American Folk Buddhism (8)

New Moon, Uposatha, May 20, 2012            Series Index

The Sangha in American Folk Buddhism

To recap: I have been describing the distribution of knowledge within the Buddhist community. The Buddhist community can be viewed as something like a comet, with a head and a tail trailing off from the head. The head is Essential Buddhism, that is, Buddhism per se. It is the Path as the Buddha expounded it or something functionally equivalent that has resulted from historical adaptations, modifications and sometimes enhancements (for instance, giving us something like Zen in contrast to Village Theravada). The head is occupied by the adepts, people whose understanding and practice is most entwined and engaged in Essential Buddhism.

The tail is Folk Buddhism, that is, the popular understanding of Buddhism colored by and admixed with that particular folk culture. The tail is peopled by those of progressively less understanding or engagement in the particulars of Essential Buddhism. And yet, as Buddhists who have taken Refuge in the Triple Gem, those in the tail know in which direction the head is found and are open to the softening and shaping influence of Essential Buddhism, without which they would simply scatter into space or realign themselves into cultic globs not recognizably Buddhist. In fact, in almost any Buddhist community those of the tail are offered ample opportunity and encouragement to move to the head, particularly along the monastic path, that is, to undertake intense study and practice.

Refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, tends to keep the members of the community oriented toward the Essential Buddhist head. It is the acknowledgment of the Buddha and his attainment, of the sparkling teachings of Buddhism whether or not they are yet comprehended, and the recognition of adepts as the living representatives of Essential Buddhism, the one’s best able to correct misunderstandings. In this way the values of Essential Buddhism flow into and come to characterize the community at large, values such as peace, generosity and contentment.

The Sangha in the Triple Gem. I need to point out that the Sangha referred to in the Triple Gem, the one that is connected to the Essential Buddhist adepts, is not the same as the Sangha as most commonly understood in Western Folk Buddhism. “Sangha” in the West is almost always understood as a Buddhist community as a whole whether Essential or Folk, for instance, lending this word to names for informal weekly meditation and discussion groups like “the Sofa So Good Zen Sangha,” or “the Muddy Lotus Sangha.” This is not actually an incorrect usage, for “Sangha” in either Sanskrit or Pali means group or community, but the early discourses clearly specify a more narrow meaning in the context of the Triple Gem, one that is still recognized throughout Buddhist Asia, in both Theravada and Mahayana countries. Actually two alternative meanings are offered, then lumped together:

  1. The monastic community, the fully ordained monks and nuns, in Pali, the Bhikkhusangha (in Sanskrit Bhikshusangha).
  2. The set of “stream enterers,” “once returners,” “non-returners” and “arahants,” those in other words who have a certain stage on the Path to Awakening, also known in Pali as the Ariyasangha (Noble Sangha), or the “Fourfold Sangha” for the four stages of attainment represented.

Notice that the Ariyasangha corresponds closely to what I have been calling “adepts.” These are the ideal people to act as teachers, as role models as wise advisors for the Buddhist community. The Bhikkhusangha is the traditional institution designed to produce members of the Ariyasangha, just as graduate school is the institution designed to produce scholars, and as such is only a rough approximation of the Ariyasangha. The Bhikkhusangha is those individuals who have the least excuse for not being adepts. In the discourses if someone extolls the virtues of the Sangha Gem, it is generally clear that he is talking about the Ariyasangha. However, if someone first converts to Buddhism by reciting the Refuges, they usually specify by name the Bhikkhusangha. In practical terms the two sanghas are simply conflated, I suppose much as von Humboldt lumped university students and professors alike under the rubric “community of scholars,” which I’ve always thought must be a good prod for even the dimmest or most shiftless of them to get with the program. It is the Bhikkhusangha to whom the Buddha entrusted the preservation of the Sasana, that is, Essential Buddhism, for coming generations.

Where is the Western Sangha? As a Westerner, when you recite the Refuges, what Sangha do you, or should you, have in mind? This is a bit of a dilemma. The Bhikkhusangha is slim and those of us who there are, tend not to jump out at you (but at least I have a few of you reading my blog). The Ariyasangha is most likely actually larger than the Bhikkhusangha in the West, since there are many remarkably dedicated and experienced lay practitioners, many of whom have engaged in long periods of monastic training. But who are these ariyans? There are certain people who publicly declare their personal Awakening, but for every person who believes them there are probably ten who think instead that they are all on ego trips. There are the teachers, some strictly trained and authorized, some self-professed, some very charismatic and talkative, some demanding and strict. Some if you look closely teach pure Folk Buddhism and have little idea of what the Buddha or the other great teachers actually taught. Others have doctorates in Buddhist studies.

It is not obvious how we might understand and observe the Third Refuge in America without a clearly defined object symbol. I suppose it is a matter of seeking out the Wise in every context. It turns out a large portion of the teachers and authors who are publicly well known in the West are Sangha in the traditional sense: Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, Bhante Gunaratana, Thubten Chodron, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, etc.. And all of these are extraordinarily wise people, excellent resources for conveying the Dharma and exemplary role models. However locally you might have to scramble around a bit to find the wise. But this is also how you find a worthy teacher.

Teachers as Sangha. A starting point for finding a wise teacher can be adapted from the Buddha, who in the “Chanki Sutta” (MN 95) provides criteria for evaluating the wisdom of a monk in this regard:

“There is the case, Bharadvaja, where a monk lives in dependence on a certain village or town. Then a householder or householder’s son goes to him and observes him with regard to three mental qualities — qualities based on greed, qualities based on aversion, qualities based on delusion: ‘Are there in this venerable one any such qualities based on that, with his mind overcome by these qualities, he might say, “I know,” while not knowing, or say, “I see,” while not seeing; or that he might urge another to act in a way that was for his/her long-term harm & pain?’ As he observes him, he comes to know, ‘There are in this venerable one no such qualities based on greed… His bodily behavior & verbal behavior are those of one not greedy. And the Dhamma he teaches is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. This Dhamma can’t easily be taught by a person who’s greedy.

And similarly:

There are in this venerable one no such qualities based on aversion …

There are in this venerable one no such qualities based on greed

Such a person, monk or lay, would be worthy of being held in mind when one recites the Refuges or the Triple Gem.

Notice that these criteria should steer you away from the ubiquitous oversexed teachers or teachers who demand a fee. Of course you should also inquire of the candidate what his training is and who he studied with. At least some period of monastic training is a key qualification. Western style academic study in Buddhism can be an important less traditional factor; the tuned critical mind has a way of cutting through much confusion that the Asian Sangha often experiences in interpreting the Dharma. But academic training must be balanced with Buddhist practice, the ultimate arbiter, lest it instead introduce even more confusion.

The Monastic Sangha is Better than Plaster. The monastic Sangha serves a number of roles in Asia besides the generation of ariyans, adepts and teachers. A fundamental role is the provision of a visible and very present symbol of reverence. The role of the symbol of reverence is clear in the case of statues of the Buddha. The statue itself might be of plaster; it is not the Buddha itself. Yet it has deep meaning and inspiration to many Buddhists partly because of it provides a physical opportunity for expressing refuge in the Buddha. As we have seen in the case of Burmese Folk Buddhism it is even common to offer food to a plaster Buddha statue as as a way of connecting emotionally with the First Gem.

Monastics play a similar role with respect to the Sangha Gem that Buddha statues do with respect to the Buddha Gem, only more so. First of all, a monastic stands for the community of adepts that has upheld Buddhism for one hundred generations so that it might be transmitted to America in our time. Second, the monastic is a living, breathing entity, not just plaster. You can not only talk to one but she will answer back. Third, if a particular monastic is not an adept or an ariyan, she is still no worse a symbol than the plaster Buddha, but whereas the plaster can never be a real Buddha there is actually a strong possibility that she is an adept or an ariyan in the flesh. Fourth, the monastic will actually eat the food offerings you make to her, which is more gratifying to the donor than the hard-to-please plaster Buddha statue.

The Happiness Farm. When I began many years ago to visit Asian monasteries in America, not yet knowing I was doing early research for this series on American Folk Buddhism, I was struck by how different the Asian Buddhist communities felt from the American, and by how similar they Asian Buddhist communities felt to each other. They seemed universally like happy places, full of generosity and eagerness to participate and help, filled with a sense of appreciation for each other. They also always had a visible monastic Sangha, toward whom lay people seemed not submissive, in spite of conventional gestures of respect, but rather affectionate. There was a bit of mystery in this since these communities represented quite divergent Asian cultures, like Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese and Sri Lankan. There was nothing I had ever read about Buddhism that would account for the common elements that I sensed in all these Buddhist communities.

As I wondered about this I did come across a single essay that helped unlock the mystery, by Ajaan Thanissaro, called “The Economy of Gifts.” Otherwise nobody seems ever to have written about this. It seems that the common element that accounts for the common dispositions of these communities traces directly back to the traditional monastic discipline as defined by the Buddha. These are rules of training that the monastic observes, and yet the lay community benefits in implicit ways. Here is in brief how this works:

The monstic Sangha is fueled by uncoerced generosity. Monastic vows, as the Buddha formulated them, make the monastic utterly dependent on the laity, much like a house pet is utterly dependent on its owner, for she cannot have a livelihood nor engage in exchange. The following arise from this:

  • First, the laity is offered a focus for the Buddhist practice of generosity, Dana, the first Paramita. This focus is sharpened by the reverence for the monastic Sangha entailed by the Triple Gem.
  • Second, the monastic has, alongside study and other forms of practice, much leisure also to practice generosity, usually manifesting as teaching, social service or pastoral care (and in effect, the laity receives the benefit an exceedingly inexpensive clergy).
  • Third, this dependence defines a reciprocal line of authority that balances the natural monastic authority as the Third Gem: The laity in the end has the keys to the car.

I have so far described the Sangha’s authority with respect to the Folk Buddhist practitioner, but note that this authority is only conveyed as wisdom or knowledge and conduct; it has no coercive power beyond the layperson’s willingness to accept advice or admonition or to view the monastic as a role model. The laity’s authority is more coercive: Dissatisfaction with the monastic Sangha, for instance, can turn into withdrawal of support, a constant check on the integrity of the Sangha.

In short, the Buddhist community is organized into two distinct complementary roles with generosity as its lifeblood. The tradition of alms rounds takes the opportunity for generosity into the villages. Monasteries tend to become community centers in which generosity is a primary element. In practice this generosity spills over into many other circumstances, simply because it feels good. For instance the monastery in which I live in Texas is also a meditation center. A layperson who would like to come here for a retreat could expect to be be housed and fed at no charge simply because there are others who donate who believe in the value of that layperson’s practice just as they believe in the value of monastic practice. In fact such monasteries as community centers almost always stand entirely outside of the exchange economy, just as monastics in principle live entirely outside of the exchange economy. The Buddhist community is an economy of gifts.

Because generosity is such a joyful condition monasteries like the one I live in are very happy places in which to practice this fundamental Buddhist value, as well as a wholesome environment into which to bring the kids. This was a critical factor in my decision to ordain in a fully monastic tradition. Alongside the still somewhat tentative recognition that the Path of Renunciation was important in personal development as a Buddhist practitioner, I wanted to be a part of the development of wholesome communities in a land which has lost track of the value of community.

Developing a Western Sangha. Buddhism begins with the Triple Gem. It is what unifies Folk and Essential Buddhism. Yet in the West we do not have a clear concept of the Third Gem, not as a repository of expertise, much less as a defining factor in the formation of wholesome Buddhist communities. On the other hand we certainly have many strong elements in Western Buddhism that can contribute to the production of adepts and teachers. I wanted to highlight this issue today because how it plays out will be critical in the ongoing development of American Buddhism.

2 Responses to “American Folk Buddhism (8)”

  1. Kim Mosley Says:

    I wonder two things:

    1) To what extent is the generosity uncoerced when the giver believes in will improve their karma.

    2) You seem to be equating essential Buddhism more in this article as “right” and that folk is “wrong.” Or maybe I’m reading too much between the lines. Isn’t that Brad’s picture? Why? Is he the epitome of folk?


    • bhikkhucintita Says:

      Kim, You read that quickly. Generosity will improve their karma only if it is freely given. I am not sure where you are reading me as saying Folk Buddhism as “wrong.” It can be consistent or inconsistent with Essential Buddhism. Yes, that’s Brad. I just wanted a picture of a popular American Buddhist teacher. I considered Gempo Roshi as well.


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