American Folk Buddhism (6)

Full Moon, Uposatha, May 5, 2012

Authority in American Folk Buddhism

To summarize, in any Buddhist society two kinds of Buddhism can be observed side-by-side (or more commonly overlapping): Essential Buddhism is the Dharma, or more properly the Dharma-Vinaya or the Sasana. It is sophisticated, best understood and preserved by adepts, who are people who have intensely devoted themselves to its practice and understanding. Folk Buddhism is the popular understanding and practice of Buddhism. It is less refined but more accessible to average people who have not had the opportunity or inclination to devote themselves intensely to Essential Buddhism. This bifurcation is inevitable and desirable in Buddhism.

This bifurcation is inevitable because of the sophistication of Essential Buddhism, which generally does not have a counterpart in other religious faiths. Buddhism can never be a cookie-cutter religion in which everyone practices in the same way without either losing Essential Buddhism or making an adept out of everyone. This bifurcation is desirable because it allows many people to enjoy the benefits of Buddhist practice, as long as the Folk Buddhism is wholesome, that is, informed by the values and practices of Essential Buddhism. Without Essential Buddhism and the Triple Gem, Folk Buddhism loses its mooring. I have illustrated this in the case of Burmese Buddhism.

Encountering American Buddhism

This is the social perspective; how about the individual perspective? If you grow up in a Buddhist society in Asia you will likely be steeped in Folk Buddhism from an early age, and you will be infused with values of kindness, generosity, virtue, and a reverence for the wise and virtuous and for those that live simple contemplative lives. But you will also have a choice, whether to enjoy a life in this context or to set out wholeheartedly on the Noble Eightfold Path that leads in the direction of Awakening. If you make the latter choice the society will support you in your aspirations, particularly if you ordain as a monk or nun. In practice, however, people vary wildly in how seriously they embrace Essential Buddhism or at what stage in life they embrace Essential Buddhism.

The non-Asian American who walks into an Asian temple will most immediately encounter its Folk Buddhism and may be startled how ethnic it is and how infused with rites and magic. The American who picks up a book by one of the great Buddhist teachers of Asia, on the other hand, will encounter Essential Buddhism and may be startled how directly it speaks to him, while at the same time how intriguingly obscure much of it is. This is the opposite of what the typical Asian at that temple experiences. Why is this? For one thing, our American friend is likely to be extremely well educated already possessing an intellectual sophistication (demographic studies confirm this) far greater than either the average American (who would not pick up such a book in the first place), or by the typical Asian, and will therefore have a leg up in approaching Essential Buddhism. For the other, she is unlikely to make sense of a folk culture so foreign to her own, nor recognize how that particular cultural expression has in fact been shaped by Essential Buddhism and the remaining differences smoothed over.

The non-Asian American who walks into an American Buddhist center, maybe to attend a lecture or meditate, will encounter Folk Buddhism and Essential Buddhism side by side, but this time it will be an American Folk Buddhism and something close to Asian Essential Buddhism. As Buddhism enters another culture it is important to preserve Essential Buddhism, but not Folk Buddhism because a new and ultimately more appropriate Folk Buddhism will arise from the encounter of Essential Buddhism with the indigenous folk culture. Most American Buddhist centers have Asian founders or can be traced back as an offshoot of an offshoot of a center with an Asian founders. It seems that the genius of the most successful Asian founders of such centers, such as Shunryu Suzuki Roshi or Chogyam Trungpa, is in their ability to separate Essential Buddhism from Folk Buddhism clearly in order to teach Essential Buddhism in a new cultural context. (American students of Suzuki who traveled with him to his old temple in Japan were startled to see him dealing competently with his native Folk Buddhist environment.) In this way Asian Folk Buddhism has for the most part been left behind very quickly.

What of the Asian trappings still found in many American Buddhist centers, the clothing, the incense, the bowing, the ritual practices, the rules of etiquette? In fact, these are generally parts of Essential Buddhism! Essential Buddhism has acquired many culturally means of expression on its route from the Buddha to us. For instance, the anjali or gassho (the prayer mudra) originated in Indian culture and has spread everywhere Buddhism has spread (and was apparently even through Buddhism injected into the Christian world). Gestures of respect are important in Essential Buddhism. If the anjali were to be lost it would have to be replaced with something else (maybe the military salute?). Mindfulness practices are important in Essential Buddhism. When Buddhism came to China it encountered a highly ritualized culture which provided rich resources for the practice of mindfulness, that were then carried along as a part of Essential Buddhism into America by Shunryu Suzuki and others. If Zen were to lose these particular culturally conditioned expressions they would have to be replaced by something else (Zen oryoki, for instance, replaced with an array of silverware and crystal drinking glasses?).

American Folk Buddhism is radically different from any Asian Folk Buddhism except those that are similarly influenced by modernity. For Americans our own Folk Buddhism seems much more rational, in that what in the West would be considered supernatural is largely absent, as are spirits or devas, and means of sharing merit with the dead. But it is also a largely a product of a particular American subculture, a very educated, white, middle-to-upper class culture that tends to reject things more than most other subcultures.

Folk Buddhism includes any a popular understanding or practice that in a particular culture is attributed (rightly or wrongly) to Buddhism. I will catalog some of these here, starting with authority in American Folk Buddhism, and indicate what its real origin is and try to assess how well it fits into Essential Buddhism, as near, intermediate or far. Many but not all of these features are described in David McMahan’s Making of Buddhist Modernism especially with respect to their ofttimes origin in movements like Protestant Christianity, Romanticism or Neoromanticism or the European Enlightenment. McMahan’s book is the inspiration for the reflections that led me to start this series on Folk Buddhism.

Authority in American Folk Buddhism

It is very common for American Buddhists to reject almost all traces of authority or compulsion, specifically targeting a list of things almost in the same breath that curiously are both found in Buddhism throughout Asia and also quite characteristically in much Western religion:

“Organized religion, hierarchy, bah!”
“Religious authority, priests, monks, rules, humbug!”
“Religious imagery, sacred objects, twaddle!”
“Religious doctrine, poppycock!”
“Rituals, bows, balderdash!”

In fact, one often hears the vehement assertion that the Buddha never taught these things or, perhaps trying to make the same point, that “The Buddha didn’t try to create an organized religion.” The rejection of such elements is a feature of much but not all of American Folk Buddhism.

How well does this feature relate to Essential Buddhism? There is a hint of truth in the claims of American Folk Buddhism in that most of these things are minimalized in Essential Buddhism, However none of them is absent. Maybe this is most succinctly captured when Ajahn Brahm calls Buddhism, “the most disorganized religion.”

In fact, the Buddha did organize his community of disciples and the basic structure of that organization, as he intended, persists today in almost every Buddhist culture in Asia. However, this organization, as he gave it to us, is remarkably flat, decentralized and non-coercive. Often in Asian Folk Buddhism this becomes much more hierarchical, far from the Buddha’s intentions.

The Buddha organized the Buddhist community through the Vinaya, the monastic code. But even within the monastic order there is little hierarchy. Junior monks are asked to pay respect to senior monks, with seniority determined strictly in terms of ordination date and a monk is required to have a teacher for the first five years, but can change teachers, and the student has the authority to admonish the teacher under appropriate circumstances. All major decisions of a local community, that is, the group of monks that is able to meet together in one place, are made through consensus, with a junior monk having the same veto power as a senior monk. No authority comes from beyond the local community, except for the ancient authority of the Vinaya itself. Coercion is minimal within the monastic community and does not extend to the lay community. For the monks it is largely an honor system with provisions for acknowledging transgressions, sometimes the imposition of mild sanctions but never physical punishments. Through any of a handful of transgressions a monk expels himself automatically from the community. On the other hand Buddha clearly did create orders of monks and nuns separate from the laity in terms of obligations and privileges, defined a highly regulated life for the monastics, and made the monastic orders identifiable with the admonition, “Don’t dress like lay people.”

He could have set up a hierarchy something like Pope and bishops and a range of severe punishments for transgressing authority, but he did not. What is truly remarkable about the Buddha’s organization of the Buddhist community is how mild and fragile it seems, yet how durable it has proven itself. The Buddha clearly understood what he was doing for he makes it clear that a primary function of the monastic order is to protect the integrity of the Dharma for future generations. As far as I can see, the Buddhist monastic order is the world’s oldest continuous democracy, and because it is so decentralized it allows almost no opportunity for the accumulation of corrupting power.

The Buddha does not seem to have endorsed extensive use of imagery or sacred objects, but he did endorse the idea of pilgrimage to sacred sites connected with his own life. So again his approach was minimal. Of course imagery and sacred objects have manifested in abundance throughout Buddhist Asia, and probably will in America as well. This may well express a universal human need; myself, I don’t view it as inimical to Essential Buddhism.

The Buddha clearly rejected the efficacy of ritual, but not the expressive power; expressions of respect are found throughout the Suttas, including bowing. Although he had little interest in metaphysics or philosophical speculation, the Buddha did present a sophisticated doctrine, but one grounded in experience under the general principle that one should “come and see” (ehipassiko), that is, that it is available for inspection. (There are rare aspects that defy direct inspection, but given his minimalism it is certain that he had a good reason for teaching these.)

In general rejecting all authority seems to contradict much of Essential Buddhism. I don’t think anyone can even bake a cake without accepting some authority. It is puzzling that many American Buddhists are so adamant in their rejection of all hints of authority, especially since in modern secular realms their counterparts are widely tolerated, such as in the military, which a little reflection will reveal to have something like each of the features, from organization to gestures of respect, listed above.

We don’t have to look far to see the origin the rejection of these things. Although this rejection is commonly attributed in American Folk Buddhism to Buddhism itself, it has “Reformation” written all over it; these are the very things that Protestant Christians objected to in the Catholic Church and sought if not to eliminate altogether at least to challenge and minimize. This Protestant confrontation with the structure and practices of the Catholic Church has a bitter and painful history in Europe, including thirty years of bloody warfare, and has certainly left deep religious scars on Northern European and thereby American culture. Buddhist authority is many orders of magnitude milder than Catholic authority and its history bears this out, even if the outward appearance might sometimes coincide (berobed clergy, for instance), and yet the Protestant experience seems to have influenced the shape of American Folk Buddhism.

Heck, there is more hierarchy at your dentist’s office than in the entire Buddhist community that the Buddha left behind. The Buddha was a minimalist in many ways (consider the “handful of leaves” simile). He taught what was essential. A great deal of his genius is found in the way he organized the Buddhist community. He did this for a good reason, and was able to anticipate the results. Although the strongest rejection of authority is inimical to (far from) Essential Buddhism, the well intentioned distrust of authority that underlies it has already been anticipated by the Buddha. I would hope that a healthy Protestant distrust of religious authority will at least help to protect future American Buddhism from the centralization of authority found, for instance, in modern Thailand. That would be near the spirit of Essential Buddhism.

I will continue to take up a number of features of American Folk Buddhism in turn in the coming weeks. Right now I have the following headings in mind:

The Triple Gem




Gender Equality

Social Engagement

What’s Missing?


One Response to “American Folk Buddhism (6)”

  1. Kim Mosley Says:

    Bhante, seems that Tricycle or Shambhala magazine might be interested in your writing.


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