Growing the Dharma: Negotiating the Dharma

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In another rather long installment we consider the many conversations that constitute the Buddha-Sasana.

Chapter 7. Negotiating the Dharma

The whole world is talking about Buddhism.

People debate points of doctrine in the tea shops of Burma, citing Jataka tales or fragments of scripture remembered from recently attended Dharma talks. Monks pass by their homes on alms round, mindful and dignified, silent until someone poses a Dharmic question. People listen to Dharma talks on-line and buy books by the Dalai Lama in the bookstores of America. Students attend lectures on textual analysis of Buddhist scriptures in the universities of Germany. Tibetan monks debate points of doctrine in the monasteries of Bhutan, clapping their hands together each time they make an incisive point. People show up to pay respects to the nuns in the temples of Taiwan then pose questions about Buddhist life. Punx in Texas pull up on motorcycles at a Buddhist center where they will sit in a circle and relate their personal meditation experiences to other Mohawks, tattoos and pierced noses. Deep in a forest in Thailand, a young monk, after weeks of search, approaches the legendary meditation master he has sought to request instruction. Someone on a subway spots a copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind in a young woman’s hand and is curious enough to ask.

Just as people expound Buddhism in many languages – Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Thai, Spanish, Malay – they expound Buddhism blended and washed over with elements of many different cultures – Animist, Taoist, Confucian, European Romantic, Materialist. Moreover, Buddhism has always been at the cutting edge of communication technology! Recited for centuries in the monasteries and forests of Asia as their sole means of preservation, the scriptures then rode the wave of inscription chiseled in stone and text brushed onto strips of cured palm leaf. A Buddhist text became the world’s earliest dated published book!1 Today adepts and folks, monks and geeks, run Buddhist blogs, documentaries about Buddhism run on TV, people run to theaters to watch Hollywood movies with Buddhist themes. Buddhist entrepreneurs make a living by offering counseling sessions by telephone.

The sum total of these conversations, projected through time and space, gives form to the Buddha-Sasana, the practice lives of the Buddhist Community, born of the Buddha who first turned the wheel to begin the conversation, who demanded of the monastics that they follow the discipline, who asked of all Buddhists that they find refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and who then let the Sasana loose in the world. These conversations have negotiated the Dharma ever since, producing the enormous variety of traditions we find today, acting out both the adaptability and the resiliency of the Sasana. These are the life-processes of the living, self-regulating organism of the Sasana.

These conversations often get scrappy. They happen within and between Adept and Folk Buddhism, and between each of these and the larger embedding folk culture. As we listen in on these conversations in the twenty-first century, we at first see a Buddhist landscape extremely diverse, dispersed over an impossible range of doctrinal positions, beliefs, practices and rituals, cultural influences, and manifold religious admixtures, with little consensus. These conversations are probably most scrappy as the Sasana flows into a new land and culture, as it is now seeping into the Land of the Fork. Still, there is a consistency, method and direction in these conversations.

I hope to have provided in this book some tools that will take us a long way in interpreting these conversations, particularly in terms of the distinct adept and folk motivations at work, and the relative health of the Sasana. I hope that the individual explorer of this landscape might thereby find a personal dwelling place, somewhere between the mountains of the adepts and the plains of the folk, providing something between a panoramic religious view of the entire unfolding Sasana and the spiritual seclusion of the narrowly targeted Buddhist Path that suits her particular aspirations. Let’s listen in on some of these conversations, both modern exemplars and ancient precedents, to hone our interpretive skills.

The Agents of Negotiation

Buddhism is radical in any culture. It goes “against the stream.” The Noble Ones understand that virtually all progress toward peace, happiness, virtue and understanding that one will make on the Buddhist Path will be directly correlated with what is given up or curtailed: the physical trappings of life, relations and obligations like fame and car ownership, self-view, identity, trying to be somebody, partying flirtatiously, and particularly the clinging emotions rooted in greed, anger or fuzzy-headedness. The practice of the Noble Ones has been for them no more nor any less than a long process of disentanglement, strand by strand, from soap-operatic existence, a process of progressive renunciation. The Noble Ones extol Awakening as the highest attainment, one that entails not only the complete eradication of personal desire and aversion as life’s motivating factors and ultimately the elimination of intentional action altogether, the complete relinquishment of the quest for personal advantage. They practice kindness to their worst enemies, for Pete’s sake!

This makes little sense to normal folk. People of virtually any folk culture will scratch their heads and blink their eyes in bewilderment. People of the folk Buddhist culture nevertheless have learned to venerate these radical elements walking among them and have thereby opened themselves to understanding the great truths their lives and teachings might reveal, even if they might not yet quite get it.

There is thereby a chasm of a gap to be negotiated before the civilizing influence of the highest Buddhist principles find their way into the world at large. The Buddhism of the Noble Ones mixes with virtually any general folk culture as oil with water. In the thick of this seismic contradiction of values, nestled between the general folk culture and the Buddhism of the Noble Ones, is Folk Buddhism, in direct dialog with each. If the Buddhism of the adepts is the oil and folk culture the water, then Folk Buddhism serves as an emulsifier, carrying civilizing bubblets of Buddhist wisdom into the society at large.

Folk Buddhism is in a very real sense a kind of “watered down” Buddhism, making means of expression accessible to the folk culture and obscuring the less approachable teachings. Folk Buddhism thereby plays an essential role in making Buddhism culturally relevant and accessible to general society. Folk Buddhism has one foot in Adept Buddhism, because it places its trust and veneration in the Triple Gem, and its other foot in the folk culture, because this, through constant immersion, informs most of its values and defines most of its behaviors. Folk Buddhism is important.

Elucidating the Dharma

The adepts are involved in a certain conversation whose theme is authenticity, its recognition, realization and preservation. The Noble Ones are those who fully realize what is authentically required to reach an initial level of Awakening. They do this through a kind of personal dialog between what they have been taught, on the one hand, and what they have experienced directly through practice, on the other. This is the conversation of ehipassiko, between come and see. The monastics, if their aspirations are sincere (which they are not always), are of perfect refuge; they are willing to come but might not yet see; they thereby turn away from folk influences and toward the influence of the Dharma (or rather Dharma-Vinaya) and the Noble Ones, to fully engage in the conversation of authenticity. However, any layperson can make the same commitment, to be of perfect refuge and thereby to become part of the conversation of the adepts. It is simply a matter of choosing one’s influences.

There has been since the beginning a degree of specialization among the adepts, particularly between come and see. Some have chosen to be purely scholars of the Dharma to the neglect of practice, while others have chosen to emphasize practice (in Theravada Buddhism this is recognized in the distinction between pariyatti and patipatti monks respectively), and others to balance the two. Teachings guide practice even as the experience of practice serves as a corrective of one’s understanding of the teachings. Often new ways of teaching emerge from the reconciliation of teaching and experience, faults are corrected and innovations are introduced. If a tradition produces Noble Ones its scriptures and scholarship cannot be to far away from an authentic Buddhism. With that many people seeing, maps to their vantage points will be preserved or will emerge so that others might come.

Scholarship has always been an important part of the adept conversation and has taken many forms, from memorization of scriptures, to exegesis, to debate. Almost any Adept Buddhist tradition will regard some textual corpus as authoritative, but generally each a different one. Modern scholarship has taken on new roles, including textual analysis to determine the actual ages of texts or of specific passages, comparative analysis to reconstruct the history of texts, and reconstruction of ancient cultural contexts as a way of gaining insight into obscure meanings. Many texts that have been attributed directly to the Buddha for centuries are revealed to be of more recent origin and traditional accounts of the history of the various Buddhist schools have been discredited. These trends frame scriptural corpora in new and insightful ways.

We should not be dismayed when the adepts argue among themselves. First, this a common symptom of corrective pressure, as one way of teaching or understanding is revealed as inadequate. Second, adepts of different schools, of different historical and cultural lines of development, with radically divergent conceptualizations of still authentic teachings, today commonly find themselves in conversation with each other. A similar thing happens when academics of different research fields get together to talk about what should be a common interest, for instance, when philosophers, linguists, psychologists and computer scientists talk with one another about language. Where Noble Ones arise, authentic Buddhism is being practiced and understood.

Nudging toward the Dharma

It is the adepts’ preservation of an authentic Buddhism that anchors Folk Buddhism. Folk members of Buddhist societies traditionally rub shoulders with admirable adept friends, often daily, bringing themselves under their influence. The Buddha asked his monks to enter the villages on daily alms rounds and to store no food in order to ensure that level of contact and dependence. Folks most reliably approach the adepts when they have a question or have been debating with a friend about a matter of Dharma and would like expert advice, or alternatively when they wish to air issues in their personal lives or moral dilemmas. Folks noticing that the adepts, and particularly the Noble Ones, are different from the rest of us and find in their deportment and behavior eye-opening examples of what the Buddha must have been getting at. Adepts may sometimes take the liberty of admonishing folks, as well as each other, when faced with views or behaviors that are decidedly un-Dharmic. Adept Buddhism is an inward force that tends to hold and shape their lives to accord with the Dharma.

Folk understandings and behaviors, on the other hand, can be expected to fall roughly into three groups:

  1. suitable, i.e., wholesome and Buddhism-friendly,
  2. tolerable, i.e., of little consequence to Buddhist functions,
  3. unsuitable, i.e., unwholesome and Buddhism-unfriendly.

The teachers among the adepts are those who cultivate the suitable, rectify the unsuitable, and more than likely tolerate the tolerable. (1) and (2) are both consistent with the Dharma-Vinaya. Even while the noble and pure among the adepts cleanse the Folk Buddhist with what is suitable, at least ideally, the ruffians, marketers and ubiquitous influences among the common people might sully him with what is unsuitable. Suitable are the Refuges, generosity, virtue, kindness, merit-making, an appreciation of the highest aspirations of Buddhist practice, wisdom, refined cultivation of mind and simplicity. Unsuitable are slaying, slaughter, swiping, swinging, swindling and swigging, desire, ire and mire (the triple-fire), excessive exposure to advertising or hate speech, multitasking and shopping ’til dropping. Incessant exposure to adepts invariably shapes values, views, conduct and character.

Most significant among the tolerable factors in the present context are almost all those “cultural accretions” infused with “religiosity” and found in virtually any Buddhist tradition. For example, it is common among the Burmese, representing a fundamentally animist culture, to attribute special powers to monks, and particularly to senior monks of great attainment. Why, just the fact of ordination makes one immune to the scourge of angry tree spirits. The presence of monks on auspicious occasions such as weddings and birthdays, as well as during periods of misfortune, is regarded as enormous good fortune, and people go out of their way to make offerings to monks when a karmic boost is likely to get them past an impending danger. The body of a deceased monk of great attainment will not decompose in the familiar way and when cremated will leave behind crystalline relics that then proceed to multiply. Now, in the “more rational” West such beliefs would be unsustainable, but for reasons of scientific rationalism rather than of Buddhism, that is, for reasons of Western folk-culture. They are tolerable from a Buddhist perspective because they do not conflict with authentic Buddhist functions; in fact they express a well-meaning if exuberant veneration of the Sangha. And so they endure. Neutral elements of Folk Buddhism seem to mix even with Adept Buddhism quite readily. Since Adept Buddhists generally start out as wee Folk Buddhists and in their studies of authentic Buddhism would see no reason to evict these elements, this is hardly surprising. Accordingly we find monks generally offering blessings, consecrating Buddha statues, sprinkling wisdom water on people, engaging in elaborate rituals, even exorcising ghosts as part of their routine tasks, or simply incorporating folk customs and artifacts into the manner of performing various tasks.

In relation to the unsuitable, certainly the adepts constitute traditionally a moral voice, admonishing folks to avoid what is unsuitable: violence, theft, adultery, deceit and intoxication. Monastics are expected to represent, for emulation, standards of conduct in their behavior that exclude what is even mildly unsuitable for the Buddhist: gossip, mindless distraction, backbiting, judgment, anger, etc. Adepts will tend to correct misunderstandings of Buddhist teachings and views that cause harm. Although they traditionally have been tolerant of what in the West would be widely regarded as supernatural or superstitious, on some key points, for instance, with regard to the efficacy of rituals and blessings, they commonly point to psychological alternatives to folk explanations.

In these ways, the Noble Ones bring into a world perpetually insane their civilizing influence, gently nudging the world toward sanity.

Assimilating Folk Practices

Although the adepts have traditionally spoken with great authority, they are not authoritarian. One of the effects of the Buddha’s creation of an absolute daily dependence of the Monastic Sangha on the laity, simply to be able to eat, is that the laity have always served as a check on the monastics, particularly as a check on the behavior of the monastics. When monastics stop living the pure life, when they party, flirt, gamble, drink beer, seek amusements and don top hats, when they, in other words, are perceived to “act like lay people,” then the laity tends to become disenchanted and ceases to provide support.

This also applies when the monastics become too aloof or uptight for Folk Buddhist standards. The Buddha was much concerned about harmony between the two parts of the Buddhist Community, and once relented to Folk Buddhist demands with admirable discretion with words that still echo from yesterchapter, “Monks, householders need blessings.” Blessings, even if not directly efficacious, are an expression of caring that people respond well to. We do the same thing in a secular context when we push medications and home remedies on the ill or allergy-beset in excess of what we would consider sensible for ourselves.

Even in Burma many monks eschew worship of tree spirits and of relics as not pure Buddhism. In one instance a monastic sect that that tried to eliminate pagoda worship and worship of images of the Buddha were met with hostility on the part of a disgruntled laity until the sect disappeared.2 It is easy to see, in contrast, how the give-and-take between adept and folk understandings and practices would tend to broaden the norms of what adepts consider acceptable Buddhism, or even turn what is initially only tolerable into what the adepts themselves teach or promote. The priestly functions of bestowing blessings, or exorcising spirits, with time were performed by monastics in virtually every Buddhist culture. The term doctrinal widening has been used to describe making respectable that which monks formerly viewed with disdain.3 Notice that this does not have to undermine the authenticity of Adept Buddhism; it just produces a chubbier Buddhism that retains Buddhism’s authentic functionality embedded within it.

The Mahayana movement is perhaps the largest-scale example of doctrinal widening as a result of negotiating between Adept and Folk Buddhisms. A laicizing movement, the Mahayana was at one time considered by scholars to be a lay movement against monastic authority. Scholars now recognize it as a movement carried almost entirely by monastics over a period of centuries, partly in order to address the persistent and unmet needs of the lay community.4 Every indication is that the Mahayana sutras, for instance, many of which extol the virtues of exceptional laypeople, were written by monks. Only monks would have the authority to put these across, and hardly anyone else would have the kind of sophistication to compose these.

The path of the bodhisattva, based on the example of the Buddha’s progress from life to life in the Jataka tales, in which he was generally depicted as a layperson of great determination, served to dispel the notion that spending this life as a layperson was spiritually a waste of time. In the Mahayana many of the elements that were attractive to laypeople, particularly devotional practices of veneration or worship along with good works, and assimilated indigenous religious practices, accordingly, became more respectable parts of Buddhist life. It was within the context of the Mahayana, for instance, that reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha or of the Lotus Sutra became established as Buddhist practices.

Often folk features are assimilated into Adept Buddhism from Folk Buddhism that just happen to be suitable to practice or understanding. For instance, when Buddhism came to China it encountered a highly ritualized culture which provided rich resources for the practice of mindfulness, and were taken up with time as an integral, almost essential, part of Adept Buddhism.

Championing Path Practices

Alongside devotional and lyrical folk practices there have also been a number of adept-driven movements to popularize meditation, a high-level Path practice, among a broad and generally non-adept population. The most successful of these in recent years has probably been the Lay Vipassana movement, which started in Myanmar with monastic encouragement, and which has since gone global.

A much earlier movement of this kind was associated with the Lin-Chi (Rinzai) Ch’an (Zen) monk Ta Hui Tsung Kao (1089-1163) who promoted a method that we now call koan introspection. Koans, quizzical interchanges between teacher and student, had been a part of Zen literature and lore for hundreds of years before Ta Hui. The innovation Ta Hui taught was to use the punch lines of koans as meditation objects, a method he promoted as a fast track to Awakening suitable for lay students. Many of Ta Hui’s students were apparently lay scholars and aristocrats who did not have the time and discipline enjoyed by monks for gradual practice.5 Significantly, once koan introspection seemed to produce desirable results, eager monks quickly applied their even greater reserve of time and energy for such concerns, to soar to even greater heights. Koan introspection is now characteristic of Lin-Chi/Rinzai Zen and is often considered primarily a monastic practice.

More recently, Japanese Zen Master Yasutani Roshi (1885-1973) revitalized koan introspection in the establishment of an explicitly lay school called Sanbyo Kyodan that focuses rather single-mindedly on producing breakthrough experiences through intensive meditation. Although this school is marginal in Japan, it has been very influential in North American Zen ever since the publication of Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen.

Sharf observes some characteristic features of such lay meditation movements.6 First, they tend to be single-mindedly obsessed with achieving special “mystical” experienceskensho, satori (breakthrough or “awakening” experiences), jhana (absorption) or sotapatti (stream entry, the first glimpse of Nirvana). Second, they tend to involve constant assessment and verification students’ attainments by teachers, often publicly, and testimonials from successful students to encourage others in their practice.7 Although meditative experiences are referred to in the earliest Buddhist scriptures, they offer little precedent for external assessment as a routine part of a meditative method. Moreover, Sharf points out, independent teachers who evaluate the same student’s achievements seldom agree.

The danger of the emphasis on sudden breakthrough experiences is the loss of the gradual path of personal development of skillful behaviors and thoughts through sustained repetition and rehearsal.8 Sanbyo Kyodan, in particular, has reduced the complex doctrinal, devotional and ethical teachings of Buddhism to a simple meditation practice on the Mu koan. It focuses on cultivating the experience of kensho, the initial experience of Awakening, entirely divorced from its soteriological context.9 Practicing for mystical experiences is analogous to studying in order to pass tests rather than to learn, and seems to have been rare historically among monastics, who have traditionally practiced in a gradual way that integrates with an organic path of development, not for the mystical experiences for their own sake.

Although adepts will generally encourage meditation practice as beneficial, the downside of any single-minded focus, in spite of its gratifying results, is that it does not produce a well-rounded Buddhist. It sacrifices breadth for depth while giving the impression of constituting a complete practice in itself. In the West, for instance, vipassana meditation is commonly taught in a manner completely divorced from its larger Buddhist context, even from its integral role within the Path. Single-minded focus on meditation practice probably bears some kinship to the “easy answer” of a single-minded devotional practice such as reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha, except (1) it is not easy – meditation retreats are a lot of work – and (2) one would be hard put to say what the question is that it answers – meditative experiences gain meaning only in the proper context.

Much of this chapter is cautionary. My advice here: Beware of overreaching, of trying to attain something sublime when resources are limited, as they typically are in lay life, lest frustration result. Fortunately, the Sasana thoughfully supports those of high aspiration with an option in which resources are abundant for a well-rounded practice: Entering the Sangha.

Creolizing the Dharma

At the special time that Buddhism enters a new culture, as it did in China in the early centuries of the first millennium, and as it has now begun to in the West, incipient Buddhists must wrap their heads around many foreign concepts but to do so must rely on their indigenous matrix of conceptual, behavioral and affective categories conveyed largely through the folk culture. A kind of hybrid that is only part Buddhist is bound to arise in a process like that which produces a creole language from the absorption of a foreign vocabulary into an indigenous grammar.10

The lifeline to the foreign adepts in early Chinese Buddhism seems to have been tenuous indeed and almost entirely based on the written word, yet an indigenous Adept Buddhism would eventually emerge from the early folk depths. Sharf11 relates that after Buddhists began trickling into China from the Silk Road about the first century CE, early efforts at translating Buddhist texts of Indian and Central Asian origin made use of a largely Taoist conceptual scheme and vocabulary, a system of concept matching (ko-i). Buddhism seems as a consequence to have been commonly mistaken for a form of Taoism in which the Buddha served as a god with certain supernatural powers. There was little evidence that teacher-monks made the long journey into China from Indian or Central Asia in great numbers, nor that any schools of Buddhism were founded by such monks.12 Instead a handful of translator-monks that did arrive set to work producing Chinese versions of scriptures, which then circulated, were read and discussed by and among educated Chinese in the Chinese language, mixed in with apocryphal scriptures of Chinese origin that embedded Buddhist ideas into Taoist cosmology. A very occasional Chinese pilgrim would make the decades-long trip into India and back to train with the adepts and fetch scriptures back. Early Chinese Buddhism was remarkably insular with little in the way of guidance from foreign adepts.

An analogous Western creole developed some seventeen hundred years later under quite different circumstances. In this case the grammatical matrix was largely of Christian Protestant and scientific rationalist origin and the result is in fact commonly called by scholars “Protestant Buddhism.”13 Interestingly the development of this Protestant-Buddhist hybrid began not in Europe or America, but in Asia, particularly in Ceylon and Japan. In both of these nations, Buddhism was challenged to modernize according to Western standards because of Western colonial and imperial pressure. In both of these nations a Western-educated elite was in the making and in Ceylon many Protestant schools had been educating the youngsters for decades. The challenge to these cultures was the presumption of superiority of Western culture in general, along with Western science and technology, and of the non-heathen Christian faith in particular. In these desperate times for a dispirited East, Buddhists with Western educations began to promote the idea of a Buddhism that was compatible with Protestant values yet of superior rationality and of greater compatibility than Christianity with science.

Now, Protestant religiosity, born in response to the excesses of the Catholic Church, typically runs something like this:

“Organized religion, hierarchy, bah!”

“Religious authority, priests, monks, rules, humbug!”

“Religious imagery, sacred objects, twaddle!”

“Rituals, bows, balderdash!”

McMahan14 writes that in accord with the Protestant Reformation:

“… each individual could have unmediated access to God and hence had no need for special places, priests, icons, or rituals. Sacredness began to withdraw from things … and to be pushed to two poles: God himself, beyond the world, and the individual in his or her own faith. This aspect … was then pushed further by scientific rationalism.”

The hybrid that emerged was largely Buddhism scrubbed of its religiosity and thereby spotlessly suitable for scrutiny by the Protestant-influenced West. It was successfully applied in Ceylon in surviving a rising tide of Christian missionary exuberance: In a well publicized series of debates between the “silver-tongued orator” Ven. Mohattivatte Gunananda and most famously the Wesleyan clergyman David DeSilva from the mid-1860’s to early 1870’s, the Buddhist protagonist was able to position his religion as more rational and modern than that of his interlocutor.15 Shaku Soen Roshi of Japan and Anagarika Dharmapala of Ceylon presented and made a big splash at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.16 Dharmapala described Buddhism for his Western audience as,

free from theology, priestcraft, rituals, ceremonies, dogmas, heavens, hells and other theological shibboleths.17

D.T. Suzuki, at that time a young disciple of Soen Roshi, would help splosh the emerging creole into the twentieth century. Results that might well be attributed in part to this presentation were a renewed confidence for Asians in the strength of their own culture and faith, and an cascade of interest in Buddhism in the West.

Of course, almost any Buddhist tradition could use a good scrubbing and can afford to lose much of its religious muck, but certainly in the hands of many a nursemaid authentic functions have been inadvertently thrown out with the bathwater. This is “spiritual but not religious” plain and simple. The danger is that the Sasana perspective be lost altogether, ironically, for the most irrational of reasons, for looking like something vaguely disagreeable to the framers of the debate. If anything, I hope in this book to have shown that the Sasana is remarkably rationally conceived and implemented to achieve a certain functionality.

Probably most Western Buddhism today, certainly the “Secular Buddhist” wing, is a variant of Protestant Buddhism, much of it scoured to the bone. Sharf expresses surprise that Western Buddhism seems to share the insularity of early Chinese Buddhism, that in spite expanding possibilities of communication in the modern world Westerners read books by each other and only infrequently appraise the fidelity of their understanding against any Asian norms. Sharf wonders if improved contact with India would have really made any difference in the development of Chinese Buddhism.18 The danger of a Buddhist creole is that the resulting Sasana may be a kind of botanical monster missing essential functionality and clinging precariously to existence in a crag … after an initial flash of unprecedented popularity.

Compromising the Dharma

At critical points, elements of the folk culture are really really non-negotiable, where unsuitable values contrary to Buddhist functions are so entrenched in the culture that they cannot be dislodged and must be accommodated somehow within Adept Buddhism. Toe meets stone. We have seen one such point that was reached in China where the core Buddhist value of home-leaving ran right up against the unshakably rock-solid value of family in Chinese folk culture. We saw that the resolution seems to have been a clever side-step, a high point in the annals of public relations: Represent the Sangha as a great big family, with family lineages, heritages and a very long history. Just as a bride leaves one family to join another, so does the aspiring monk leave home to join a Sangha lineage.

Another such point seems to have been reached even at the time of the Buddha or shortly thereafter, and also, I feel confident, entailed a similar clever side-step engineered either by the Buddha himself or later by his close disciples. As far as I can see, gender equality is as fundamental in Early Buddhist thought as caste equality. However, it was inevitable that this way of thinking would stub itself on the rock of patriarchy endemic in Indian folk culture at the time of the Buddha (and up to the present day for that matter). I have written of this elsewhere,19 but let me summarize.

Evidence of the absence of gender bias in the Buddha’s thought is that the Buddha stated that women were as capable of Awakening as men, that he created a women’s Sangha, granting participation in the privileges, obligations, independence and expectation of veneration that that entails, that he took great care in the monastic code to ensure the safety and well-being of the nuns, and perhaps most tellingly to ensure that they do not fall into conventional subservient gender roles with respect to the monks.

However, the Buddha’s great concern would have been the acceptability of this arrangement within the prevailing folk culture and even among his folk following, particularly since the nuns, like the monks, would be dependent on receiving daily alms, and since the kind of independence he secured for nuns would be what in that culture was commonly associated with “loose women.” The resolution was symbolically to put the nuns under the thumb of the monks, without ceding real power to them, through the now infamous Garudhamma Rules. If this analysis is correct, then early Buddhism itself was not pristinely authentic. It was compromised for practical means, to sustain harmony with Folk Buddhism at a critical juncture. The irony is that the Garudhamma that once appeased folk Buddhists at one time and place in history now vexes them in the modern West, like an unwanted fruitcake one cannot graciously dispose of.

A final and common kind of non-negotiable influence on Adept Buddhism is government interference in Buddhist affairs, particularly in Sangha affairs. Emperor Ashoka in the early centuries of Buddhism undertook to reform the Sangha during his reign, which he felt had become corrupted and divided, by expelling wayward monks, or at least allegedly waywardmonks. In the nineteenth century King Yul Brynner of Thailand20 undertook to reform the Sangha, actually creating a hierarchy with government involvement at all levels in Sangha affairs which persists to this day. In ninth century Japan, the government strictly regulated monastic ordination in an attempt to reduce the number of monks, forcing many monks into a lesser non-Vinaya ordination from which it has never recovered. In nineteenth century Japan, a hostile Meiji government reformed the Buddhist clergy substantially by disallowing the requirement of celibacy. None of this is envisioned in the Vinaya and most seem to have in the end disrupted the proper functioning of the Sangha. But, as they say, you can’t fight city hall.

Marketing the Dharma

Professional scientists often disparage their colleagues who are intent to popularize science. The ivory tower and the institutions that support it, the tenure system and the tradition of academic freedom, ensure that scientific results are not biased by popular taste or current affairs, so that scientists remain excellent. The Buddhist adepts cannot afford to be quite so aloof; they are expected to teach the regular folks and make a direct difference in their lives through routine contact. To a limited degree, they should popularize. Yet they also require a similar degree of isolation from popular taste and current affairs lest these draw them away from the authentic teachings of the Buddha. And, in fact, the Buddha specified a degree of aloofness: A series of monastic rules of etiquette ensure that the monastic not teach to someone, for instance, who does not show the proper respect. This is probably at least partially why Buddhism has had a scant history of proselytizing and why monks don’t physically hold forth on soap boxes.

Nonetheless there are sometimes deliberate attempts on the part of adepts or Buddhist leaders to promote the Sasana, a particular movement or institution or simply the welfare of a particular teacher by deliberate accommodation of Folk Buddhist elements. The danger here is that the integrity of authentic Buddhism might be sacrificed. Zen Master Keizan (1268-1325) is widely considered the second founder of Soto Zen after Dogen largely through his success in popularizing the young movement. He continued to scrupulously promote meditation and monastic discipline as taught by the master, yet at the same time syncretized this Zen with folk practices concerning Shinto spirits (kami and ryūten) which could become either protectors of Soto temples or their adversaries. Often Soto priests would actually compete with local village spirits in displays of power, sometimes converting the spirits to the Soto cause. Apparently, over time Soto priests succeeded in this way in occupying many abandoned Tendai and Shingon temples, assimilating spirits and villagers alike into local congregations.21

Many of the accommodations to Folk Buddhism described above may analogously involve deliberate targeted marketing, though one would hope that more often a tolerant familiarity would suffice to inspire folks in their wholesome practices. Doctrinal widening and promotion of devotional and meditative experiences have perhaps sometimes an element of marketing. However, the Buddha certainly set limits on the extent to which monastics were to market themselves personally to the laity: They were allowed no claims of high states of attainment (particularly if false), and were disallowed from making teaching into a livelihood. Teaching could therefore be honest and direct, unbiased by folk understandings.

Yet today we live in a mass marketing consumer culture. Buddhists and would-be Buddhists in the West encounter a media-enabled onslaught of teachings, practices and teachers from which American Folk Buddhists are free, at a cost, to select those that carry most appeal, mixing and matching the various options much as they do features of cars or choice of kitchen utensils. This is the way of the modern marketplace. Teachers and authors correspondingly fall easily into the role of promoting and selling particular practices and teachings as commodities, for a price, taking care how they are packaged and presented, for instance, in the form of popular self-help books, lectures, seminars, CD’s, stage performances and personal hourly consultations. Here in America, where we are used to having it our way, we are offered many flavors of Buddhism: We have “beat,” “punk,” and “geek,” “formal,” your basic “upper-middle way,” and now even “hold the religion!”22 At the same time information – good information – about Buddhism is widely available as never before.

Charismatic teachers who claim personal Awakening and experiences are all the rage in Buddhism, just as they are outside of Buddhism. One highly trained, authorized and “awakened” teacher has developed a remarkable breakthrough to impart “awakening to your true self,” apparently a genuine satori experience in an expensive group context that thereby circumvents the hours on the meditation cushion one would need to get the same experience. Testimonials indicate impressive results that not only rival what the most skilled itinerant tent revivalists are able to accomplish in group settings, but seem to be accessible also by telephone for an hourly fee. Although it is still unclear that this particular technique is an “answer” to anything, that it is now “easy” is certainly a significant breakthrough.

The real danger in entrusting the Sasana to the consumer market is that the market inevitably vulgarizes whatever it sells. The danger is that Buddhism will go the way of fast food, pill popping and televangelism. How can a radical Buddhism, one that teaches the way of renunciation and restraint, and challenges the most fundamental assumptions of the folk culture, avoid becoming commodified, mixed and matched and accommodated into something that has little in common with the Buddhist teachings that once passed quietly from the adepts to the folk, to those whose hearts had opened to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, who encountered monastics on their alms rounds or approached them at their monasteries with questions or simply learned to emulate their demeanor, their behavior, the simplicity of their lives and their kindness?

Losing One’s Head

headLossWe have examined a series of negotiations between Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism. What is striking is that the soapbox of adept Buddhism dominates these discussions; it is, after all, the authority on things Dharmic and in this way Folk Buddhism tends to more or less fall in line behind Adept Buddhism, giving the Sasana its characteristic comet shape. But what happens if there is no Adept Buddhism? The short answer is not surprising: the Sasana dissolves and floats off in a whirl of cultic bubbles. I will call a Folk Buddhism that is not anchored to an Adept Buddhist an Independent Folk Buddhism.

An early example of an Independent Folk Buddhism is found in the history of East Asian Buddhism in connection with mo-fa (in Chinese, mappo in Japanese), the teaching that Buddhism had entered its final stage of decline in which it is harder if not impossible for monastics to maintain discipline, for yogis to attain jhana or for the dedicated and devout to attain any semblance of Awakening.23 Mo-fa led to two divergent attitudes toward practice, short of dismissing this teaching altogether. The first was to intensify one’s efforts to overcome the mo-fa handicap, as Hsin-hsing (540-594) advocated. The other was to lower one’s sights, to make do with practices that would fall short of the aspirations of old, yet would be manageable and of some minimal efficacy. The latter attitude may have encouraged the popularity of Pure Land Buddhism and the practice of calling on the external aid of Amitabha Buddha.

In Japan, Buddhist schools fell definitively on either side of the mappo issue. At one extreme was Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), founder of the Soto Zen school in Japan, who considered mappo total nonsense, yet advocated intensification of efforts anyway. Mappo also had little currency in the Japanese Shingon school.24 On the other side were Honen (1133-1212), the founder of Pure Land in Japan and Nichiren Daishonin (1222-1282), founder of the school that bears his name. The expected and unfortunate consequence of taking mappo seriously is the disassociation of Folk Buddhism from its Adept Buddhist head, since mappo entails that neither the aspirations nor the example of would-be adepts should be taken seriously. Japan accordingly provides a number of examples of what happens when Buddhism loses its head.

Recall that Pure Land in China was essentially a folk movement within other schools that were themselves under monastic guidance. Under Honen, Pure Land in Japan became a distinct school, the Jodo Shu, in which all scriptures were discarded except the original vow of Amitabha, and adherents were expected to devote themselves to the single-minded practice of nembutsu, recitation of the name of Amitabha Buddha, a characteristically folk practice. Honen’s disciple and monk Shinran (1173-1263) decided in 1207 to get married and thereby founded an order of married clergy known as the Jodo Shinshu. For many centuries the Jodo Shinshu would be the bane of the Japanese Buddhist clergy, until a married priesthood became the norm throughout Japanese Buddhism beginning with a Meiji government edict of 1872 that sought to restructure Buddhism in Japan, and succeeded.25

Nichiren similarly advocated a single-minded devotional practice to carry us through the mappo, this time gohozon, a devotional practice based on the second rather than the first Gem, in particular the chanting the name of the Mahayana Lotus Sutra. Out of the Nichiren school arose much of today’s New Buddhism in Japan, sects, such as Soka Gakkai, that have eliminated clergy altogether26 and, as Robert Sharf describes,27 rely for their authority not on lineage, not on any special training or study, but on charismatic lay leaders who claim some special experience, much as ifound n many evangelical or charismatic Christian sects in America that also tend to disappear or splinter with the loss of a leader. The priesthood of the other schools, in the meantime, reserves the right to perform rites and rituals but are generally not expected to provide pristine examples of conduct nor to be adepts or Buddhist virtuosos.28 Such seems to be the lot of Independent Folk Buddhism.

Similar trends have been observed in Sri Lanka where in colonial times an urban Western-educated class had developed that began to hold the Sangha in contempt for two reasons. First, because of its largely of rural origin, it lacked of Western education and awareness of the Western world, and second, the educated elite had learned to map Buddhism to Protestant standards that minimized the role of clergy. The result was the development of lay Buddhism with many of the weaknesses of Protestant Christianity: the creation of sects by charismatic self-authorized individuals, who sometimes claimed to possess special insights and to represent “true Buddhism.”29

Although there seems generally to be a sense in Japan that authentic Buddhism is out of reach, that certainly the priests do not uphold it, Jaffe reports on the resiliency of the monastic ideal in the minds of Japanese Buddhists, for instance, the lack of public arguments in favor of clerical marriage and the continued official but unobserved prohibition of sexual relations for priests within certain schools, such as Soto and Obaku Zen, even while over ninety percent of clergy in these schools is married, along with a widespread nostalgia for monastics. A common attitude is that the clergy should ideally observe monastic practice even if it can’t practically.30

What happens if a form of Buddhism has never had a head? I fear this might well characterize the current reality of Buddhism in the cultural West, and most especially Creole or Protestant Buddhism, as it once characterized early Chinese Buddhism. Whatever adepts there are, are primarily non-monastics, since the entire institutional Sangha of European, American, Australian, etc. ethnicity probably numbers altogether no more than a few hundred. Some of the other adepts are ordained and trained in the priesthood of the Japanese tradition, certified in one way or another through training in Asian traditions, or have advanced academic degrees in Buddhist Studies. Although there are undoubtedly lay teachers of great accomplishment, few of the general Buddhist population know who they might be among the many charismatic self-qualified teachers who claim special insights and who advocate single-minded meditation in the quest for breakthrough experiences. Although there are undoubtedly at least some adepts in the West, the firm anchor that is the role of Adept Buddhism or the Sangha is missing. The absence of a Third Gem is like a boat without a rudder, a car without a steering wheel, a coupon without a store in which to redeem it, a comet without a head. This we would call an Independent Folk Buddhism. Today we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and, I fear, the Market.

Negotiating with the Broader Folk Culture

A challenge to Folk Buddhism is the danger of succumbing to the onslaught of those personal and cultural factors of the wider society that cause the distress and suffering authentic Buddhism is intended to resolve in the first place. Rather than following the direct path advanced by Adept Buddhism, unwary followers of Folk Buddhism may come under distracting or unsavory and opprobrious influences inimical to the teachings, practices and values of authentic Buddhism. Folk Buddhism might begin to assume much of the materialism, acquisitiveness or intolerance from the embedding culture, and in the worst case even think some of this belongs to the Buddha’s teachings! It may even come under manipulation of special interests who exploit Folk Buddhism, for instance, of commercial interests or governments who seek to controlling public opinion to legitimize the illegitimate. It is the Adept Buddhist’s role to tether Folk Buddhism, as firmly as possible, to an authentic Buddhism. It is the Folk Buddhist’s role to tame, as well as it can, the unwholesome influences of the broader society

For instance, in moments of distraction Folk Buddhists may lose their exemption from the allure of the consumer culture, which deliberately stimulates irrational, emotional and delusive aspects of human cognition and subdues clear rational thinking in order to manipulate consumption patterns. From the authentic Buddhist perspective, such consumerism is an, uh, abomination. Modern consumerism is of an order that goes beyond satisfying human need to feeding human greed, which Buddhism teaches will never ever be satisfied and will in fact plunge all those singed by it into bottomless depths of human misery.


In case we don’t yet have enough metaphors floating around: The negotiations of Dharma pull in every direction like unruly horses. The adepts are the charioteer whose arms take up the reins of authority to steer the chariot of the Sasana over an unsteady landscape in the authentic direction, toward the Awakening of the entire society. The reins are implicit in the Triple Gem. The charioteer is there by virtue of the Monastic Sangha and the Buddhist Community that sustains it. The chariot manifests the communal meaning of our practice and understanding. And the Folk Buddhists are passengers hanging on on what will be a rather bumpy ride. This is the Buddha-Sasana.

I can scarcely do justice to the many conversations that constitute the living Dharma, but I hope in this chapter to have given the flavor of some of them and how they can be interpreted in terms of the health of the Sasana, particularly of those at play in the monumental process of merging Buddhism with the folk culture in the Land of the Fork.

1A copy of the Diamond Sutra block-printed in China is dated 868 AD.

2King (1964), p. 59.

3Williams (2008), p. 26.

4See, for instance, Skilton 1990, pp. 96-7; Williams 2008, p. 26.

5Sharf (1995b).

6Sharf (1995a, 1995b).

7In fact if meditation is about evoking special experiences it comes noticeably close to many non-Buddhist religious practices intended to induce ecstatic states, for instance in Charismatic Christianity.

8 Sharf (1995a, 1995b).

9 Sharf (1995a).

10 The use of this creole simile is borrowed from Prothero (1996).

11 Sharf (2001), pp. 1-25.

12 Bodhidharma would be the exception but his story is undoubtedly largely mythical. McRae (2003, Ch. 2) traces the evolution of the Bodhdharma myth in parallel with the development of Ch’an in China.

13 This term comes from Obeyesekere. See Gombrich (2006), p. 174.

14 McMahan (2008), p220.

15 Prothero (1996), p. 95.

16 Fields (1992), Chapter 7 describes this conference.

17 McMahan (2008), pp. 91-7.

18 Sharf (2001), p. 23.

19 Cintita (2013).

20 Sometimes known to historians as King Mongkut or Rama IV.

21 Heine (2008), pp. 83-85.

22 Tweed (2000, Preface) additionally describes the broad influence Buddhism currently enjoys in the fashion and trinket industries.

23 Jaffe (2001), 128-131, Nattier (1992), 90-118.

24 Jaffe (2001), p. 131.

25 Jaffe (2001) provides a comprehensive account of this development, its precedents and its consequences.

26 See Jaffe (2001), p, 231-2 on New Buddhism in Japan.

27 Sharf (1995a).

28 Jaffe (2001), p. 232.

29 Gombrich (2006), pp. 193-201.

30 Jaffe (2001), pp. 234, 240-241.

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