American Folk Buddhism (17)

First Quarter Moon, Uposatha, July 26, 2012            Series Index

Conclusion to Series

This will be the last and concluding episode in this, uh, longish series on American Folk Buddhism.

In summary, I made a distinction between two kinds, or actually polarities, of Buddhism: Essential Buddhism and Folk Buddhism. The Refuges assure the authority of the former.

Essential Buddhism is what is understood and sustained by Buddhist adepts who are thoroughly engaged in the study and practice Buddhism to the extent of significant attainment. It is generally beyond the grasp of most Buddhists who are simply more casual in their engagement or busy doing other things. Essential Buddhism is also functionally equivalent to what the Buddha taught but manifests in various forms, often culturally determined; for instance in East Asia it picked up many highly ritualized practices as effective instruments of mindfulness. In a sense there are multiple Essential Buddhisms, but in another sense there are very nearly simply different manifestations of a single functionally integrated system.

Folk Buddhism is the popular understanding of Buddhism in a particular folk culture for which it provides accessibility to a much broader community, albeit with occasional loss of accuracy or sophistication. Folk Buddhisms are highly culturally determined and one Folk Buddhism is likely to appear incomprehensive to the adherents of another Folk Buddhism just as one culture will tend appear mysterious to the members of another. In the course of this series I have considered the Western cultural, and therefore non-Buddhist, sources of many prominent features of the emerging Western Folk Buddhism.

The Refuges, or Triple Gem, establish the authority of Essential Buddhism over Folk Buddhism as it expresses trust in the originator, the teachings and the living adepts of Essential Buddhism. The Triple Gem gives Buddhism as understood and practiced in the entire community the comet-like shape in which the tail of Folk Buddhism is oriented toward the head of Essential Buddhism, without which Folk Buddhism would eventually float off into space as an amorphous cultic cloud, Buddhist only in name.

Distinguishing between Essential and Folk Buddhism provides a framework for understanding and monitoring the process by which Buddhism is being assimilated into the Western cultural context. Ideally this process will:

(1)   maintain the functional integrity of Essential Buddhism at all costs,

(2)   establish the authority of Essential Buddhism over Folk Buddhism and

(3)    result in a wholesome Western Folk Buddhism.

The integrity of Essential Buddhism is threatened by the assumption common in Western circles that adapting Buddhism to the West is a matter of stripping Buddhism willy-nilly   of Asian cultural accretions in order to make it look more Western. This aesthetic would include, for instance, getting rid of rituals, robes, bowing, chanting (at least in foreign tongues), non-productive lifestyles and so on, not to mention renunciation. However, distinguishing between Essential and Folk Buddhisms highlights the danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, of hacking away at the corn when trying to remove the underbrush. Essential Buddhism is the baby, Folk Buddhism the bathwater. The functional role of any culturally arisen features of a transmitted Essential Buddhism is preserved only by leaving it intact or replaced by Western-looking counterparts. History seems to favor leaving such things intact, tending to lend Essential Buddhism an archaic flavor, for instance as retained in gestures of respect and in monastic garb.

Establishing the authority of the Triple Gem ensures that any particular person immersed in Folk Buddhism knows where to look to deepen his practice and understanding of Buddhism, and that that Folk Buddhism remains recognizably Buddhist. That Folk Buddhisms vary so widely should not be a source of alarm as long as each Folk Buddhism is so anchored in the authority of Essential Buddhism. Without that alarm each Folk Buddhism can be appreciated and respected in its own right as an effective intermediary between a relatively uniform Essential Buddhism and the respective cultural context.

A Western Folk Buddhism is wholesome or beneficial to the extent that it is friendly and not inimical toward Essential Buddhism. It is not necessary or desirable to preserve any particular Asian Folk Buddhism, which would be largely incomprehensible in a Western context in any case. It should be recognized that a pure Essential Buddhism goes “against the stream” in any cultural context and that the function of a Folk Buddhism is to carry the challenge of Buddhism into its cultural context, that is that it should make a real difference is people’s lives and attitudes in spite of the cultural context.

In the course of this series I have examined some prominent features of the emerging Western Folk Buddhism in terms of their consistency with Essential Buddhism. These features are resistance to authority, particular forms of understanding and revering the Triple Gem, individualism, gender equality, consumerism, social engagement and the intermediating influence of psychoanalysis on the Western understanding Buddhism. The picture that emerges ranges between total accord and significant discord. Western Folk Buddhism is still quite raw but the master chef of Essential Buddhism should cook it up nicely with time.

 I have tacitly assumed throughout this series that the integrity of Essential Buddhism itself has been successfully preserved through history and transmitted to us in the West. I would like to conclude by considering the role of Western Buddhism in making this assumption even more true than it actually is. Essential Buddhism is probably not currently preserved anywhere in its pristine purity. Tradition has a way of tugging out its own roots: understandings become calcified, shortcuts establish themselves, assumptions are not often enough revisited and questioned, the history of each tradition has often been rewritten. For instance I feel that the Theravada would do well to look more critically at the way eating meat and gender roles are understood even among most of the adepts. In the West Buddhism in all of its aspects will be seen with fresh eyes. Scholars are challenging the accounts traditions generally have of their own histories, practitioners question the why’s and wherefore’s of everything and are open to debating these things. Eventually I predict a renewed and stronger purer Essential Buddhism will emerge in the West, one that will go on to reinvigorate all of Buddhism East


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3 Responses to “American Folk Buddhism (17)”

  1. Kim Mosley Says:

    I think you saying that Essential Buddhism is good and that it will stop suffering, and that folk Buddhism is bad and that it will not. You acknowledge that Buddhism changes as it goes from culture to culture. How do we determine whether the changes are Essential Buddhism version India becoming Essential Buddhism version China, or if the changes are Essential Buddhism version Japan becoming Folk Buddhism version America? In the end, the good/bad silos don’t seem very Buddhist. Are they?


  2. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Kim, I’m having trouble parsing your note; you must have written it from your iPhone. But I think the answers are:
    1. I never say Folk Buddhism is “bad” nor that it cannot reduce suffering. Quite the contrary.
    2. Ask an adept!


  3. bhikkhucintita Says:

    Incidentally, there is a sequence of comments at another site about this series:


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