Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Introduction

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, January 19, 2013

Index to this series

I have been reworking some of my previous writings into an eBook of maybe about 80 pages. This will include some things I posted under “Buddhist Religiosity,” “American Folk Buddhism,” etc. also with new content, assembled into an integrated whole. I intend to serialize it here as I finish each of the eight chapters. I hope my readership finds this helpful. This week: The Introduction.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity

Original Buddhism and its Cultural Adaptations

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore

DRAFT, January, 2013

Chapter 1. Introduction

IntroBuddhaIs Buddhism a religion? Of course it depends on one’s definition. I see three options:

  1. A religion involves worship of God. This works for the Abrahamic faiths familiar in the West. Clearly Buddhism fails this criterion.

  2. A religion is a way of life. That is, it informs our life choices at the most fundamental level, our ethical standards, our values, our attitudes, our aspirations? Clearly Buddhism satisfies this criterion.

Many suggest Buddhism is not a religion because it is a way of life. It seems to me this is exactly what is expected of a religion when embraced fully.

  1. A religion is a matter of “family resemblance,” that is, if it looks like a religion it is.

This last seems at first like a sloppy criterion, but as a linguist I can report that family resemblance underlies the better part of language; firm definitions are the exception, even for scientific terminology. Maybe to determine if Buddhism is a religion we should try for two out of three. This would make the last, the family resemblance, criterion the deciding factor. Its applicability frames this essay.

The degree of family resemblance, or the elements that indicate family resemblance are what I will call “religiosity.” Surely Buddhism in all of its traditional forms seems to have something of religion about it, for instance, devotional, ritual, liturgical and institutional features, to supplement somewhat unique doctrinal aspects and a program of personal practice. Yet some have argued recently that Buddhist religiosity is entirely a product of cultural accretion that began after the Buddha and has little to do with the core message of the Buddha. This yields two kinds of questions:

(1) What is the degree of religiosity in the Buddha’s core message?

(2) What is the degree of religiosity for any particular Buddhist tradition?

My responses will be something of a middle way, that indeed elements of religiosity were an intrinsic part of the Buddha’s core message and that these same core elements are found in virtually every historic Buddhist tradition, but that through cultural adaptation in virtually every tradition the degree of religiosity has become more prominent, sometimes exceedingly more prominent. However this fortified religiosity may or may not be a diversion from the Buddha’s core message. A third question we will add to the mix is,

(3) In what ways is religiosity for any particular Buddhist tradition a hindrance or an asset to preserving the Buddha’s core message?

In this essay I will outline the important aspects of religiosity in core Buddhism and will illustrate its enhancement in a sample of later traditions. I will then turn to this process of cultural adaptation and its implications. Buddhism stands out in the following two ways: First, if it is a religion it is the earliest world religion, succeed only substantially by Christianity and Islam, which means that it has historically successfully adapted to often radically new cultures. Second, the integrity of the highly sophisticated core teachings of Buddhism have been remarkably well preserved through these cultural adaptations. I will locate the mechanism of this adaptation in core Buddhism, in fact in core Buddhist religiosity, and will illustrate this mechanism particularly with regard to current Western Buddhist adaptations and assess their implications.

Which Buddhism?

I count as one of those who see in Buddhism — in spite of all its doctrinal variants, sects, innovations, cultural manifestations and so on — a common core, that is, a set of unifying features that allow us to talk of “Buddhism” in the singular. In fact, it seems to me that a remarkable aspect of Buddhism — in spite of exhibiting much more scriptural variation than most of the other major religions — is that it seems to have much more consistency of purpose and understanding than, say, Christianity. Somehow, transmitted through many centuries, through many traditions and cultures, and in spite of its accrued variety, Buddhism has managed to preserve the integrity of its essential core throughout the Buddhist world. The essential core preserved in the traditions includes, for instance, a more-or-less common understanding of liberation and of the path of training toward liberation which focuses on virtue, wisdom and development of mind, and a recognition of greed, hatred and delusion as the primary qualities of mind to be appeased. It also includes placing confidence of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, the near ubiquity of the monastic order and a communal emphasis on the practice of generosity.

I realize that many people see in Buddhism exactly the opposite: They find it extremely fragmented, dispersed over an impossible range of doctrinal positions, beliefs, practices and rituals. For instance, any given Buddhist tradition considers itself almost invariably the almost unique heir of Buddhist authenticity. Yet in exploring other lands and other sects it is faced with peculiarity and anomaly in the practices and beliefs of the laity, the garb of the monastics, the style of liturgy, the presence of unfamiliar figures in temple statuary, unfamiliar rites at temple altars, unknown scriptures on temple bookshelves, and hocus pocus all around. For many in the West who first come to Buddhism and survey the entire array of traditions, unbiased by any particular tradition, the variance is even more striking and it is easy to see how they might throw their hands up in despair and perhaps entertain the hope that Baha’i or Sufism is easier to sort out.

Much of the observed diversity reveals more about the observer than about the observed. Different people and different cultures come with different perspectives and different expectations, and cultural Westerners are no different. Alongside differences in doctrinal understanding, for instance, fixed culturally induced interpretations arise for what is simply be poorly understood about someone else’s tradition. Different options for individual practice within a unified core Buddhism or progressive stages of individual practice are interpreted as distinct Buddhisms, as are differences in understanding, ranging from sophisticated to naïve, among the adherents within a particular tradition. In response I will isolate a common core Buddhism that can be recognized in the various traditions underneath their supplementary cultural accretions, and then attempt to sort out the rest.

Religiosity in Buddhism

The reasons I focus on religiosity are twofold: First, these elements tend to be more implicit in Buddhist teachings rather than systematically developed and therefore their significance bears exploring. Second, they tend to be conditioned culturally far more than doctrinal and programmatic aspects, for instance, sometimes assuming highly embellished forms in many of the Buddhist traditions, and they are therefore disproportionally responsible for the sometimes wild variety observed among and within the various Buddhist traditions.

Religiosity seems to be a universal, found throughout the world. Scholars of comparative religion have probably looked at this in detail, but here are the recurring features I observe in almost all religions, many of which contribute to the family resemblance of Buddhism and “religion” :

  • Ritual and Ceremony. These are conventionalized actions and activities.
  • Ritual spaces. Certain places and spatial relations are made significant through ritual or placement at an elevation or naturally central location.
  • Ritual artifacts. A central or prominent altar is common. Sometimes clothing is an indicator of social role in religious activities. Incense, candles, flowers and images are common.
  • Respect, Devotion and Worship. Certain rituals and gestures are used to express degrees of reverence or respect, either to designated people, to ritual artifacts, to abstractions or to otherworldly beings.
  • Scripture. Texts convey the basic doctrine or mythology of the religion and often go back to the founding of the religion. Scriptures are often regarded as ritual artifacts.
  • Tradition. Many of the rituals, artifacts, scripture and so on are archaic, that is, bespeak of an ancient time to give a sense of embeddedness in a long tradition.
  • Chanting. Typically this is a group activity and involves reciting scripture.
  • Community, and Group Identity. There is a sense of belonging to a community, often assuming a certain role in a community dynamics and interrelatedness, much like belonging to a family.
  • Common world view or conviction. This is faith in a certain set of doctrines, creeds or values or confidence in an authority.
  • Clergy. There are often a class of professionals who dedicate themselves to understanding and practice of the religion, generally conduct or lead the rituals and care of the community and sometimes have the status of ritual artifacts themselves.
  • Institutions. The community is generally organized according certain principles and this organization sustains the clergy, owns ritual spaces and objects and provides some degree of governance and authority.

Two things bear pointing out. First, “religiosity” is completely a Western notion. I doubt the Buddha would have read through this list and seen in it any more than a set of arbitrary features. Nor would he have thought to constrain the scope of religiosity in his teachings. I make no further attempt to define “religiosity” than to provide this list. Why this issue assumes prominence in the Western mind is discussed in a few chapters.

Second, although these features characterize “religiosity,” all of these features, or their close counterparts, are found outside of religion, that is, in “secular” contexts. For instance, table manners and proper arrangements of cutlery and plates and glasses in a proper table setting exhibit a large number of these features. Sports events also involve ritual, ritual spaces, worship, chanting, group identity, and often a sense of tradition. Government functions and places of government exhibit every one of these features, by my count, with appropriate substitution of terms, elected officials for clergy, etc. Armies likewise exhibit most, maybe because they need to be equipped to deal with fundamental issues of life and death. Even Academia exhibits a lot of these features. No traditional school of Buddhism I am aware of fails to exhibit any one of them. I do not know of any movements to “secularize” any of the other realms.


I will begin with a statement of the common core system that shines through virtually all of the Buddhist traditions. This includes doctrinal and programmatic fundamentals as well as some aspects of religiosity as discussed above, the latter in a much more skeletal form in core Buddhism than found in almost any particular later tradition. This statement will show how these religious elements are integral and necessary to the proper function of the whole system; their justification is in their functional efficacy.

All aspects of this core system as I will lay it out belong to original Buddhism as attested in the earliest scriptures, and also are consistently retained in virtually all traditions of Buddhism independently of the variety of cultures in which these variants have arisen. Two particularly important aspects of core religiosity are Refuge and the structure of the Buddhist community, without which a full understanding of Buddhism as taught by the Buddha is impossible. Therefore I will discuss these two aspects in some detail.

Having established a common core for Buddhist traditions, I will then survey the ways in which particular traditions have embellished or retooled this common core. We will see that religiosity is often greatly enhanced with elements of local cultures, often mixing freely with elements of indigenous religions and commonly taking on consolatory elements, and also that doctrinal and programmatic aspects are often expressed in new and typically culturally-conditioned ways that for the most part retain their authenticity and sometimes enhance it. This will be an incomplete survey, pulling out a few hopefully representative examples of the range of variations found among the traditions.

Finally I consider how the forms of religiosity promote or demote core Buddhism. One of the most important sources of variation in Buddhism is often overlooked. Within any particular tradition an individual understanding of that tradition will vary greatly. At the one pole are the adepts, those that have devoted much of their lives to study and training in Buddhism and may have reached some level of attainment, occasionally even Awakening. At the other pole are the normal folk — almost always historically the vast majority of adherents — who have often only a vague understanding of the tradition or of core Buddhism garnered from family and friends. This produces the inevitable dichotomy between Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism (actually two poles of a continuum). While an Adept Buddhism will general preserve the common core, a Folk Buddhism will tend to be a mass of culturally-conditioned understandings and misunderstandings. While an Adept Buddhism will be centered generally in the shape of doctrine and the program of practice, a Folk Buddhism will be centered primarily in the elements of religiosity. This is important, for generally we identify our own tradition, if we have one, with its Adept Buddhism while we see in any other tradition only its Folk Buddhism. No wonder the forms of Buddhism seem to vary as wildly as they do.

After exemplifying Folk Buddhism with regard to a few Buddhist traditions, giving particular attention to how much Western Folk Buddhism is also culturally conditioned, I consider how it is that Buddhism has maintained its essence through many centuries and through transmission into vastly divergent cultures and in spite of its great accrued variance. This answer involves the ability of Adept Buddhism to to give shape to Folk Buddhism rather than the other way around, to keep it in line well enough that contradictions are relatively rare and one grades easily from one into the other. This in turn depends on Refuge and the structure of Buddhist communities. This property therefore lies within the scope of the particularities of core Buddhist Religiosity, as envisioned from the beginning by the Buddha!


Chapter 1. Core Buddhism

Chapter 2. Refuge

Chapter 3. A Buddhist Community

Chapter 4. Modifications and Retoolings of Buddhism.

Chapter 5. Folk Buddhism

Chapter 6. Modern Trends in Folk Buddhism

Chapter 7. Finding our Way in the West

2 Responses to “Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Introduction”

  1. Kevin Says:

    We were talking about this in a meeting this past week. When something starts and it continues to be attended by and have different participants then naturally the content and intent may change with time. That does not mean it is better, rather the idea that nothing is permanent is very true. No religion looks like it did two or three thousand years ago. The core could and should remain, but human beings have egos which corrupt teachings at times. I am so glad to have such wise words written by Venerable Cintita and challenge all of us to look closer.

  2. Alan Says:

    An excellent introduction, Bhante. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this.

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