Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Folk Buddhism

Uposatha Day, March 5, 2013

Index to Series

Chapter 7. Folk Buddhism

FolkCometEach weekend many people set out to conquer the mountain in the middle of the state park, a large and very mixed group of people of every age, state of health, type of footwear, size of backpack or picnic basket, degree of inebriation or caffeine fortification. The group that appears on a particular day will naturally spread itself out along the trails that begin at the parking lot, that weave and intersect throughout the park and that occasionally empty a trickle of hikers atop the mountain for the final ascent up its rocky peak.

The strongest, healthiest, be-hiking-booted, light-backpacked, boldest, most persistent and most enterprising make the best progress. These are recognizable even in the parking lot: they generally drive jeep-like vehicles with bicycle racks, are slim and fit and carry high-tech water bottles. They are recognizable later as the ones walking in the opposite direction with bright and open faces inspiring others with their experiences at the mountaintop. Some, but not all of them, make that last climb up the abrupt cliff.

In the middle range there is inevitably a mutually infatuated teenage couple that makes energetic progress in spurts, but keeps getting side-tracked and disappearing from the path and into the brush for long periods time. There are some chubby middle-aged people who huff and puff, sip frequently from canteens and eat sandwiches. And there are some relatively fit but ancient binoculared birdwatchers.

Falling way back are parents and their young kids who “cannot walk another step,” a couple of people sitting on a rock drinking beer, an elderly gentleman watching fire ants devour his cane that he had to abandon upright after it sank into a soft spot in the ground, and an alluringly attired young lady who broke a heal on the first rock past the parking lot.

The Buddhist Path is defined with the bicycle racks and cutting-edge water bottles in mind and the rest of us try our best to keep up but then straggle to varying degrees. We do what we can, and often the accomplishments of the leaders, and tales of panoramic views from lofty heights inspire us to try a bit harder. The field guides, trail maps and high-tech hiking boots are primarily designed with these young and fit scalers of peaks and surveyors of views in mind, though those aids that carry the Mahayana logo are a bit more middle-group- and way-back-group-friendly.

It is important to recognize that Buddhism is not a cookie-cutter enterprise. Most religions tend to be.  That is, they define a set of practices or standards that all adherents are equally responsible for upholding, ideally yielding normalized behavior and understanding. They do not put so much emphasis on the aspirations and needs of the hotshots and rocket scientists as Buddhism does. Buddhism cannot be a cookie-cutter enterprise because its standards are so high: perfect purity in action and thought, penetrating insight and imperturbable serenity. Those of highest attainment understand and live something extremely sophisticated and refined, beyond the reach of the typical among us. But the scalers of peaks nonetheless inspire us in a wholesome direction.

The other side of the story is that straggling is quite permissible in Buddhism. Nobody requires that we undertake five Precepts, least of all God; we do so if we so choose. No one requires that we drop anything into alms bowls, nor that we attend Dharma talks, nor that we cultivate the mind; we choose to. Buddhism provides choices at every level, hopefully with the support and advice provided through our communities to make these with due deliberation on the basis of Buddhist wisdom. We Buddhists spread ourselves out on the Path based on our choices, on our determination and on our aptitude.
As a community we are like a comet, all oriented in the same direction but with some clustered closer to the head and others trailing out along in the tail.

Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism

Let’s get sociological.

The head and the tail of the comet just mentioned are what I will respectively call Adapt Buddhism and Folk Buddhism. These terms are used to describe the Buddhist community within a particular region, culture or society. For instance, we can talk variously about Buddhism at the time of the Buddha, modern Chinese Buddhism or Thirteenth Century Japanese Soto Zen Buddhism or even Modern (Western) Buddhism in these terms. Each Buddhist community will exhibit a different range of understandings and practices and therefore a different comet, yet almost every one will have a well-defined head, an Adept Buddhism, and a more nebulous tail, a Folk Buddhism, and witness a dynamic relationship between the two.

So far we have looked at Buddhist religiosity doctrinally in terms of the system that the Buddha set up that is very much alive today. We have also looked at it historically in terms of pressures and changes that have shaped Buddhist religiosity and Buddhism in general over time. Here I want to look at it sociologically, to beam down into the dynamics of particular Buddhist social contexts. I am not a sociologist, nor for that matter an historian, though I purport to know something about Buddhist doctrine. However I have found that sociological research on Buddhism invariably fails to make a distinction between these two tracks that are discussed here, which I feel misses important connections both to Buddhist doctrine and to history. Recall that the Buddha conceived in his teachings a remarkable social institution that was intended to project Buddhism forward historically. The comet model is a manifestation of this institution.

This model will in fact be useful for studying the dynamics of understanding and practice within communities, including how errors tend to be corrected and how the integrity of Core Buddhism tends to be preserved. It will also be useful to understand what it means to preserve the integrity of Core Buddhism in the midst of a multiplicity of understandings and misunderstandings, practices and malpractices. This model will also be useful for placing and evaluating innovations and trends that arise the regional or cultural context of Buddhism.

Finally, this model will be useful for understanding our own misperception of the range of Buddhisms found in other regions, cultures or societies than our own. In brief, when we look at our own Buddhism we tend to identify it with the head, when we look at someone else’s Buddhism we tend to identify it with the tail.  I hope that once this is recognized it will help resolve, or rather dissolve, much of the interminable back-and-forth between Theravada and Mahayana, Eastern and Western, Original and Traditional, and Secular and Religious Buddhisms.

Adept Buddhism

Adept Buddhism is the understanding, practice and teachings of those who are recognized as the Buddhist adepts in a given region, culture (or subculture) or society. The Adepts are represented by the Sangha in Core (or at least Original) Buddhism, and Adept Buddhism ideally manifests Core Buddhism. However in the non-ideal circumstances of a particular region or culture it is possible that some other group other than the Sangha carries this function. In Western Buddhism, for instance, lay teachers predominate or those not fully ordained into the Sangha, such as priests in Japanese traditions. In many places the Adepts might in fact have an incomplete or faulty understanding or practice of Core Buddhism, or have altered Core Buddhism in order to accommodate some nonnegotiable features of the local culture. Therefore for sociological purposes we understand the Adepts as those who are broadly recognized and respected throughout the community as the experts or authorities on Buddhist doctrine and practice.

Although we all share democratic ideals, the idea of adepts in Buddhism should not puzzle or concern. Almost every area of human endeavor has its adepts. Many people can change the washer in a faucet, or turn off the main valve if there is a leak, but when something gets more difficult than that they call a plumber, because she is the expert. Even in routine things that almost everybody does, like driving or vacuuming, some people are more adept than others. As the depth of understanding and practice in particular fields gets very sophisticated humankind inevitably sorts itself into adepts and regular folk. And the regular folk will, as needed, appeal to the authority of the adepts for advice, service or (should they desire to become adepts themselves) training. Consider art or music, birdwatching or hiking. The depth or sophistication of Buddhism is of the order, say, of a science, of music or of medicine, and Awakening is of the order of genius. Buddhism will (and must!) have adepts.

Adept Buddhism tends to be conservative,  in that it is not nearly so subject to innovation and to culture-specific understandings, conditionings or fads, nor for that matter as subject to religiosity, as Folk Buddhism. This means also that Adept Buddhists are very likely to share most of their understandings and practices with the Adept Buddhists of other lands and cultures, and so to possess what is most universal about Buddhism. An adept like Suzuki Roshi was able to leave the cultural environment of Japan and to connect with members of the American Beat scene because he taught what was universal and was able to see his way from one cultural context into another.

Nonetheless Adept Buddhists will have also assimilated aspects of the local culture. We have seen how  local cultural resources were fashioned into new practices and new understandings in the service of Core Buddhism in the application of East Asian ritualization of everyday behaviors to the training in mindfulness. Likewise Adept Buddhists will typically be conversant with the local Folk Buddhism, having grown up as Folk Buddhists. When come of Suzuki Roshi’s American students traveled back to Japan with him they found him engaging with Japanese Folk Buddhists in a way that was incomprehensible to them. He could become a Japanese Folk Buddhist on demand yet keep the two Buddhisms as separate in his mind as the two languages he used to engage them.

A primary responsibility of Adept Buddhism is to keep itself authentic, that is, to realize a complete and fully functional Core Buddhism. We have seen that the monastic Sangha was authorized by the Buddha to ensure just such an authentic Buddhism. Its function is to produce the conditions in which Noble Ones arise, including Arahants, who understand Core Buddhism as a matter of personal experience, elicit veneration and teach and inspire others to understanding and practice. If a region, culture or society has produced Noble Ones or even an occasional Awakened arahant, there is all the more likelihood that that its Adept Buddhism will also be authentic. Another primary responsibility of Adept Buddhism is to inspire and influence through their practice and understanding. This requires that the adepts are venerated or at least highly respected.

Examples of Adept Buddhism

Adept Buddhism is evident in Burma in meditation practice, in the large proportion of monastics in the population, in the observance of monastic discipline, in the relatively high standards monastic education, in the widespread study of the original the Pali texts (there are monks who can recite thousands of pages from memory). A number of Burmese monks in recent years have been widely regarded as arahants — although they are prohibited by monastic regulation from telling you about that, and perhaps by modesty — and certainly Noble Ones are common.

Monks and nuns are ubiquitous; everybody knows some, is related to some of them; even the smallest village has a small monastery. People have daily contact when they offer alms in the morning, rice and a little curry. People have a particular regard for monks who are meditators, have impeccable discipline or are recognized scholars. Although monks rarely mingle in social gatherings, alms rounds or visits to the monastery on quarter moon days provide the laity an opportunity to learn some Dhamma or ask questions. Although all monks are respected, people learn of individual monks’ reputations as teachers. Moreover in this electronic age many people listen to recorded Dhamma talks at home, by their favorite famous sayadaws (teachers), as often as to music, or to chanting in Pali.

Burma has become particularly well known abroad for its many teachers of Vipassana meditation since meditation has undergone a massive revival since the middle of the Twentieth Century such that farmers and otherwise employed lay people now crowd 10-day meditation retreats. Burma is a land barely touched by modernity and there are many animist beliefs that are mixed in with Buddhism that are almost universally accepted by the adepts. However adepts are well grounded in the original teachings of the Buddha.

Adept knowledge of Buddhism is  not the exclusive domain of monastics in Burma, though  they are with very few exceptions the only ones recognized as teachers. A layman, for instance, who had been a monk for decades but then disrobed, would no longer presume to teach. The exceptions are generally authorized by prominent monks. U Ba Khin was an important lay meditation teacher who studied under two esteemed monks, Ledi Sayadaw and Webu Sayadaw, both in fact commonly regarded as arahants, authorized to teach by the latter and teacher to a number of other lay meditation teachers, including S.N. Goenka.

Although the Sangha in Burma has weaknesses — for instance, there are those with impure motives in joining an order that is a bit coddled, and there are no opportunities for full ordination for women, in contrast to what the Buddha established — Adept Buddhism is remarkably strong in Burma and functions in very close to the manner laid down by the Buddha in the Vinaya. In fact this same model functions fairly well throughout most of Buddhist Asia, in which all countries have a strong monastic Sangha, except Japan, and in parts of Korea.

I want also to consider briefly Adept Buddhism in modern culturally non-Asian communities (hereafter designated “the West”) because in its formative period the West represents a quite unique case. In the West the Sangha is as yet almost completely absent. Very few Western Buddhists have direct contact with monks or nuns or have ever even met one, though prominent monastic teachers and authors known at a distance through books and other media are highly influential and active in the West: Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, Bhante Gunaratana, Thubten Chodron, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Ajahn Sumedho, and so on. All of these are widely regarded as extraordinarily wise people, excellent resources for conveying the Dharma and exemplary role models.

At the local level the role of adepts among Westerners is probably best accorded variously to priests in the Japanese or Korean Zen traditions, typically with some training in a monastic setting, to certified lay lamas in the Tibetan tradition, to a number of ex-monastics, primarily trained in the Theravada countries of Asia, and to Buddhist scholars, many of whom really have no practice or training nor any particular regard for the genius of the Buddha. Unfortunately this does not constitute a set of adepts who are consistently  recognized and venerated as such by the wider public. The wider public is in fact confused by the conflicting standards concerning teacher qualifications, the only rough conformity among the views and methods of teachers connected with diverse Asian traditions, and a strong admixture of charismatic yet self-certified lay teachers (and even a couple of self-certified arahants). The Third Gem has no particular referent for most Western Buddhists, who generally assume it applies it to the parisa at large, 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.”

On the other hand, Adept Buddhism in the West enjoys a couple of advantages. Critical thinking is certainly a strength of Western culture, one that has already served Buddhism well, not so much Folk Buddhism as Adept Buddhism. We are now in a historical process of reconsidering much of what has been unquestioned in Asian Buddhism for many centuries and this is driven largely by Western or Western-influenced scholarship. Many texts that have been attributed directly to the Buddha for centuries are revealed to be of more recent origin. Traditional accounts of the history of the various Buddhist schools have been discredited. Comparisons of texts in diverse languages have opened up new possibilities for interpretation. These trends have melted a lot of frozen assumptions in traditional Buddhim. Moreover  the Western Buddhist community as a whole enjoys extremely high levels of education and inclination toward study of Buddhist source texts. Adept knowledge in short is less concentrated and more distributed than in the Asian context, as if very few indeed had the fortitude to scale the final peak, yet everyone who shows up at the park has cutting-edge shoes, so that young kids, for instance, can take another step, and so on.

Folk Buddhism

A professional physicist has a very sophisticated understanding developed through education, training and perhaps personal research that the rest of us fall far short of. Yet we are all physicists at at least a naïve level insofar as we must deal with the world of mass and motion, light and liquids. Try asking some folk physicists things like: What keeps the moon and airplanes up but us down? Why is the back of the refrigerator so warm?  How can radio waves carry sounds and pictures?  What makes water freeze? … and you may receive in return an astonishing array of folk understandings that trail off into misunderstandings, superstition and “old wives’ tales,” and these will even vary from culture to culture. Music, philosophy, art and engineering are other areas in which expert or adapt knowledge or skill exists side by side with naïve or folk understandings. Buddhism is no different, never has been since the early days and never will be.

The tail of the comet 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 Adept Buddhism.  A Folk Buddhism is the popular understanding of Buddhism as it manifests in a particular social, cultural or regional context. More accurately Folk Buddhism shows a range of popular alternative or more or less elaborate understandings, corresponding in our simile to the different positions within the tail of the comet. Folk Buddhism will typically include elements of Adept Buddhism with a hefty admixture of folk beliefs, elements of non-Buddhist religious, ethical and philosophical traditions with currency in the local culture, many colorful elements from myth or popular entertainment, and many false understandings of Adept Buddhism.

Almost universal elements among the more devout folk that are shared with Adapt and Core Buddhism will be veneration of the Triple Gem, a recognition of the respective roles of the monastic Sangha and lay community, some notion of rebirth and of merit and a vague sense of Nirvana, whatever that is, looming out there as an ultimate goal. There will an understanding of generosity and some understanding of virtue as wholesome practices that produce merit. There will be some assumption of responsibility for keeping one’s own intentions pure in daily affairs.

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 Adept Buddhism. This is much like the popular relationship to science. For instance, if I don’t have much of an understanding of how the weather works I might have some odd notions about it and even communicate these to other people. If someone disagrees with me generally we have a ready way to resolve the conflict: look it up or ask an expert.  If I am not to be informed or corrected by those that I understand to be the experts my understanding along with that of the people I talk with about the weather will quickly lose its tenuous mooring in science and float off into supposition and superstition bearing even less relationship to science than it does now. It is normal to defer to the scientist, the historian, the physician, your own real estate agent, to all the experts. This allows us to correct our misunderstandings and improve our understandings, to loosely anchor ourselves. Similarly, I may naively  believe that paying daily respect to my Buddha statue will erase the karmic results of any misdeeds I commit out in the world. If I am unwilling to be corrected by the adapt who points out that I am heir to all of my deeds, my understanding a practice along with those of the people I talk with about such matters will quickly lose its tenuous mooring in Adept Buddhism and float off in a wildly devotional cultic bubble having even less relationship to Buddhism than it does now.

Nonetheless along with a proper understanding of core teachings there will also be misunderstandings of the teachings of the Adepts that endure, for instance, that there is a soul or fixed self that acquires merit through good deeds, or that Nirvana is a particularly felicitous realm where that self can be reborn and dwell forever. Also, having virtually no relation to Core Buddhism, it is common in Folk Buddhism to seek protection from outrageous fortune in amulets or in special chants or in the simple presence of monks or nuns.  Folk Buddhism is largely conditioned by the embedding culture. Many Asian cultures have had strong animist and shamanic influences since even before the advent of Buddhism and these have since become indistinguishable from Buddhism in the popular mind. In East Asia, for instance, Ancestor worship is very much integrated into Folk Buddhism with its many traditional expressions, such as symbolic burning of money.

Nonetheless Folk Buddhism should not be regarded as just a deviant form of Core or Adept Buddhism: In fact as we shall see it has an important role to play in the health and influence of authentic Buddhism. It serves as a middle way between Adept Buddhism and the general embedding folk culture.

Examples of Folk Buddhism.

The average Burmese Buddhist, though perhaps devout, knows maybe a little about meditation but does not practice it, knows basic teachings of Buddhism largely from Jataka tales (primarily a Children’s literature), but is primarily informed by a vibrant Folk Buddhism. Burma is a land of pagodas, statues of the Buddha, monks and nuns abound, before which people bow fully touching their foreheads to the ground in reverence. This average Burmese Buddhist inhabits as well a world of tree spirits, miracles and magic, largely of pre-Buddhist origin but blending seamlessly with Buddhist practices and doctrine, for instance, calling on the presence or actions of monks to work invisible forces in a more favorable direction. Monks therefore are also engaged in folk practices that have little to do with Core Buddhism.
Burmese Folk Buddhism tends to reduce everything to a matter of accumulating personal merit, which will tend to make this life happier and also ensure happy future lives. Merit (Pali, punnya) is a common concept in Core Buddhism generally as a summary means of quantifying progress as we act with good intentions. However in Burmese Folk Buddhism there is a marked tendency to measure it in purely external terms and keep something like a bank account balance. Spiro reports that many Burmese actually keep a physical ledger on paper of their merits and demerits throughout the day. If the balance sheet is positive the Folk Buddhist is doing pretty well.

In one way of accounting offering one person a meal counts as offering one hundred dogs a meal, offering one novice a meal counts as offering one hundred regular people a meal and offering one fully ordained monk a meal counts as offering one hundred novices a meal! In any case, there is a bias toward generosity with a dharmic basis and little attention to the actual needs 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, but which have presumably generated much merit for their donors. Contributing the building of a pagoda is also considered very meritorious, while for some reason contributing to the repair of an old pagoda is much less so, and as a result Burma is a land of shiny new pagodas next to old dilapidated ones.  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 this is any  reference to one’s intentions, which from the perspective of Core Buddhism is all that counts. In fact 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. Monks generally understand this are are often at great pains to explain this to the laity, but traditional was of calculating merits run deep. People little understanding naturally live in a world of observables, not in an internal world of perceptions, feelings and intentions.

Part of the Burmese system of veneration of the Buddha and of arahants involves relics, as the Buddha himself endorsed. In Burma these generally take on the form of crystals which are capable of spontaneously reproducing like bunnies, that is, left overnight the next morning they will have increased in number and mass. A museum has been built in a temple in Burma where a local arahant had lived and died. Pictures in the museum reveal he had very intensive eyes, which  did not burn during his cremation but were found among the relics. I am not aware that they have reproduced however.

Relics also have special powers.  Kyaik Tiyo, the golden rock,  is a huge boulder, maybe 40 or 50 feet in diameter, perched on top of a sheer cliff, at the very top of a tall mountain, in such a way that it has been just about to roll off for maybe the last several hundred thousand years or so.  The story is told that some of the Buddha’s hairs are contained inside of the rock and that the rock remains in place by the unexplained “power of the Buddha.” Once upon a time, some non-Buddhists tried to push the rock off the cliff in order to undermine people’s faith in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, but they were turned into monkeys. In an inspiring, hopefully not foolhardy, display of faith, there is now a nunnery directly below the rock, exactly at the point of first bounce.

Western Folk Buddhism, which by the way has parallels with that of the prosperous modernized iPhone-toting classes of Asia, lacks much of the animism shamanism of Asia and is instead marked by a complex blend of traditional European religion, of the European Enlightenment, of the European Romantic movement and of psychotherapy. A common understanding is that Buddhism is about freeing one’s authentic, inner or true self or nature, a self that has been suppressed by social conditioning and other inauthentic factors, but when unleashed is the source of creativity, spirituality, virtue and wisdom. This authentic self is typically accorded the following specific qualities:

  • The authentic self is independent of social roles, culture and conventions.
  • Social roles, culture and conventions are oppressive to the authentic self.
  • Creativity, spontaneity, goodness and art are external expressions that flow out from the authentic self. This is self-expression, this is being natural.
  • Spirituality adheres in the authentic self, while religion is found in external rules, conventions and dogma.
  • We must learn to trust the inner experience and inner vision of the authentic self, that which comes naturally, that which is true to ourselves.

Although such statements have a long and venerable history it is not a Buddhist history.  The idea of the authentic self does accord with practices of introspective examination in Core Buddhism, but we would be hard pressed indeed to find any of the rather specific statements above represented in Buddhist literature of any tradition. For many in Asia, in fact, the self is identified primarily or exclusively in terms of cultural, social and familiar relations. Although the Buddha recommends leaving home and severing social ties for those wishing to go forth into the monastic life, he then places them under rather strong social control.

If these statements do not have a Buddhist origin, where did they come from? The answer is from European Romanticism and its later expressions. It is found in people like Locke and Rousseau, Schiller and Schliermacher, representing the idea of human rationality free from social constraints, of morality and wisdom coming directly from the human heart, of naturalness. The disparagement of society and convention was later adopted by Freud, who apparently had no interest whatever in Buddhism. The outflow of the inner self is often taken up in the art of the Romantic era; Wordsworth, for instance, stated that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” See McMahan’s Making of Buddhist Modernism and also Thanissaro’s essay “Romancing the Buddha” for more on the Romantic origin of these ideas. Nonetheless these statements are commonly attributed to Buddhism, so they are a part of American Folk Buddhism.

Buddhist practice takes place largely in a social matrix. The availability of Noble Ones, the support of the Sangha, the transmission of the Dharma to us over one hundred generations are achievements of society. The Sangha is highly regulated. Now we tend to be reasonably cynical and jaded about society in the West. Indeed ours is fraught with hazardous influences in its competitiveness, its commodification of everything under the sun, even our relationships with others, its gossip and lies, its greed and swindling, its hatred and violence. But saying, “I’ve had it with cultural conditioning!” is a little like surviving an earthquake and declaring in a descending voice, “I’ve had it with ground!” Where will you stand?  Liberating the authentic self for the “uninstructed worldling” at the beginning of Buddhist practice would simply let loose behaviors mired in greed, hatred and delusion. You can self-express your naturally arising greed, hate and delusion until the cows come home; it might feel good but you will make no progress on the Buddhist path, for Buddhism is not about self-expression, it is about expressly abandoning a self.

An interesting question is: Was there already a Folk Buddhism at the time of the Buddha? There must have been cobbled together from elements of very Adept Buddhism indeed along with popular folk beliefs and attitudes. For instance, the Buddha was quite radical in removing class distinctions in the Sangha and in elevating the status of women. It is hard to imagine that this was fully understood and assented to by all; some folk Buddhists would have found ways to disregard these features of his teachings. In fact textual analysis of discourses delivered to monastics, to Buddhist laity and to non-Buddhists might reveal word counts that could be correlated with a progression from Core Buddhism to Folk Buddhist to Folk Culture. Someone might take this up as a dissertation project.

An American Walks into a Chinese Temple

How did it happen that Western Buddhists so quickly gained a monopoly on real Buddhism? We in the West certainly don’t seem to have gained much of a handle on Christianity over many centuries, and the average citizen of my country is pretty clueless about science., history, and almost everything else outside of popular entertainment. Yet we meditate and study Buddhist philosophy while people in Asian temples burn money and appease spirits through elaborate rituals. How were we the ones to arrive at this precise understanding of something as sophisticated and refined as Buddhist thought and practice?

A cultural European American walks into a culturally Asian Chinese temple. He has been reading books on Buddhism, many by Asian authors, has been favorably impressed and wishes to enlarge his personal experience in the matter. However books are generally written by adepts and he is likely to most immediately encounter in the temple its Folk Buddhism. He is about to be startled by the peculiarity and anomaly in the practices and beliefs of the laity he meets, by the formal style of, and insistence on, liturgy, by the presence of unfamiliar dramatic figures in temple statuary, by unfamiliar rites at temple altars and by hocus pocus all around. The devout temple laity are about to witness yet another dismayed European American run out the door and into the street yelling something about an “egregious corruption of the Dharma.” What gives?

It is not much different when a culturally Chinese walks into a culturally European Buddhist center and immediately encounters a laity intent on discovering their true selves, casual and disrespectful of demeanor, sitting in a circle expressing themselves openly and freely, with no visible clergy or leader present, before an altar with a rock where the Buddha should be, or perhaps engaged in some kind of modern dance practice involving an exchange of papier-mâché  masks constructed the previous week in which everyone is instructed to act “spontaneously.” The casual free spirits are about to witness yet another polite Asian American excuse himself respectfully and depart never to be seen again. What gives?

The center of a comet is not the head but somewhere in the tail. When we encounter someone else’s Buddhism we tend to see not the head of the comet but the tail. This is the most outwardly visible part of Buddhism, also the most “religious.” When we regard our own Buddhism we identify with the head, little recognizing the extent to which even this is colored in our minds by our own cultural assumptions and faulty understandings. This happens repeatedly to create the impression of a Buddhism fragmented into East and West, Mahayana and Theravada, secular and religious, beyond repair. Buddhism is fine! The integrity of the Core traditions has been retained with remarkable success, yet Buddhism has proven itself at the same time highly tolerant of cultural and regional diversity. Are we as tolerant?

2 Responses to “Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Folk Buddhism”

  1. Kitty Johnson Says:

    Great question! For years I’ve had a tendency to regard other traditions as somehow ‘less’ than my own — even while knowing better. In recent weeks I’ve viewed a fair number of documentaries or read books on Buddhism, which naturally go to different traditions and cultural diversities. Finally, I’ve truly realized that there is no right or wrong, there is only different. Old thought patterns still arise, but are easily recognized and let go. I loved this article — keeps me pointing in the right direction.


  2. Kevin Says:

    In all my visits with you and the Abbot you have always made it easy to be peaceful and open about the Dharma. Thank you. There is a path .


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