American Folk Buddhism (4)

New Moon, Uposatha, April 21, 2012

4. Burmese Folk Buddhism (1)

I want today to use Burma as an example of the difference between, and interrelatedness of, Essential and Folk Buddhism. I choose Burma primarily because I’ve gained quite a bit of familiarity with it, but also Burma provide a particularly good example of a very traditional strong Folk Buddhism happily coexisting with a markedly well maintained Essential Buddhism.

Essential Buddhism is evident in Burma in meditation practice, in the large proportion of monastics in the population, in the high standards in much monastic education, in the widespread familiarity with the Pali texts (there are monks who can recite thousands of pages from memory), in the ubiquitous practice of generosity throughout the culture, as well as the practices of precepts, of listening to Dhamma talks and discusing the Dhamma and of expression of faith in the Triple Gem. A number of Burmese in recent years have been widely regarded as arahants (they won’t actually tell you). Burma is particularly well known abroad for its many teachers of Vipassana meditation since meditation has undergone a massive revival since the middle of the Twentieth Century such that farmers and otherwise employed lay people now crowd 10-day meditation retreats. Burmese Vipassana schools are in fact well-represented in America today. Aung San Su Kyi through her many years of house arrest sustained a strong daily meditation practice; she is a follower of Pandita Sayadaw, a now elderly disciple of Mahasi Sayadaw, with whom people like Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzburg studied many years ago. Essential Buddhism is clearly not the exclusive domain of monastics in Burma.

Nevertheless, the average Buddhist, though perhaps devout, knows little of meditation, nor of the basic teachings of Buddhism, but is informed instead by a vibrant Folk Buddhism. Burma is a land of pagodas, solid structures that evolved architecturally from the burial mounds that originally held parcels of the Buddha’s relics after his parinirvana. Statues of the Buddha abound before which people bow fully touching their foreheads to the ground in reverence and to which they offer flowers and food. This average Burmese Buddhist inhabits a world of tree spirits, miracles and magic, largely of pre-Buddhist origin but blending seamlessly with Buddhist practices and doctrine, for instance, calling on the presence or actions of monks to work invisible forces in a more favorable direction. This trails into Folk Buddhism, which is clearly not the exclusive domain of the laity in Burma.

A couple of months ago we held a rite at the Burmese monastery where I live in Texas to appease three angry tree spirits (nats or devas) dwelling here. It seems that in our extended community, which apparently extends to relatives in Burma and in Houston of people living here, there had been three mishaps in one week, Someone was even grazed in the head and critically injured by an out of control, in fact airborne, race car. We had in the months before this fateful week been constructing many new buildings, particularly meditation cottages, which we had always tried to locate in the spaces between standing trees. Occasionally we had had to cut a tree down of one of the two kinds of common trees on our property, favoring an oak to a cedar when one or the other was to be spared. Nonetheless we had had to cut down exactly three oak trees.

One morning the abbot announced to me the necessity of performing this rite. The monks would visit each of the three crime scenes, we would chant the Metta Sutta (Loving Kindness Discourse) then the abbot would speak to the offended spirit to ask forgiveness. This was up until then outside of the realm of my familiarity, so something like the following exchange ensued.

“We have cut down several cedar trees as well. How do we know that devas weren’t living in those trees as well?”

“They only live in oak trees.”

“There aren’t any oak or cedar trees in Burma, how do you know which trees they live in in America?”

“They like oak trees.”

“OK. Are you going to speak to them in Burmese? These are Texan devas. They are more likely to understand English … or Spanish.” (They are also likely to have names like “Clem” or “Dusty.”)

“I think devas can understand any language, but just in case I will speak to them in Burmese and then you speak to them in English!”

And so it was, three little ceremonies in turn with my full participation. It was kinda fun I have to admit.

The Buddha once sneezed. I’ve been looking for the source of this story; I believe it is in the Vinaya.

A nearby monk said, “Bless you!” Apparently this was also the custom in the Buddha’s time and place.

The Buddha asked, “Wait a minute. Do you think that saying that will have an effect on my future health?” He had after all in his teachings replaced the idea of appropriate rites and rituals as a determinant of future well-being with the idea of purity of intention in one’s own actions, the Buddhist meaning of “karma.”

The monk replied, “Well, no, actually.”

“Then don’t say it!”

And thereby a new rule was put into circulation that monks were expected to follow. The problem was that lay people began to complain about how rude all the monks had suddenly become.”

“I sneezed and there was a monk standing right there and he didn’t even bless me!”

“How rude! The impudent cad”

When this was reported back to the Buddha the Buddha rescinded the rule that he had established.

“People need monks to say ‘Bless you’ to them.”

This little story is indicative of the Buddha’s tolerance and willingness to adapt to common cultural preferences. Except where a particular practice flies in the face of Essential Buddhism as I understand it, I personally try to follow his example.

Much of Burmese Folk Buddhist practice and understanding is only about one step removed from Essential Buddhism. We mentioned in an earlier episode the importance of the Triple Gem, refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, as a bridge between Essential and Folk Buddhism and common to both. I described the function of the Triple Gem in terms of deference to the experts, but in every Buddhist culture I am aware of it takes on layers of meaning. The Burmese express their relationship to these with particular exuberance.

Pagoda under construction in Austin, Texas.

The Buddha authorized in the Parinibbana Sutta the practice of honoring him after his death through pilgrimage to the places of his birth, awakening, first teaching and death. He probably did not anticipate the devotion and reverence his disciples would slather on every reminder of him. Chief among these, and prior to Buddha statues, were his relics, the bits of bone, teeth, sometimes hair, that survived his cremation. The Burmese also honor the relics of arahants, which generally take on the form of crystals, and which reproduce like bunnies, that is, left overnight the next morning they will have increased in number and mass. A museum has been built in a temple in Burma where a local arahant had lived and died. Pictures in the museum reveal he had very intensive eyes, which died and was cremated, did not burn but were found among the relics! Moreover, the concrete ground floor one story below the bed in which he died has continually cracked and burst open since its last occupancy.

Relics are often said to have special powers. Kyaik Tiyo, the golden rock (actually gold-leaf enhanced with a little pagoda on top), is a huge boulder, maybe 40 or 50 feet in diameter, perched on top of a sheer cliff, at the very top of a tall mountain, in such a way that it has been just about to roll off for maybe the last several hundred thousand years or so. Inspection of this amazing site from below invites one to try to pass a string, an accomplice holding the other end, under the rock all the way across; it looks like it would work, maybe by rocking the rock a bit. From higher up, one can see that its center of gravity does keep it from rolling off the cliff, but golly it seems that by now an earthquake or a clumsy dinosaur sometime in the last innumerable millennia would have toppled it. It is certainly a wonder of nature.

In Myanmar all such phenomena are miracles that have to do with Buddhism. The story is that some of the Buddha’s hairs are contained inside of the rock and that the rock remains in place by the power of the Buddha. Once upon a time, some non-Buddhists tried to push the rock off the cliff in order to undermine people’s faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, but they were turned into monkeys. That’ll show them! In an inspiring, hopefully not foolhardy, display of faith, there is now a nunnery directly below the rock, exactly at the point of first bounce.

The reverence for relics and the attribution to them of special powers seems to be universal throughout Buddhist Asia. A particular expression of this is the pagoda, originally representing a burial mound for the Buddha’s relics but now takes on wildly varying forms. The Burmese are particularly fond of pagodas, which there follow a squat earth design common also in India and suggestive of their original function. Burma is known as the Land of Pagodas; they must consume a large part of the small national income. A 70′ pagoda is currently under construction here in Texas substantially supported through donations from Burma.

A common observance in Burma and perhaps in all Buddhist countries of Asia is the ritual offering to a Buddha statue, of food, water, flowers, incense and light. In Burma it is generally understood that the Buddha is no longer able to receive those offerings. Rather the offering is made as a kind of enactment in which the offerer’s wholesome qualities are developed. The view however seems to be widespread that some kind of unseen power adheres to Buddha statues and other representations of the Buddha once these have been properly consecrated ceremonially by monks.

The Dhamma is most commonly represented by recitation and by listening to Dhamma talks. Great value is placed in the ability to memorize the scriptures and enormous veneration of what are known as Tipitaka Monks, those who pass a state examination that exhibits rote knowledge of the scriptures, including memorization of at least two of the three baskets and a substantial part of the third, roughly twenty volumes. Only eight monks have passed this examination since it was instituted sixty-four years ago. Monasteries in Burma often have enhanced loudspeaker systems to broadcast recitations to the world. Many undertake once a year to recite the Pathana, a long chapter of the Abhidhamma Pitaka, which takes several days and nights and is done in shifts. Where I once lived in central Burma a neighboring nuns’ monastery undertook to broadcast such a recitation day and night. I strongly suspect the nun in charge of setting the volume control had once belonged to a heavy metal band. Burmese often report the occurrence of miraculous phenomena during such recitations, for instance, water offerings to the Buddha will begin to boil. Burmese recite (chant) together typically with great energy.

The Sangha is represented by the monastic community, upon whom great reverence is bestowed and who are doted upon much as house pets. Traditionally in Burmese culture one is expected to show special respect for four categories of people: (1) monastics, (2) parents, (3) teachers and (4) the elderly. This respect finds its most visible expression in full prostrations, generally in groups of three, representing the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. A rite of passage for boys is to ordain as novice monks for short period, sometimes for a week, sometimes at the age of seven or eight, but generally as teenagers, having their heads shaved, wearing the traditional robes and taking the precepts. One of the moving aspects of the ceremony is that once immediately following the ordination the parents will perform full bows to their sons, reversing the order that had obtained until that time. Burmese will generally try to sit at a lower level than monks, for instance offering the monks chairs then sitting on the floor themselves.

Often magical powers are attributed to senior monks of great attainment. The presence of monks is commonly regarded as good luck and making offerings to monks, particularly offering a meal to monks, is karmically meritorious. This is often done on auspicious occasions such as weddings and birthdays, as well as periods of misfortune when people feel they need a karmic boost. A Burmese doctor in Austin, a specialist in sleeping disorders, was pleased to be able to offer her services for free to a visiting Burmese monk who suffered from sleep apnea, which required that he stay overnight in a specially outfitted room hooked up to various machines. She was particularly pleased with the auspiciousness that he was the inaugural patient of a new room they had just added to their lab. A frequent visitor to our monastery, who like to come on weekends to prepare food for the monks, was up late one night and spotted a monk standing in the air above one of the new buildings near where the new pagoda was beginning construction. She called to other people who indeed verified the presence of this monk in the sky, only now he was meditating. It was generally assumed that this monk had teletransported from Burma. A couple of weeks later I heard the story retold such that the monk in question had become our own founder, Sitagu Sayadaw.

Next week I will continue to discuss Burmese Folk Buddhism with a focus on how generosity, merit and the object of Buddhist practice are understood in the popular culture. Then I will look at the influence of Essential Buddhism on the popular practice and understanding.

4 Responses to “American Folk Buddhism (4)”

  1. Ross David H Says:

    Maybe it only works for me, but I think about the difference between Essential Buddhism and Folk Buddhism by analogy to physics. When I was studying quantum physics every day, for several years, in college, I could just about start to wrap my head around the idea of an electron being neither/both wave and particle, and existing in many places at once, and appearing on the other side of ultrathin insulating layers without passing through them, etc.

    Now, I do not study quantum physics every day, and my brain just can’t keep that unintuitive way of thinking in my head any more. I know it is a more accurate way of understanding reality than my “folk physics”, and I respect the experts who are able to use it to gain insights into reality that I cannot really grok. I also just accept that since I have to do too many other things as father, employee, husband, etc. I will not be able to reach to as high a level of true physics understanding as those who do it all the time. So, I respect and try to support them, even though I can’t really understand what they are saying sometimes. So I don’t worry that my (and most others’) understanding of physics is “wrong”, as long as it’s getting most of the basics right, and understands that things like perpetual motion machines aren’t real, because physicists have proven that they are not.

    This may be an analogy that only works for nerds, but I offer it up in case any other nerds read this and are worried that Folk Buddhism (American or otherwise) is “untrue” and therefore a bad thing.


  2. Greg Kleiman Says:

    Great artlcle Bhante and very thought provoking and great idea to present the Essential Buddhism and Folk Buddhism idea. But having also lived in both places there is a key element you have not mentioned and maybe need to consider. Education. In Myanmar most people have not gone past 4th grade of a parrot learning system whereas Westerners would have been through maybe 12 years of an education system that encourages investigation and method. These two aspects of the humans will make a big difference. Myanmar is basically a medieval country and shows all the superstition and behaviour of equivalent western experience at that time. Myanmar people have not been taught to even look for change over time in Buddhism. So people spread stories here without checking references or anything. There are lots of layers in the belief system as many as there are people in Myanmar. I find the same in the West. The simple belief in Kamma which is the core of Buddhist teaching is lost amongst the magic in both West and East. People want magic. This magic does not agree with the teachings on Kamma or make congruent sense, but it is understandable in the context of ignorance. So Folk Buddhism is a belief in Magic and is really not Buddhism at all. Essential Buddhism is a belief in ones own good and bad actions as the cause of ones experience. Folk Buddhism is really one of the hindrances to the path as the belief in rites and rituals leading to freedom from suffering(silabata paramasa). It is a wrong view in this sense. It is the natural outcome of a lack of wisdom which we all possess applied to a teaching that is all wisdom. It is a veil of ignorance produced by our own kamma that we need to see through. It cannot be stopped or rolled back but will eventually be so thick that Buddhism will be gone and ignorance will be the only thing left. Buddhism is not going forward but is going into decline as these elements take over and it is all driven by kamma and ignorance. Or simply education methods.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Greg, I agree with most of what you say, except your conclusion that Essential Buddhism will succumb to Folk Buddhism. Burma is a country that has yet to feel the European Enlightenment, and educational standards are poor. And yet Buddhism has been carried by such cultures throughout most of its history. Not all of Folk Buddhism has to do with magic; I simply define it as the popular understanding of Buddhism, whatever that entails. Parts of that understanding may be close to Essential Buddhism. Much of it is simplified conceptualisations. Much of it is magic in Burma. As long as Essential Buddhism is considered authoritative, which it is for those who take the refuges, and there are adepts, then the line of influence will flow from Essential to Folk, not the other way. When there are no more adepts, then Folk Buddhism will begin to displace Essential Buddhism. I view the role of Folk Buddhism primarily in positive terms.


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