Archive for the ‘buddhism’ Category

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.





Growing the Dharma: the History of the Sasana

October 12, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In the last chapters we have looked at the factors articulated in early Buddhism that define the Sasana, Buddhism in its social context. In this chapter we look at the subsequent history of Buddhism.

Chapter 6. Propogation and Evolution of the Sasana (1/2)

During one of his discourses the Buddha once sneezed1. The monks present called out,

“Bless you!”

This was a conventional idiom in Buddha’s India and the Buddha’s response should have been,

“Bless you too.”

But instead he posed a question, something like,

“Wait a minute. Do you think that saying that will influence my future well-being?”

The monks replied, “Well, no, actually.”

“Then you are not to say it!”

And thereby a new rule circulated that monks were expected to follow. However, lay people began to complain about how unmannerly all the monks had suddenly become, something like,

“I blessed a perfectly good monk who sneezed and he didn’t even bless me back!”

“How rude! The impudent cad”

When this was reported back to the Buddha he rescinded the rule that he had earlier proclaimed.

“Monks, householders need blessings. When someone says, ‘Bless you’, I permit you to answer, ‘Bless you too’.”

This little story is indicative of the Buddha’s willingness to adapt to druthers. The Buddha thereby gave us a Buddhism that would be subject to and tolerate embellishment. Perhaps this is part of the reason that it gained a place as the first world religion as it simply passed peacefully from one land to another.

Moreover, Buddhism after the Buddha’s death (parinibbāna) was open to evolution because it lacked a central authority to impose orthodoxy or orthopraxis, with the integrity of the Dharma entrusted independently to each local monastic sangha. It was open to evolution because its Great Standards (mahāpadesa) made the Dharma effectively extensible on functional grounds. It was susceptible to local mutation because the Buddha asked that the texts be taught in local vernaculars rather than more widely understood lingua francas.2 And indeed the flower of Buddhism would changed with time and place, sometimes developing wider leaves or deeper roots, sometimes developing a shorter stem or requiring more sun or less water, but in in most places remaining a flower that still produced from time to time a dazzling blossom and propagating itself still further.

A Whirlwind History of the Sasana after Buddha

Let’s get historical. Just as organisms change from generation to generation, Buddhism has changed to produce many varieties, and continues to change. The metaphor here is genetic. We can talk of three kinds of processes that have together created the diversity of today’s Sasana:

Propagation is the process whereby any particular Buddhist tradition extends itself into new regions or populations.

Evolution is the mutative process of change, generally in response to regional or cultural preferences.

Cross-fertilization is the process of borrowing traits from one tradition (Buddhist or non-Buddhist) into a distinct Buddhist tradition.

Propagation. As Buddhism spread geographically through India and into neighboring lands it began differentiating itself along geographical lines, in small ways, much as linguistic dialects tend distinguish themselves over time until eventually they will become mutually unintelligible yet functionally similar languages. There also seems to have been an occasional schism, or a split in a local sangha whereby one group of monks went off in a huff and would no longer deal with the remaining monks, probably with much the same result as geographical dispersion.3 For instance, the early Sarvastivadin sect apparently developed around Kashmir and into Central Asia and much of Northwest India and was active for almost a thousand years. The Dharmaguptaka sect arose in Gandhara, the Mahasangika was scattered around in northwest and western India, including Mathura, the Theravada took hold in Sri Lanka and is active there and in Southeast Asia, to which it spread, to this day. Each sect typically introduced some new elements or interpretations that differentiated it from others. Now and then a particular sect would commit its heretofore orally preserved teachings to written form in one language or another. The Dharmaguptaka scriptures, for instance, were recorded in Gandhari and Sanskrit,4 the Sarvastivadin in Sanskrit, the Theravadin in Pali and so on.

The propagation of Buddhism was reportedly given its first really big boost through the very early missionary zeal of Emperor Ashoka (304–232 BCE),5 who sent missions to various places within and beyond his empire – to Sri Lanka, to Kashmir, to Persia and as far as the Mediterranean. With time Buddhism spread westward across what is now northern Pakistan and Afghanistan into Persia and Central Asia, southward and eastward through Southeast Asia and island-hopping as far as Java. From Central Asia it spread in both directions along the Silk Road, eastern into China in the first century CE, from whence it with time it would gain the bulk of its adherents in East Asia. There is some tenuous speculation of the influence of Buddhism on early Christianity at the far Western end of the Silk Road.6 In the eighth century Buddhism become firmly established in Tibet through Kashmir, where Buddhism had come under the crossbreeding influence of Tantric Hinduism. In recent years Buddhism has spread over much of the world outside Asia from almost every sect as local ethnic communities have established temples. The growth in literacy and communications in recent times has sometimes allowed Buddhism to precede qualified sandals-on-the-ground Buddhist teachers in extending the influence of Buddhist philosophy and life into uncharted lands.

The great variety of people from the most diverse regions traveling hither and fro along the Silk Road and producing an ample trickle of Buddhists at the eastern end, made China heir to almost every sect or later movement or philosophical school of Buddhism active in India or elsewhere, such that the early sects no longer retained their individual identities except to inject their own characteristic scriptural teachings into the Chinese mix. For instance, the Vinaya of the Dharmaguptaka sect became standard for Chinese monastic practice, but probably the Sarvastivadin had the greatest doctrinal influence. As history marches on the West is now experiencing a repeat of this process as virtually every form of Buddhism found in Asia is adding its characteristic heritage to the Western mix.

Buddhism has largely died out in India, in the regions west of India and in Indonesia and Malaysia, where it has been largely supplanted by Islam and Hinduism. The only early (that is, pre-Mahayana) sect that has retained its early identity is the Theravada of Southern Asia.

Evolution. The combination of variation and selection has produced over many centuries many varieties of Buddhism. Variation arises at other times by adopting alternative understandings – at worst erroneous interpretations of traditional teachings, and at best insightful products of great minds – able to shape a Buddhism more effective in a regional culture, or to streamline certain practices or understandings. Desirable features have been selected due to the pressures of human nature, of local cultural and environmental factors and occasionally of external intervention, such as governmental decrees.

Early differences in interpretation are found in the varying codifications of a formalization of Buddhist philosophy called the Abhidharma (Sanskrit, or Abhidhamma in Pali) which developed rather independently but in parallel in many of the early sects after the time of Emperor Ashoka. For instance, the Buddha’s subtle teaching of non-self (Pali, anatta or Sanskrit, anatman) gave rise to differing ontological stances on ultimate existence. The Abhidharma projects sometimes became highly speculative and other early sects abstained from theAbhidhamma project, rejecting any such extension beyond the early discourses. Most notable among the latter is the Sautrantika subsect of Sarvastivada, whose name refers to their rather strict reliance on the suttas.

Starting in the first century BCE or the first century CE and continuing for a few centuries thereafter monks in India and later in Central Asia began composing texts that were most often based on the model of the early discourses but generally longer and mythically fortified. Examples were the apocryphal Prajnaparamita Sutras, Lotus Sutra, Flower Ornament Sutra and so on. This was the beginning of the Mahayana movement, whose scriptures generally developed and then echoed a number of common doctrinal themes. As if this were not enough, the first millennium CE in northern India seems also to have been an era of very liberal thinking, of free Buddhist inquiry, the era of the great scholar-monks, Nagarjuna, Shantideva, Vasubandu, and so on, and the era of the great Buddhist monastic universities where they lived, studied and taught, most famously Nalanda, which brought thousands of students and teachers together in one place or another to discuss and debate the whole spectrum of Buddhist thought both orthodox and modern. I picture this era as much like what developed much later in the Western post-Enlightenment intellectual milieu or in beatnik coffee shops of the 1950’s, in which almost any philosophical proposition was worthy of discussion or debate.

In China Buddhism was suddenly propelled into a radically different culture that placed selective evolutionary pressures on its shape, much as if flower seeds were propagated by wind or defecating birds to a region of distinctive conditions of wind, soil or water, or, for that matter, if a flock of penguins were to come into contact a colony of Eskimos for many generations: the tradition would either evolve or perish. With much colder weather, clothing and housing, the basic requisites of monks, would have to be more substantial. In a land whose cultural life was largely rooted in Confucianism and Taoism, included a very strong ethical code governing every aspect of life from the behavior of the emperor to familial relations, had a basis of high literacy and intellectual astuteness, and appreciated the cycles and beauty of nature. Here the family was valued highly and there was no previous tradition of wandering mendicants. The Chinese way of thinking has been called syncretic where the Indian is analytic. The emperors were divine. There was much more social mobility than in India; a farmer’s son could through passing government examinations become employed in the government system and eventually be promoted to eventually become a minister to the emperor.

China was culturally about as far from India as possible. And in China Buddhism evolved under these influences. First, the Chinese popularized those scriptures and philosophical treatises appearing at the mouth of the Silk Road that most appealed to Chinese tastes, giving Chinese Buddhism a distinctive quality simply through the process of natural selection. For instance, the long obscure Pure Land Sutras from India seem to have gone viral in China. China developed its own schools and ordination lineages, such as Chan and T’ien Tai (Zen and Tendai in Japan), each generally on the basis of a particular transmitted Mahayana scripture. Then China’s own scriptural corpus developed, such as the rather unique poetry and koan collections found in the Zen school that bear a much clearer affinity to Taoist literature than to anything found in Indian Buddhism. We will have occasion to look at some of these Chinese adaptations as our discussion progresses.

Throughout its newly gained range Buddhism came under a variety of pressures that tended to bend and reshape Buddhism in various ways. Among these pressures are cultural taboos, different culturally conditioned ways of conceptualizing the content of Buddhism and the blending of indigenous folk religions or folk beliefs into Buddhism. Also important in this regard is the way in which seemingly universal religious proclivities, for instance, toward worship, toward the need for consolation and toward supernatural embellishment exerted selective pressures on Buddhism.

Cross-fertilization. Innovations once introduced into individual traditions often spread laterally from one tradition to another, much as a dance craze or a disease, such as the Jitterbug, the Macarena or the Spanish flu, readily jumps over national borders. The Jataka tales, stories of the previous lives of the Buddha, originated (with a couple of exceptions) in the centuries after the Buddha, perhaps already under the cross-breeding influence of non-Buddhist traditions, walzing through Buddhist traditions so widely that they can be regarded as part of the common heritage of all of Buddhism.

Similarly, the Mahayana Jitterbug spread readily from pre-Mahayana sect to another, scholars now agree. As a result, within a single Sarvastivada or even early Theravada monastery some monks would take to this new craze and others would not. This apparently entailed little discord, since the Vinaya, historically much less susceptible to the effects of cross-fertilization or evolution than the Dharma, tended to ensure harmonious relations within sanghas. However, the incipient craze may have been nipped in the bud in Sri Lanka through the intervention of King Voharikatissa in the early third century.7 But throughout much of the Buddhist world this was a craze that was here to stay and gradually some devotees began to self-identify as Mahayanists, even though a self-identified Mahayana monastery would not exist in India until relatively late, and the earliest inscriptions that make use of the word “Mahayana” date from the sixth century CE.8

With the Mahayana movement and with the rise of scholarship at large monastic institutions, Sanskrit by default became the common language of Buddhism in northern India in support of a broader dissemination and livelier interchange of ideas. Meanwhile the southern lands of Sri Lanka and adjacent areas of Southern India, somewhat removed from this rich intellectual world of Northern India geographically and linguistically, had fewer opportunities for cross-fertilization.

As China seems to have fallen heir much of what was published in Northern India in the first millennium CE, the Chinese took a particular selective interest in the Mahayana teachings and much of the philosophical thought that continuing to flow out of the Indian universities. In spite of the tenuous communication between India and China, Chinese Buddhists, anxious to gain access to additional Buddhist texts, dispatched a series of pilgrims, fifty-four that we know about from the third to the eleventh century, to make the perilous journey over the Silk Road back into India to learn Indian languages, to acquire texts and to have a look around.9 In China major translation projects were set up to make these texts accessible, often headed by Indian or Central Asian scholar-monks who had ventured into Chinese territory. From China a Sinicized Buddhism would penetrate the remaining chopstick-wielding world: Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

What of the fragile flower that once thrived on the slopes of the lush Ganges Valley in ancient times? How have its descendents fared in the thin soil on the Steppes of Central Asia? Have they endured the harsh winters of northern China or Mongolia? Do they still blossom as brightly? Or has the whirlwind of Buddhist history scattered away their pedals and uprooted them? Has the Sasana survived in its full integrity and authenticity? I only raise the question for now.

The History of the Buddha Gem

Among the most distinct changes as the flower of the Sasana evolved from its early stages was an increased requirement for sunlight, an enhancement of the first gem and refuge. The attitude toward the Buddha and the very concept of the Buddha experienced embellishment and elaboration in almost all of Asia that would in turn trigger further doctrinal changes. I speculate that the primary driving force was the seemingly universal human proclivity of latching onto objects of veneration and making them bigger than life, as is found in most of the world’s religions and in modern celebrity worship.

We have seen that the Buddha endorsed during his life veneration of his himself, his qualities, the example of his life and his Awakening and his teachings. The function of such veneration is inspiration, the opening of hearts to his influence. The practice of veneration of the Buddha was defined in terms of quite modest conventional cultural means of respect, through recitation of the qualities of the Buddha, through future pilgrimage to four sites associated with his life, through the distribution of his relics among various lay communities for future veneration.

The Buddha recognized that he had attained rare qualities and put himself forward as someone to emulate, not as a deity or a messenger of God, but as an Awakened human. It should be borne in mind that in India people rather casually attributed divinity to that which is venerated: to brahmins, to famous ascetics, to cows, sometimes to trees and to the fires in people’s hearths,10 but the Buddha never claimed this honor for himself. Nonetheless he must frequently have been regarded as divine even during his life and have been accorded the supernatural powers that are, in fact, mentioned in the early discourses, powers like jumping up and touching the sun.11

The physical mainstay of this veneration from the earliest days is anjali, a ubiquitous expression of respect or greeting in Indian culture often taking the form of prostrations, applied from earliest times to venerate the living Buddha and also the Sangha. Remarkably this Indian gesture was subsequently carried into every land I am aware of in which Buddhism has taken root. No culture that I am aware of having chosen either to abandon it according to local custom or to substitute for it an indigenous expression, such as a wave, a salute, a nod or a hearty hand clasp. Its adoption in Christian prayer speaks faintly of some not yet fully understood ancient instance of cross-breeding in distant lands.12

An early enhancement of this practice of veneration concerns the burial mounds (stupas), used to inter the Buddha’s relics after his death. These became a primary symbol of the Buddha and were venerated as such in the early centuries, a practice further encouraged by Emperor Ashoka when he reportedly redistributed the original relics to thousands of locations throughout his empire. Stupas of increasingly imposing design and size were constructed, sometimes even by embedding an older stupa within a newer, to produce the cetiyas of South Asia and eventually the pagodas of East Asia. Along with the proliferation of stupas came an endorsed means of increasing the availability of relics through creating replicas that “count as” genuine relics of the Buddha, and of supplementing these with relics of conveniently deceased arahants.

Starting in the first century BCE, statuary representations of the Buddha in South Asia, but with possibly Greek roots, gave a more personal and portable object toward which to direct one’s veneration for the First Gem. Such statues have almost invariably striking in the inspiring calm they exude, leading one to experience what it might have been like to sit in the presence of the living Buddha. As if personally to enact befriending the Buddha, adherents began to make offerings to such statues of light, water, incense, flowers and/or food, then to bow to such statues, a practice that would ruffle the feathers of early European explorers to no end, who would see in it idol worship of graven images pure and simple. A further step in the long process of elaboration was reached in the actual attribution of miraculous properties, such as bringing protection or good fortune, to the Buddha statue, to the stupa/pagoda or to the relics. It is common among Burmese Buddhists today, for instance, to attribute such properties to the “power of the Buddha” that inheres in such an object once it is properly consecrated by monks so as to “count as” the Buddha.

Beginning apparently in the early Mahasanghika sect, then in the Sarvastivadin sect and taking off among the Mahayanists, the Buddha himself became larger that life. The Jataka stories from the centuries after the death of the Buddha traced his previous lives as a bodhisattva, one who has vowed to become a buddha in a future life. The view arose of the Buddha living out a prearranged mission on earth, through an early vow to someday become a buddha. It was said the he was born in his final life with the marks of a great man, such as webbed toes and fingers, and that he was in fact stepping into the footprints of buddhas who preceded him, who realized the same things and who taught the same Dharma.

In an influential Mahayana sutra the Buddha is presented as a cosmic being who had came to earth as a kind of cosmic ruse to instruct mankind in the form of a man:

In all the worlds the heavenly and human beings and asuras all believe that the present Shakyamuni Buddha, after leaving the palace of the Shakyas, seated himself in the place of practice not far from the city of Gaya and there attained annuttara-samyak-sambodhi. But good men, it has been immeasurable, boundless hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas of kalpas since I in fact attained Buddhahood.13

In fact he has been teaching and training disciples, bodhisattvas, for many eons and continues doing so presently, only pretending to be born and die as a human for a brief period.14 The discerning reader will have surmised that the person of the Buddha is becoming step by step more exalted.

With his new level of exaltation came a greater level of Awakening, now qualitatively different from that of the mere arahants. In the Mahayana movement bodhisattvas became those who like the Buddha in his previous lives aspired to buddhahood rather than to mere arahantship. Such bodhisattvas began to appear and sometimes reappear as major characters in the Mahayana sutras, each typically embodying one particular outstanding character trait or another, for instance, Avalokiteshvara of many arms to represent compassion, Manjushri wielding a sword to cut through delusion to represent wisdom, Samantabhadra atop his multitusked elephant to representing virtuous action, and Maitreya with an appointment to become the next Buddha on earth. The Buddha now gained companions with whom to share altars and pagodas; sometimes these companions even displaced him in the zeal of adherents. In China Avalokiteshvara became Guan Yin, a female figure, and Maitreya was identified with an historical chubby monk and became the Happy Buddha (-to-be). In Tibet Avalokiteshvara came to be regarded as the person of the Dalai Lama returning life after life.

Transcendent thinking did not end there. Many buddhas were envisioned of similar disposition to ours, dispersed over many realms throughout the universe. Once the Shakyamuni Buddha became disassociated from his human embodiment, then it seemed that one exalted buddha could pretty much be swapped with another. In China Shakyamuni was largely displaced in Pure Land Buddhism by Amitabha Buddha, the chief resident of a non-earthly realm (the Pure Land), who makes space for those on earth who aspire to join him in their next life. Meanwhile back on earth, monks were apparently living rightly because the world was not empty of awakened ones. In the Mahayana lands these were often referred to as buddhas in their own right rather than simply as arahants.

It should be noted that although veneration of the Buddha Gem took on radical new forms, some of which are capable for various reasons of raising skeptical modern eyebrows two by two, the function of this veneration seems seldom to have been violated, and may often have been enhanced. The function of such veneration is inspiration, the opening of hearts to the influence of the Buddha.

1This retelling is based on an account in the Vinaya, II, 139.

2Vinaya, Cullavagga, Fifth Khandika.

3See, for instance, Dutt 1978.

4Gandhari fragments, incidentally, are the oldest known surviving Buddhist manuscripts, dating from the 1st Century BCE.

5Strong, 1983.

6Consider the resemblance of the Christian prayer mudra, apparently not of Jewish origin, to the Buddhist mudra of respect or veneration.

7Williams (2008), p. 5.

8Williams (2008), p. 29.

9Foltz, 2010, pp. 53-56.

10Williams, 2008, p.174

11People in ancient India, not possessed of a modern understanding of what jumping up and touching the sun would entail, seem to have thought this would be fun.

12Wherever an archaic cultural artifact plays a critical functional role in Buddhism it seems almost always to be retained in any new cultures even in which this artifact is foreign. I speculate that this conservatism results from the lack of central authority in the institutional Sangha, needed to institute a swap with an indigenous form. Gruber and Kersten (1995) speculate on the Buddhist-Christian connection with some compelling but sometimes overstated evidence.

13Kato, et al. (1975), Chapter 16.

14Kato, et al. (1975), Chapter 15.



Growing the Dharma: the Rest of the Buddhist Community

October 4, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In this chapter we look at the Buddhist community as it is constituted in the earliest texts and generally lived to this day. Last week we began discussion of the ten-point mission statement of the monastic sangha as spoken by the Buddha and how it is implemented. For illustration I have been drawing parallels with the discipline of the modern scientific community. Let’s conclude our enumeration of these ten points, then look at the lay role in the Buddhist community.

Chapter 5. The Buddhist Community (2/2).

The arousing of faith in the faithless” and “The increase of the faithful.” Where there are Noble Ones trust will be inspired, for they display first-hand the peace and happiness, wisdom and compassion that result from complete immersion in the Buddhist life. The Noble Ones are close at hand, they teach, they inspire with their deportment, their good works and their knowledge. They inspire self-reflection concerning one’s own life and tend to curtail samsaric tendencies. They are the adepts, consulted as authorities to which folk Buddhists will defer when Dharmic questions arise. They thereby constrain popular speculative views of Dharma with a firm anchor in the practice and understanding of the Noble Ones.

Although most people do not have first-hand access to scientists, the volume and continuous production of results gives Science much of its reputation and influence in the world, most particularly in the production of technology, including the wonderful gadgets that now fill our homes, cars and pockets, along with broad published outreach in popular media. Scientists are popularly regarded as the experts to whom others defer, thereby providing popular speculative views of science with an anchor in scientific research before they devolve into pure fantasy.

The establishment of the true Dharma.” Buddhism has been noted as the first world religion. It has proved remarkable in its robustness, especially considering that no other religion has been able to penetrate foreign cultures without military conquest as naturally as Buddhism. This has been possible because the integrity of the authentic Dharma is preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, is strong in its practice, is sustained by the laity and is actively involved in its own education. Something as refined as Buddhism might otherwise easily degrade into superstition, pop psychology or religious intolerance, even in its native culture, but the anchor of the Sangha is difficult to budge. This theme will be developed further in Chapters Seven and Eight.

The integrity of scientific results is similarly preserved in an excellent community that enjoys insularity, does strong collaborative work, is well supported and that is actively involved in its own education. Something as refined as Science might otherwise easily degrade into superstition, magic or wild speculation from which it arose in the first place, but it doesn’t, even though the oddest notions about the domain of science are rampant outside of the firmly planted scientific community.

The fostering of Discipline.” Monastic discipline is probably the most archaic element of Buddhism. While scriptures vary throughout the Buddhist world, particularly with the proliferation of the later Mahayana Sutras, the Vinaya in slightly varying versions is almost a constant throughout Buddhist Asia.1 The discipline is preserved by those who maintain the discipline and ordain nuns and monks who will maintain the discipline. As long as the discipline is maintained there will be arahants in the world, as well as the lesser Noble Ones. As long as there are Noble Ones in the world the Dharma also will not go too far astray.

Imagine by way of illustration that the Buddhist Sangha as a whole decided that from now on the support of a monk will depend on his popularity among the laity, perhaps in terms of how many students he attracts, how many people read books or listen to his Dharma talks, how well he avoids that most disquieting of words “renunciation.” Such a change would compromise the comfort of the Sangha, because it would put its essential functions under outside less adept influence. It would also compromise the restraint of effluents, because it would force the monk into the self-centered and perhaps competitive behavior of actively seeking approval of others as a matter of livelihood.

Imagine additionally that members of the Sangha were self-qualified simply by hanging up their shingle, “Venerable Siegfried,” with no commitment to the renunciate life. This would compromise the excellence of the community. It is easy to imagine how Buddhism would dissolve in a quick flash of unprecedented popularity. Influence over casual seekers would grow for a time, but fewer and fewer people would be inspired or guided into deep practice and study of the Dharma. Fostering of discipline is critical.

The discipline of the scientific community is perhaps its most archaic element. Interestingly it is not preserved in a uniform document and not so deliberately studied as the Buddhist Vinaya is. Yet working scientists and university administrators seem to have an implicit sense of what discipline entails and how to regulate it, and are very sensitive to any assault on its integrity as a community. These various elements of scientific discipline are for the most part very old, implicitly understood by working scientists, and show every sign of enduring into the future.

Imagine, for instance, that the scientific community as a whole decided that from now on the merit, publication or funding of research will depend on the popularity of the researcher or his research, perhaps in terms of how many students he attracts or how many people read his research results, or if he can write a best-selling book. This would compromise the comfort of the scientific community, because it would put its critical functions under less adept outside influence: popular opinion. It would also compromise the restraint of mistaken notions, because it would eliminate the guidance of peer review in favor of a much less expert process of review.

Imagine additionally that researchers are self-qualified, simply by hanging up their shingles, “Professor Himmelgruber, BA.” This would compromise the excellence of the community. It is easy to see how serious science would dissolve in a short flash of unprecedented popularity. Scientific understanding would also be compromised when unqualified researchers publish results with little feedback from perhaps better qualified members of the scientific community, and when they ignore the important but mundane or complex work of research in favor of what sells. In the end science would be largely discredited. Luckily this scenario is unlikely to play itself out fully, because scientists have a sense of the discipline their community requires.

I have written of the Sangha in ideal terms and limited discussion to the early Sangha, but I realize that it like all human institutions to date, including the scientific, it is faulty and inevitably subject to falling short of its own standards, and yet the Sangha always recovers. It is easy to be cynical about institutions and governance in general, and about the Sangha in particular because the latter is expected to uphold pristine standards indeed. Yet institutions at the same time are necessary to coordinate and preserve. Dismissing institutions or governance out of hand is like the tsunami survivor proclaiming, “That’s it, I’ve had it with water!” or the tornado survivor gasping, “No more air for me.” Like institutions water or air can get unruly, but without them what would you drink or breathe? In fact the Vinaya is a massive attempt to correct as a matter of training even the smallest unruliness or tiniest impropriety as far at the Buddha could discern it. The Buddha was raised a prince and likely trained in politics and even warfare; he would have had some insight into such matters. In fact he produced the institution with the best track record ever to date, the one that has endured the longest.

The Shape of the Lay Community.

The Third Gem has a distinct advantage over Gem One and Gem Two: immediate living presence. It ennobles the Community to have monks, nuns and particularly Noble Ones in its midst. These are the Sangha, under both inclusive and exclusive definitions, those disciples of the Buddha who root their lives entirely in the Dharma.

The Noble Ones in particular are the most qualified teachers, the adepts, the most admirable friends who impart the Dharma both verbally and bodily, through explanation and by example. What they explain is very deep, very sophisticated and very difficult to grasp without equally deep practice. Sangha members individually gain reputations for their teaching or humanitarian work, for their inspiring meditation practice or for their scrupulous observance of monastic discipline. There has generally been the assumption that the Sangha stands apart qualitatively. This is the excellence it should try to maintain.

Relatively few in the general population will have the time, energy or inclination to enter the Dharma deeply. Indeed the understanding of the typical lay Buddhist has been very limited, it has often been subject to misunderstandings, it has generally regarded Nirvana as a place and monks as wielders of magical powers. This is much the same with science: Relatively few people develop deep scientific knowledge, the armchair scientists are subject to misunderstandings, they wonder how rocket ships avoid bumping into all the orbits out there and why it is cold at the North Pole, the highest point on earth and therefore closest to the sun. It has generally been a working assumption that the laity is also much more concerned than monastics with the more excessive devotional practices. The Buddha, for instance, before his death when asked by Ananda what to do with his body, replied that it was no concern for the monks,

“For there are, Ananda, wise nobles, wise brahmans, and wise householders who are devoted to the Tathagata, and it is they who will render the honor to the body of the Tathagata.”2

Nonetheless, the Buddha stated that the Dharma is not held in a tight fist; there is nothing esoteric in the teachings; they are open to all. As the laity opens its heart to the Third Gem and rubs shoulders with individual adepts, the teachings flow in more freely. The lay Buddhist benefits as the adepts clarify and correct his views upon request, or proactively when greed, hate and delusion become manifest. Adepts are great to have around. If the lay devotee should find the time, energy and aspiration to go deeply, to begin to ascend the stem that reaches toward Nirvana, there are kind and friendly helping hands available to explain the meaning of the Buddha’s life and Awakening in detail and to clarify step by step the highly sophisticated teachings to lead the instructling toward and up the Path toward Awakening. With work the lay devotee can become quite adept himself but will likely avail himself of the ever-present opportunity to join the Sangha in order to pursue the Path more fully with the full and enthusiastic support of his generous neighbors.

Most immediately the Sangha provides a constant breathing example of what it is to live a Buddhist life. It members are walking science experiments, demonstrating with every word and gesture what happens when one lets go, when one renounces everything that common sense says is necessary for felicity, for fun, for fulfillment: they end up being the most joyfully contented people in the village! The Noble Ones serve as a reality check for folk people as they make life’s decisions, and a subversively civilizing influence on the whole Community.

The wholesome practice of veneration extends particularly easily to the living Gem and dovetails with the project of satisfying their material needs, which becomes an expression of both veneration and affection. The needs of the monastics are modest but constant, and in fact, according to the Buddha’s regulations, somewhat artificially constant. This puts the devout layperson right at the center of the wholesome practice of generosity (Pali, dāna), which becomes the lifeblood of the Buddhist Community, producing an economy of gifts. The monastics are not allowed to participate in the exchange economy in any case, are sustained entirely from gifts and are at liberty to give immaterial gifts freely. The early communal life centered around the monastics, and later around the monasteries as they commonly become at the same time community centers for the Community.

Through their support of the Sangha as well as the rest of the Buddhist Community folk Buddhists develop the joyful feeling of doing their share, of participating fully in bringing the civilizing influence of the Noble Ones into the Community and in upholding the Sasana to preserve Buddhism in its pristine purity for future generations. The relationship between the Sangha and lay Community is one of complementary roles in partnership. The Sangha upholds the teachings, spins off Noble Ones and thereby serves the Community. The Noble Ones are the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come. The Buddhist Community supports the Sangha’s material needs. Generosity on both sides binds the two together.

It is important to recognize that there is little here in the way of hierarchy. What authority the Sangha holds arises from its own attainments, teachings and conduct. The Sangha has no coercive power beyond the layperson’s willingness to accept advice or admonition or to view the monastic as a role model. The laity actually has more coercive power: Dissatisfaction with the Monastic Sangha can turn into withdrawal of support, a constant external check on the integrity of the institutional Sangha.

Because generosity is such a joyful condition, monasteries3 can be very happy places in which to practice fundamental Buddhist values, along with selfless veneration. Monasteries encourage community involvement, require no sophisticated knowledge of Dharma and provids a wholesome environment into which to bring the kids. They also opens into an opportunity to rub shoulders with Noble Ones, benefit from their wisdom and advice and begin to learn and practice the Path to Awakening. The Buddhist Community provides an oasis of sanity in a world otherwise perpetually spinning crazily out of kilter, out of control.

1The most notable exception is Japan, long subject to government interference. See Jaffe (2001).

2Mahaparinibbana Sutta, DN 16.

3… like the one I am very fortunate to live in …

Growing the Dharma: the Buddhist Community

September 27, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In this chapter we look at the Buddhist community as it is constituted in the earliest texts and generally lived to this day. The primary source of the Buddha’s teachings on community is the Vinaya, the monastic code. Next week we will conclude with those aspects of the monastic code that represent the monastic obligation to the Sasana and the role of the laity.

Chapter 5. The Buddhist Community (1/2).

When the Buddha returned to visit his princely home after his alms-financed Awakening, he continued his rounds in the streets of Kapilavastu much to the distress of his aristocratic father. The alms round was for the Buddha a key feature of the monastic life. Even when food was close at hand, the alms round was not to be disregarded. For the Buddha the alms round was not simply a way to feed the monks and nuns: it had a social role to play in realigning the values of both monastic and lay.

A monastic is like a house pet: helpless on his own, absolutely and vulnerably dependent on the kind hand that feeds him, but at the same time of therapeutic value to that same hand (not to mention cute as a puppy in his fluffy robes and with his bald head). Like a house pet, a monastic lives a simple life, needs and possesses little: He does not have a motorboat on the lake, nor a puppy he is working to put through college. He is a deliberate renunciate with a lifestyle that leaves almost no channels for the pursuit of sensual pleasures, the accumulation of stuff, the quest for personal advantage, nor the intractable issues that accompany these. The effect is that he settles, if the mind remains steady, into a state of quiet contentment, a fertile field of practice.

Accepting the generosity of the lay graciously, having no resources at all of one’s own that are not donated, puts the monastic in an uncommon frame of reference, but does the same for the lay donor as well. Remarkably, every time the monastic accepts something the lay donor receives a gift. This is paradoxical to the Western observer, but if you look again, you cannot mistake the sugar plums dancing in the donor’s eyes. Every time the lay person accepts a teaching or benefits from a social or pastoral service the monastic receives a gift. The relationship is unlike what one finds in conventional human affairs. This is an economy of gifts1 that provides much of the context of the most fundamental Buddhist value and practice, that of dana, generosity.

The Buddha imagines a Buddhist Community of laity and monastics and he brought this community to light by organizing the Monastic Sangha. His idea seems to have been that the presence of the Monastic Sangha would shape the entire community, the laity taking on its roles voluntarily without formal obligations enforced by some kind of command structure or threats of excommunication.

The Monastic Sangha

Whereas we find the sublime in the Dharma, we find in the Buddha’s institutional teachings nuts and bolts pragmatism. The Sangha (in this chapter taken to mean, unless otherwise specified, the monastic order) is an institution. The fundamental purpose of this institution is to produce Noble Ones, saints, the finest in admirable friends, now and in the years to come. Its founding charter provides the optimal training conditions for the practice that produces Noble Ones, it also sustains a wholesome and inspiring influence on the broader Buddhist Community, and it ensures the future integrity of the Sasana.

The Sangha has striking parallels with science as an institution, the disciplined community of scientists organized largely within universities and research institutions. Each, the monastic community and the scientific community, is a complex system responsible for many things: for training its members, for authorizing its teachers, for maintaining the integrity of its tradition against many misguided and popular notions, for upholding pure standards whereby its results can be assessed, for encouraging the growth, prosperity and longevity of its functions, for rewarding patience where results are not immediately forthcoming, for maintaining harmony among its members, for nurturing a positive perception in the public eye. Just as scientific discipline is intrinsic to the practice and perpetuation of science, and science as we know it would collapse without it, Vinaya is intrinsic to the practice and perpetuation of the Buddha-Sasana, and Buddhism in all its depth would collapse without it or something quite like it. Both institutions are conservative exhibiting little change over the centuries. From these parallels I will draw helpful analogies to better understand the function of the Sangha in terms of that of the perhaps more familiar scientific institution.

It is not often enough pointed that the founding of the Sangha was a truly monumental achievement. Consider this observation:

The Buddhist Sangha is likely the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence on the planet!2

What is more, the Sangha is still entirely recognizable in terms of attire, life-style, practice and function after 100 generations! It was there as great empires, the Roman, Mongolian, Arab, Lithuanian and British, arose and grew, it was still there as each of those empires collapsed. From India it extended its civilizing reach to Ceylon and Southeast Asia and into Indonesia, into Central Asia where it followed the Silk Road eastward into China and East Asia and westward as far as the Mediterranean. In modern times it has begun to board airplanes and to sprinkle down on North America, Europe, Australia, South America and even Africa. Buddhism has never penetrated new lands nor established itself without a Sangha.

Yet in spite of its robustness the Sangha is delicate. Without any centralized authority or substantial hierarchy, its governance is based on the consensus of local communities (sanghas) of monks and nuns, its regulations are enforced through an honor system and its support is completely entrusted to the good-will of others. The Buddha could have set up a hierarchy something like Pope and bishops and a range of severe punishments for transgressing authority, but he did not. Who would have thought it would last? This amazing institution is the product of one genius, who cobbled it together from diverse elements present in ascetic practices, gave it a mission and a charter and released it into the world. And this genius is the very same person who revealed the Dharma, among the most sophisticated and skillfully expounded philosophical, psychological and religious products of the human mind, and the very same person who attained complete Awakening without a teacher to light the way, the threefold genius we call the Buddha.

The Functions of the Discipline

The Buddha most consistently called the body of his teachings not “Dharma,” not “Sasana,” and certainly not “Buddhism,” but rather “Dharma-Vinaya,” the Teachings and Discipline. On his deathbed the Buddha refused to appoint a successor, saying to the surrounding monks,

“Whatever Dharma and Vinaya I have pointed out and formulated for you, that will be your Teacher when I am gone,”3

The Vinaya is fundamentally about community and about the monastic life style, the life in accord with the Dharma and thereby the most direct path to attainment. The Vinaya is addressed indeed to monks and nuns, but throughout it emphasizes their responsibility to the Buddhist lay community. The Buddha’s teachings on community provide the mechanism through which the light of the Buddha’s teachings burns brightly, through which it spreads to attract new adherents and through which it retains its integrity as it is passed on to new generations.

Here is how the Buddha describes the mission of the Vinaya in ten points:4

“The excellence of the Sangha,
The comfort of the Sangha,
The curbing of the impudent,
The comfort of well-behaved monastics,
The restraint of effluents related to the present life,
The prevention of effluents related to the next life,
The arousing of faith in the faithless,
The increase of the faithful,
The establishment of the true Dharma,and
The fostering of Discipline.”

The following is a brief overview of the main features of the Discipline organized according to the aims they respectively support.

The excellence of the Sangha.” The Sangha must be excellent because it sustains something quite sophisticated and precious, the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha. The nuns and monks are the designated full-time caretakers of the Dharma. The Vinaya ensures the conditions for deep practice and study and for harmony within the Sangha.

Excellence of the Sangha entails that its membership is exclusive. This is a critical point. Its members become exclusive through their vows, through the willingness to take on very simple lives of renunciation, a lifestyle fully in accord with Dharma but beyond the consideration of most people. Initially to become a member is quite easy, but sustained membership requires enormous trust in the Dharma, recognition of the disadvantages of samsaric life and oodles of personal discipline. In most cases it entails rigorous training in Dharma, meditation and Vinaya. Concentrated in this life among the renunciates, the Dharma burns most brightly.5

By way of analogy the scientific community must be excellent because it sustains something sophisticated and productive of rapid progress in understanding the nature of our universe. Science concentrates people of exceptional training into a persistent stimulating and highly cooperative if not always harmonious community. Excellence also entails that its membership be exclusive, in this case ensured through years of intense education, evaluation and training, culminating in apprenticeship under a senior research scientist to qualify as competent to conduct independent research.

The comfort of the Sangha.” The Sangha appears planned as the ideal society writ small. The excellence of the Sangha makes that feasible. Internally the Sangha as envisioned by the Buddha observes no class distinctions, provides an exemplary level of gender equality,6 is regulated in a way to avoid conflicts and maintain harmony, observes procedures to negotiate disagreements should these arise, is democratic and only minimally hierarchical.

At the same time the Sangha is embedded in and dependent on a greater society whose values may be often contrary but with which it must harmonize. Accordingly it takes care to conform, or at least provide the perception of conforming to the expectations of the wider society and certainly its standards of etiquette. It is worth noting that many rules observed by Buddhist monks and nuns early on were recommended or inspired by lay people discontented with monastic behavior.7 Some regulations seem to be symbolic and I suspect purely for public perception and not reflective of the values of the ideal society (for instance, nuns pay respects to monks but not vice versa). The uniform appearance of the Buddhist Sangha is specifically in order not to be confused with ascetics of other traditions who may observe other standards, and under no circumstances with the laity who have a distinct role.

As an ascetic renunciate community, monks and nuns receive complete material support from the lay community. This affords them the leisure of practice, study and good works. Remarkably the Buddha not only makes receipt of this support mandatory (they cannot for instance grow their own food or live off their own resources) but then sharpens this dependence by limiting the monastic’s right to retain offerings, especially food for which the ownership expires at noon on the day it is offered!8 Monastics are not allowed to engage in exchange, such as Dharma talks for food. This provides a high degree of insularity from the concerns and influences of the outside world, including from the need for livelihood, ensuring among other things that the Dharma will not become a commercial product, manipulated for popular appeal. It also means that monastics can engage patiently in long-term practice toward profound but long-term attainment without the pressure to produce identifiable results.

The scientific community similarly receives material support, through professorships, research grants, etc, from the broader society, both to sustain its (much higher) living standards and to offset the costs of research equipment, publication, travel and so forth that its functions entail. This permits its members engage in nearly full-time research, training and teaching, fulfilling the functions of the community. The assumption of academic freedom and the institution of tenure gives the scientific community a high degree of insularity from the prevailing concerns of the outside world, unbiased by politics, religion, superstition, other popular notions, practical applications or benefits or profitability. It also means scientists can engage patiently in long-term research with no pressure to produce identifiable results.

The curbing of the impudent” and “The comfort of well-behaved monastics.” The Sangha maintains high standards of behavior to ensure ethical conduct, conduct befitting the role of renunciate: celibacy, a nominal personal footprint, harmony of the Sangha, harmony between Sangha and laity, preservation of the reputation of the Sangha, reaching group decisions and restraint of self-gratifying behavior.

Regulations are enforced primarily through simple personal acknowledgment of infractions with the intention to do better next time. The Sangha has no forms of corporal punishment and implements justice largely on an honor system. More serious matters are enforced through peer pressure, through expulsion or moving impudent members to the uneasy fringes of the community for periods of time, but only upon admission of guilt. For a very small set of very serious offenses the wayward monk or nun is from that very instant no longer of the Sangha. If one manages to hide such an offense one is simply a berobed lay person successfully impersonating a monk or nun. Those on the other hand whose behavior is unblemished garner a great deal of respect.

Scientific communities also maintain high ethical standards, albeit in quite different realms having to do with potential falsification of data and plagiarism, disharmonious and unproductive discourse and debate and with productive evaluation of results and theoretical proposals, scientific standards and methods and peer evaluation. Such communities are largely self-regulating, generally at the institutional level with relatively little centralization of authority. Governance is often in a local university administration, but similar standards of professional conduct are generally recognized and enforced throughout the world scientific community. Institutions share common practices for expelling members or to move them to the fringes of communal activities through hiring, funding and tenure decisions. Pursuit of professional reputation is typically a strong determinant of the behavior of scientists.

The restraint of effluents related to the present life” and “The prevention of effluents related to the next life.” These two aims alone among the ten refer to the results of actual practice toward Awakening. Effluents are unwholesome tendencies and views, the taints from which the human character is purified on the Path. The Sangha functions in this regard by securing for itself the life most conducive to upholding Buddhist principles, a life so barren of any opportunity for personal advantage that a self can scarcely find root. Into its stead flow wisdom and compassion. Liberated from the tyranny of personal neediness these burst here and there into various stages of Awakening. In this way the Sangha, as long as it follows the discipline faithfully, so effectively produces Noble Ones from among its ranks.

Monastics are allowed by their vows to do almost nothing for themselves. They are permitted no livelihood, nor trade and are isolated from the conventional exchange economy. Their material needs are offered entirely by the laity. Monastics are proscribed except in exceptional circumstances from asking for anything, they do not beg, contrary to folk opinion, but only offer the opportunity to give. On alms rounds they are not to prefer one house (the wealthy one or the home of the French chef) over another. They are not even allowed to endear themselves through charm and wit to families with the intent of garnering better or greater offerings, nor are they allowed to show off any special psychic powers nor talk about attainments to gain in reputation. They can build themselves a dwelling or sew robes for themselves, but if they do so these must be limited in size and quality. They also curtail frivolous speech, shows and entertainments and self-beautification, observe limits on what they can own or store, and do not eat after noon. Of course curtailing sexual activity is foundational to monasticism, obviating the most direct route to entanglement in Samsara.

On the other hand there are almost no restrictions on what a monastic can do for others: on teaching, pastoral care, good works, advice, even physical labor, as long as it is not compensated. Interestingly the restrictions on the monastics’ aid to others bear, in the Buddha’s teachings, on traditionally priestly functions, such as predicting the future, healing or appealing to the mercy of deities. The Buddha created an order of renunciates, role models and teachers, not of priests.

Virtually all of the progress one (lay or monastic) is likely to make on the Buddhist Path will be directly correlated with what is given up, physically or mentally: the physical trappings of life, relations and obligations like debt and car ownership, behaviors like partying flirtatiously or imbibing liberally, needy emotions of lust, greed, envy, pride, avarice, aversive emotions of anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, denial and confusion, the distortion of self-view and having to be somebody. The Buddhist Path entails a long process of disentanglement strand by strand from soap-operatic existence, of renunciation. The power of the monastic life is in setting high standards of physical renunciation and offering virtually no channel for the practical expression of the afflictive mental factors that refuse to let go and generally assault for a time even the most dedicated monastic heart. Within the monastic container meditation and study quickly develop ripe and plump fruit.

The analogous discipline of science develops a different kind of quality in its practitioners: talent for research. It implements policies that provide very high standards for assessing its quality, for publicizing results and for allocating research funding and employment where future results prove most promising. Through continuous discourse at conferences, in published journals and in informal contexts, research results are continually refined and reevaluated cooperatively within the community to improve their quality. Peer review, and standards for hiring professors, granting tenure, awarding research grants, etc. also provide other forms of constraint and encouragement.

1Thanissaro (1997, 1999).

2Gombrich (2009), p. 2, makes this claim.

3Mahaparanibbana Sutta, DN 16.

4Vinaya III.20; A v 70. Horner …, Thanissaro (2007, p. 5).

5Conze (1959, p. 53) writes in stronger terms that, “The monks are the Buddhist elite. They are the only Buddhists in the proper sense of the word. The life of a householder is almost incompatible with the higher levels of spiritual life. This has been a conviction common to all Buddhists at all times.”

6I’ll will consider later why historically the Sangha has often failed to uphold this ideal.

7The origin stories of individual rules found in the Vinaya reveal this.

8Ariyesako (1999) provides an accessible overview of the monastic regulations.


Growing the Dharma: Alternatives to Rebirth

September 20, 2013

You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. I have suggested that rebirth provides a the epic perspective that gives urgency and full meaning to Buddhist life and practice. I now consider from a functional viewpoint what range of understandings support this epic perspective.

Chapter 4. Transcendence (2/2)

Approximations to Rebirth

George Bailey in the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, becomes deeply bitter from not realizing his personal dreams of travel and adventure in this short life, and then pushed to the brink of suicide by business problems. However, Clarence the Angel is sent to rescue George by showing him a transcendent dimension to his life that he failed to see for what it was. Clarence takes George into the world as it would be if George had never been born to reveal that all along George’s good intentions had been playing out to the benefit to countless other people, benefit far beyond his wildest mundane dreams. In a sense he had been living a second, greater life and realizing this made all the difference in how he felt even about this one short life.

There is no doubt that our present lives are likewise woven as short threads into a rich and immense tapestry of human history, of family history, of evolutionary history, of cultural history, of political history, of religious history, of Buddhist history, of trends in art, technology and popular entertainments, of vast relentless configurations and recombinations of neediness, aversion, confusion, contentment, kindness and clarity. Our small life and therefore our practice is woven inextricably into something far grander in scale that in fact must lend it a transcendent meaning; it is simply up to us to recognize it. Rebirth is about developing gratitude for the past and taking responsibility for the future.

Our twisted karma is ancient because our present lives are woven as short threads in a rich and immense tapestry. Our present actions have been anticipated in the lives of our ancestors before us, in our culture, in our evolutionary history and in the rest, then flows to us through various fittings, only one of which, if someone insists, is a coupling directly from our “previous life.” In this way water flows into our pipe from various sources.

Since there is water flowing into our pipe there must be water flowing out. Notice that in this model karma can in principle flow out through multiple T- and Y-fittings precisely because in Buddhism karma does not have to be hung onto a personal identity. The karma that flows out is the legacy of the present life and it can make quite a splash. That is why our practice matters beyond this fathom long body and few decades of life. That is what gives our practice its transcendent meaning. We are each engaged in an epic struggle with hydraulic forces from the ancient past and outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. Our practice has vastly more at stake than happiness and comfort in this present life. It has never been exclusively about this one present life. We are all like George Bailey, though what many of us have sloshed into the world around us has been of scuzzier blend.

Each element of this refined model can, I believe, be independently examined and verified; the fact is nowadays we know of many channels for interpersonal communication of karmic factors – genetic, behavioral, social, environmental, etc. – that would have been dimly understood at the time of the Buddha. The difference between the traditional model of rebirth and this refined model is that the former is much more linear. I will accordingly call these the coupled pipeline model and the pipeline network model respectively. For the coupled pipeline model pipes would be strung out serially end to end such that all of the water that flows out of one pipe flows directly into the next, our next life is exclusive heir to our present karma. The pipeline network model is more general than the traditional coupled pipeline model, that is, the traditional model is a special case of the pipeline network. Hopefully each is equipped with some kind of clean-out in case of excessive karmic sludge buildup.

But the coupled pipeline model is inadequate in itself, for we can observe the lateral transmission of at least some karma, for instance, from culture to individual, or, heck, from admirable friend to individual. Furthermore, the coupled pipeline model is difficult to examine and verify, though some evidence suggests that this kind of transmission does at least sometimes occur. In fact, just moving from dedication to personal practice (perhaps with benefits to be enjoyed only in this one life in mind) to dedication to the Buddha-Sasana (with benefits to be enjoyed by many deep into an indeterminate future) is to see how our practice bears fruits far beyond this fathom-long body and few decades of life. I think this is a common attitude among Buddhist teachers and certainly monastics. But it can be the mindset of any Buddhist. A Burmese layman who often comes by our monastery in Texas to donate meals and assistance to the monks once explained to me that as a layperson he does not have the time and energy to help sustain the Sasana directly the way the monks do, but that as long as he is helping to sustain the monks he is meeting his obligation to sustain the Sasana. Generosity is his primary practice. This is a beautifully selfless attitude that in a real way shifts the emphasis of practice, in whatever form it takes, from the fathom- and few-decades-long self to the ancient and ongoing Sasana, much as a scientist dedicates herself to science or an artist to art. This is also a view of transcendence that fits conveniently with the overarching theme of this book.

Now … the big question: In moving from the coupled pipeline to the pipeline network have we preserved functionality, that is, are we still within the scope of authentic Buddhism? In either case we realize a higher transcendental meaning of our practice, in either case this meaning involves a responsibility to the future, in an epic karmic struggle. There is a difference, however, in the perspective each provides of the gradual progression of our practice through stages of attainment culminating in Awakening. The coupled pipeline model provides a straight path, passing through many lives but serially, toward Nirvana. The pipeline network model provides in this life a greater potential for Awakening in the future, but with less certainty about who will exploit that potential in the future – often many will – and less sense of following a direct path. Ultimately “who?” is a moot question for the advanced Buddhist practitioner in any case. Interestingly the pipeline network model fits well with the bodhisattva ideal articulated in much later Mahayana Buddhism, whereby we practice “not for ourselves but for all beings.” I will come back to the bodhisattva ideal in a couple of chapters.

Still not satisfied? Well, consider adopting …

Rebirth as a Working Assumption

Very typically a higher meaning requires a correspondingly higher level of trust often in things unseen and possibly unknowable. The argument often raised against accepting things unseen and unknowable is that they are quite possibly not true. Do we really want to entrust our lives to something pretend? We will see that Buddhist transcendence might involve less pretense than, say, God, but just in case let’s look first at this pretense thing.

One of the outstanding characteristics of Buddhism is its relatively high degree of empiricism. This has two sources: First, Buddhism is concerned with developing a set of skills in order to perfect the human character behaviorally, affectively and cognitively. This is the topic of the stem of the flower, the Path toward Nirvana and is necessarily a nuts and bolts enterprise, requiring dealing intimately with real observable phenomena, just as the potter cannot learn his craft without learning the feel of clay between his fingers. Second, the Buddha was remarkably rigorous in avoiding philosophical speculation and unnecessary metaphysics. The two primary metaphysical assumptions of the Buddha seem to have been:

  1. “When this is, that is. From the arising of this comes the arising of that. When this isn’t, that isn’t. From the stopping of this comes the stopping of that.”1
  2. “I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two… five, ten… fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction & expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure & pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.”2

The first is the metatheoretical assumption that things arise and fall dependent on conditions. It gives rigor to almost everything the Buddha taught, and is generally pleasing to the scientifically minded (though modern quantum physicists might raise objections even to this). The second cannot be verified or observed in the present life except by those of exceptional memory. This makes the second almost unique in the Buddha’s thinking. Why then did he say this?

The answer is in fact the point of the famous Kalama Sutta,3 in which the Buddha promoted rebirth for its efficacy. The Buddha argues in this sutta that the proper grounds for accepting a teaching are not epistemological but ethical. He itemizes every possible way short of direct experience that we might think we “know” something and tells the Kalamas not to go by those things. Rather we should ask, with the help of the wise, where the benefit is, where the harm is. For instance, some religions teach that everything that happens to you, for good or bad, is a karmic payback from your past actions, good or bad. Sometimes Buddhism is even taught that way … mistakenly.4 However, if you consider the logical implications of this teaching, regardless of whether it is true or not, you will have to conclude that this cannot be a Buddhist teaching: Kindness and compassion, following precepts, would bring no benefit to others!

The Buddha at the conclusion of the Kalama Sutta applies the same criterion to the teaching of rebirth, considering the case in which deeds of good or evil alternatively do or do not bear fruit in a future life and discovers that under no circumstances is there a downside to accepting the rebirth position. The lesson: accept rebirth, as a matter of pretense if necessary.

Pretense is well within the realm of human capability, and humans certainly have this capability for practical purposes. Consider that all of fiction, including theater, movies, novels, operas, and so on, is pretense. Entertainment without pretense would be pretty slim indeed. Most children’s play is pretense, and most mammals seem capable of play. Dogs pretend to fight with one another, to chase sticks as if they were chasing prey. This enables them to practice and develop skills prior to real fighting or real hunting. Play also underlies many ritual or ceremonial enactments in religion, whose benefit and rationale is not necessarily in the acts themselves but in their function in developing skills. Food offerings to Buddha statues are common and are recognized as pretense in the knowledge that the Buddha is not really going to eat what is offered. It’s play.

A baseball game, also a kind of play, is a pretense, even for spectators. While there are real physical actions going on, these actions have interpretations that are just made up, a running pretense that accompanies the physical actions, a counting-for-something. Someone hits a ball with a stick and because it goes somewhere it counts as a home run. Someone touches someone else with a ball and it counts as being “out.” Three “outs” and the other team comes up to bat. A sport, for many among the most tangible experiences in life, is pretense! Wars are fought under similar pretenses: One is willing to die for the flag (or even to prevent it physically from falling to the ground). The king dies and the war is over.

Myth, religious or otherwise, is pretense by definition, but can likewise shape one’s attitudes in many helpful ways. The Buddha seems to have been comfortable with the potentially mythical deity realms, as we have seen, yet seems to take care to keep them on a short leash by not drawing the conclusions that others around him drew of the necessity to appease or elicit help from deities. The West has its myths, for the most part unwholesome: Consider how the Western movie hero has shaped the American psyche; the typical John Wayne character could not ever have possibly existed.

There is a rich world of myth and symbolic enactments in any culture or any religion beyond the scope of what rational scientific and secular people are willing to acknowledge. We treat the deceased with great care, arrange their rotting remains to produce a pretense of peace and comfort. The meaning of such things may lie very deep in the human psyche; to ignore them for secular ideological reasons may have adverse consequences. Yet myths must be held loosely if they are not themselves to cause harm.

Money, such a huge factor in modern life and human consciousness, is another example of pretense, a socially agreed counting as, much on the same order as a game. Historically money has had a physical counterpart, for instance, clams, cattle, silver, gold, then paper, for which a running pretense of counting-for-something was critical, in this case having a certain recognized value in commercial exchange. The physical part has largely gone by the wayside and the bulk of the money supply is something banks pretend to create at will simply by clicking some figures on a keyboard to entering it into someone’s account, then pretend mime-like to track its movements from bank to bank. There is nothing more substantial there than 1’s and 0’s in computer memory; the rest is merely convention. A satirical news article imagines a scenario in which the economy grinds to a halt as “Nation Realizes Money Just a Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.”5

Pretense is something we use privately all the time to loosen the constraints of our reality. A bashful young man about to ask someone on a first date will imagine himself much more suave than he actually is before dialing.6 Visualization techniques create realities that we then try to fit ourselves into. Athletes find such techniques improve their performance. They don’t have to be objectively “true.” To relax during a tense day we might imagine ourselves lying on a sunny beach in the Bahamas. Even Buddhism makes use of visualizations in certain forms of meditation.

Pretense is something we use to manipulate others as well as ourselves. As a precaution against nocturnal mischief some American children are told that the “Boogie Man” will “get” them if they get out of bed at night. A grownup is even more gullible: even knowing that the beautiful blonde in the car ad does not actually come with the car, he buys it anyway, … just in case. The divine rights of kings, the idea of a better life hereafter, the battle of good and evil, the promotion of “free markets” as an unquestioned force for good, and even an unnaturally strict interpretation of the Law of Karma whereby everyone deserves exactly what they have right now, are pretenses that have all been introduced as forms of social control.

If God is a pretense, He is a whopper. When one grows up with God, and develops a personal relationship with God, recognizing in God the central role in the universe, and in oneself a subservient role, interpreting all things of the world in relationship to God, then God becomes every bit as palpable as money or football. Pretense or not, God serves a number of beneficial functions, the most immediate of which, as I understand it, is to dethrone the self from the center of the universe. He may also sometimes, in some hands, with some understandings be abused in the service of harmful functions, in some cases, for instance, legitimizing Osama-like what no person could justify on his own. (This is perhaps a reason why benefit and harm above all are the criteria by which Buddhists should accept or deny teachings.) Many faithful hold many of their pretenses lightly, often regarding them as useful tools in negotiating life, much like money, but, when questioned, not literally true, for instance when scientific push comes to religious shove. Karen Armstrong maintains that most people in most lands throughout history have simply never thought about the difference between pretense or myth and truth, and would not particularly care.

Science itself is not immune from pretense, it just keeps it on a shorter leash. The quaint Nineteenth Century idea of purely objective truth has since given way to conceptual models that only approximate reality. Niels Bohr, who developed our model of the atom, stated about his own field of research, “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature…” Scientists are captives in the realm where they can only make things up, progressively more skillful pretenses which however inevitably in the end fail to live up to what is observable. Bohr also said, “A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.” Models of progressively greater clarity but less correspondence with finer empirical data, trail off into folk science, the science of the common layperson. Models of motion within a curved universe give way to models of mutual gravitational attraction of masses, which give way to sets of simple principles like, “things fall downward,” and “what goes up must come down.” What’s revealing is that the scientist himself certainly picks his model opportunistically, reverting past the level of relating acceleration to mass and force down to the level during his leisure time of, “Pressing the gas pedal sure makes the car go a lot more.”

As we move from realm to realm, for instance, from commerce to science, from science to sports, from sports to religion, and from one religion to another and back to sports, some pretenses come out of place, so we shift to new pretenses. We negotiate a world of often contradictory pretenses and social skill demands a particular capacity for tracking and accounting for the pretenses of others as well as of our own. Interfaith dialog requires perhaps the greatest skill in this regard and teaches us to hold our own doctrine convictions a little less tightly. But short of Awakening we all have them. Even the most “rational” of us lives largely in a world of pretense, in our play, in our entertainment, in our social relations, in our fundamental conceptualizations of reality. So, in which world do we practice?

Now, at least the assumption of rebirth – whether as a verifiable reality or as a pretense, a working assumption, a functioning myth – will put some pep in our step as we proceed down the Path of practice, it will help us develop a purified mind free of hate and malice. The “Kalama Sutta” reminds us of possible downsides, potential harm that results from this assumption. It concludes that there is none:

The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom four solaces are found here and now. ‘Suppose there is a hereafter and there is a fruit, result, of deeds done well or ill. Then it is possible that at the dissolution of the body after death, I shall arise in the heavenly world, which is possessed of the state of bliss.’ This is the first solace found by him. ‘Suppose there is no hereafter and there is no fruit, no result, of deeds done well or ill. Yet in this world, here and now, free from hatred, free from malice, safe and sound, and happy, I keep myself.’ This is the second solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) befall an evil-doer. I, however, think of doing evil to no one. Then, how can ill (results) affect me who do no evil deed?’ This is the third solace found by him. ‘Suppose evil (results) do not befall an evil-doer. Then I see myself purified in any case.’ This is the fourth solace found by him. The disciple of the Noble Ones, Kalamas, who has such a hate-free mind, such a malice-free mind, such an undefiled mind, and such a purified mind, is one by whom, here and now, these four solaces are found.”

Transcendence in Buddhism

Heuman writes of Western Buddhism:7

“… for the first time in history, to suggest today in some Buddhist circles that the purpose of Buddhism is exactly what the traditional texts tell us it is—which is to say, that it is concerned with the transcendent—can be to come across sounding like a rube or to meet with condescension.”

Transcendent meaning for the Christian is attained through God. Higher meaning for the scientist is found in the forward march of human knowledge. Higher meaning for the artist is found in creation of the sublime. Transcendent meaning for the Buddhist is attained through “that panoramic perspective from which we can survey our lives in their broader context and total network of relationships”that comes from realizing that our lives and therefore our practices are woven inextricably into something far grander in scale,a rich and immense tapestry of human affairs. We realize that we are each engaged in an epic struggle with karmic forces from the ancient past and producing outcomes that will reach endlessly into the future. Our practice therefore has vastly more at stake than happiness and comfort in this present life. It has never been exclusively about this one present life. From this the urgency that impels us to deep practice develops that also opens up the prospect of Awakening.

The urgency that arises in the artist or scientist when a higher meaning transcends this fathom-long body and few decades of life gives rise to genius. The urgency that arises in the Buddhist when his epic struggle transcends this one life gives rise to Awakening. To recognize the epic nature of this struggle it suffices to acknowledge the certain prospect of endless future human greed and exploitation, hatred and violence, delusion and manipulation, and untold anguish but for our personal progress along the Path.

1AN 10.92.

2MN 36.

3AN 3.65.

4The Buddha dismisses this notion in SN 36.21.

5The Onion (2010).

6If he is unable to do this he will have trouble instilling that impression later on.

7Heuman (2012).