Archive for the ‘buddhism’ Category

The Latest on Cintita and Austin

March 29, 2014

I haven’t been submitting weekly Uposatha Day posts for some time. Realizing that I have quite a few subscribers undoubtedly waiting in suspense, I thought I would send out this morsel and perhaps set a precedent for myself.

The primary reason for suspending Uposatha Day posts is not that I have ceased writing, bubook coverv7t that I am working more intensely on book projects, largely based on shorter or serialized writings posted here in the past:

1. I am on the verge of finishing for publication A Culture of Awakening: the Life and Times of the Buddha-Sasana. I only have to tinker with the subject index, then will make it available as a pdf and in hardcopy form probably at

2. I am writing and researching for Rebirth: Reasonable Reflections for Reluctant Rationalists. I hope to substantially finish this by the end of the year.

3. I am making a revision of my perpetually in progress autobiographical Through the Looking Glass.

4. I am trying to gather materials for a biography in English of Sitagu Sayadaw. There are a lot of materials available, but they are all in Burmese. I am recruiting some Burmese to produce rough translations into English. I hope to have enough material to focus my own time on this during 2015.

image-1390697859929-VIn the meantime, construction has still not been completed here at the monastery where I live (the Sitagu Buddha Vihara, Recall that we had scheduled our grand opening ceremony for November of 2012. Since then the City of Austin has made quite a few demands having to do with drainage and sprinkler systems, including an 18,000 gal. water tank to pressurize the sprinklers, for our many buildings. For this reason we have not been scheduling major events, like meditation retreats. All the underground work is now complete and it looks pretty certain we can have our grand opening sometime this year, though we have stopped counting on anything.

The additional I am teaching my weekly sutta class at the Austin Zen Center and we are supporting limited meditation, Dhamma instruction, pagoda tours and such on an individual basis at the monastery. We have four monks actually resident here (two of whom are at the moment in Myanmar), our kappiya Koyin (a young Karen) and at any one time generally at least someone making use of our many cabins. I invite any of my readers to come by and stay for a few days if you can get to Texas.

We still plan to invite Pa Auk Sayadaw to lead a one-month retreat after our grand opening. Many of you might know that Pa Auk Sayadaw spent the last rains (vassa) at his new center in Sonoma County, California. Our secretary helped him apply for an R1 (religious worker) visa so that he can continue to be active in the USA, and the easiest way to do that was to list him officially as a resident of our monastery. Though he has never been here, he will probably visit in a couple of months.

Our beautiful library is growing by leaps and bounds. As chief librarian I control new book purchases, and we receive substantial donations of used books. We’ve recently acquired quite a few books on early Buddhism, a number on Buddhist art, I.B. Horner’s translation of the Vinaya, and a few Buddhist movies (DVDs). I have a nice staff of volunteers, all bibliophiles, including my daughter Kymrie. I may start submitting some short book reviews to this blog. I am always reading about three or four books at any one time.





Alms Round in America?

January 28, 2014

Adapted from my autobio for publication in our monastery newsletter.

When the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his alms-financed Awakening, he continued his rounds in the streets of Kapilavatthu much to the distress of his aristocratic father. The alms round was for the Buddha a key feature of the monastic life and, even when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded. For the alms round was not simply a  way to feed the monks and nuns but also to give layfolks the opportunity to make merit and learn Dhamma as the Sangha, dignified and mindful, passes silently from house to house to receive offerings, and also to promote the growth of the Sāsana. Ashin Dr. Paññasīha of the Sitagu center in Yangon takes this ancient obligation quite seriously and I used to join him in this remarkable practice, crossing over Bailey Bridge, down some stairs, past a small Burmese version of a strip mall (about five tiny abutting shops), across another busy road and into a small neighborhood of many closely packed dwellings and muddy alleys trafficked by bicycles, pedestrians and chickens and beslumbered by lazy mutts.

Once, as my departure from the Land of Pagodas neared, U Paññasīha admonished me, “When you go back to America you should continue alms rounds.”

“I don’t think you can do alms rounds in the States,” I replied, “Nobody will know what I am doing.”

“I did,” he responded.

Indeed, he had lived in America for one and a half years where he had attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville. He explained how he had been determined to walk for alms no matter where he lived, how he had printed up fliers and distributed them through his neighborhood in anticipation of people’s bewilderedness, and how he ended up with many American students eager to learn Buddhism.

“In a lot of places in America, including Austin,” I objected, “I could be arrested for ‘begging’!”

“I wouldn’t have minded getting arrested,” he retorted, “I would teach Buddhism in jail.”

Whew, this venerable argued an awfully strong case.

Within thirteen days of my arrival back in Austin, I found myself living for seven months at the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara near St. Paul, Minnesotta, a northern land peopled primarily by tall lumbering Vikings under baseball caps, fair of skin, hair and eyes, just like me (for I am also of tall lumbering nordic descent), but without the robes. Although my old alms bowl stood on my shelf to remind me of Ashin Paññasīha’s alms admonition, I had trouble picturing myself seeking alms on County Road C, walking along the edge of the road, dumbfounding the occupants of cars as they flashed past, gaining little notice from the neighbors (undoubtedly Lutheran Protestants), all of whose houses stood well back from the roadway. What I pictured seemed hardly promising of alms, nor even of significant human contact.

That is, unless I just happened to pass the right house at the right moment: Once, while on my long daily walk, a swift bicycle passed me from behind then screeched to a halt, ejecting a dark-haired woman who, with a sidewards toss of the bike, dropped to the ground and bowed at my feet. She was, as she explained, from Laos and was now married to an American. As she had been washing dishes in her kitchen, she happened to glance up to see the very last thing walk by that she had ever expected in rural Minnesota. She dashed out the door, jumped on her daughter’s bicycle and hastened after me. Had I instead been walking by with alms bowl in hand, I would certainly have attained to left-over waffles, bear mush or even better!

But no, I had by this time fastened on an alms plan that would leave little to chance. This was inspired by an American nun (named Ayya Thanasanti, and now a bhikkhuni), who, according to my sources, had started collecting alms in Colorado. Brilliantly, she performed her alms round at a farmer’s market! A farmer’s market provides the ideal set of circumstances under which even Nordic inhibition might be set aside in favor of an ancient rite that is over twice as old as Viking plunder: a wide variety of amiable people in a relaxed and interactive frame of mind, and food close at hand, available for purchase on a whim. I phoned the director of the nearest farmers’ market and easily obtained permission to walk barefoot, bowl in hand, robes formally adjusted over both shoulders, along the bustling row of booths.

I also invited the four monks from the local Karen monastery in St. Paul to join me, and a few members of our community to bring some food to offer, to prime the pump that would then suck up broader participation. The Karen monks, never having expected to go for alms in America, a bit apprehensive about the response they might invoke, and of less than Nordic stature, suggested we forgo the normal monastic custom of queuing up according to ordination date (for mine would be most recent) and, much like novices or ducklings, line up according to height … tallest first.

We had a number of glitches at first. The Burmese recruited to prime the pump were, as I should have anticipated, far too generous to provide a reasonable example for emulation, for they handed us what appeared to be entire grocery bags of food, which gave the row of monks the appearance of a kind of human shopping cart, already brimming and hardly in need of still further alms. Luckily, in subsequent weeks, with decreasing numbers of the Burmese community showing up, brim became less of an issue. Although many of the shoppers must still have wondered why grown bald men in dresses were playing choo-choo in the middle of their shopping experience, week after week more shoppers and vendors caught on. Once an apparent immigrant from Southwest Asia, who presumably had not seen an alms round in many years, was thrilled to be able to explain to her lanky grandson how to drop an offering into each of our bowls. Once a vendor gave each of us a little bottle of honey. Our alms practice finally ended with the end of the farmers’ market season as the chill of the northern winter approached.

Back in Austin, a small group of Burmese families has been considering purchasing and subdividing a lot adjacent to the monastery to build five houses. This would constitute a small village into which the Sitagu Sangha might venture, barefoot, bowls in hand, robes formally adjusted over both shoulders, along a short row of houses, to attain to rice, curry and more.

Happiness or Meaning?

January 8, 2014

Following on the heals of my recently posted essay, “The Cushion or the World?,” the present post may establish what we can call the “or” series. This is not really an essay as much as a report of some interesting things I have been reading on the Internet about the difference between happiness and meaning, along with a few comments from the Buddhist perspective.

I ran across these readings while doing background research for an upcoming essay on rebirth. As many of you know, who have read my previous writings on rebirth, I feel the most relevant question we can ask is not “Is rebith literally (objectively or rationally) true?” but “Why would the Buddha teach such a thing?” The short answer is not “Because everybody happened to believe in it at the time and place of the Buddha,” but “Because it confers upon Buddhist practice and understanding, transcendental meaning of epic proportions.”

Since meaningfulness is not commonly discussed in Buddhism, and happiness, for its part, tends to be eclipsed by suffering, I googled around for some interdisciplinary discussion and found some articles in psychology with provocative titles like, “Why a Life without Meaning will Make you Sick,” “The Problem with Happiness,” and “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.”

Happiness is the American Way! “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is right there in our Declaration of Independence and the pursuit of happiness is the engine of our economic system, both as titillated consumers and avaricious investors. In fact, many of us tend to think of pursuit of happiness as the very meaning of our lives. However, the research I uncovered seems to put the wisdom of the pursuit of happiness into grave doubt.

Meaningfulness is, in all of the reported research, understood as something beyond ourselves or our personal happiness. It is to have a stake in something larger than ourselves: our family, our nation, mankind, the health of the planet, knowledge, the march of human understanding, artistic creation. “Being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way” (Smith 1) Generally meaningfulness is equated with virtue, while happiness is equated with getting what one wants. It is a matter of giving rather than taking.

Yet, we all want to live happily. The dilemma around happiness, as around Awakening, is that it is so illusive. The psychologist Victor Frankl, developer of Logotherapy, wrote, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” He also wrote, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness” (Cooper). This brings to mind the classical Zen koan:

Chao-chou aked Nan-chuan, “What is the Way?”
Nan-chuan said, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”
Chao-chou asked, “Then may I direct myself towards it or not?”
Nan-chuan said, “To turn toward it is to turn away from it.”

This dilemma is borne out by recent psychological research that finds that people “putting the greatest emphasis” (which I assume means “pursuing”) on being happy, enjoy “positive emotions” 50 percent less frequently, have 35 percent less “satisfaction,” and suffer from 75 percent more depression and 17 percent less “psychological well-being,” than people with priorities beyond personal happiness. (Kashdan)

Another, startling, recent study by Barbara Fredrickson and Steve Cole finds health risks in the lack of meaning, even in those that are otherwise “happy.” They found that people who are happy, but lack meaning in their lives (roughly those “simply here for the party”), exhibit similar immune system responses to those who are struggling with prolonged adversity, such as grief at loss of a loved one. It is if their bodies were preparing to fight off bacterial infections. An immune system in this state for a prolonged period can increase the risk of illnesses like cancer and heart disease, because the body will be in a constant state of inflammation (Cooper, Smith 1). “Empty positive emotions are about as good for you for as adversity,” says Fredrickson (Smith 1).

Another study shows that a short-term drive for happiness will have immediate consequences as well: Subjects deliberately primed through a simple exercise temporarily to value happiness in a test environment, then immediately subjected to a positive event, such as watching a funny film clip, appreciate the positive event less than those primed toward other values (Kashdan).

Meaningfulness, for its part, is correlated with improved resilience, that is ability to overcome adverse circumstances. This was reported by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, which correlates survival of victims of the Holocaust, like himself, with having something meaningful to live for beyond the fence. Recent research correlates ego- and spiritual transcendence with resilience (Hanfstingl).

The difference between pursuit of happiness and pursuit of meaning brings “to mind the great philosophical debate, which has shaped Western civilization for over 2,000 years, about the nature of the good life. Does happiness lie in feeling good, as hedonists think, or in doing and being good, as Aristotle and his intellectual descendants, the virtue ethicists, think?” (Smith 1).

As I was reading about these studies, the temple cat, Maung Wah, came to visit me in my kuti. He planted himself on my lap and purred effusively, which I suppose the researchers in these studies would have regarded as a species-specific indicator of transitory happiness. I was surprised, though, that after about five minutes Maung Wah had had enough, and wanted to be let out and be on his little way. I surmise that he did not find me all that meaningful.

Now, what does Buddhism have to say about all of this? These concerns shaped Buddhism well over 2,000 years ago. The modern research exemplifies the way in which modern science can fruitfully intersect with Buddhist ideas.

The pursuit of happiness flies directly into the face of the second of the Four Noble Truths, that the origin of suffering is craving, since the pursuit of something desirable is at most a short and perilous step away from craving. This research verifies that the Buddha knew what he was talking about, and usefully begins to qualify and quantify at least some of the kinds of suffering the Buddha discusses. Notice that for the Buddha, happiness is not the problem; in fact happiness (sukha = su+kha) is the opposite of suffering (dukkha = dur+kha, where su and dur are opposing prefixes meaning ‘good’ and ‘bad’). Craving happiness is the problem, which is why happiness is almost impossible to pursue successfully, except for that fleeting moment when, as a result of excruciating craving, a need is temporarily satisfied.

Buddhism is un-American, insofar as it shrinks from the pursuit of happiness, though not from life nor, uh, liberation. This is why Buddhism is called the Path of Renunciation. This is why I am a monk. Still happiness readily ensues for the Buddhist when practice is directed beyond personal interest. Nuns and monks are naturally subversive of the American way simply by being, as a group, just about the happiest people there are, in astonishing defiance of conventional norms or common sense that prevails in our (or any other) land.

Meaning is something we rarely identify as such in Buddhism, but nonetheless pervades the Buddhist life as it displaces pursuit of happiness or personal advantage. The most foundational Buddhist practice is generosity, learned in Buddhist lands almost from infancy, then virtue through training in precepts and attention to merit-making, then virtue through the development of the mental qualities of kindness, compassion and renunciation. All of this turns us away from self-concern, self-absorption, self-advantage,and towards self-transcendent meaning. As our practice advances we bring the same concerns to the micro-level through close attention to our own intentionality and through our meditation practice. Ultimately we enter the path toward Awakening, which for us has a transcendent meaning of epic proportions and which leads to the perfection of human character as ideally selfless, compassionate, serene and wise.

Furthermore, whereas common-sense tends to view virtue and pursuit of personal happiness as rough opposites, the law of karma equates personal well-being with the enactment of virtue and self-transcendence. This captures the lesson of this psychological research, that happiness cannot be effectively pursued for itself, but instead ensues from pursuing what is most meaningful beyond the self. Pursuit of self-interest, driven by greed, hatred and delusion (the triple fire of desire, ire and mire), is bad karma, while pursuit of virtue is good karma. The accrual of good karma results in personal benefit. The practice of merit-making is the pursuit of virtue, generally of generosity, reinforced, should one’s intentions otherwise weaken, with the constant reminder that personal benefit will accrue.

In short, as Buddhist we turn away from the pursuit of happiness and toward the pursuit of meaning, more and more as we advance in our practice. But thereby happiness, otherwise so illusive, ensues.

(Cooper) Bell Beth Cooper, Happiness Is Not Enough: Why A Life Without Meaning Will Make You Sick, LINK.

(Hanfstingl) Barbara Hanfstingl, Ego and Spiritual Transcendence: Relevance to Psychological Resilience and the Role of Age, LINK.

(Kashdan) Todd Kashdan, The Problem with Happiness, LINK.

(Smith 1) Emily Esfahani Smith, Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness, LINK.

(Smith 2) Emily Esfahani Smith, There’s More to Life Than Being Happy, LINK.

The Cushion or the World?

December 19, 2013

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore

Alternative format: pdf_24x18

There is a pervasive disagreement in Western Buddhism. Those whom we can call the traditionalists see virtue in adhering rather strictly to Buddhist practices as they have been transmitted by our Asian teachers, particularly focusing on stringent meditation practice. Those whom we can call the modernists feel the necessity of integrating into their practice new features more relevant to their modern daily household and professional lives, to their relationships, to their jobs, and to their social engagement, generally by mixing in everything from psychotherapy to performance art. These two factions sometimes exchange epithets like “stuck in the mud,” “stuffed robe,” “patriarchal,” “new-agey,” “touchy-feely” and “watered down.”

I’ve observed this disagreement in the Zen centers of America. The traditionalists – including me at one time – follow a rather strict and orthodox regimen of zazen, enter the zendo each morning just before 5:30, often in robes, make appropriate bows, sit two periods with intervening walking meditation, chant, often in Sino-Japanese, perform silent temple cleaning, then go off mindfully to work. The modernists are more likely to arrive evenings or on weekends, already chatting, for seminars, classes and group discussions about family relations, mental health, dancing, job performance, creativity, sexuality, parenting, and so on. The latter group sometimes experiences a facilitated kensho experience in a comfortable discursive group setting, sometimes to the alarm of the former.

Gleig (2013) observes this same discord in the American vipassana movement, even identifying a nest of traditionalists on the East Coast at IMS in Barre, MA, and discovering a hotbed of modernism on the West Coast base at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA. Jack Kornfield, a West Coast modernist, for instance, calls for an “embodied enlightenment” that integrates meditation with the insights of western psychology and the humanistic values of the European Enlightenment with the challenges of daily household life, offering a “wider stream” of practices beyond meditation. Meanwhile Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzburg, Kornfield’s friends and colleagues on the East Coast, are enamored with the teachings of Pandita Sayadaw, a Burmese monk “renowned for his strict and rigorous style, encouraging a commitment to meditation practice without ‘thought for body or life’.”

On the traditionalist side, Goldstein laments that the singular goal of liberation from suffering is displaced in modernism by more humanistic concerns. As Gleig quotes him, “I see a tendency to let go of that goal and become satisfied with something less: doing good in the world, having more harmonious relationships, seeking a happier life. That’s all beautiful but in my view it misses the essential point. ” In fact, taking this a step further, Kornfield’s expression “embodied enlightenment” would seem to redefine the goal of enlightenment, from something that requires renunciation of the everyday world, to something that affirms everyday life and makes it relevant to contemporary Westerners.

This disagreement gets scrappier than this. Prothero (2001) writes (albeit as an informed outsider to Buddhism), “What seems to be lost on the new Buddhists [on “Boomer Buddhism”] … is the possibility that it may be America’s destiny not to make Buddhism perfect but to make it banal.” and “Instead of preserving Buddhism, Americans seem intent on co-opting and commercializing it, dissolving a religion deeply suspicious of the self into an engine of self-absorption.” Prothero concludes that it is the still small but dedicated Western monastic community, whose teachings and writings are all but ignored, that deserves center stage as the guardians of authenticity. In fact, the American monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, whom Prothero refers to as a shining example, has argued that Buddhist modernists represent European Romanticism as much as they represent Buddhism (2002). More exhaustively, McMahan (2008) attributes much of Modernism to the incursion of Protestant Christianity, scientific rationalism and psychoanalysis as well as Romanticism.

On the modernist side, many point out that Western Buddhists are primarily laypeople, who have jobs, relations, families and endless responsibilities, who like to go to parties, flirt and enjoy sensual pleasures. Meditation is fine, insofar as one has the time, and one does not need to give up altogether the essential point, the aspiration for the higher attainments that meditation secures. One just needs a wider path. We cannot all be monks. One needs practices and advice that one can make use of in the world and off the cushion, something more directly relevant to one’s life. Moreover, Buddhism has always adapted to new cultural circumstances. Zen, for instance, is a product of blending Buddhism with indigenous Taoism in China. The reshaping of Buddhism to Western needs and predilections is an inevitability, in fact, it’s a right.

It seems that we in the West are stuck with two alternatives: a traditional Buddhism, narrow and austere, but authentic, and a modern Buddhism, wide and welcoming, but adulterated. The choice seems to be between a time-honored Buddhism on the cushion and a dubious Buddhism in the world. Which way do we go? If we step back we will find, in fact, that we have boxed ourselves into two viable but deficient alternatives, naively and needlessly.

The Sasana Perspective

To fully evaluate the two alternatives – cushion or world –, we need to step back, to take in a broader perspective of just what Buddhism is than we are used to in the West, a perspective that has been poorly communicated by our Asian teachers, probably precisely because it is as implicit and ubiquitous as air in the Buddhist cultures of Asia. What we will discover is that Buddhism is, and has always been, a much wider umbrella than we tend to envision, broad enough to take in both cushion and world as viable and useful options. Stepping back gives us the sasana perspective that I describe in more detail in a recent on-line book, Sasana: the blossoming the Dharma (Cintita, 2013). I will be brief here.

Sāsana is a Pali expression that means literally teaching, but that is widely used, particularly when expanded as Buddha-Sāsana, to refer to living Dharma, that is, to Buddhism in its personal, communal, cultural, social and historical dimensions. The Sasana is something organic that can be located in time and space, that can grow, thrive, propagate or wither and disappear, that can uphold the authenticity of the Dharma in the very midst of change, or degrade. “Sasana” has been variously translated into English as “the Buddha’s dispensation,” as “the Buddhist religion,” simply as “Buddhism” or even as “the Buddhist church.”

What is interesting about the sasana, for our purposes, is that has fairly consistently had a certain physiology, that its structure is unique, that it was propounded in every detail in the early teachings of the Buddha, that it has preserved this physiology with remarkable resilience through a hundred generations of Buddhist history, and that it has, at the same time, been exceedingly malleable in adapting to new circumstances, particularly to new cultures. It is a living organism that knows how to self-regulate, to adapt, to propagate and to brighten any landscape with its civilizing influence. A healthy Sasana forms a culture of awakening.

Most readers will probably be unfamiliar with these statements about sasana, and for three reasons: First, Westerners generally approach Buddhism from the perspective of the lone spiritual seeker, the “spiritual but not religious,” and give inadequate attention to the community or institutional structures that have preserved it. Second, the monastic order is still weak, and so its various roles in holding the shape of the sasana go under-appreciated. Third – this follows from the first two –, the traditional sasana is poorly instantiated in Western Buddhist communities, and therefore our members encounter few if any living examples of a healthy sasana first-hand. The sasana perspective is the understanding of resources and roles available or performed in a Buddhist community, and is the perspective that those born into Buddhist communities are first aware of, long before they consider, if they ever do, dedicating themselves wholeheartedly to the Buddhist path.

The perspective that dominates Western Buddhism is, essentially, the Eightfold Noble Path. The sasana includes the path perspective, because the path, the inspiration to pursue the path and the guidance and even material support for pursuing the path, are all available as resources in a healthy Buddhist community. The inspiration and guidance both come by way of the Triple Gem, that is, from the Buddha, the original teacher, from the Dhamma, the teachings that lead to the extremely singular attainment of awakening, and from the Sangha, the noble ones, or sages, among us that have succeeded in following the path themselves to reach at a minimum the first level of awakening (often called stream entry). The presence of noble ones is particularly important in a culture of awakening and so the Sasana provides institutional support those of highest aspiration who might one day become noble ones. This institutional support is the monastic order, which can be viewed as a kind of school that produces noble ones from among its ranks, much as a university is a school that produces scholars. The opportunity for monastic training is a gift from the members of the community to those of high aspiration.


The Flower of the Sasana

A flower metaphor highlights these resources and roles and their functional interrelatedness and also underscores that we are talking about an organic self-regulating system. Here is is how the Sasana as I’ve just described it maps onto the parts of the flower:

  • The stem that supports the blossom is the Path, which leads to Awakening.
  • The leaves and roots are the the Buddhist community.
  • The roots are specifically the monastic order (also known as the monastic or institutional sangha, as distinct from the noble sangha).
  • The leaves and roots collect nourishment of sun, water and soil in order that the flower thrive. This is the function of refuge in the Triple Gem.
  • The blossom of the flower is awakening.
  • The sun, water and soil that nourish the flower are the Triple Gem, respectively the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. They inspire and bend the mind toward wholesome development.

The dominant operating principles of the sasana are those of the Vinaya (monastic code), generosity, refuge in the Triple Gem and friendship. The Vinaya defines the conduct of the monastic, and thereby gives rise to the symbiotic relationship with the laity that arises as the latter responds to its presence in a spirit of generosity. The Vinaya also defines a context of renunciation that is optimal for progress on the path, from which most noble ones emerge. It is the role of the most adept in this scheme, particularly the noble ones, to understand and preserve the subtle and sophisticated Dharma within the community in its full integrity for future generations. Refuge is critical in that it opens the heart to the three trustworthy sources of knowledge, training and inspiration in understanding and practice.

Admirable friendship (Pali, kalyanamittatā) supplements the third refuge, when noble ones walk among us to provide wise and discerning role models and guides, consummate in virtue, in generosity, in serenity and in wisdom. Just as it benefits us to have artists and good plumbers among us, it ennobles and civilizes us when we have saints and sages, adepts and arahants, and those under the influence of such people, in our midst. The Buddha describes it this way:

“And what does it mean to have admirable people as friends? There is the case where a lay person, in whatever town or village he may dwell, spends time with householders or householders’ sons, young or old, who are advanced in virtue. He talks with them, engages them in discussions. He emulates consummate conviction in those who are consummate in conviction, consummate virtue in those who are consummate in virtue, consummate generosity in those who are consummate in generosity, and consummate discernment in those who are consummate in discernment. This is called having admirable people as friends…” – AN 8.54

Notice how the monastic institution is a lynchpin of the sasana: It is the role of the monastic order to produce noble ones. The monastic order provides the optimal opportunity to develop on the path and to live as a noble one or an aspiring noble one in accordance with the Dharma. The monastic order enters into a symbiotic relationship with the lay community that infuses generosity into the Sasana as its lifeblood. The monastic order provides a locus of training, practice and knowledge that ensures that the Dharma will burn bright for future generations. This explains why the Buddha gave so much attention to the Vinaya, the code of monastic discipline, and referred to the body of his teachings, not simply as the Dharma, but as the Dharma-Vinaya. The health of the sasana has traditionally been equated with the health of its monastic order.

By way of example, consider anecdotally the case of Bo Bo, a typical young man born into a typical Buddhist family in a typical Buddhist land. The sasana had been his first view of Buddhism: He had been taught, even as an impish toddler, to take refuge in the Triple Gem, the nutriments of Buddhist practice and understanding. The Buddha, for the youthful Bo Bo, had exemplified certain values such as selflessness, virtue and serenity, and the Dharma had been accessible primarily through a few aphorisms like “Happiness comes only from within” and “generosity creates great merit,” and maybe from hearing some stories of the previous lives of the Buddha. The Sangha of noble ones, with whom he had been in almost daily contact, had provided living examples of what it is to live deeply according to Buddhist principles, and of the joy and wisdom that emerges in such a life. Bo Bo had lived as a part of the Buddhist community, devoutly supportive of the monks and nuns, and generally practicing generosity and virtue in an uplifting environment. His generosity had focused on supporting the Sangha, which in turn had guided the community dharmically and taken care of its pastoral needs, but had effortlessly spread beyond that relationship as a part of the lifeblood of a very caring community. He had, in short, grown up with a mind bent toward Buddhist values and Buddhist aspirations in a culture of awakening, primed for devoting himself to the path toward awakening, should he so choose.

As he got older, Bo Bo noticed that people in his community adopted any of a wide variety of ways of life. He himself for a time thought of marrying his cute neighbor, Yum Yum, and of raising a family, but he was also reminded by the contrasting example of the monks what an entangling problem life can be. He noticed that the noble ones were far more content and full of active goodwill than anyone else, in spite of their utterly simple renunciate needs. After struggling with life’s vicissitudes for a number of years and contemplating the nature of suffering, Bo Bo’s understanding progressed to the point that conventional life no longer made much sense. And so, Bo Bo joined the monastic order, already fully prepared with a grateful and generous heart, trusting in the Buddhist path and supported and encouraged by a generous community. He began to study as the student of one of the neighborhood sages, and on that basis began to ascend the Path. Eventually he became one of the noble Ones himself, and found himself beginning to make an ennobling difference in the lives of others. With time and determination his practice blossomed one day into the fruit of full awakening.

Now, historically the sasana has preserved this system of roles, relationships and functions astonishingly well. Buddhism has, for instance, never established itself in a new land without its monastic order, and this order, in fact, counts as perhaps the oldest defined human institution on the planet, and one that would still be recognized by the Buddha, after one hundred generations, as his monastic order. The opportunity for awakening, the presence and veneration of noble ones and the lifeblood of generosity, have characterized Buddhist communities throughout Asia. At the same time the sasana has been remarkably malleable, accommodating a range of understandings and practices and adapting to a variety of folk cultures.

Limits on the malleability of the sasana are constrained by this physiology. But notice that this physiology is oriented toward a culture of awakening, defined by a singular goal that relatively few attain, and toward preserving the Dharma, a sophisticated and radical system of understanding and practice that relatively few master. The demographics of the sasana is democratic in that each member is given the same opportunities for study and practice, but not fully democratic in that its members will inevitably differ in accepting that opportunity, in attainment, practices and understanding, in interest and commitment, in time and energy put into study and practice.

Since the benchmark attainment is awakening, what do those of less aspiration or opportunity expect to attain and what practices to they pursue to do it? This is not so clearly fixed and has been answered in a great many ways, and, in fact, this is the primary locus of Buddhist malleability. In effect, in any healthy Sasana we can distinguish two kinds of Buddhisms living side by side: The first is adept Buddhism, a complete and authentic understanding and practice aimed at the singular attainment of Awakening. This is what the noble ones understand and live, and the rest of the monastic sangha along with many very committed laypeople tries to master. Adept Buddhism is by nature orthodox, sophisticated and challenging to, and radical in, any culture.

The second is folk Buddhism, which includes any popular understanding and practice of Budhism. These understandings and practices may be simplified, compromised, misunderstood or adapted to the prevailing folk culture or other human dispositions, but may also overlap with adept practices and understandings. Folk Buddhists may expect peace, happiness or mental health in this life, or good fortune in the next. They may engage in generosity, devotional practices, chanting, service to the sasana or single-minded meditation. They may seek blessings or the favor of supernatural beings and forces. They may believe in a cosmic buddha and a pantheon of protective bodhisattvas. Their understandings and practices may blend non-Buddhist elements, from folk religions and beliefs to modern psychotherapy. Folk Buddhism is by nature liberal and this liberality allows the sasana to integrate into a broader folk society by softening the radical message of adept Buddhism.

Although the sasana offers this big umbrella. the varieties of folk practices and understandings that fit under it in a healthy sasana are nevertheless bounded. Folk Buddhism is generally under the sway of adept Buddhism. Refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha entails trust in these three as ever-present sources of improved understanding and training to which one turns as authorities when needed and accepts their admonitions when offered, just as most of us accept the advice of scholars and their writings as more expert than ourselves. At a minimum any folk practice or understanding of wide circulation is likely to be consistent with adept Buddhism; we don’t generally find things like animal sacrifice, for instance, in folk Buddhism, nor loss of a refuge, nor loss of the recognition of awakening as the highest aspiration. But, even while under the sway of adept Buddhism, folk Buddhism is also highly susceptible to the influence of the prevailing folk culture.


The Comet of the Sasana

I find it helpful to visualize the demographics of the sasana as taking the form of 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 in different directions. Distance from the head represents the relative proportion of adept and folk cultural influences on understanding and practice, and direction from the head represents choice among the array of practices and understandings found in folk Buddhism. The comet captures also that the difference between the “two” Buddhisms is actually one of degree.

Traditionalists and Modernizers

As I was saying, it seems that we in the West are stuck with two alternatives, or some blend of them: a traditional Buddhism, narrow and austere, but authentic, and a modern Buddhism, wide and welcoming, but adulterated. The choice seems to be between a time-honored Buddhism on the cushion and a dubious Buddhism in the world. Which way do we go? If we step back, we find that the sasana perspective is much more open than any of this.

Choosing one of the alternatives is not so problematic as it sounds, for both proposals fit comfortably under the Buddhist umbrella. Each is a form of folk Buddhism, is reasonably consistent, as far as I can see, with adept Buddhism, and is therefore also potentially welcome in a healthy sasana. Each can be safely encouraged as wholesome and beneficial for one’s spiritual well-being, even while each positions itself differently with respect to the other. However, it should be acknowledged that each is also no more than a form of folk Buddhism, in itself incomplete as for producing the singular attainment of awakening toward which adept Buddhism is directed.

The Cushion. For the typical member of the Western traditionalist wing, Buddhism is meditation, which is to say, vipassana, zazen, tonglen, or whatever, depending on tradition. The authenticity of each of these in the path function of mental development is not the question here, but rather its priority over all other path or sasana factors in this faction of Western folk Buddhism. Although at least lip service is generally paid to these other factors, meditation and related mindfulness practices tend to be pursued with a single-minded dedication that is consistent but woefully incomplete as a path to awakening by adept standards.

To see the incompleteness of Western traditionalism, consider that the Buddha advocates a gradual path1, that he describes as beginning with the following prerequisites:

Development of generosity, development of virtue, contemplation of the heavens (i.e., understanding karma), investigation of the drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions, understanding the rewards of renunciation.

When, from the pursuit of the foregoing, the mind is ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright, the following should be taken up:

Understanding and practicing the Four Noble Truths.

This includes the practice of the Eightfold Noble Path, the path itself:

Wisdom section: Right View, Right Resolve; Virtue section: Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood; Meditation Section: Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Samadhi.

Notice that if there were a healthy sasana in the West the prerequisites would be at least partially supported, simply through participation in that sasana. Generosity is the lifeblood of the sasana. Virtue, the understanding of the drawbacks of passions and the rewards of renunciation are exemplified in the lives of the noble ones one encounters. The heavens (or karma) are generally the dominant narrative of a Buddhist community. Moreover, notice that meditation comprises only the last three of the factors of the Eightfold Noble Path, for the Buddha also makes it clear that the first seven factors are preconditions for the eighth, and each of these generally requires many years (or lifetimes) of sustained repetition and rehearsal. Elsewhere (AN 5.254, 257) the Buddha declares that stream entry is impossible for the stingy.

This does not mean that single-minded emphasis on meditation is misguided, only that it is not a full path to awakening unless progress in all of these other factors happens to have been acquired through some other means. In fact, popular meditation movements of this nature have occurred before in Asia. For instance, a 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 for his lay students that we now call koan introspection, most typically known in association with the koan Mu. The Western vipassana movement began as a mass meditation movement in Burma in the early twentieth century, making Burma perhaps the meditatingest country in the world, now more than ever. More common than folk meditation movements in Asia are single-minded devotional practices associated with the sasana function of refuge. Also beneficial, these can have often become quite embellished historically, ranging from the stupa (and ultimately pagoda) cult, chanting or copying scriptures, or even the names of scriptures and lavishing unneeded offerings on itinerant ascetic monks of great accomplishment.

Unfortunately, Westerners are at a distinct disadvantage compared to their Asian counterparts in pursuing meditation single-mindedly. The Burmese who takes up vipassana practice will have at least partially satisfied the prerequisite practices through a lifetime of immersion in sasana. In addition, East Asians will have significantly satisfied the path practices in the virtue section through a lifetime of immersion in a Confucian culture that regulates every aspect of her interpersonal relations. Such influences are generally absent in the Western context. For those of limited time and energy there will in any case have to be a trade-off between the depth and the breadth of practice. Single-minded practices sacrifice breadth for depth and thereby in the end limit depth as well. One of the functions of the monastic order, a seldom considered opportunity in the West, is to offer anyone of high aspiration the otherwise elusive leisure to sustain both breadth and depth at the same time.

Yet, there is a special allure in the context of Western folk culture for the single-minded practice of meditation. Meditation is recognizablly orthodox;.Western yogas have already meditated for years and the Buddha almost always clearly sits in meditation posture. Meditation is the most reliable source of peak or mystical experiences; we seem to be obsessed with experience, as the marketing industry knows well. Meditation has some solid science behind it, verifying certain beneficial qualities, physical as well as psychological. Meditation fits into time-honored consumer habits of layering one thing upon another – gym membership, opera tickets, massage, … – onto an already busy life without having to reconsider or reorder anything else in that life. Meditation is a solitary practice suited to the spiritual but not religious. Perhaps these are the reasons Western Buddhists have so much energy for meditation practice.

The World. There was bound to be a backlash to the traditionalist Western practice on the cushion. It is narrow, it is not easy or quick, nor is it warm and fuzzy. It does not satisfy communal needs, nor invite family participation. A relentless quest for awakening on the cushion does not integrate in any obvious way with life in the world, with its jobs, relations, families, civic responsibilities, stresses, anxieties, purchases, parties and pursuit of pleasure, except through the blanket admonition to do all of this mindfully. And so there is a natural demand for a “wider stream,” a practice in the world aspiring instead toward “embodied enlightenment.” This wider stream is achieved typically by working outward from the narrow traditionalist core and to accrete innovations as needed. These seem based for the most part in Western traditions more than on Asian, but psychotherapy has been a particularly prominent influence perhaps because Buddhist understandings of mind at the same time influence psychotherapy.

Notice that if the context of our practice were a traditional and healthy Buddha-sasana, the concerns that motivate modernizing Buddhism in these ways would be far less acute. We would already live in a supportive community with a sense of appreciation and devotion, under the subtle influence of sages as living examples of the rational and wholesome life, before we even began to think consciously about higher practices on the path. We would already have all the warmth and fuzz we could handle in a culture of awakening. Nevertheless, we would still live in a modern world, with its modern demands and stresses, and in a modern culture quite distinct from any traditional Asian culture, with its own values and understandings. A degree of popular demand for adaption would therefore arise even within the context of a traditional and healthy sasana.

It is the role of folk Buddhism to absorb popular demands for adaptation. We will and must develop a Western folk Buddhism in the West, one that finds a compromise between essential Buddhist values and the cultural predilections of the modern West. It is also the role of folk Buddhism, to soften the sharp edges of adept Buddhism, since it is so radical and against the stream even in Buddhist cultures, and make it intelligible to the broader folk culture. We will and must develop our own folk Buddhism also because it generally does little good to import an Asian folk Buddhism the way we import adept Buddhism. Someone else’s folk Buddhism will be adapted to someone else’s culture. This means we will not burn money for our dead ancestors, nor appease irritable forest sprites in our folk Buddhism. Nor will we have to accept the gender inequality common in much of Buddhist Asia. We are off the hook. Rather, our folk Buddhism is free to develop, for better or worse, under the influence of the European Romanticism, the Protestant Christianity, the scientific rationalism, the psychotherapy, the humanism and the consumerism endemic in our culture.

The danger of innovation is that it become uncontrolled and result in something markedly non-Buddhist or even anti-Buddhist, for instance, 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 understanding and practice of the adepts? If we had a healthy sasana the many shapes of folk Buddhism would be constrained through a pervasive bias in favor of adept Buddhism. Folks would tend to move toward the head of the comet, because they would take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, its primary representatives, and because we would fall under the influence of the noble ones walking among us.

In all fairness, these constraints are at work in the Western sasana to some extent, insofar as some of this innovation is guided, and even inspired by, adepts in response to popular demands. The “wider stream” of Jack Kornfield is probably an prime example that is unlikely to go far astray because of the depth of practice and understanding of its originator. However, elsewhere folk Buddhism easily escapes the sway of adept Buddhism as it results from people simply “doing their own thing.”

The Sasana. Sasana is the third choice, for in the healthy traditional sasana, disagreement between cushion or world – traditionalism or modernism – vanishes, along with the significance of many other apparent dichotomies, such as Western and Eastern Buddhisms. They all fit as folk practices and understandings under the firm and broad umbrella of sasana, where they fall under the corrective sway of adept Buddhism. For this reason we should all be eager to establish a healthy sasana in the West according to the Buddha’s model.

Now, for practice on the cushion and practice in the world to both fall under the sway of adept Buddhism requires, first, that there be adepts, and, second, that these adepts have authority or influence over the direction of folk practices and understandings. Let’s assess the status of these two conditions in the West, briefly:

First, we do have adepts in the West. These are probably most commonly found among people with traditional training of some kind in addition to meditation retreat experience: ordained priests in the Japanese or Korean Zen traditions (typically having some training in a monastic setting), certified lay lamas in the Tibetan tradition (many of whom have lived in a cave for three years), ex-monastics (primarily trained in the Theravada countries of Asia), and Buddhist scholars who also practice Buddhism. Moreover, Buddhist texts are abundant and readily accessible to the less-than-adept Western Buddhist community, who as a whole also enjoys unprecedented levels of education and a willingness to read Buddhists texts. (High education level is a demographic peculiarity that will, unfortunately, certainly be lost as Buddhism grows.) Meditation is strong. The traditional monastic order is still very limited, and also more integrated into the Asian sasana than into the Western. The age of mass communication has nonetheless expanded the range of adept influence, producing a kind of a celebrity Sangha with eminent members like Ven. Pema Chodron. and Western-friendly Asians like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Nonetheless, the influence of these adepts is limited in the West. What adepts there are, are not generally recognized nor venerated as such, and they therefore have limited sway over the folk community. Although Westerners are familiar with the Triple Gem, it is rarely understood that Sangha is intended to signify the adept community, not the folk community. It is common for Westerners to dismiss, under our peculiar cultural influences, any kind of external authority altogether in favor of the guidance of some imagined but infallible “inner voice.” Moreover, many who would like to place themselves in the sway of an adept teacher 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.

In summary, without a strong and healthy sasana in the West, the disagreement between Buddhism on the cushion and Buddhism in the world will persist. Traditionalists will continue to cling to single-minded meditation and view it as a complete and time-honored path to full awakening. Modernists will be unhindered in embracing an ever widening stream that will become coopted, commercialized and eventually banal and self-absorbed, to satisfy popular demands for adaptation. With a strong and healthy sasana, we can have both the cushion and the world, as it will provide a firm and broad umbrella under which a wide variety of practices and understandings will fit comfortably and remain comfortably under the sway of adept Buddhism.

Two distinctive qualities of the traditional Buddha-Sasana are its resilience and its malleability, qualities that once made Buddhism the first world religion able to leap cultural boundaries without coercion. It is these qualities that must be replicated in the Western context through a strong and healthy sasana.


Cintita Dinsmore, Bhikkhu, 2013, Sasana: the blossoming of the Dharma, download from

Gleig , Ann, 2013, “From Theravada to Tantra: the making of an American Tantric Buddhism?,” Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 14, No. 2, 221–238 .

McMahan, David, 2008, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, Oxford University Press.

Stephen Prothero, 2001, “Boomer Buddhism,”, Feb 26, 2001.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 2002, “Romancing the Buddha,” Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2002.

1Kuṭṭhi Sutta, Udāna 5.3.

Growing the Dharma: Finding Your Way

November 21, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. We now complete the last chapter and the ebook serialization. Recall that we I have described “Simply Uninformed” and “Stuck in the Familiar” as personality types that are recognized both at the buffet table and a the early stages of Buddhist practice.

Chapter 8. Navigating the Sasana (2/2)

More analytical than daring

“Religiosity” might well frighten you; it is the world of terrorists, hypocritical opportunists, pedophiles, blindly faithful suckers, and people who knock on your door to tell you stuff, won’t go away and keep coming back. These are scary things. “Religiosity” at the same time might remind me too closely of the root religion that you had managed to analyze my way out of. But saying, “I’ve had it with religiosity!” is a little like surviving an earthquake and declaring in a descending voice, “I’ve had it with ground!” Where will I stand?

Maybe you were initially attracted to Buddhism because it appeared refreshingly more rational than your root religion, much of it is almost scientific. It values personal investigation and seeing things as they are, and reasonably well avoids metaphysical speculation. It also mandates trust, and veneration, of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Refuge might once have been too daring for you, placing far too much trust in uncertainties, and as a result you may have spent years thinking about becoming a Buddhist. I hope that I have shown in this book how rational many of these “religious” elements are in the context of the Sasana.

Perhaps you ran up and down along the shore for a time, while others plunged into the community, into Refuge, and into practice and study to emerge wiser, kinder and more equanimous on the other shore. Observing the positive results of their choices, you might eventually have reached your tipping point, and taken the plunge, as an act of discerning trust to bring you into the Buddha-Sasana, among the leaves, nourished from sun, water and soil.

Many have found it hard to reach that tipping point and have remained nominal Buddhists of no Refuge. They have kept their trust (generally without even realizing that trust is involved) in whatever culturally transmitted influences were alive in their lives before they were mature enough to fear uncertainty. With the preempting of trust in the Triple Gem, they refuse to listen to the voice from the mountaintop telling them of vistas they cannot already see with their own eyes. Instead, they imagine a Buddha in their own cultural image, a science-inspired rationalist, and Romanticism-inspired individualist and a humanistically-inspired secularist, standing down here on the flatlands. Representing an almost tidal Folk Buddhist movement in the West today, without Refuge these among the analytic but not daring are fated to drift off into a very large cultic bubble.

One quite remarkable but common manifestation of such timidity is the withholding of “indoctrination” in Buddhism from the next generation. Already excluded by adherents of the Path perspective by quickly tiring of meditation, the kiddies in this way should make up their own mind about religion when they reach adulthood. I suppose the logic is that the young ones will remain free-thinking blank slates completely untainted by rampant unwholesome cultural influences, if only parents refuse to instill the fundamental values and skills endorsed in something like Buddhism, such as generosity, kindness, serenity, mindfulness and discernment in one’s trust. However, the parents’ most fundamental duty, it seems to me, is to apply their own discernment in choosing their children’s influences, at least until the children develop their own discernment. I suspect by the same logic that the right to choose their own mother tongue is similarly reserved for the children until adulthood, though I have heard of no actual instances of this.

Grabbing something to eat

We are a consumer culture; we accumulate but do not let go. We clutter our houses with things and our lives with commitments: opera tickets, gym membership, psychotherapy sessions, automatic bill payments. Buddhism becomes another commitment, membership in a Buddhist center, where Grabbing commits his time to meditation on certain mornings or evenings and an occasional Dharma talk. The problem is that Buddhism never becomes foundational for him, but instead floats on the surface until it is buried under the next accretion of his busy life. Buddhism is most properly the foundation of the Buddhist life, not just another room or closet built on a growing domestic footprint.

Often Grabbing seeks depth by narrowly focusing on a single practice, because that is what he imagines he has time for. In Asia that would be most typically a devotional practice like nembutsu. Western culture has another dynamic going on: Many of us like to excel, even when we know we are overreaching. Get a gym membership and we imagine ourselves as Charles Atlas. Join a “sangha” and we imagine ourselves as Dogen Zenji. Meditation, the highest Path practice, naturally dominates, and with it an expectation of sudden Awakening. In spite of its benefits, this approach misses the breadth of Buddhist practice and understanding, and therefore cannot hope to reach the depth of Buddhist attainment. Missing are not only Sasana practices, like generosity, veneration and rubbing shoulders with admirable friends, but even most Path practices as well, like virtue and renunciation.

Eating but not helping with the cleanup

These are the spiritual but not religious among us. To the extent that they embrace the Buddhist Path, that is good; I certainly do not intend to discourage that. But from the Path perspective the view of the Sasana can be narrow. What they overlook is appreciation of, and responsibility to, the Sasana, for it is the Sasana that has sustained the Dharma these hundred generations, supported by countless adepts who have kept the flame of Dharma alive, supported institutionally and socially by the gratitude and generosity of normal folks, so that our lives might intersect with the teachings of the Buddha.

Losing the Sasana perspective represents not only a loss to society and the Buddhist community, it represents a loss to individual practice, and ultimately to the disappearance of the Dharma. The Sasana produces noble ones to serve as admirable friends, to inspire and inform us in our practice and understanding. The Sasana sustains a community whose lifeblood is generosity. The Sasana entails Refuge and veneration as a source of influence and also humility. The Sasana provides a family-friendly context in which even children can acquire healthy values and influences. And the Sasana supports special opportunities for higher practice for those of higher aspiration as they walk the Path.

Trying everything

Many are the picky eaters in the Land of the Fork. Even while we rarely fully escape our own cultural upbringing, we do not need to let it obscure the Sasana, nor much of the Path. We can be daring enough to try it all.

Bowing is a good place to start, precisely because it readily encounters both bewilderment and resistance in the Land of the Fork. Try standing bows, Zen or Theravada style bows n which you touch your head to the floor, and Tibetan bows in which you lie flat on your stomach with arms outstretched. Try chanting the praises of Amitabha Buddha or put on a mask and try to act spontaneously with the best of them. Try it all, because none of it is harmful and most of it is probably beneficial.

This willingness will open up much more than you can possibly make use of in your Buddhist life, but it will keep you from overlooking what is important out of self-image or cultural bias. What you ultimately embrace will become more discerning as you try to match your aspirations to your opportunities, but a willingness to try everything creates a larger space in which to make your choices.

My recommendations:

  • Take advantage of communal resources in your area, otherwise your Buddhist life will be limited to the Path with limited inspiration.
  • Identify the range of communities – temples, monasteries, centers and informal meeting groups, whether Western and Asian – in your area and begin visiting some (you might be pleasantly surprised how many there are). The primary question to bring with you on your visits is, Is the Sasana healthy and thriving here? Bring along a copy of the Flower of the Sasana sketch from Chapter Two to check what might be missing. As quicker check ask, Is this a generous community? and, Is this community child-friendly?
  • Assess the Folk Buddhism in each particular site you visit. In any community, Western or Asian, Folk Buddhist practices and understandings will dominate, and are perhaps all you will find. It is important to begin with a respect for all Folk Buddhism, no matter how exotic it may appear. Folk Buddhism virtually always provides a wholesome context for development, albeit on different cultural foundations.
  • Seek out admirable friendship or a source of teachings that will point you toward an adept understanding and practice. In particular, meet the Sangha or the teachers of the particular community, and with a sense of humility and respect. Try to find an adept who communicates well with you. With adept advice, begin life-style changes, a program of study and a meditation practice.
  • Support the Sasana as much as you can, that the living Dharma will survive for the welfare and happiness of the people and the benefit of the multitude. This in itself is probably the most immediately effective and satisfying forms of Buddhist practice.

You will find that your own language and culture are critical limiting factors in this exploration. In general, the health of the Sasana and the presence of adepts is far greater in the Asian communities, which are quite likely to match from blossom to soil. However, if you are a Westerner, the Folk Buddhism and teaching are likely far more compatible with your culture and language in the Western communities. An Asian Folk Buddhism will not serve you as well as it serves the cultural Asian, and you may not even share a language in common with the top Asian adept. This is a dilemma that most resolve by falling back into their own comfort zone: Asians join Asian communities, Westerners join Western communities. Here a little boldness may be in order. I’ve know Asians, for instance, who have joined Western communities because of the presence of an outstanding and very adept teacher.

The bold explorer open to trying everything is very rare.

“A rare bird indeed,” says Carol.

The Basic Buddhist Life

Ajahn Suwat from Thailand, leading a meditation retreat in the USA, once commented to his American host,

“I notice that when these people meditate they’re awfully grim.”

He quickly attributed this to the lack of preparation of the meditators in the other Buddhist teachings, in particular, in trust, in generosity and in virtue, which in Asia would generally precede training in meditation, and as Thanissaro Bhikkhu suggests, help develop a sense of spaciousness and happiness as an appropriate context for meditation.1

For a Western newcomer, Buddhism as a whole might appeared at first as a vexing tangle of bushes with a few edible berries, but with no clear path or order. A unified concept “Buddhism” might seem irretrievably lost to history, now broken up into Mahayana and Theravada, Eastern and Western, secular and religious, spiritual and religious, and all these regional ethnic forms. Scholars are also known to find it jaw-droppingly so, and some are even beginning to insist on “Buddhisms” as a plural.

The individual or collective Western response has often much like that of the new landowner who discovers an overgrown but still potentially productive corn field on his property and with limited understanding of both corn and non-corn, dauntlessly hacks away with a machete only to destroy half of the corn and to leave half of the undergrowth, then plants one row of Monsanto super-corn and row of squash to make it look right. It looks pretty good, so he calls it Western Buddhism and expects it to save Buddhism from centuries of Asian misunderstanding and cultural accretions. He, with all the hubris and discernment of a rowdy teenager, has created another Folk Buddhism and attributed to it authenticity.

I hope this book has provided a more orderly perspective on the diffuseness of Buddhism, one that shows the Sasana, much like a palm tree, both resiliently and tolerantly holding that diffuseness. It does indeed grow wild where it is most under the influence of the many diverse cultural factors, but it nonetheless holds firm in its Adept Buddhism with its adherence to a Path that culminates in the singular attainment of Awakening. Refuge is what keeps the tangle of the tail in rough alignment with the solidity of the head in that it recognizes the ultimate authority of the adepts and enforces some degree of consistency with what they teach. There is therefore a pattern in the great range of variance in Buddhist understanding and practice, even as the authenticity of the Sasana in all of its functional components is retained. Nonetheless, what we find in the West is the dominance of a Buddhism radically pruned back to a local Folk Buddhism.

“That’s what I mean by spaghetti,” exclaims Carol.

In the emerging Western Folk Buddhism, a single-minded focus on meditation is frequently regarded as the entirety of Buddhism. The cultural reasons for this can be found at the buffet table. For Simply Uninformed, meditation is recognizable; Western yogas have meditated for years and the Buddha almost always clearly sits in meditation posture. For Seeking T. Exotic, meditation is the most reliable source of peak experiences. For Stuck in the Familiar, something like meditation commonality to many religious traditions, at some level at at least similar to prayer and to other other contemplative practices. For More Analytical Than Daring, meditation has some solid science behind it, verifying certain beneficial qualities, physical as well as psychological, while direct benefits of other aspects of the Path and Sasana are often more difficult to quantify. For Grabbing Something To Eat, meditation fits well with the accrued composition of the Busy Life. For Not Helping, meditation is a solitary practice. For Trying Everything, meditation is a very sumptuous dish for an active fork but does not exhaust the opportunities for Buddhist practice by a long shot.

The common zeal for meditation is certainly a strength of Western Buddhism. The absence of complementary practices is a weakness. Indeed, generosity, veneration, humility and renunciation are rarely even recognized as fundamental Buddhist practices in the Land of the Fork, substantially simplifying one’s life receives little encouragement, the Refuges are poorly understood, and many centers have removed the perceived religiosity of altars, chanting and bowing completely. Even virtue and wisdom are woefully neglected as factors that will eventually arise out of meditation practice rather than embraced as a foundation of meditation. Many wonder why nuns and monks don’t just go out and get jobs.

“What’s left is marshmallow salad,” explains Carol.

If Aspiration should Get the Better of You, …

The option of ordination into the Sangha is something of a birthright wherever the Sasana is strong. Should you go off the deep end in your practice, that is, should your progress toward Awakening and all that that entails become the dominant concern of my life, then the monastic life is the ideal container for your aspirations. It is also the best way to support the Sasana, especially in the West where it is still so weak.

The institutional Sangha is the lynchpin of the Buddhist community and the mainstay of the Sasana:

  1. The Monastic Sangha ensures the existence of Noble Ones, saints, admirable friends and adepts. As long as monastics live rightly, there will be awakened people in the world.
  2. The Monastic Sangha is responsible for preserving the integrity of the Dharma, for maintaining the authentic adept understanding.
  3. The monastics are the visible symbol of the Third Gem in which we take Refuge, and the visible living representatives of Buddhism in the world who inspire, exemplify and instruct.
  4. Monastic discipline defines the life of the entire Buddhist community, particularly in that it provides a basis for the practice of generosity and the opportunity for intense practice and study for those whose aspirations are high.
  5. The monastic code, the Vinaya, is half of Dharma-Vinaya, the expression the Buddha consistently used in reference to the entirety of his teachings.

These functions together define the shape of both the flower and the comet of Buddhism and are therefore responsible for the Sasana’s characteristics of both resiliency and tolerance. Walpola Rahula, author of What the Buddha Taught, wrote:2

It is the members of the “Institutional Sangha,” the bhikkhus, who have been the custodians of the Dhamma, and have transmitted it throughout these twenty-five centuries for the perpetuation of the Sasana (Buddhism). It is the “Institutional Sangha” that can be established in a country as an organized, visible representative body of the Sangha of the Three Jewels. So those interested in the establishment and perpetuation of the Sasana in the West must be concerned with the establishment of the Bhikkhu-sangha there.

This simply restates an ancient sentiment. Venerable Mahamahinda, ordained son of Emperor Ashoka of Magadha, was asked if the Sasana could be considered established in Sri Lanka.

“The Dispensation, Great King, is established, but its roots have not yet descended deep.”

“When, Sir, will the roots have descended?”

“When, Great King, a youth born in the Island of [Sri Lanka], of parents belonging to the Island of [Sri Lanka], enters the Order in the Island of [Sri Lanka], learns the Vinaya in the Island of [Sri Lanka] itself and teaches it in the Island of [Sri Lanka], then indeed, will the roots of the Dispensation have descended.”3

The same text, Buddhaghosa’s fifth century Vinaya Commentary Samanta-Pāsādhikā makes the following rather remarkable assertion:4

The Vinaya is the life of the Sasana: if the Vinaya endures, the Sasana will endure; if the Vinaya disappears, the Sasana will disappear.

It also reports that the Vinaya was placed at the beginning of the canonical scriptures during the First Council after the death of the Buddha because of this key function. Going a bit farther, we could nearly say that there is no Buddhism without monastics; it would not long remain viable.

We may assume that Sasana has been established in the West, but the roots of the Sasana are just beginning to descend, for the institutional Sangha and the Vinaya are so far very slim indeed. Hopefully Buddhism is not experiencing in the West a flash of unprecedented popularity, as the Sasana indulges the most appealing and easily assimilated folk notions with no adept oversight over their authenticity. I am, on the other hand, encouraged that the Western monastic order is beginning in recent years to some into its own, here and there. I am also encouraged by the relatively high aspirations and pure standards exhibited by the Western Sangha.5

Although scholars and lay teachers probably still constitute the majority of the (hidden) adept community, I know of no alternative to the traditional Sangha for ensuring the viability of a Western Buddhism. As Edward Conze puts it, “The continuity of the monastic organization has been the only constant factor in Buddhist history.”6 There is no evidence that we have suddenly discovered a superior model in the West. Buddhism without the institutional Sangha would be like science without professional scientists. Certain individual amateurs do very good science, but as a whole science would fizzle, perhaps after a flash of unprecedented popularity.7

As we navigate the Buddhist buffet counter, with an eye either to individual development or to development of the Sasana, we should keep the Sangha in mind. The health of the Sangha results from a collaboration between lay and ordained. It does not exist without aspirants, nor does it exist without support. Its character depends on its members, and its members should have entered without mixed motivations. However, the purity of its membership depends on who the laity considers worthy of support. The practice of generosity typically begins in the context of supporting the Sangha, and proliferates from there. The Sangha represents admirable friends, who exemplify the Buddhist life and inspire others to enter the higher Path of practice and study. When the Sangha endures, the Sasana will endure to brighten any landscape with its civilizing influences.

In the discussion of the Second Annual Buddhist Banquet of the Springdale Buddhist Center, Skipper represented the Middle Way and prevailed. They decided as a group to provide a variety of dishes very similar to the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to Realization, of the previous year (and again not to serve beer or any other spirits). In addition, they decided also to put effort into educating people beforehand about what they will find at the banquet. They hope that if they are steadfast in offering the same each year, maybe they will gradually become a community of non-picky eaters in the Land of the Fork.

“It’s going to be a long haul,” suggests Carol.

1 Thanissaro (1999), p. 7.

2 Quoted in Heine, 2003, p. 60.

3 Jayawickrama (1962).

4 Jayawickrama (1962).

5 The author may be an exception.

6 Conze (1959), p. 54.

7 This is not to say that the monastic Sangha will not have to adapt. A number of indicators from a quickly modernizing Asia speak to the need for adaptation. For instance, the disenfranchisement of the Sangha from traditional social roles as intelligentsia and educators by governments as they actively promote literacy and higher education speaks of the need for promoting higher education in the Sangha. (So far the Western Sangha seems to be extremely highly educated; this is not so in Asia.) That gender inequality is as intolerable among Western Buddhists as gender equality seems to have been in Buddha’s India, speaks of the need for promoting the status of women as monastics. Disruptive changes in general society seem to be bringing individuals with impure incentives into The Sangha. (This is not yet a problem in the West where there are rarely occasions for such mixed incentives.)



Buddhist Extremist Cell Vows To Unleash Tranquility On West

November 21, 2013

Read about it HERE.


Growing the Dharma: Navigating the Sasana

November 13, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. We now begin the last chapter.

Chapter 8. Navigating the Sasana (1/2)

The Springdale Buddhist Center held a lavish banquet for its members, and offered the whole fare, from hors d’oeuvre to dessert. To their great dismay, few seemed to eat lavishly. The festival committee (Bob, Carol and Skipper) asked around and discovered that most guests who were failing to eat well were doing so for what they felt were unreasonable reasons, and as a result failed to benefit fully from what was offered.

“Is this the future shape of Buddhism in the Land of the Fork?” they thought collectively.

They identified the following feeding patterns, which they put up on a white-board, each with its own bullet:

Some guests were “●simply uninformed” about food. Some people, Bob observed, would ignore items simply because they did not recognize them or they misperceived them or they were unsure about the proper manner of eating them. They could have asked, but most of the people around them didn’t seem to know either.

Some guests were simply “stuck in the familiar.” Fish eggs or lychees, or octopus would make them cringe. These mostly ate rolls, cold cuts, and cole slaw.

Some guests exclusively “seek out the exotic.” One or two people, as Skipper identified, will not intend to stay long, but will maybe take some reindeer paté on a rice cracker or something likewise exotic or appealing. They could be heard sharing the recollection of their experiences with friends the following day.

Some guests seem “more analytical than daring” in their approach to eating. These people, Carol explained, are always quite informed of recent incidents of salmonella poisoning, tainted shellfish, misidentified mushrooms, typhoid. They know all about trichinosis, cancer, and how all of these relate to the food we eat. They also carefully calculate calories; fat, protein and carbohydrate levels; and the amounts they are getting of each vitamin and mineral. They eye unidentified foods with great suspicion. All of these people are terribly skinny.

Some guests can only stay long enough to “grab something to eat,” as Bob observed, generally a sandwich or couple of egg rolls because they have to rush to put in some overtime at work, or they are on their way to the opera or a lecture and have just come from a workout at the gym. Even in the buffet line they talk on their cell phones. These are busy people, people with lifestyles.

Some guests whether they eat a lot or not, nonetheless “eat but do not help with cleanup.” Some could be seen slinking past the wash area, others seemed to think they were at a restaurant with paid bus staff, in one case even imperiously asking another guest, who happened to be clearing some tables, to refill her coffee cup.

But then there were some guests who “try everything,” and even take great pleasure in the cleanup. Skipper pointed out, there are still rare individuals who come with big appetites, know their foods, have let go of all destructive preconceptions and are curious and daring about the what they’ve been invited to enjoy, capable of savoring the sublime and valuing the simple. Furthermore, these people generally give themselves ample time to enjoy food and company.

“They have a fork and they know how to use it,” Carol added with regard to the last group.

The following year the committee met to consider again holding a Second Annual Buddhist Banquet. There were different opinions about what to offer.

At one extreme was Bob’s suggestion. Bob’s proposal was to offer the Whole Buddhist Fare, from Embodiment to Realization, exactly as they had done last year. However, before the banquet they would send out abundant information on the various foods, along with detailed descriptions of how to eat lobster and some of the more difficult dishes, with photographs and diagrams. Guests would be asked to arrive by 5:00 pm, after which the doors would be locked from the outside and not reopened until all the food was eaten. Also pocket calculators, cell phones and other electronic gear would be collected at the door.

At the other extreme was Carol’s suggestion. The other two members of the committee could not determine if Carol was more forgiving than Bob or not. Her proposal was to offer spaghetti, marshmallow salad and dinner rolls. And beer.

“The greatest common denominator,” Carol called it.

Picky Eaters in the Land of the Fork

Let’s get personal: What does this all mean to me, as a navigator of the Buddha-Sasana? What choices do I make at the buffet?

For consistency with the running metaphor – which has served well in this book I’ve almost finished for explaining doctrinal, historical and sociological aspects of the Sasana – I would expect to personally encounter what has evolved, been cultivated, grown and harvested, in a flower shop, but the buffet counter is an even more familiar realm of personal attention, the gastronomic realm. However, for many in the West who first step up to Buddhism and survey the daunting range of options on the buffet table, it is easy to see how they might throw their hands up in despair and perhaps entertain the hope that the menu at a cafeteria or pizza restaurant might be easier to sort out.

An appropriate strategy for navigating any buffet table depends on my aspirations: taste, health, unique experiences, sharing with others, putting on or taking off weight. As I graze along the various counters I might look for the adept or the folksy, the Path dishes or the Sasana, for challenging or simple, foreign or native cuisine.

For a while, at least, I can anticipate that my understanding will be a rather folksy, blended with partial and mis-understandings, along with notions of no Buddhist pedigree whatever, but I might nonetheless align myself toward an adept understanding by taking Noble Ones, along with the Buddha and the Dharma, as my primary influences and the most reliable source of knowledge. I might also find hope in some defined folk tradition, trusting that it will develop in me wholesome qualities capable of taking me at least half-way toward becoming a Noble One myself. Almost any folk tradition is at least consistent with the understanding and practice of the Noble Ones. I might choose to seek anything from complete Awakening to pleasant abiding in relative psycho-therapeutic comfort.

The Path practices will be more challenging, like putting a lobster or an artichoke on my plate. Devotional practices like chanting nembutsu or mindfulness of the Buddha as a way of strengthening Refuge are more like pudding or chips. After reading this book, which has infused in me both gratitude and a sense of responsibility, I realize I fully determined to give appropriate attention to the non-Path dishes, to become a supporter of the Sasana.

I also now understand that it is a mistake to limit my grazing range on the basis of accustomed tastes, for even Adept Buddhisms have come through foreign cultural filters, but that others’ Folk Buddhisms might in their abstruseness serve little to improve my understanding. However, I might personally like exotic cultures for their own sake, or a particular culture, whose exploration can be as expansively illuminating for me as mastering foreign tongues. I think I’m willing to try anything at least once.

I am prepared to eat sumptuously but with discrimination, to consider the full Buddhist fare without upsetting the stomach. My personal accustomed feeding patterns may hinder or help me. Let’s review these:

Simply uninformed

I feel quite “in the know” at the samadhi counter, quickly picking out a couple alternative objects of meditation for my dinner plate and moving on. I have a bit of trouble telling a perception from a formation as I pass by the aggregates of clinging. But then I get to the area where I am to seek admiral friends, most of whose attire is mortifyingly out of fashion, and the alleged best of whom won’t even watch a football game with me, nor share celebrity gossip nor investment advice nor even a drink. Then I am supposed to take refuge in, and bow to them? Won’t they get lodged between my teeth or give me heartburn?

Living in the West I have an unprecedented quantity of information about Buddhism readily available, but it is lopsided. I understand that this book that I have almost finished, was written to correct this deficit. Most particularly, almost everything available in the West is about the narrower Path perspective, almost nothing about the broader Sasana perspective, with its leaves and roots, blossom and sources of nutriment: sun, water and soil. But without a strong basis in refuge and in community I will be ill-prepared and hardly inspired to take up the Path. With a strong basis in refuge and in community, I will develop many wholesome qualities, gradually, starting at a tender age and already long before even considering entering the Path; I will help to sustain and promote the Sasana, generously and for the benefit of many; and, hey, I will commune with Noble Ones of radical and subversive influence almost on a daily basis, who stand as a persistent reality check for all of my samsaric inclinations.

Stuck in the familiar

One morning the abbot of a Burmese monastery in Texas announced that the monks were to appease the tree spirits who had happily inhabited two trees until said trees had been cut down during an ongoing construction project. They were to chant a bit of Pali and then the abbot would talk to the spirits. It seems that the nats had been up to some mischief, since losing their homes, at the expense some members of our larger community. Your author, an American monk, had never heard of such a thing, but after several years in Burmese monasteries nothing surprised him. Nonetheless, a cloud of skepticism passed over his face on this particular occasion:

“When you talk to the nats, are you going to talk to them … in Burmese?”


“Well, this is Texas. They are Texan tree spirits. How can they understand Burmese? They probably have names like Dusty, Clem and Pedro.”

“I think tree spirits can understand any language. But just in case, … you talk to them in English as well.”
I like dinner rolls, cold cuts and cole slaw. But then I live in a comfort zone, disinclined to step beyond the preconceptions, the views, values and patterns of thought and behavior I grew up with, into that realm where people are a bit weird an unable to think so freely as I. I find myself, as I scan the buffet, thinking things like, “Rules are for stupid people who don’t already know how to do the right thing,” or “There is no such thing as karma,” or “Buddhism is about discovering your true self so that you can act natural.” For I am a freethinker.

Generally we do not recognize that we are conditioned by our folk culture any more than we recognize that we speak with an accent. I don’t yet fully realize the tacit and undiscriminating trust I place in my own folk culture. Any culture has its gems of caprice waiting to be discovered. In ours we believe in an innermost heart that seeks to express itself unhindered by, uh, cultural constraints. In someone else’s they have equally equally fanciful notions. This mandates Refuge. Without grasping the lifeline of the Triple Gem I have almost no chance to reconsider the bias of my upbringing, to place my trust instead in the Buddha, in his teachings and in the Noble Ones. Trust in something is unavoidable. Discrimina-tion in my trust is nonetheless an option. Freethinking is, alas, very rare thing.1

My comfort zone is likely to be violated, I understand, in two ways. One is an almost inevitable result of deeper Buddhist practice. Once I enter the path with full determination, begin to explore the deep and previously unacknowledged regions of my own mind and experience, and discover that many of my most deeply held assumptions and habit patterns don’t hold water, the world becomes like a foreign land, much less substantial than I had thought. This can be scary, like the floor suddenly giving out under me. More than ever I will need the Noble Ones to hold me, the ones who warned me that this might happen.

But I’m not there yet. The other violation of my comfort zone is the encounter with those very exotic cultures that have been the caretakers of Buddhism in the course of the last one hundred generations, the cultures that have brought the peculiarity and anomaly to the practices and beliefs of the local traditions, to the garb of the monastics, to the style of the liturgy, to the presence of unfamiliar figures in temple statuary, to unfamiliar rites at temple altars, to unknown scriptures on temple bookshelves, ant to hocus pocus all around.

I did not intend to become Indiana Jones in pursuit of my spiritual aspirations, but the most worthwhile artifacts are to be found in exotic places, even on geographically Western soil. I think of the beatniks of San Francisco who first sought out “Zen Master” Shunryu Suzuki Roshi at the Sokoji Temple and were quick to peg him as “like, squaresville.” Fortunately they, at least some of them, revised their first impression and dared to place their trust beyond the familiar when they returned to the temple. I too will venture into Asian temples, because 99% of the world’s adepts are there and particularly because examples of a fully functional, sustainable Sasana are still extremely rare outside of Asian communities, the kind of place in which my kids, for instance, can play among the leaves and be nourished by sun, water and soil.

Nonetheless, it makes almost no sense whatever for me to learn someone else’s Folk Buddhism, unless I happen to be an anthropologist, since someone else’s Folk Buddhism is an attempt to harmonize with someone else’s folk culture, which cannot help me in mine. I need only to respect someone else’s Folk Buddhism, with all its cultural accretions, not to make it my own. On the other hand, while Adept Buddhism can seem remarkably modern, it always has culturally-conditioned factors of its own, such as anjali – present from the time of the Buddha – and the intensely ritualized conduct of Zen.

As someone stuck in the familiar, my first inclination is to try to expunge my Buddhism of all foreign cultural influences, but I see how this will unnecessarily and arbitrarily lead to to throwing out the Buddha with the bathwater. A bit of Indiana Jones’ daring is called for, at least a willingness to explore exotic places. Playfulness is also apt. My kids will love it.

Seeking the exotic

There are days in which I seem to swing in the opposite direction, to reach out for unfamiliar contexts and unique experiences, to eat of octopus or of mountain oysters, to sip of kop luwak coffee, or of bird’s nest soup, to seek mystical and peak experiences or simply, through Buddhism, to enter into exotic cultures.

Like many others I might in my relentless search for special experiences flit around from one opportunity to the next, attend a seminar one weekend in which an initial Awakening experience is promised in a comfortable group setting, and a Sufi dancing workshop the next, chanting nembutsu the weekend after that. Unfortunately, I am a bit of a sucker for snake oil.

What is in danger of being lost in the quest for experiences is the well-rounded development of my complete human character. The bread and butter of the gradual path taught by the Buddha do not come with peak experiences attached; they are more humdrum than that. I do best to begin with Refuge, generosity, kindness and renunciation and move on from there. Higher attainments, which do often involve uncommon experiences, are generally reserved those who work at it full time for many years, particular those who take advantage of the monastic path. Slow and steady wins the race. Lining up unintegrated peak experiences that do not have a history of working together will produce something like a centipede who is unable to coordinate its myriad feet. Wriggle as I might, I will make no progress along the Buddhist Path.

To make matters worse, I live in a consumer culture which markets not products and services but experiences. I do not simply buy an iThingy or a potato chip, but a special experience, one that will transform me into one of the gleeful smiling models in the ads. This is dangerous where it intersects with Buddhist practice. As noted, Folk Buddhist movements already have a bit of a history of extolling experience. With the help of modern marketing it is bound to create the kind of acquisitiveness that Buddhist practice is intended to overcome. Rather than renouncing one thread of samsaric life after another as we make progress along the Path, we end up adding one marketable product or service after another to an already karmically overburdened life.

What I will pursue is a middle-way between the familiar and the exotic, swinging too far neither to the one or the other extreme.

… Continued next week.

1 I think I may have experienced a brief free thought just last month, albeit the content of which I cannot seem to recall.

Growing the Dharma: Negotiating the Dharma

November 7, 2013

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.

Growing the Dharma: Folk Buddhism

October 28, 2013

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.

Growing the Dharma: History of the Dharma and Sangha

October 19, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In this installment we complet the chapter on the history of Buddhism. Next week we will look at how the Sasana plays out in its social context, in particular at Folk Buddhism.

Chapter 6. Propogation and Evolution of the Sasana (2/2)


The History of the Dharma Gem

The Buddha’s greatest accomplishment, aside from Awakening, is the exposition of the Dharma. The function of veneration is inspiration, the opening of hearts to its influence. Perhaps the most complete way to honor the Dharma, available to all from the earliest days, is to actually study, practice and live according to Dharma. In the earliest days oral recitation and memorization of a rather vast scriptural corpus was also indicative of reverence for the Dharma, even while distributing the memorization effort communally over many monks or monasteries, often each specializing in a certain tract. Remnants of this practice are found to this day in the daily devotions of millions of adherents, even after written language has rendered this inefficient purely as means of preservation. In Burma and other lands the practice of memorization is highly valued to this day and many monastics can recite vast amounts of scripture from memory.

Sometimes veneration of the Dharma carries over to the language in which it is preserved. In particular, the Theravadins early on decided to preserve the canonical literature in Pali, the Indic language in which it had come to Sri Lanka and which they assumed must have been the original language of the Buddha, while elsewhere the equivalent literature was largely translated into local vernaculars. Accordingly, the status of Pali grew in stature over the centuries such that it became the original or most perfect human language, and the language spoken by all buddhas of every era. In East Asia, dharanis , certain short texts assumed to have magical or protective qualities, have been preserved over the centuries in original Indic languages transliterated into Chinese characters to capture the sounds but not the meanings of the texts.

A remarkable development within Buddhism is the gradual augmentation and sometimes complete supplanting or of the scriptural corpus in virtually every tradition. Some of these later texts are apocryphal, that is, they purport to be early texts, often words spoken by the Buddha, either in the text themselves or in subsequent tradition. This is the case in the Theravada Abhidhamma and for many Mahayana sutras. Often an origin story has survived alongside newer texts that clarified for an earlier audience why no one seemed to have heard of these texts earlier. Typically these involved preservation by deities, dragons or simply concealment in caves for later rediscovery. The Theravada Abhidharma was delivered by the Buddha in a heavenly realm. The great philosopher-monk Nagarjuna was purported to have special access to ancient secret documents preserved underwater by dragons (nagas) that formed the basis of his system of thought.

The variety of the vast scriptural corpus to which the Chinese were heir must have bewildered the early Buddhists, who would have had little notion of what was early and what was later. As a result distinct schools formed each giving allegiance to a favorite sutra. Of the four major schools in China, the foundational scripture of the Hua Yen School was the voluminous Flower Ornament Sutra, that of the T’ien Tai School was the Lotus Sutra, that of the Ching T’u (Pure Land) School was the Amitabha Sutra, and the Ch’an (Japanese, Zen) school couldn’t make up its mind, apparently vacillating initially between the Lankavatara Sutra and the Diamond Sutra, then declaring itself “a transmission beyond words and letters.”1 And so, veneration of the Dharma began in some schools to mean veneration of a specific text. Particularly prominent in this regard has been the Lotus Sutra which claims in the text itself to be original and which offers little in the way of practice aside from recitation and transcription of the text. Within this text we find the Buddha proclaiming,

“… after the extinction of the Tathagata, if there be any people who hear even a single verse or a single word of the Wonderful Law-Flower Sutra, and by a single thought delight in it, I also predict for them Perfect Enlightenment. Again, let there be any who receive and keep, read and recite, expound and copy even a single verse of the Wonderful Law-Flower Sutra, and look upon this sutra with reverence as if it were the Buddha, and make offering to it in various ways with flowers, perfume, garlands, sandal powder, perfumed unguents, incense for burning, silk canopies, banners, flags, garments, and music, as well as revere it with folded hands, …”2

These devotional practices around the Lotus Sutra entered T’ien Tai Buddhism in China and eventually many of its offshoots in Japan, for instance, in the recitation of the name of the Lotus Sutra in Nichiren Buddhism, including modern Soka Gakkai.

The History of the Sangha

The Monastic Sangha has been historically the most stable element of all in Buddhism in spite of the evolutionary tendencies of its sister gems. The Vinaya in at least three recensions is still preserved and observed to this day in very archaic form throughout Buddhist Asia, except only marginally in Japan, unlike any particular sutta/sutra corpus. The Patimokkha is almost invariant. The wayward Japanese case is instructive of the need for this particular kind of stability, as we will see in later chapters.

Nonetheless, a common change in the monastic role, almost across the board, is the assumption by monastics of priestly functions largely absent in early Buddhism, roughly mediation with deities or mysterious forces through the performance of rites and rituals. For instance, it is very common for monastics to offer blessings, spells of protection, or good luck, to dispel ghosts or evil spirits or to work miracles in most traditions, even while the Buddha clearly intended that such things be left to the Brahmin priests. In the Theravada tradition, which is relatively more orthodox in this regard than most, monastics wield the eleven verses of protection (Pali, parittas), each one specific to offsetting its own type of unfortunate eventuality, from complications in childbirth, through fire, to snakebite. Such functions are only largely absent in early Buddhism, for the Buddha himself seems to have opened the door a crack to priestly functions, through which a crowd of human demands subsequently forced its way. Once, after a monk had died from bite of snake, the Buddha explained that if this monk had developed kindness toward snakes the snake would not have bitten him, and the Buddha even recommended a verse for this purpose, which is recited to this day.3 This is the only verse of protection the Buddha seems to have endorsed in the early scriptures, but the offering of blessings became and remained a secondary monastic function throughout most of Asia.

China provided some direct challenges to monastic deportment of a different kind that required some adaptations. Monastics in India were home-leavers by definition, yet family and home were solidly at the center of Chinese social values. The Monastic Sangha seems to have deflected social criticism on this point through the expedient of tracing ordination lineages, which publicly established a analogy between the layperson’s parental relations and the monastic’s relationship to his or her preceptor/teacher. With a little fudging and creative imagination, family trees reaching all the way back to the Buddha were drafted, spanning far more generations than almost any indigenous Chinese family history. The Sangha, now organized by ordination lineage, became in effect a really big family, such that a new monk or nun not so much left family as swapped family, thus appeasing otherwise bruised Chinese familial sensitivities. Perhaps as a consequence of the emphasis on family lineage, monks seem to have developed closer relationships with their core families, traveling less freely from monastery to monastery. Teachers began to protect their students from the influence of other teachers, introducing strong sectarianism at a local level.

Furthermore, while monastics in India lived, as mandated in the Vinaya, on alms, beggars in China were pariahs. As a result, it seems, monks and nuns in the Land of the Chopstick became more self-sufficient in the new land, relying more on large donations than on small daily alms, often in the form of land grants through which monasteries could earn wealth through renting land to farmers. Often monastics became farmers themselves, forcing modifications of the otherwise cumbersome monastic robes or of their abandonment in certain situations in favor of monastically appropriate work clothing. On the other hand, as monastics became more self-sufficient, monastic discipline was actually tightened in others ways: monastics, now freer to choose their own diet, stopped eating meat altogether in China, and fifty-eight additional precepts were undertaken in a supplementary ordination, the Bodhisattva Precepts.4

The governance of the Monastic Sangha in India, as mandated in the Vinaya, was designed as a consensual democracy operating at the monastery level, with relative freedom from outside interference envisioned. The government in China seems habitually to have interfered in the governance of any nongovernmental organization, relegating it to a place in the authoritarian hierarchy. As monasteries became more integrated into this system, seniority within the Sangha seems to have become more pronounced and reflected in the color, design or quality of the attire of senior monks. Similar changes in monastic governance under government collusion have arisen in other lands as well.

Nonetheless, the monastic institution has remained remarkably archaic right up to the present day. Consider attire for instance. It might make rational sense for modern Buddhist monks to wear uniform modern attire, for instance, saffron-colored double-breasted suits with sleeves and zippers, maybe tasteful epaulettes with little Dharma wheels. Such modern attire would still retain the function of distinguishing monastics from laity or from the clergy of other faiths, and would in addition spare monastics the mortification of being millennia out-of-fashion. Although adaptations to attire occurred by necessity in colder climates, the traditional robe was retained in some form everywhere, albeit sometimes only for use in formal contexts. The lack of central authority in the Sangha in most of the Buddhist world probably played a role in this conservatism, since small local sangha would be disinclined to make such a change without coordination with many other sanghas, knowing that few in the broader community would understand what a locally adopted uniform would mean.

The Sangha has almost everywhere retained the authority as the holder of the unblemished Dharma. However in a few instances that role has been extended to others. There have occasionally appeared outstanding lay teachers, for instance, in recent times Dipa Ma, a laywoman famed as a meditation instructor, even to monks. In Tibet an academic degree conferred along with the title geshe created a new class of authorities. This degree is traditionally only conferred to monks, but a monk who disrobes continues to hold the degree, thereby representing a lay geshe. Sometime tulkus, reborn lamas, chose not to enter the Sangha, yet retained the authority they had earned in their previous lives as teachers and monks. In modern times academic degrees carry a certain degree of authority and in the West the preponderance of Buddhist teachers are so far non-monastics.

The Sangha has perhaps evolved furthest in Japan, largely as a result of government interference at different points in its history. The result is that the Sangha had been by the mid-twentieth century almost completely replaced by a priesthood, a non-renunciate clergy largely specializing in rites and rituals, even in the once particularly monastically oriented Zen school. This also affected Korea to a limited extent during Japanese colonial rule.5

A pervasive factor in the history of the Monastic Sangha is the sometimes less than ideal excellence of the Monastic Sangha. Early accounts of monastic behavior in the Vinaya show that this has been the case since the time of the Buddha. The following account describes the infamous Group of Six:6

Now at that time, unscrupulous monks … were in residence at Kitagiri. They indulged in the following kinds of bad habits: they planted … small flowing trees, … , they plucked them …, they tied them up into (garlands) …. These take or send garlands … to wives of reputable families, to daughters …, to girls …, to daughters-in-law …, to female slaves of reputable families. … These eat from one dish together with wives … female slaves of reputable families. They drink from one beaker; they sit down on one seat; they share one couch; they share one mat; they share one coverlet; they share one mat and coverlet. The eat at the wrong time; they drink intoxicants; they wear garlands, perfumes and cosmetics; they dance and sing and play musical instruments, and they sport. They dance when she dances, they play musical instruments when she dances, they sing when she dances; they dance when she sings …, they dance when she plays musical instruments … they dance when she sports … they sport when she sports. They play on a chequered board for gambling; they play on a draught-board; they play with imagining such boards in the air; they play a game of keeping stepping on to diagrams … they play at blowing through toy-pipes made of leaves; they play with a toy plough; they play at turning somersaults …

Virtually every rule in the Vinaya was reportedly developed in response to monastic misbehavior of one kind or another.7

Any human institution is subject to degradation, where at least some of its members will inevitably fall short of, or even subvert, the mission with which the institution is charged. This is true, for instance, for government and for academia, for journalism and for health care. The Monastic Sangha, even as the historically most durable institution on the planet, has rarely if ever been exceptional in this regard. For often people ordain with mixed intentions: In many lands, for instance, there is economic security or educational opportunity consequential to becoming a monastic, or simply social status. As a result there will often be monastics with poor discipline, little interest in spiritual attainment and little capacity for inspiring the laity or sustaining the Sasana, alongside those sincere and inevitably more adept monastics of pure and noble intention.

Fortunately there is a kind of thermostat that provides a check on the degradation of monastic excellence: With decreased purity comes a decrease in the inspiration experienced by the laity. With a decrease in inspiration, support for monastics decreases. With decreased support, wayward monks of mixed intentions leave the Sangha or fail to enter it in the first place. With the loss of wayward monks the purity of the Sangha increases as the adepts remain undaunted. With increased purity …, and so on. Unfortunately this this thermostat seems to allow too much swing in excellence and has brought forth the intervention of devout kings and other government authorities at certain times. This apparently first happened under King Ashoka, who was reported to have overseen the forced expulsion of many monastics in an effort to purify the Sangha, many of whom had perhaps entered during a period of his own perhaps all-too-enthusiastic support.8

The History of the Goal and of the Path

We’ve noted an impressive historical shift in the contents of the scriptural corpus in almost every Buddhist tradition. The Abhidharmas in their various forms have hybrid origins, involving propagation, evolution and cross-fertilization. Their core certainly arose very early in an attempt to catalog and systematize the Buddha’s conceptual vocabulary. Beyond this, in India, a trend toward highly analytical philosophical and often speculative analysis infected many traditions, Buddhist and non-Buddhist. Although the Abhidharmas have early roots, scholars place the real effort in each case after the time of Emperor Ashoka, with quite distinct results in different sects. Although the Theravadin Abhidharma makes no reference to its own origin, the later commentarial tradition attributes it directly to the Buddha, who is said to have taught it a heavenly realm. Some sects refused to participate in the Abhidharma project altogether, including a Sautrantika (Sutta Only) sect that branched off of the Sarvastivada.

The Mahayana movement represented a displacement of most of the canonical corpora by new sutras as they came on line. Gombrich (1990) suggests that this was facilitated by the circumstance that Buddhist texts were now appearing commonly in hard-copy rather than oral form, which offered opportunities for new or obscure texts to “go viral,” in modern parlance, unfettered by the editorial influence of communal recitation, though “viral” here would describe, given the technology of the time, dissemination in a matter of centuries rather than of hours or days. This process began in India and continued in Central Asia where Buddhism probably through cross-fertilization among the various religious traditions traveling the Silk Road, and in China. The themes characteristic of the Mahayana included compassion, emptiness, the bodhisattva ideal, rich mythological embellishment, and an elevated notion of buddhahood. Many of these themes had been anticipated but not fully developed in the early suttas or by the early sects. Moreover, their mythical bodhisattvas and fantastic imagery provided many with a good read. Although the early discourses of the Buddha were available in Chinese translation, in the Land of the Chopstick the study of the Mahayana sutras largely eclipsed that of the early discourses.

Although the Mahayana sutras were new and not early, that does not necessarily mean they were not, in our terms, authentic. Many of them developed and clarified very sophisticated and subtle core themes introduced in early Buddhism, with great skill. Some clear shifts in the content of the Dharma can be discerned in various schools, particularly in the Mahayana. Each must be assessed on its own merits.

The most dominant theme to characterize the Mahayana is the bodhisattva ideal. Early Buddhism embeds the life of the practitioner in a greater epic story, a path toward personal Awakening, toward becoming an arahant, a path that spans many lives of sincere practice. In the Mahayana the storyline took a bit different form: The Path now lead toward becoming a buddha, conceived as a far more exalted state. Entering the path toward buddhahood one becomes a bodhisattva, which is what the Buddha is called in his previous lives as represented in the early Jataka stories. As a bodhisattva one’s primary concern is the well-being of others to the extent that one works for the Awakening of others as much as for one’s own Awakening.

The Mahayana is also described as being more lay-oriented than Theravada, early Buddhism or other pre-Mahayana sects. The bodhisattva ideal might have helped make lay practice more respectful, given that the Buddha lived most of his previous human lives, according to the Jataka tales, as a layman, yet was presumably making respectful progress toward buddhahood. This is not to say that Mahayana is a movement against monastic authority as many have suggested. First, monastics have generally thrived in the Mahayana. Second, it is widely agreed among scholars today that monastics were the driving force of the Mahayana.9 Rather, Mahayana has developed a wide range of distinct schools suitable for a wide range of aspirations, many of which are oriented exclusively toward clearly intermediate soteriological goals, short of full awakening. For instance, alongside the Ch’an (Zen) school, which has consistently held to full Awakening as the end-all and be-all of Buddhism, we have the hugely popular Pure Land school that narrows of the goal of a very devotional form of practice to a felicitous rebirth into a particular heavenly realm (the Pure Land).

Buddhism has always provided for intermediate goals, since few of us are ever of perfect aspiration. However, these options have some distinct features in the Mahayana tradition. First, whole formally distinct schools are defined around these intermediate goals. For instance, we find Pure Land Buddhism independently promoted in Sung China, primarily by White Lotus Societies generally under lay leadership. Second, the mechanisms for achieving these intermediate goals in these schools are often not fully envisioned in Early Buddhism. Rebirth in the Pure Land ensues through appeal to the power of the vow of Amitabha, a Buddha who presides over the heavenly Pure Land and whose past reserve of good karma is readily shared with those who exhibit sufficient devotion to Amitabha. This dependence on an external agent for salvation contrasts rather markedly with the Buddha’s early teachings. Third, goal of Awakening is rarely entirely dismissed, rather simply put aside as unattainable in this life. The Pure Land has most often in its history allied itself, and shared its monastics, with schools that are more clearly oriented toward Awakening, for instance in the common modern syncretism of Pure Land with Ch’an in Chinese temples.10 Finally, the idea that the present is a degenerate age in which we all are no longer capable of Awakening, is often used as a justification for the need for the intermediate school.11

Has the Sasana Upheld the True Dharma?

The trees once domesticated for their sweet, plump and nutritious fruit but long entrusted to nature might eventually produce fruit scrawny, sour and barely digestible. Flowers once domesticated for their fragrance and brilliant blossoms but then allowed to grow wild where abundant water, sun and god soil are lacking, could be expected to evolve into more scraggly forms, perhaps soon no longer to represent flowering plants at all. If the plant-genetic metaphor recruited to understand propagation and variation in Buddhism is apt, one might would the merciless process of natural selection likewise to degrade the pristine values, practices and understandings of Buddhism, when the Sasana has been let loose in an arbitrary culture, for instance, a culture that sees no virtue in renunciation or in which patience and harmlessness are denigrated. What does this metaphor suggest about Buddhism’s chance of survival in a capricious and often hostile folk-cultural environment?

Indeed, with all of the changes sweeping back and forth through Buddhism – the swapping out of old scriptures and swapping in of new, the expanding levels of devotion to a founder increasingly deified then sometimes displaced, the blending in of folk culture and folk religion, preoccupation with an elaborate mythology, priests running around blessing people – one might expect Buddhism variously to have morphed into paganism, witchcraft, devil worship, a force in the battle of Good vs. Evil, philosophical speculation or New Age sagecraft, and certainly not to be capable of upholding the integrity of the extremely sophisticated and therefore fragile understandings and remarkably high standards that otherwise characterize Buddhism. The question for us is: How far has Buddhism evolved in the wild from its original intent? Far enough to lose its early functional authenticity?

What we discover in Buddhist history are the following:

First, the Sasana is malleable. It has taken on new practices and understandings through cross-fertilization from new cultural influences, sometimes forming hybrids that might as well be classified as Tantric Hinduism or Taoism as well as Buddhism. It has encouraged innovation from within. It seems quite willing to absorb the wacky along with the sublime.

Second, alongside its liberalism the Sasana seems to have some very conservative or orthodox elements that rarely budge. In particular it has preserved the primary elements of the flower of the authentic early Sasana remarkably well in almost every tradition. These include trust in, and veneration for, the Triple Gem and the distinguished role and mission of the monastic Sangha. It includes even certain small functional elements such as gestures of respect that one would expect to have preferred equivalences in new cultures.

Third, the particular goal of Awakening, or at least more generally of mental development specifically in that direction, is repeatedly articulated in diverse traditions. Even traditions that eschew practice toward the goal of Awakening tacitly recognize the significance of that goal. Moreover, many diverse traditions claim to have produced a series of Awakened beings or at least of Noble Ones who have attained preliminary levels of Awakening. Although it is difficult to evaluate these claims directly, it is reasonable to assume that the time and energy devoted towards these attainments would hardly have persisted over the centuries if these claims were not true.

Fourth, the Path of practice is repeatedly recognizable at least in broad outline. One can often distinctly recognize each of the factors of the early Noble Eightfold Path or some equivalent practice, or at least the primary three trainings of virtue, cultivation of mind and wisdom. Nonetheless, recognition of these equivalences is often an art that also requires direct experience with more than one tradition. Consider, for instance, how virtue and mindfulness practice get folded together in the ritualization of everyday conduct in Ch’an Buddhism. However, it is reasonable to assume that if a tradition is producing a series of Noble or Awakened Ones, the authenticity of its Path has been upheld.

Where does this resilience come from? To answer these questions we need to consider the dynamics of the Sasana in its social or cultural context. This will be the task of the next two chapters. This will also allow us to understand that authenticity resides not in strict adherence to a particular version of Dharma as much as in a healthy Sasana.

1Incidentally, the Diamond Sutra is the earliest known dated book ever to be mechanically printed.

2Kato, et al. (1975), pp. 186-7.

3Ahi Sutta, AN 4.67. This particular case might, for all I know, have to do with snake psychology than with the manipulation of more mysterious forces. Just an attitude of kindness seems to manifest in a difference in one’s relations with people and other mammals, in any case.


5Richard Jaffe’s (2001) book Neither Monk nor Layman provides a gripping account of this development.

6Suttavibhanga, abridged from Horner 2006, vol. 1, pp. 314-318.

7This particular passage is the beginning of the origin story for Sandhadisesa 13, the rule on the corrupting of families.

8This is the account provided in the classical Mahavamsa. See, for instance, Strong (1983), p. 23, Dutt (1978), p. 237.


10This will be discussed further in subsequent chapters.