American Folk Buddhism (5)

First Quarter Moon, Uposatha, April 29, 2012

4. Burmese Folk Buddhism (2)

I began last week by taking Burmese Folk Buddhism to illustrate the relationship of Folk Buddhism, the popular understand of Buddhism predominant in an Buddhist culture, from Essential Buddhism, the adept’s understanding of Buddhism that is functionally the closest  to the Buddhadharma. By the way, a good source of information for the topic is Burmese Folk Buddhism is Melford Spiro’s Buddhism and Society: a great tradition and its Burmese vicissitudes, thought it was written about forty years ago. I will finish doing this here. This discussion is by no means a complete overview of Burmese Folk Buddhism but is meant to be illustrative, in order to achieve an outsider’s perspective of American Folk Buddhism next week.

Non-self, Merit and Generosity

Nirvana, rebirth and non-self are among the most important yet difficult concepts to understand in Essential Buddhism. It is therefore hardly surprising that they assume a naïve understanding in any culture’s Folk Buddhism. In Burmese Folk Buddhism non-self receives lip service but makes little sense: Not only is there is someone who gets reborn for the Folk Buddhist but that person is often identified with the pre-Buddhist “butterfly spirit” that flutters away from a previous body and can behave maliciously until it finds another host.

Many people work out who they were in their previous life, often a neighbor or a relative who died about a year or so before their rebirth. Most people would like a felicitous rebirth in the next life, either in the deva realm, in which suffering is almost unknown, or if in the human realm, as a wealthy or beautiful and in any case healthy and long-lived being. Most people fear rebirth in the lower realms, for instance, in the hell or animal realm. But the idea of escape from the cycle of death and rebirth, as advocated in the common language of Essential Buddhism, makes little sense, nor is it desirable except maybe as a means to avoid the lower realms altogether.

Accordingly Nirvana is often understood instead as a kind of super and permanent deva realm, a blissful world of eternal life, the bliss here  commonly taken to include a great of sensual pleasure. Those who do understand Nirvana as escape or extinction generally do not actually consider it desirable even while they commonly recite things like, “May I attain Nirvana.” Often they hope that after a good rebirth they will understand Nirvana a bit better and finally set their sights on that goal.

In such understandings the foundation of Buddhist practice becomes simple: the accumulation of personal merit, which will tend to make this life happier, but which will also help assure happy future lives. Merit (Pali, punnya) is a common concept in Essential Buddhism, but its understanding is itself a bit subtle. It is used basically as a summary means of quantifying progress in practice or in adjusting a karmic profile or intentionality in a positive direction. The tendency in Folk Buddhism is to conceptualize merit in even more simplified and occasionally misguided terms.

In Burmese Folk Buddhism merit tends to be measured in purely external terms. In most cases a demerit arises with the violation of a precept and merit as a demonstration of generosity (dana). There is a tendency to think of merits and demerits as yielding something like a bank account balance, and in fact Spiro reports that many Burmese actually keep an accurate ledger on paper of their merits and demerits throughout the day. If the balance sheet is positive the Folk Buddhist is doing pretty well.

There seem to be alternative systems of calculating merits. Spiro reports that in one account offering one person a meal counts as offering one hundred dogs a meal, offering one novice a meal counts as offering one hundred people a meal and offering one fully ordained monk a meal counts as offering one hundred novices a meal. In any case, there is in almost any such system a bias toward religious generosity and such merit is commonly held to correspond not so much to the need of the recipient as to the spiritual attainment of the recipient. There are cases in which a meditating forest monk who gains a reputation as an arahant, partly on the evidence of his secluded lifestyle and of the modesty of his personal needs, becomes the recipient of multiple cottages built by various donors on his behalf, all of which stand unused. Contributing the building of a pagoda is considered very meritorious, while for some reason contributing to the repair of an old pagoda is much less so. As a result it is common to see in Burma a shiny new pagoda under construction right next to a dilapidated one.  A wealthy person is generally regarded a having much more opportunity to gain merit than a poor person and this is one of the reasons rebirth as a wealthy person is considered to be desirable, though the sense of sacrifice, of creating personal hardship through generous deeds is also considered particularly meritorious.


What is missing in many of the Folk Buddhist methods of calculating merits is  reference to one’s intentions, which from the perspective of Essential Buddhism is all that counts. For instance, in Essential Buddhism if an outward act of generosity is motivated purely by desire for personal benefit then it carries no merit. If a poor person acts out of the same kindness as a rich person but can only afford 1% of the expenditure, the merit is the same. Personal benefit accrues along with the exercise and development of kindness and compassion. The Folk Buddhist model of calculating merits on the basis of outward actions alone can be rough at best.

I suspect that we will find in almost any Buddhist culture that a primary reason for the tension between Essential and Folk Buddhism is that the former looks primarily within while the latter looks primarily without. People with little cultivation of mind most naturally look at what they can observe in others and at what others can observe in them and that will shape the Folk Buddhist understanding. The Essential Buddhist is concerned almost continually with the internal life of perceptions, feelings and intentions.

Nonetheless, even the most recalcitrant Folk Buddhist cannot get away from the internal world. The fact is generosity is fun. In theory you might have a completely self-centered motivation for generosity if you think there is really something in it for you, such as future wealth, and you might have started out thinking that way. But it would be very hard for you not to get caught up in the warm and fuzzy spirit of generosity once you start practicing generosity outwardly, which is the spirit of kindness and compassion. In fact in Essential terms, this spirit is the beginning of karmic reward.

The upshot is that typical Burmese Folk Buddhist is a fountain of generosity and takes great delight in generosity; you can see it in his face, hear it in her voice, you can see it in how thoroughly she generalizes generosity far beyond the religious realm. Generosity is one of the most striking qualities of Burmese culture. The casual tourist becomes aware of it quite readily: He will easily become a recipient  even while falling outside the category of religious generosity. He will find that Burmese tend to take care of one another; they do not have a disposable population of homeless, in their very poor land. They also have little crime or beggars. Although the Folk Buddhist understanding of generosity is imperfect, there is something that seems to work, and even the most recalcitrant Essential Buddhist must see that much merit is being gained.
Merit, in Burmese Folk Buddhism, carries over beyond the encouragement of generosity and the discouragement of violating precepts. It is often viewed as the reason for other aspects of Buddhist practice, such as meditation, chanting or expressions of respect. These have more sophisticated justifications that simply “merit,” in Essential Buddhism, but nonetheless provide a simple way of conceptualizing Buddhist practice.

Relationship of Burmese Folk and Essential Buddhism.

When we look at elements of Folk Buddhism we can evaluate them in a number of ways. The most significant is its relationship to Essential Buddhism. A second derives from the bias of one’s own Folk Buddhism: Probably everyone falls in the trap when looking at one Folk Buddhism of evaluating itself in terms of one’s own Folk Buddhism. A third is what features are universal, that is, occur in every Folk Buddhism, yet not in Essential Buddhism. Here is roughly how Burmese Folk Buddhism seems to compare with Essential Buddhism (others may view some of these features differently).

(1) Near Essential Buddhism. These are features that are included in or tend to support or enhance elements of Essential Buddhism. These include attention given to the Triple Gem such as food offerings to the Buddha and offerings to monks. These tend to inspire people in Buddhist faith and open the mind to the corrective influence of Essential Buddhism.  The basic model of merit as an expression of the benefit accrued in actions and practice works to encourage Buddhist practice, particularly the practice of generosity.

(2) Intermediate to Essential Buddhism. These are innocuous supplements to Essential Buddhism. These include associating certain powers with relics, pagodas and images of the Buddha, rituals and chants for protection, and many of the influences attributed to nats or devas. I classify these as intermediate rather than far, because Essential Buddhism does not seem as far as I can see to care about all the extraneous things people might believe that we in the West might consider superstition or simply objectively wrong; they are neither right view nor wrong view.

(3) Far from Essential Buddhism. These are features inimical to Essential Buddhist principles. There is some perhaps some danger in attributing current conditions, such as power or poverty, as inevitable consequences of karma because it can lead to harmful actions or more likely passivity when action is more appropriate. Efficacy of ritual was clearly discounted by the Buddha as wrong view. The butterfly spirit contradicts no-self in Essential Buddhism.

Keep in mind that Burmese Folk Buddhism has developed over centuries in a culture with certain pronounced features, such as animism, but also under the corrective influence of Essential Buddhism. Without this corrective influence Burmese Folk Buddhism might well have floated off as part of an cultic bubble unachored in Essential Buddhism. Understanding flows as a corrective tendency from Essential to Folk Buddhism rather than in the other way, as we saw last week, because of refuge in the Triple Gem, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. In this way Folk Buddhism will tend not to corrupt or displace Essential Buddhism.

Monks frequently correct common attitudes toward the efficacy of ritual or attribute the real efficacy not to some kind of magic but taking the internal view to the power of ritual to develop confidence in the beneficiary. Although the Folk Buddhist understanding of merit differs from the Essential Buddhist understanding, people are at least reminded occasionally of the proper understanding even while the proper understanding is not entirely assimilated.

In summary, Burmese Folk Buddhism is largely anchored in Essential Buddhism, but trails off into less accurate understanding and eventually into misunderstanding. However deep faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha tends to keep Burmese Folk Buddhists from drifting too far afield. The monks, representing the Sangha, often act as sheep herders to correct the most egregious deviations.

Next week we will begin to look at American Folk Buddhism in terms similar to the quite different Burmese Folk Buddhism.

6 Responses to “American Folk Buddhism (5)”

  1. Kim Mosley Says:

    Not only is there is someone ??


  2. ICCP450 Says:

    Hi there! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group?

    There’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your content.
    Please let me know. Thank you


  3. Nn Says:

    Dear sir. Thank you for this series. As a westener from a secular environment your writing is a lot of help for my practice. I have one question which might have general interest. If you have the opportunity to answer, I would be very happy. If you do not, that is also perfectly ok. I participate in a dharma group with many participants with similar background as myself, and someone from a traditionally buddhist country. Recently I was confronted with an account rooted in what I found far frim essential buddhism. A member of the group from a traditionally buddhist country told about a spirit that was disturbing her house. She pointed to this as substantiating her faith in reincarnation and therefore Buddhism. My question is this: how to deal with such an interaction wisely. Your distinction between folk buddhism and essential buddhism came to my mind, but I said nothing. For now, I think I will not address it directly. If the conditions are right, the person might adjust her views. The dharma group we go to may help her by nudging as it as far as I am able to judge is buildt on essential buddhism.


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      In general it is unwise to confront people who express views we might disagree with. Monks can generally do that with much more authority. But lacking that authority you might just offend. Also people believe all kinds of odd things, but most of them are pretty harmless. It is generally better to leave well enough alone. As a monk I will interject my own view if I think it will make a difference in someone’s practice or benefit them in some way. (Like I’m doing now.)
      The account about the spirit, however, has a certain logic. In the earliest texts different realms of rebirth are mentioned, including the ghost (peta) realm. So encountering a ghost might serve as a reminder of these realms, which might serve as a reminder of rebirth. Also a ghost is often regarded (though I don’t know of any specific Buddhist sources for this) as a reborn human. The logic is limited, though, since these realms do not entail rebirth and rebirth does not entail these realms. Whether the Buddha believed in these realms I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. This might have been a kind of folk Buddhism that existed, and was even endorsed, by the Buddha. Notice, I don’t regard folk Buddhism as necessarily a bad thing, so in general it is not necessary to correct folk beliefs.

      In this case, though, I can


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