this week we look at Folk Buddhism.
Against the Stream. Essential Buddhism is radical in any culture. It extols Awakening as the highest attainment, a state most can scarcely conceive of, one that entails not only the complete eradication of personal desire and aversion as motivating factors but the elimination of intentional action altogether. It defies common sense in holding that well-being lies in renouncing the quest for personal advantage and is attained exclusively by no one in the conventional sense. It finds well-being to be quite contrary to the most natural human impulses learned and unlearned.
The primary motivating factors for the mass of people in any culture in the meanwhile are substantially based in greed, hatred and delusion and many of the cultural, economic and social influences serve to magnify these very factors. Rampant suffering is the result. Buddhism “goes against the stream,” as the Buddha described it. Essential Buddhism mixes with common culture as oil with water.
It is the rare person who can totally see the contradictions in the assumptions that prevail in her own culture, or observe that their application fails spectacularly to achieve the well-being anticipated by their adherents. Such a person might embrace Essential Buddhism rather quickly … if she just happened to come across the teachings. How do those teachings gain a toehold in the culture in the first place and what makes them accessible to anyone perhaps a little less astute that this rare perceptive individual? More generally, what is the dispersant that allows Essential Buddhism to penetrate the water, to make a large-scale difference in providing some relief from the excesses of a suffering dominant culture?
Folk Buddhism as Popular Understanding. Folk Buddhism is the popular understanding of Buddhism in a particular Folk culture. It may contain aspects of Essential Buddhism, the Buddhism of the adepts described last week, and as we shall see must contain at least three aspects. But it also contains aspects that either simplify aspects of Essential Buddhism or are properly extraneous to Essential Buddhism. For instance, it is common in Folk Buddhisms to think in terms of a soul, a fixed self, that acquires merit through good deeds in order to be reborn in a felicitous realm, or as a true inner self that is released through Buddhist practice from learned inhibitions or social constraints. It is common to think Nirvana is a particularly felicitous realm where that self can dwell forever. It is common to equate the well-being achieved through practice with material well-being or reputation and to confuse Awakening with a kind of celebrity status. It is common to read particular powers into ritual objects, even to the extent that Buddhist practice becomes primarily a shopping experience. It is common to find Buddhism residing in special experiences and then to expect instant gratification from Buddhist practice. It is common in Folk Buddhism to seek protection from outrageous fortune in amulets or in special chants or in the presence of monks. It would be difficult to find evidence of any of these things in Essential Buddhism, for instance, as attested in the Pali Suttas.
Folk Buddhism is always largely conditioned by the embedding culture. For instance Asian (pre-Buddhist) culture has many animist and shamanic influences and we can expect these to find expression in Asian Folk Buddhism. East Asian culture is very ritualized and Ancestor worship is common, and therefore these factors are expected to be found in their Folk Buddhism. American culture emphasizes individualism and consumerism, it glorifies celebrities and has marked influences from Protestant Christianity, from the European Enlightenment, and from later European Romanticism. Therefore these factors can be expected to find their way into American Folk Buddhism.
The advantage of Folk Buddhism in general is that it is a much easier nut to crack than Essential Buddhism. Much of its content is based on factors present and easily understood and appreciated in the general culture, often assimilated by the individual at a very early age. It tends to avoid the most difficult teachings of Essential Buddhism, such as non-self or emptiness or (for Westerners) rebirth, and downplay the most demanding practices, such as meditation and renunciation of sensual pleasures. In general it is much less challenging to the common culture or the impulsive behaviors of the individual than Essential Buddhism and more reassuring to people’s lifestyles as they are currently constituted. Nonetheless it can help people over time gently ease toward the path of liberation as it conveys values and practices that reflect or support parts of Essential Buddhism.
The disadvantage of Folk Buddhism is that it is itself subject to absorbing the personal and cultural factors of the wider society that cause so much distress and suffering in the first place. Rather than following the direct path advanced by Essential Buddhism the followers of Folk Buddhism may come under distracting influences or unsavory influences inimical to the teachings, practices and values of Essential Buddhism. For instance, Folk Buddhism might begin to assume much of the materialism, acquisitiveness or intolerance of the embedding culture, then represent this as belonging to the Buddha’s teachings. It may acquire features that enhance the ego or endorse an unconscionable status quo. It may also come under manipulation of special interests who exploit Folk Buddhism, for instance, for commercial interests or as a means of controlling public opinion.
In brief, Folk Buddhism is a middle way between Essential Buddhism and the general embedding culture. It has a natural tension with each, but also serves as a path of access to each. It has a natural tension with Essential Buddhism which is far too strict and inscrutable for its tastes, but which is at the same time tolerant of its looseness, like a kindly wise grandmother. It has a natural tension with the embedding culture. Its task is to highlight certain values and bring in new perspectives that challenge the culture at large or challenge the cultures influences for the Buddhist practitioner. If it does not engage in this challenge, what is the point? At the same time a Folk Buddhism provides access to Essential Buddhism; it provides a welcome mat for beginning to learn more of Essential Buddhism. And it communicates Buddhist values and perspectives to the embedding culture in the way Essential Buddhism in its obscurity is unable to do effectively.
The tensions between Folk Buddhism and Essential Buddhism and between Folk Buddhism and the general culture are however nothing compared to the tension between the Folk Buddhisms of distant lands. Dependent as they are on diverse cultures, one such Folk Buddhism is not going to look particularly Buddhist or even sensible from the vantage of another such Folk Buddhism. Asian Folk Buddhisms are distinctly odd to Westerners, ours are bound to be equally odd to Asian Folk Buddhists.
Maintaining the Integrity of Folk Buddhism. Folk Buddhism as a culturally determined phenomenon is fine and necessary. The biggest danger to a Folk Buddhism is that it just dissolve into the embedding culture altogether, losing its identity as Buddhism. It is imperative that Folk Buddhism be anchored to Essential Buddhism, that Essential Buddhism have the power to shape and correct Folk Buddhism. For instance, a snapshot of a Folk Buddhism at one point in time might have factors related to Essential Buddhism in the following ways:
- Factors found in Essential Buddhism.
- Factors that approximate an Essential Buddhist understanding. These may be naïve understandings derived from Essential Buddhism or factors present in the local culture that happen to have a close affinity with Essential Buddhism.
- Extraneous factors present in or derived from the embedding culture.
- Factors present in or derived from the embedding culture that are inimical to Essential Buddhism. These are particularly manifestations of greed, hate and delusion in the common culture.
(It seems to be common, by the way, for cultural factors with an affinity for Essential Buddhism to be incorporated eventually into Essential Buddhism and this is probably a primary driver of the evolution of Essential Buddhism. In this way many originally Taoist and Confucian elements seem to have come to characterize much of East Asian Essential Buddhism.)
To develop a healthy beneficial Folk Buddhism we would want to encourage the first two types of factors and discourage the last. How does all of this happen?
Buddhism in fact has a mechanism for this, which has to do with acknowledging the authority of Essential Buddhism even when the Folk Buddhist might not be clear about what it has to say. This is much like the popular relationship to science. For instance, if I don’t have much of an understanding of how the weather works I might have some odd notions about it and even communicate these to other people. If someone disagrees with me generally we have a ready way to resolve the conflict: look it up or ask an expert. If I am not to be informed or corrected by those that I understand to be the experts my understanding along with that of the people I talk with about the weather will quickly lose its tenuous mooring in science and float off into supposition and superstition bearing even less relationship to science than it does now. It is normal to defer to the scientist, the historian, the physician, your own real estate agent, to put faith in the experts. This allows us to correct our misunderstandings and improve our understandings, to loosely anchor ourselves.
Buddhism’s mechanism is the Triple Gem, the Threefold Refuge, the basis of Buddhist faith and considered the beginning point of all Buddhism. Where my knowledge and understanding might be insufficient I entrust myself to the Buddha’s understanding. Where my knowledge and understanding might be insufficient I entrust myself to the teachings of the Buddha. Where my knowledge and understanding might be insufficient I entrust myself to the Sangha’s understanding. The Sangha is the adepts we met last week whose task it is to maintain Essential Buddhism through their study, practice and attainment.
For instance, I may naively believe that paying daily respect to my Buddha statue will erase the karmic results of any misdeeds I commit out in the world. If I am unwilling to be corrected by the adept who points out that I am heir to all of my deeds, my understanding a practice along with those of the people I talk with about such matters will quickly lose its tenuous mooring in Essential Buddhism and float off in a wildly devotional cultic bubble having even less relationship to Buddhism than it does now.
Summary. Once again our goal is not to weed out Folk Buddhism from under the corn of Essential Buddhism; that would withdraw Buddhism from most of the population in favor of a very small exclusive elite of monastics and lay people who have the time, energy and inspiration to explore the depths and heights of Buddhist practice, to fix their feet firmly on the Noble Eightfold Path and set their sights on Nirvana. Rather our goal should be to create a healthy Folk Buddhism, one that is consistent with a healthy Essential Buddhism, the two together providing both depth and breadth and in the end the most benefit for the most people and the option of intensive study and practice to produce the adepts of tomorrow.
Now the individual Buddhist is commonly some mix of Essential and Folk Buddhist. Even an adept if born a Buddhist probably retains much of Folk Buddhism inculcated since childhood, but is unlikely to retain those aspects that are inimical to Essential Buddhism. A casual Buddhist may nonetheless take an interest in some particular teaching or practice of Essential Buddhism such as mindfulness meditation. The communication the two enjoy will generally make Essential Buddhism accessible to the Folk Buddhist who might then decide to go deeper into Essential Buddhist practice.