Growing the Dharma: Folk Buddhism

Let’s get sociological. You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In this rather long installment we consider how there are always two kinds of Buddhism side by side, Adept and Folk.

Chapter 6. Folk Buddhism

Each 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 any particular day will naturally spread itself out from the trail head just beyond the parking lot along the trails that weave and intersect throughout the park and that occasionally empty a weary hiker to the top of 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 all-terrain 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 retelling of mountaintop experiences. Some of them, but not all, make that last climb up the abrupt final 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 periods of 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 heel 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 assets that carry the famous Mahayana® logo are, they say, 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, producing rather standardized norms of behavior and understanding. They do not put so much emphasis on the aspirations and needs of the hotshots and rocket scientists as Buddhism does. In fact, Buddhism cannot be a cookie-cutter enterprise because its standards are extraordinarily high: perfect purity in action and thought, penetrating insight and imperturbable serenity. Those adepts of highest attainment understand and live something extremely sophisticated and rare, beyond the reach of the more typical among us.

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; it is our choice. 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, individually or as families. 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. But the stragglers can rely on adepts for guidance and encouragement when they like. The scalers of peaks nonetheless inspire us all in a wholesome direction.

Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism

Let’s get sociological. Attainment and understanding, interest and commitment, time and energy, differentiate the more adept members of the Buddhist community from the more average members. Thereby, adepts tend to serve as the inspiration and the guides for those who have yet to excel and, adepts, taking the botanical metaphor one more step, tend to be the cultivators and breeders of authentic Buddhism beyond the full comprehension of much of the larger community. The adepts are the horticulturists who ensure that a well nourished and domesticated Sasana endures. A corollary is that in virtually any Buddhist society we can distinguish two kinds of Buddhist practice and understanding living side by side: Adept Buddhism, a Buddhism cultivated through artificial selection, and Folk Buddhism, a product of natural selection in the context of the prevailing folk culture. One flower is fragrant and produces a bright blossom, the other is scraggly. More accurately the two Buddhisms are ends of a continuum running thought adept, mostly adept, mostly folk and folk, just as domestication and wildness are ends of a continuum of more or less narrowly refined gene pools.

CometI find it helpful to visualize the community, of either plants or adherents, as a comet, all of us oriented in the same direction but with some clustered closer to the head and others trailing out along in the tail, much as hikers intent on mountaintops.1 This is a demographic depiction of the Sasana, showing how the members of the community distribute themselves according to their influences. This metaphor is a way of looking at the social dynamics of a particular Buddhist community. 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 consistently fails to make a distinction between Adept and Folk Buddhisms and thereby fails to account for how resiliency can exist alongside malleability, that is, how the integrity of authentic Buddhism tends to be preserved in spite of ongoing change. It even fails to explain what it means to preserve the integrity of authentic Buddhism in the midst of a multiplicity of understandings and misunderstandings, practices and malpractices. Research that fails to make these distinctions also fails to interpret the significance of different kinds of innovations and account for their varying effects on the historical evolution of Buddhism. I hope that this recognition will help resolve much of the interminable back-and-forth between Theravada and Mahayana, Eastern and Western, early and traditional, secular and religious and other dichotomies we tend to read into Buddhism.

Adept Buddhism

Consider how domesticated flowers and fruit trees that manifest those fragrant, colorful, sweet and plump traits so valued by humans, first arose and have been sustained over the centuries, even when propagated to different parts of the world: There has been an ongoing process of artificial selection, of deliberate human intervention into the evolutionary process, that has served continually to re-domesticate Buddhism, to preserve, to enhance or where necessary to restore Buddhism’s pristine functional authenticity that might otherwise quickly degrade in an environment where those qualities might otherwise count little toward survival. The result is an Adept Buddhism that runs counter to the prevailing expectation that something as sophisticated as Buddhism will run down under the influence of the embedding folk culture. Adept Buddhism is the authentic practice and understanding upheld through deliberate cultivation and breeding by members of the adept community. Adept Buddhism is what scholars have also sometimes named normative Buddhism or high Buddhism.

Who are these Adepts? Roughly they are the rocket scientists, the surveyors of views, the bearers of high-tech water bottles, those capable of comprehending and ensuring the authenticity of Buddhist practice and understanding even as Buddhism takes on new forms. Clearly those of the highest attainment and understanding are found in the Noble Sangha, the Noble Ones who have reached at least the first stage of Awakening, at which self-view and doubt have fallen away, who see clearly Nirvana and the Path that leads there. Those formally entrusted with the task of domesticating Buddhism are the Monastic Sangha, institutionally the guardians of the Sasana. The relevant parts of their mission statement are the last four points described in Chapter Four:

“The arousing of faith in the faithless,
The increase of the faithful,
The establishment of the true Dharma,and
The fostering of Discipline.”

It is the Monastic Sangha that also tends to spin off Noble Ones, so we can therefore regard the Vinaya as the basis of Adept Buddhism, along with the Path. But additionally there may be non-noble non-monastics who can be considered part of the adept complex, particularly dedicated lay scholars and practitioners who contribute their own peculiar expertise to the process of cultivation and breeding the Sasana. Therefore I prudently use the word “adept” rather than “Sangha” to name the adherent of Adept Buddhism.

In brief, this is the profile of Adept Buddhism:

Adept Buddhism


2 Sanghas, specialists, “Adepts”


Vinaya (+Path)




Orthodox, limited fold adaptations

The content of Adept Buddhism tends to be relatively orthodox in that it is not nearly so subject to innovation and to culture-specific understandings, trends or fads 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, cultures and traditions, and so to possess what is most universal about Buddhism. However Adept Buddhism itself is also over time shaped by the local culture as its adepts sometimes appropriate in a deliberate manner expressions of that culture into their adept understanding or practice. A primary example of a later cultural intrusion into Adept Buddhism comes from the Far East as the fashioning of formal and ritual elements under Confucian influence into the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.

It should be noted that adepts are typically conversant with a local Folk Buddhism, having been raised as folk Buddhists before becoming adepts. They are effectively bi-religious. When some 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 quite distinct from what they were used to and in fact incomprehensible to them. Although he imparted Adept Buddhism in America he could also become a Japanese Folk Buddhist on demand, keeping the two Buddhisms separate in his mind alongside the two languages he used to engage them. Other adepts seem to have more trouble knowing where the Adept Buddhism stops and the Folk Buddhism begins, not really a problem as long as there is not contradiction, until one is required to teach Buddhism outside ones own culture. I suspect that the Asian masters who became successful teacher in the West are those able to keep their Buddhisms straight.

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 its adepts.

The Example of Burmese Adept Buddhism

Burma is largely representative of most of Asia. Moreover, Burma is within the range of Indian cultural influence, and also has so far to no great extent suffered the flings and narrows of outrageous modernity, so its Buddhism is particularly archaic. Monks still fill the early morning Burmese streets, bowls in hand as they go for alms. Winston King describes the shape of the Buddha-Sasana in Burma as follows:

There is a traditionally orthodox centre represented literally by the scriptures, doctrinally by the conservative tradition expounded by the Sangha and the orthodox core of lay followers, and practically by the conventional Buddhist morality for laymen and meditational practice by the spiritually elite in both Sangha and lay ranks. Living cheek-by-jowl with orthodoxy, often frowned upon but never rigidly excluded, and hence become a nearly integral part of “Buddhism”, is the religion of folk-lore and the popular devotional cultus of adorational worship of the Buddha image and prudential reverence to the nats [tree spirits].2

This relationship between an orthodox center and the folklore cultus is typical of the Adepts and the Folks in traditional Buddhist lands. The particular strength of Adept Buddhism in Burma is evident in Burma in meditation practice, in the large proportion of monastics in the population, in the relatively high standards of monastic discipline and education and in the widespread study of the scriptures. A number of Burmese monks in recent years have been widely regarded as arahants and certainly Noble Ones are common. Monks and nuns are ubiquitous; everybody knows them and most in fact are related to some of them. Even the smallest village has a small monastery. Furthermore there are a number of prominent lay scholars and meditation teachers. The Sangha is the most respected segment of Burmese society and the locus of Dharmic authority. It would be improper to contradict a senior monk on Dharmic matters.

Doctrinally, the Burmese adepts, as Theravadins, have a high regard for the Pali Tipitaka, consisting of the Vinaya, the Suttas and the Abhidharma of very early origin preserved in a very early Indic dialect, giving the most direct access available to the early teachings of the Buddha. Scholarship for the Burmese adepts is largely based on memorization of these Pali texts, and competence in Pali is widespread; there are monks who can recite hundreds or even thousands of pages from memory. There is, on the other hand, almost no tradition of scholarly debate as we are used to in the West.

The Example of Western Adept Buddhism

In this formative period, the West is quite dissimilar to the Burmese case. I will write of “Western Buddhism” quite a bit in the rest of this book, so let me clarify that “Western” is a rather inadequate designation of a vaguely defined culture, not of a geographical area. Others have used “convert,” “modern” and “non-Asian” at least as inadequately and sometimes even more awkwardly, pairing these variously with “ethnic-,” “cradle-,” “traditional-” and “Asian-Buddhism.” “Western” can be variously correlated with physical presence in the geographical West, with the influence of the European Enlightenment, scientific rationalism and Romanticism, with car and iPhone ownership and, perhaps most reliably, with the use of forks as the primary eating utensil. When brought together with Buddhism it is further correlated with new “converts” (first-generation Buddhists), a very high level of education and social status. An Indian or Singaporean can be remarkably Western in all of these senses beyond the geographical.

In the West, the traditional Sangha is as yet almost completely absent! Very few Western Buddhists have direct contact with monks or nuns, or have ever even met one, and wouldn’t know what to feed it if they did. Nonetheless 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, just not generally physically present.

At the local level, the role of adepts among Westerners is probably most closely represented variously by ordained priests in the Japanese or Korean Zen traditions, typically with some training in a monastic setting, by certified lay lamas in the Tibetan tradition, many of whom have lived in a cave for three years, by a number of ex-monastics, primarily trained in the Theravada countries of Asia, and by various Buddhist scholars who also practice Buddhism. Unfortunately, this does not constitute a set of adepts that is consistently recognized as such by the wider community, and in fact the value of any kind of clerical authority is dismissed by many in the West in any case. Moreover many in the Western Buddhist community are confused by the conflicting standards concerning teacher qualifications, by the only rough conformity among the views and methods of the teachers trained in diverse Asian traditions and by the strong admixture of charismatic but totally self-qualified lay teachers, popular bloggers and even self-certified arahants.

The Third Gem, to muddle issues even more, has no particular referent for most Western Buddhists. It is widely assumed by default that “Sangha” applies to the community at large, contrary to any Asian usage I am aware of, for instance, lending this word to names for informal weekly meditation and discussion groups like “Sofa So Good Zen Sangha,” or “Muddy Lotus Sangha.”3 On the other hand, the Western Buddhist community as a whole enjoys, given the current demographics, extremely high levels of education and inclination toward study of Buddhist source texts and toward meditation practice as compared to their Asian counterparts. Adept knowledge, in short, is less intensely concentrated and more widely distributed than in the Asian context. It is as if in the opening scenario of this chapter very few indeed were to have the fortitude to scale the final peak, yet everyone would show up at the state park trailhead wearing cutting-edge shoes, so that young kids, for instance, can take another step, and so on.

Folk Buddhism

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, gravity and gyrations. 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 astonishingly imaginative array of folk understandings that trail off into total misunderstandings, superstition and “old wives’ tales,” alongside some sound guesses. Music, philosophy, art and engineering are other areas in which expert or adept knowledge or skill exists side by side with naïve or folk understandings. Buddhism, because of its extreme sophistication, is no different, never has been since the earliest days, and never will be.

Folk Buddhism is a wilder, less domesticated and more popular understanding of Buddhism than Adapt Buddhism that manifests in a particular social, cultural or regional context. Accordingly malleability is a prominent property of Folk Buddhism. Folk Buddhism includes many elements found also in Adept Buddhism but also a hefty admixture of folk beliefs, highly devotional practices, elements of non-Buddhist religious, ethical and philosophical traditions, many colorful elements from myth or popular entertainment, and many false understandings of Buddhist teachings.

Understand that Folk Buddhism overlaps Adept Buddhism. Its defining characteristic is its relative popularity among the general Buddhist population. For instance, the mass meditation movement in Burma counts as Folk Buddhism because of its wide popularity, far from majority appeal but way beyond adept circles. Meditation of exactly that sort is at the same time a basic Path practice, quite in line with Adept Buddhism and widely encouraged by the adepts. Understand also that Folk Buddhism is a necessary part of the Buddha-Sasana in order to make Buddhism comprehensible for most Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Its importances should not be discounted. It is Buddhism’s interface with the folk culture.

If Adept Buddhism is resilient and Folk Buddhism is malleable, what holds Buddhism together? Folk Buddhism is tethered to Adept Buddhism by Refuge! 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. For this reason, Folk Buddhism is not Buddhism in decay, eaten at by the prevailing folk culture. Rather it is something suspended between countervailing forces, the domestication of Adept Buddhism and the wilds of the folk culture, and trying to reconcile itself with both. Refuge, veneration for the Buddha and the Dharma, and for the Sangha that represents them, keeps Folk Buddhism firmly under the influence of Adept Buddhism and lends authority to the word of the adepts. This does not make Folk Buddhism identical with Adept Buddhism but tends to make it consistent with it. As fads and fashions come and go, this relationship ensures that trends that run counter to Buddhist values are noticed, admonished and nipped in the bud.

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 share these with other people. If someone disagrees with me we generally have a way to resolve the disagreement: look it up or ask an expert. If I refuse to be corrected by the experts, my understanding will degrade as it loses its mooring in science and floats off into supposition and superstition. It is more normal in our society to defer to scientists as authorities and thereby at least open ourselves to an improved understanding of science. Similarly, the Folk Buddhist will defer to adepts lest he float off in a wildly devotional cultic bubble. In short, the adepts have the soapbox.

Here is Folk Buddhism contrasted with Adept Buddhism

Adept Buddhism

Folk Buddhism


2 Sanghas, specialists, “Adepts” General Buddhist Community, “Folks”


Vinaya (+Path) Refuges


Authentic Consistent


Orthodox, limited fold adaptations Mix of Buddhist, folk-cultural elements

It is inevitable in Folk Buddhism that, along with some proper understandings of authentic teachings, there will also be naïve misunderstandings, for instance, that there is a soul or a fixed self that acquires merit through good deeds, and that Nirvana is a particularly felicitous realm where that self can be reborn and dwell forever. It is likewise 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 highly conditioned by the embedding culture, as well as by universal human needs. Many Asian cultures have had strong animist and shamanic influences since 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. Folk Buddhism serves as a middle way between Adept Buddhism and the general embedding folk culture, and is an enduring part of a healthy Sasana.

The Example of Burmese Folk Buddhism

A frequent Burmese visitor to the monastery in which I live in Texas, a laywoman who likes to come on weekends to prepare food for the monks, was up late one night and spotted a monk standing in the sky above one of the new buildings near where a new pagoda was about to begin construction. She called other people hither, also Burmese laypeople, who indeed verified the presence of this monk in the sky, only by this time he was sitting in meditation posture. It was generally agreed among the witnesses that this monk had teletransported from Burma. A couple of weeks later I heard the story retold by another layperson not an original witness to this event, and in the retelling that the monk in question was our own founder, who lives in Burma, undoubtedly checking out the new construction site. I personally often feel in many such circumstances like Clark Kent, who never happens to be present when Superman appears, never present for the occurrence of such miracles.

The average Burmese Buddhist knows maybe a little about meditation but does not practice it regularly, 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, and numerous monks and nuns, before all of which people bow, fully touching their foreheads to the ground in reverence. The average Burmese Buddhist also inhabits a world of tree spirits, miracles and magic, largely of pre-Buddhist origin but often blending in his mind seamlessly with Buddhist practices and doctrine. Appeasing tree spirits (nats) is a common duty of monks.

In Burma, blessings are routinely sought from monks. As in other Theravada countries, the chanting of any of the Parittas, a set of eleven suttas or composites from the suttas, by monks on one’s behalf is widely believed to be efficacious in protecting one’s welfare. This practice has parallels in many religions and other Buddhist traditions, including the use of talismans or amulets and bestowing blessings. A revealing study reports that in fact the vast majority of monks, all of whom provide this priestly service routinely believe such practices have no special power other than to produce self-confidence in the patient.4 I have often heard monks pointing this very thing out, but folk beliefs persist, as does the chanting of Parittas by the monks.

In Burma, many lay people have daily contact with monastics when they offer alms in the morning, rice and a little curry. People have a particular regard for monks who are accomplished 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 Dharma 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 recordings of Dharma talks and Paritta chanting at home, featuring their favorite famous sayadaws (teachers), as routinely as Americans listen to talk shows.

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: 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 intense eyes, which did not burn during his cremation but were found among the relics. I am not aware that the eyes have multiplied with time.

Relics, and also consecrated statues of the Buddha, have special powers.5 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 southern Burma, 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 trust in the Triple Gem, 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.

The Example of Pure Land Buddhism

How often does a particular school or regional variant of Buddhism lose it authenticity? If Buddhism loses its horticulture, its adepts, it cannot expect to be fully authentic. We will see some examples where this seems to have occurred, but I think we will find it is far less common than might be imagined. Buddhism has shown itself to be extremely resilient.

Let’s consider Pure Land Buddhism, which we encountered in the last chapter as a huge movement for the last many centuries in East Asia, but which is also widely criticized as promoting an inauthentic devotional path of practice, the nien-fo, the invocation of the name of Amitabha Buddha, with the promise of rebirth in the Western Pure Land as the primary goal. What sets off alarms is the appeal to an external power for salvation, bypassing the Buddha’s teaching of karma, that our own deeds determine our attainments. Pure Land’s appeal to a higher power has been compared the Abrahamic faiths and has provided a sitting duck for Theravadins seeking to disparage the Mahayana, for indeed it represents a large proportion of the entirety of Mahayana practice.

The point I want to make is that Pure Land is Folk Buddhism pure and simple, and therefore need not bear any claim to authenticity. What makes Pure Land distinct from other Folk Buddhist understandings and practices is its immense popularity and its organization as movement with an independent identity. On the one hand the Pure Land movement has the hallmarks of Folk Buddhism: Its single-focused practice, its devotional quality, its easy-answer, easily comprehended and implemented approach and its popular appeal. For much of its history in China it has been promoted through specifically lay organizations, often called White Lotus Societies, and grown through proselytizing among the laity.

On the other hand, the Pure Land movement does not seem to be a cultic bubble that has dislodged itself from Adept Buddhism. The Pure Land has historically almost never been a separate school but has rather taken hold within and across non-Pure Land schools that have sustained an Adept Buddhism alongside a Folk Buddhism. For instance, there is no recognized monastic lineage of Pure Land patriarchs analogous to that found in Ch’an, T’ien-T’ai or other major schools in East Asia, and any of the monastic names historically associated with Pure Land turn out to be affiliated with non-Pure Land schools. Even today the Ch’an/Pure Land syncretism is the norm for Chinese temples.6 In short, Pure Land is a Folk Buddhist practice almost always tethered to, and recognizing the authority of, a domesticated Adept Buddhism. Like many Folk Buddhist practices and understandings, Pure Land has been promoted within the various schools, even by and for monastic communities, as a part of a healthy Sasana. Its existence is no more evidence for the inauthenticity of some part of Mahayana Buddhism than the belief in forest spirits is for the inauthenticity of Burmese Buddhism or, for that matter, than a near majority belief in creationism in America is for the poor quality of American science. Nonetheless, we will see in the next chapter what happens when Pure Land in Japan cuts itself off from its adepts to become a truly separate school.

The Example of Western Folk Buddhism.

Buddhism has has by norms of Buddhist chronology only begun to blend with Western folk culture. Tweed (2000) examining the first wave of this process, ending some hundred years ago, identifies three types of early adherents, each with its own focus of interest: The esoterics were attracted to the occult metaphysical and experiential aspects of Buddhism, the rationalists to almost the opposite, to the discoursive, scientific and non-religious aspects, and the romantics to the exotic aspects of Buddhist cultures, to their art and architecture. Each of these had a distinct understanding of what Buddhism is all about, all found what they were looking for, and all of these are still with us. McMahan (2008) provides an excellent catalog of those many trends in current Western Buddhist practice and understanding that have clearly traceable Western cultural roots, roots generally in Protestant Christianity, in the European Enlightenment and scientific rationalism, in Romanticism or in psychotherapy. Let me take just one example of this kind.

A popular understanding in the West is that Buddhism is about freeing one’s authentic (innermost/true) self (nature/voice/heart), a self that has been suppressed by social conditioning and other unnatural factors, but when unleashed is the source of creativity, spirituality, virtue and wisdom. This authentic self is typically accorded the following qualities:

  • The authentic self exists independently 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 known as self-expression or being natural.

  • Spirituality adheres in the authentic self, while religion is found in external rules, conventions and dogma.7

  • 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 has only a short Buddhist history. In fact, this authentic “self” is far more metaphysical than what Buddhism generally endorses. The idea of the authentic self does bear a kinship to practices of introspective examination in authentic 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 instance, where in the scriptures might one find an answer to a follow-up question like, “Is the authentic self capable of jealousy or vengeance?”

If the notion of the innermost heart does not have a Buddhist origin, where did it come from? The answer is: from European Romanticism and its later expressions.8 It is found in people like Rousseau, Schiller and Schliermacher, representing the idea of human thought free from social constraints, of morality and wisdom coming directly from the human heart, of naturalness. 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.”9 Such Romantic themes can be traced through the American Transcendentalist movement and through turn-of-the-last-century metaphysical movements, where they played a role in the early attempts to comprehend Buddhism in the West,10 then later entered the American countercultural movements of the middle twentieth century, which provided the fertile soil in which Buddhism began to take root in the West.11

The authentic self is probably useful in highlighting the importance of interior or introspective experience in pushing up and ascending the stem of the flower. The Path is in many ways a solitary one. I don’t want to dismiss its useful role in Western Folk Buddhist understanding. However, from the perspective of authentic Buddhism it has some problematic qualities as well. First, until one has reached a degree of attainment, the uninstructed worldling is generally assumed to be enormously deluded, mired in greed, hatred and delusion. Under this condition, trust in any inner voice would seem most ill-advised. Second, the authentic self does not seem particularly helpful in the project of deconstructing the self and in fact contains its own potential for self-centeredness. Third, the inner self would seem to dismiss the role of the Buddhist community and the importance of the Sasana as simply social constructs, inimical to the authentic self, and therefore irrelevant to “real” Buddhism.

In short, the authentic self, a pervasive and popular understanding in Western Folk Buddhism, lacks a firm basis in authentic Buddhism. To a great extent, the popular understanding of Buddhism in the West is a patchwork of many analogous understandings sewn in with some pieces of authentic Buddhist cloth.

A Western American Wanders 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 culturally European American once walked into a culturally Asian Chinese temple. He had been reading books on Buddhism, primarily by Asian adepts, had been favorably impressed and wished to develop his personal experience in the matter. After entering, he was taken aback by the peculiarity and anomaly in the practices and beliefs of the laity he encountered, by the formal style and insistence on liturgy, by the presence of unfamiliar dramatic figures in temple statuary, by unfamiliar rites at temple altars, by chanting the name of some guy he had never heard of and by hocus pocus all around. The devout temple laity witnessed 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 what seems to be an altar but on which a rock stands where the Buddha should be. He sees that the devotees are engaged in some kind of modern dance practice involving an exchange of papier-mâché masks constructed the previous week, which everyone is instructed to wear and then act “spontaneously.” These 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 physical center of a comet is not the head but somewhere in the tail. Wild flora outnumbers domesticated. When we encounter someone else’s Buddhism, we tend to see not its Adept Buddhism but its Folk Buddhism, since this is the most outwardly visible part of Buddhism, upheld by the most people. It is also generally the most overtly religious. On the other hand, when we regard our own Buddhism, we identify with its Adept Buddhism, because our own aspirations head in that direction. Even while we realize that Adept Buddhism preserves an understanding that our own cultural assumptions and faulty understandings makes obscure to us, that Adept Buddhism nonetheless belongs to us and is there when we need it. In this way, the impression arises of a Buddhism fragmented into East and West, Mahayana and Theravada, secular and religious, and beyond repair. Buddhism is more or less fine! The integrity of the authentic traditions has been retained with remarkable resilience, yet Buddhism has proven itself at the same time highly tolerant of cultural and regional diversity. Are we as tolerant?

1The adept scientists among my readership will appreciate that this simile depends on a folk scientist’s understanding of how a comet works.

2King, 1990, p. 67.

3I have not been able to pinpoint the origin of this generalized usage of the word sangha. During my onetime research of this very issue, the late scholar John McCrea, a specialist in East Asian Buddhism, emailed me, “I agree that the western usage of ‘sangha’ to include ordained and lay practitioners/believers is unusual, or idiosyncratic.”

4Spiro (1982) Ch. 6.

5Almost all monks, according to Spiro (1982) Ch. 6, agree that relics have special powers, though images of the Buddha do not.

6Sharf (2003) reviews this evidence for the historical dependence of Pure Land on other schools of Buddhism.

7That is, the authentic self is spiritual, not religious.

8McMahan (2008), pp. 76-87, also Thanissaro (2002).

9McMahan (2008), p. 82.

10Much as Taoism provided the lens through which Buddhism was interpreted in China almost two millenia earlier.

11McMahan (2008), p. 85.

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