Archive for the ‘Burma’ Category

Buddhist-Rohingya Relief

December 14, 2017

I am soliticing donations on behalf of people recently displaced by violence in Rakhine State, Myanmar, and particularly the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have been forced to flee to Bangladesh and to other lands. Donations will be transferred to the International Rescue Committee, an agency that is active in the region, as they are throughout the world, and that has been given an A+ rating from Charity Watch.

rohingya5I am a Buddhist monk, American-born but Burmese-ordained, who has come to love the Burmese people and and their country, and who has based my life upon the wisdom of the Buddha. Unfortunately this people, this nation and this faith have been tarnished by this violence. I understand that the root causes of the tension in Rakhine State are deep and long – and have only marginally to do with religion! – but am sorry to see divisive narratives mixed with rumors, and the engagement of a brutal military force, without civilian oversight, prevail over voices of restraint, wisdom and reconciliation. There are many similar crisis situations in the world, but it is because what is close to my heart has been tainted in this way that I choose to support this particular cause at this time.

buddhaThe Buddha warned us of the danger of views, and never condoned violence under any circumstances … ever. Yet, we tend to find refuge in narratives – about nation, religion, race and the hidden motives of others – that we use to justify our own reactiveness. The international press is full of such narratives and they are rampant among the Burmese, often drowning out the many many voices of restraint, wisdom and reconciliation. We sometimes even believe these views to be true and, when they disavow the humanity of others, they give permission for unspeakable acts. I am not aware that any religion has ever succeed in eradicated the human propensity for such views among all of its claimed adherents, not Buddhism, not Islam and none of the others, much less so in lands undergoing rapid change. Forgiveness is in order.

Nonetheless, for the purest Buddhist the bottom line is human suffering and the allaying of human suffering. When families are losing their homes, villages are burned, people who just want to live decent lives and raise healthy children are assaulted or killed, deprived of livelihoods, forced to flee with no means of sustenance, no matter who these people are, all narratives become academic. Our urgent responsibility is to exercise compassion, to aid those in greatest need.

I would ask my readers to join me in helping to provide relief for the precious, suffering Rohingya refugees.

ircYou can donate to Buddhist-Rohingya Relief HERE. You can also go directly to International Rescue Committee HERE to donate directly, or to view their site. Direct donations seem to avoid some fees, but is harder for the other donors and me to track, though informing me of the donation might help.

Also, another way you can support this cause is to communicate this further by Facebook, Twitter, etc. Although I use email and this blog, I don’t use these other new-fangled forms of social media.

 

Newly Old: a Fantasy

July 13, 2014

I have been working with a student to proof my pending autobiography. A number of passages are fanciful, each of which is intended to make a Dharmic point, at least obliquely. I thought I would begin to post these as a series. Most, maybe all, have been posted independently in a previous incarnation as separate pieces before, but generally a number of years ago.

The first was originally written in Myanmar, in the Sagaing Hills. No other background is required, except Wigglet, the dog I refer too, was a feral dog who befriended me. She was actually much better cared for than most dogs around the monastery because she was smart enough to claim the Guest House as her territory, where many foreign visitors stayed, who tended to take more interest in dogs than the natives.

Newly Old

While living in Sagaing I became officially old: I turned 60!

In Buddhism we have this Self thing, or rather don’t have it. To be a Self requires the view that there is something in or around this body that is unchanging, besides a Social Security Number. That unchanging Self is what is known in Buddhism as “a mental formation,” and also as a “Wrong View.” In my case this delusion of a mental formation must have arisen many years ago complete with many wonderful unchanging characteristics. So it is not surprising that that Self is someone actually much younger than me. The landmark event of turning 60 put me once again face to face with that unchanging youthful Self, and gave me three choices:

The first choice is denial. Under this choice I try all the harder to convince myself that I am this youthful unchanging Self. After all, I have the still unchanged energy to be an international globetrotter, like I was in my 20’s, and now without depending on Youth Hostels. My health is excellent, except when I’m not feeling so chipper. I can always grow some of my lush head of hair back. I’ve had many more years of experience being young than any of the young of today — the whippersnappers — so I should be really good at it. Why, I just might get me a skateboard, and what I think they call a “Walk Man” so I can listen to the latest “Disco” music, just like the youth of today. Monks don’t have hats to speak of that they could wear backwards, but maybe I’ll express my youthful rebellion by wearing my robe over my right shoulder.

After I began with such thoughts to settle into a happy state of denial my daughter Kymrie emailed from America, “I don’t think the skateboard is a good idea. After all, you are 60.” That suddenly took the wind out of my sails. I then began to realize how denial must always slide the slippery slope gradually into despair. So I placed my mind there to see how it felt.

So, the second choice is despair. Under this option I lament the unfairness of the universe for not being the way it is supposed to be, for failing to respect who I really am, for not according me what was promised to me, for being like a fancy restaurant that has inexcusably lost my dinner reservation or a hotel that has put me in a room next to the elevator or over a, uh, disco. I might even try to organize something to do about it, like a gray folks’ protest.

Or I might just relish the despair. You know, I would probably make a really great Bitter Old Man, famous for my Bodhidharma frown. I would learn the art of striking fear in the hearts not only of children, but even of dogs and cats. And it would just get better as I get older and older and older, and more and more bitter. The Despair I would experience with Flair, with a Penetrating Frown and a Horrifying Glare. Wigglet would no longer want to come to my door, relieved instead by the mangiest mongrels of Sagaing, my kinda dog. I would learn to peal paint and wilt flowers as I walk by. Ha ha. If I have to be a Bitter Old Man, I’m going to do it right. By next rainy season my mere presence will pop meditators right out of samādhi into a thicket of unwholesome impulses. My former fans will say, “Don’t do It, Bhante, don’t become a Bitter Old Man,” and “No, Not Bhikkhu Cintita.”

… But wait, what am I thinking? Am I not just replacing one Self with another, the Young with the Old, then clinging equally to the new (Old)? Do I really think I can find satisfaction with the Old (new) Self, any more than I could with the old (Young)? Is not the new (Old) equally subject to dissolution? Oh, Impermanence, What Vexation Have You Wrought? And what would the Buddha say? One of his monks turning into a modern (new but Old) Mara. Besides, I can see that this Bitter Old Man bit will wear thin pretty quickly. “Oh, Wigglet! Wigglet!”

The third choice is acceptance. Under this choice I regard this situation as a good Practice Opportunity and Topic for Contemplation. This is the Buddhist Way! It goes something like this:

If I am not this unchanging youthful Self, then who is that guy, and who am I? I seem to have his memories of who he is supposed to be, so we must have intersected at some point, maybe that time in 1965. If he is not me, he must be around here somewhere, since he is unchanging. And I must be another Self, so two Selves. And if there can be two Selves that I identify as me, aren’t there likely to be more? But I know that guy used to be me, so what happened? The mind not able to wrap itself around any of this, exhausted, all the Selves shatter and what is left is nothing but the recognition of change, a continual relentless flux of the whole universe morphing into new forms. Even as the idea arises that this is me, all the parts and their relations are already morphing into something else. Any Self that tries to hold onto itself does not fit into the way things really are, is no more than the product of a very active imagination trying to find something solid in an ocean of change. It is silly to try to hang onto something I never was and could not possibly be.

Thinking this way gives me the ability to lighten up, … and to sound very philosophical while I’m at it.

Just when I had not only resigned myself to no longer being a youth, or a Self, but also thought I was joyfully present with this reality, one of the monks at Sagaing told me he thought I was already 70! That suddenly propelled me back to Square One. I began to picture myself in the upcoming spring once again zipping around Austin on a skateboard wearing full burgundy robes.

Alms Round in America?

January 28, 2014

Adapted from my autobio for publication in our monastery newsletter.

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

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

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

“I did,” he responded.

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

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

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

Whew, this venerable argued an awfully strong case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

 

 

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

Adherents

2 Sanghas, specialists, “Adepts”

Basis

Vinaya (+Path)

Quality

Authentic

Content

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

Adherents

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

Basis

Vinaya (+Path) Refuges

Quality

Authentic Consistent

Content

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.

Calgary Kids

August 20, 2013

Last month I got back from three weeks in Calgary, Canada, where I was invited to teach a daily class on Buddhism to the Burmese kids. Here we are:

2013-07-10 2013-07-10 001 004After each class adults provided snacks, such as popcorn.

The great advantage I have in teaching kids, aside from being a father, is that the kids speak English better than they speak Burmese and are quite acculturated. Although the pressures of modern life allow the parents to spend less time with their kids than their counterparts in the homeland do, they pick up an abiding respect for Buddhism if not much understanding of it. Many of the questions they have about it are very familiar to me as a Westerner, like “Why all the bows?”

A short time before my departure a few of the boys in the class ordained as temporary novice monks and lived at the monastery for a few days.

SAM_4522rightThis is a traditional rite of passage for Burmese boys. I gives them an opportunity to experience what it like to be part of the Sangha, and receive respect (for a change) and offerings (which I guess they already get)  from their lay parents.

Anti-Muslim Monks

July 1, 2013

A lot of people ask me about reports of anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar, since I live at a Burmese monastery and they assume I might have special inside knowledge. With the appearance of a new cover story in Time magazine on this topic, let me say here what I can figure out about this.

As far as I can see the coverage in the Western press has been worse than deplorable, and at the same time violent incidents are real as is anti-Muslim sentiment in much of the Buddhist population of Myanmar. The involvement of Burmese monks is very small, yet it also does exist.

First, it is important to keep in mind that the phrases Buddhist extremist and Buddhist fundamentalist are meaningless in this context. Any expression of hatred for a group of people is simply unBuddhist. The Buddha never endorsed hatred or violence under any circumstances, ever, even in self-defense. He never condemned other faiths. There is simply nothing in Buddhism, even with the most assiduous cherry-picking, that one could be fundamentalist or extreme about and produce a justification for violence. The violence is entirely in spite of Buddhism, not because of it. Still, we are not all perfect Buddhists.

The social roots of the violence are complex. Many Burmese express surprise that the recent violence has erupted, since “Buddhists and Muslims have lived peacefully together for many years,” to quote an ethnic Mon monk I was talking to about this just today. Still I have heard derogatory comments about Muslims among Burmese since before the present violence. There are differences in the value systems of Islam and Buddhism which may are bound to make some people judgmental. For instance, Buddhists are protective of animal life so most butchers in Myanmar are Muslims. Buddhists purchase meat from the butchers, then look down on them for killing the meat.

Most of the violence has centered in Rakhain State directed against Rohingya Muslims who have immigrated from Bangladesh starting under British rule. It is hard to sort out the dynamics of this conflict, but it seems to involve immigration policy and competition for land resources in an already extremely poor population, particularly as more Rohingyas have entered Burma due to flooding in Bangladesh. It does not help that there are reports of oppression against the Buddhist minority on the Bangladeshi side of the border. Myanmar was marked by ethnic violence primarily as minorities have taken up arms against a brutal regime. Myanmar is also in a period of transition toward a more open society after years of brutal military rule. Many countries that have experienced such a transition seem to experience an abrupt bubbling up of long suppressed tensions. Yugoslavia is an example from the 90’s. In Rakhain State we find violence on both sides, generally following an old pattern of tit-for-tat, exaggerated by rumor, escalating until the majority party does something extreme.

The Western press has tended simply to ignore the social causes and attribute violence directly to Buddhist hatred of Muslims. I see this in story after story. When monks are brought into the stories it is almost always as instigators of violence. When the government is brought into the stories it is almost always as an indifferent or biased party. Rarely covered are the efforts of monks and the government to mitigate the violence or to protect the Muslim population from violence. This is more than inaccurate reporting; it contributes directly to the ignorance and rumors that lead to further violence, implicating the press itself in the violence in the next-to-worst way.

Of course any contribution of monks to hatred or violence is particularly disturbing, to Buddhists around the world, and to me personally as a monk ordained in the Burmese tradition. I know many Burmese monks, a few of which have sometimes to my alarm expressed anti-Muslim sentiments. However I have never heard one endorse violence in any way; consistently they deplore the violence, and many deplore anti-Muslim sentiment as well.

The Western press focuses repeatedly on this same monk, Ashin Wirathu, who appears on the new cover of Time magazine as the “face of Buddhist terror.” However I have never found in the Western stories anywhere where Ashin Wirathu has directly advocated violence against Muslims (let me know if you know of such a quote), rather his agenda seems to be a peaceful economic boycott against Muslim businesses. His rhetoric is clearly hateful, and he is reported for reasons I cannot make any logical sense of to call himself a Buddhist Osama bin Laden. But I don’t think this qualifies as terrorism. Incidentally, if a monk advocates an act of killing and thereby causes someone else to carry out that act, that monk has thereby just disrobed, according to the ancient monastic code. Ashin Wirathu certainly knows this.

I would like to highlight my own preceptor, Sitagu Sayadaw, as a more moderate, typical and influential monastic voice in Myanmar than Ashin Wirathu.  I have never seen Sitagu Sayadaw mentioned in the Western press with regard to this issue in spite of his eminence. The following are links to a press release that he issued concerning the violence, in somewhat imperfect English, and a story from the South China Morning Post in which he is quoted at the end of a story that gives voice to other sensible monks as well.

Communal Violence Condemned by Sitagu Sayadaw

Myanmar Monks Say Most Oppose Anti-Muslim Campaign

As Buddhists our primary task is the perfection of human character. We become mindful of every intention and seek to address any tendency toward greed, hatred or delusion. Except for the rare arahant, we fall short of the aspiration, but we keep trying in a very complex and ensnarling world. Part of this task is the perfection of kindness, at which point it shines on all without bias, even on those who might wish us harm.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Negotiating the Dharma

March 11, 2013

Uposatha Day, New Moon, March 11, 2012

Chapter 8. Negotiating the Dharma

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 one is likely to make on the Buddhist Path will be directly correlated with what is given up or curtailed: the physical trappings of life, relations and obligation like fame and car ownership, self-view, identity or being somebody, behaviors like partying flirtatiously, and particularly the clinging emotions rooted in greed or anger. The practice of the Noble Ones has been no more and no less than a long process of disentanglement strand by strand from soap-operatic existence, a process of progressive renunciation. This makes little sense to normal folk.

The Noble Ones extol Awakening as the highest attainment, one that entails not only the complete eradication of personal desire and aversion as motivating factors and ultimately the elimination of intentional action altogether, completely relinquishing the quest for personal advantage. They practice kindness to their worst enemies. People of the folk culture can only scratch their heads and blink their eyes.

For the Noble Ones it is like being surrounded by fools, as if having entered Alice’s looking glass almost everyone around them is intent on doing everything backwards. To go up they go down, to go fast they go slow. To become happy they want. When they get what they want, yet are still unhappy, they think they must therefore need more. When out of greed or hatred someone does harm to another, they respond with hatred, not kindness but hatred. When something burns they pour on gasoline to quench the flames. The Noble Ones can only scratch their heads and blink their eyes.
The Buddhism of the Noble Ones mixes with 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.

A Variety of Negotiations

It Core Buddhism is the oil and folk culture the water, then Folk Buddhism is the dispersant. It plays a central and difficult role in making Buddhism culturally relevant and accessible. Folk Buddhism has one foot in Core Buddhism because it places its trust and veneration in the Triple Gem, even while it has yet to fully explored the depths of what they have to offer. It has its other foot in the folk culture, which informs most of its values and defines most of its behaviors. Folk Buddhism is thereby in negotiation with radically different systems of thought and practice. Yet this gives Buddhism a significant presence in the society and influence in its affairs.

Folk Buddhism is in a very real sense a kind of watered down Buddhism. Its means of expression are accessible to the folk culture and many of the more obscure or objectionable (from the folk perspective) teachings of Core Buddhism are glossed over or disappear altogether, with some awareness on the part of the Folk Buddhist that they are there somewhere to be learned from the Adepts when the opportunity arises. Folk Buddhism is far less challenging than Core Buddhism and much more reassuring to people’s lifestyles as they are currently constituted. Nonetheless at the same time it helps people over time gently ease toward the path of liberation as it conveys values and practices in the language of the folk culture that reflect or support parts of Core Buddhism.

Core Buddhism is actually mediated by its teachers and representatives, the Adepts. The Adepts are therefore also negotiate with two distinct parties, Core and Folk. It is in the negotiation of the Adept Buddhists with Core Buddhism that the integrity of the local Buddhism can be said to be preserved or to fail. The implicit demand is that Adept Buddhism is authentic, that it is consistent with and inclusive of Core Buddhism.

The structure of this communication is held in place traditionally by the Buddhist community, particularly the Sangha and by the Refuges as we have discussed.

The Adepts’ Conversation with Core Buddhism

This is the most important negotiation of all for without it everything falls apart. Core Buddhism is the standard of authenticity. It is in its conversation with Core Buddhism that the Adepts maintain the ultimate integrity of the Buddhist enterprise. It is the Sangha’s obligation to let the Dhamma-Vinaya be their teacher and I will assume that this obligation extends to the non-monastic Adepts as well. We have seen that what constitutes the Dhamma-Vinaya a moving target: Core Buddhism is an understanding kept in place by scriptural sources, tradition, experience and attainment, dialog among the Adepts and increasingly through scholarship. Noble Ones are its most important arbiters. The integrity of Buddhism is only fully realized in the Adepts’ conversation with Core Buddhism, but as we will see there is a more limited integrity that can be realized in Folk Buddhism as well.

NegotiatingNebulaIt is only to the extent that the Adepts adhere to Core Buddhism, and leave nothing out, that Folk Buddhism is anchored in authentic teachings. If the Adepts preach a corrupted Buddhism, or if there are no Adepts venerated by the Folk Buddhists as the authorities on matters of Dharma, then the comet loses its head and will drift apart as various cultic bubbles in every direction, much like a nova, the remnants of an exploded star. Because the Core teachings of Buddhism are so sophisticated and so radical they are also fragile and vulnerable to mis- and re-interpretation. This is a reason the Buddha instituted the monastic Sangha to ensure that there are Noble Ones and adherents of the Core teachings they preserve, so that Folk Buddhism has an anchor and the Dhamma will not be lost.

Adept Buddhism is the expert understanding as it is presented to the Folk Buddhists. Ideally it manifests Core Buddhism. However the Adept Buddhists are also in conversation with the Folk Buddhist culture and generally were themselves raised as Folk Buddhists. The Adepts have almost invariably throughout history become so through the monastic path. Today in Western Buddhism, on the other hand, lay teachers predominate, or at least those not fully ordained into the Sangha, such as priests in Japanese traditions. In many places the Adepts might in fact have an incomplete or faltering understanding or practice of Core Buddhism, or have altered Core Buddhism in order to accommodate some nonnegotiable features of the local culture.

The Adepts Tell Folks What’s What

A sincere Buddhists will generally take seriously the advice of the Adepts and develop understandings, practices and a way of life partly under the influence of that advice. After a time these factors will fall roughly into three groups:

(1) friendly,
(2) neutral and
(3) unfriendly.

This factors are figuratively friendly, neutral or unfriendly toward Core Buddhism, but more immediately friendly, neutral or unfriendly to the owner of these factors himself, since whether he realizes it or not they correlate with the benefit to their owner as well as to those who benefit from or fall victim to his actions.

In brief, the Adepts advice will be aimed at improving (1) and getting rid of (3), but probably will not concern itself much with (2). The friendly factors either will be as taught by the Adepts or will represent close and sufficient approximations thereto that have been imperfectly understood by the Folk Buddhist. The neutral factors most likely derive from the folk culture but are harmless, and may be shared by the Adept Buddhist, who is likely to have grown up in that culture. The unfriendly factors conflict with Core Buddhism and may arise through the influence of seismically contradictory values that have made there way from folk culture into Folk Buddhism, or simply popular misunderstandings of Buddhism.

The friendly factors generally begin with those learned at a young age in community. Most critical are the Refuges, since these anchor Fold Buddhism in Core Buddhism. Teachings in generosity and virtue may be absorbed, and probably an appreciation of the goal of higher Buddhist practice and an appreciation of the personal qualities of the Buddha and the Noble Ones. For those intent on the Path, wisdom teachings, a meditation practice and a very simple lifestyle that encourages contentment may be acquired and developed. And of course all of this can lead eventually to Adeptness.

The neutral factors include almost all those cultural accretions dripping in religiosity. Often these accrete around friendly factors as well.  For instance, it is common among the Burmese, a fundamentally animist culture, to attribute magical powers to senior monks of great attainment. The presence of monks is generally regarded as enormously good luck and making offerings to monks, particularly offering a meal to monks, is karmically hugely meritorious. Offerings are often made on auspicious occasions such as weddings and birthdays, as well as periods of misfortune when people feel they need a karmic boost.

A Burmese doctor in Texas a specialist in sleeping disorders, was delighted to be able to offer her services for free to a visiting Burmese monk who suffered from sleep apnea, which required that he stay overnight in a specially outfitted room hooked up to various monitors. She was particularly pleased with the auspiciousness that he was the inaugural patient of a new room they had just added to their lab. This was a doctor.

A frequent visitor to our monastery, also in Texas, who likes to come on weekends to prepare food for the monks, was up late one night and spotted a monk standing in the air above one of the new buildings near where the new pagoda was beginning construction. She called other people hither who indeed verified the presence of this monk in the sky, only now he was meditating. It was generally agreed that this monk had teletransported from Burma. A couple of weeks later I heard the story retold and it turned out that the monk in question was our own founder, who lives in Burma, checking out a new construction site.

These are all neutral factors, or even mildly friendly understandings since they may serve to encourage reverence for the Third Gem. Asian Folk Buddhisms tend to embellish the Triple Gem quite a bit, often  turning them from objects of reverence to objects of deep devotion and worship, often wrapping mythology around the objects, stories of supernatural forces and miracles, and in the case of the Buddha a kind of cosmic existence. These embellishments, although often not easily transmitted to dissimilar cultures, nonetheless generally remain close to the function of the Triple Gem in Adept Buddhism in that they serve to enhance the authority of Adept Buddhism, to inspire and make the mind that much more open to its influence.

Although an upstanding member of a dissimilar culture I find in myself a playful enough disposition to enjoy these things — I’ve even been coerced to talk to tree spirits in Texas when there was a concern that they might not understand Burmese. — but I cannot say that I have assimilated them into my world view, nor do I feel obliged to assimilate them. In fact in many cases it is the Burmese monks who correct Folk errant views of the efficacy of rites or rituals by pointing out quite rationally that there is no magic involved beyond the positive mental attitudes then invoke in the beneficiary.

An unfriendly yet common view in Western Folk Buddhism has direct relevance to the broad topic of Religiosity. Not infrequently a Western Buddhist is moved to reject a list of things, almost in the same breath, that are found both in Buddhism throughout Asia and also quite characteristically in much Western religion:

“Organized religion, hierarchy, bah!”
“Religious authority, priests, monks, rules, humbug!”
“Religious imagery, sacred objects, twaddle!”
“Religious doctrine, poppycock!”
“Rituals, bows, balderdash!”

This has developed into a broad-based but not entirely homogeneous movement, often called Secular Buddhism, in which the targets of criticism taken as a whole correspond remarkably closely to what I have heaped under the category “Religiosity.” Also often included in the attack is the notion of transcendence as well the presence of cultural elements of Asian origin in Western Buddhism. It might well be characterized as a collection of pet peeves, since individually Secular Buddhists may be quite tolerant to some “religious” elements and quite biting in their criticism of others.

Furthermore, these pet peeves are often attached to alarmingly vehement assertions that the Buddha never taught such things at all. The view has even been espoused that the Buddha was really a Twenty-First Century man caught in the wrong time and place and that every Asian tradition made a huge muddle of his teachings, but that Twenty-First Century Westerners will finally vindicate them.
This attack on religiosity simply flies in the face of Core Buddhism as I have abundantly attested here and certainly enjoys no scriptural support. They are twaddle and, uh, poppycock. So where did they come from? If they did not come through Adept Buddhism they must have come from Western folk culture.

We don’t have to look far to see the origin of the rejection of Buddhist religiosity. It has “Reformation” written all over it; these are the very things that Protestant Christians objected to in the Catholic Church and sought if not to eliminate altogether at least to challenge and minimize. This Protestant confrontation with the structure and practices of the hugely hierarchical and therefore easily corruptible Catholic Church has a bitter and painful history in Europe, including thirty years of bloody warfare, and has certainly left deep religious scars on Northern European and thereby North American and otherwise geographically situated consciousness.  Of course that particular conflict had nothing to do with Buddhism, which has its own history and radically distinct structure of authority.

This view is unfriendly because it undermines a number of aspects of Core Buddhism, including the institutional Sangha and the structure of the Buddhist community as laid out in the Vinaya, established expressions of respect, Dhamma and the culturally fashioned implementations of Dhamma practices. In short, it is a view with little sense of gratitude for the past nor responsibility for the future.
Folk Buddhists Negotiate with the Folk Culture

A challenge to Folk Buddhism is the danger of succumbing to the onslaught those personal and cultural factors of the wider society that cause the distress and suffering Core Buddhism is intended to resolve. 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 Core Buddhism. For instance, Folk Buddhism might begin to assume much of the materialism, acquisitiveness or intolerance of 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, for commercial interests or as a means of controlling public opinion and legitimizing the illegitimate.

An unfriendly factor that all Western Folk Buddhists encounter in their negotiations with the general folk culture is the culture of consumerism.  Consumerism in some form has probably been a part of almost all folk cultures, but took on a particularly virulent form with the rise of the commercial marketing industry and public relations starting in America in the early Twentieth Century, which developed the art of mass manipulation of human drives to specific ends and has since gone global. It was discovered that desire and craving could be stimulated to increase market demand and that fear and hatred could be stimulated to promote a war or a political movement. Stimulation largely played upon the irrational, emotional and delusive aspects of human cognition rather than upon clear rational thinking, which was discovered to be not only harder to manipulate but in much shorter supply than anyone had ever imagined.

Now, from the perspective of Core Buddhism this is all 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 lead to bottomless depths of human misery. This conclusion is clearly verified in lands like America in the generally feeling of impoverishment even in the midst of wealth, the enormous degree of drug and alcohol abuse, the rate of suicide, the huge market for antidepressants, the ubiquity of daily fear, the widespread unraveling of social networks, the dissolution of  families and the renewed strength of class and racial oppression. And in the presence of so much stuff, we are choking on it. Ultimately this order has produced endless war, poverty for much of the world’s population and brought us to the brink of ecological collapse.

In moments of distraction Folk Buddhists may lose their exemption from the allure of the consumer culture. It is Adept Buddhism’s responsibility to bring the wisdom into Folk lives that recognizes the dangers and encourages the escape from the ravages of consumer culture. In the West many come to Buddhism partly out of an appropriate fear of the consumer culture in which they were raised.
Often historically it is the wider folk culture that succumbs to the onslaught of wholesome Buddhist influences conveyed primarily through the Folk Buddhists. Buddhism has often been regarded as a civilizing force in the world. It is perhaps telling of the popular perception of Buddhism that the British economist E.L. Shumacher, not himself a Buddhist, in considering an alternative to the consumer economy, “economics as if people mattered,” called his model “Buddhist Economics.”

Folks Edify the Adepts

The dialog between the Adepts and the Folk Buddhists also works both ways. 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 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, in other words, act like lay people, then the laity tends to become disinterested in providing 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, once relented to Folk Buddhist demands with admirable discretion with words that still echo from yester-chapter, “Monks, householders need blessings.” In fact even in Burma many monks eschew worship of tree spirits and of relics as not pure Buddhism. King (1964, p. 59) reports of a monastic sect that that tried to eliminate pagoda worship and worship of images of the Buddha and were met with hostility on the part of the laity until the sect disappeared.

There appear at times to be critical points where Core Buddhism does not have its way, where values contrary to Core Buddhism are so entrenched in the culture that they cannot be dislodged and must be accommodated somehow within Adept Buddhism. Toe meets thorn. We have seen one such point that was reached in China where the Core Buddhist value of home-leaving ran right up against the unshakable value that family represented for the 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.

Another such point sees to have been reached even at the time of the Buddha or shortly thereafter, and also 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 a fundamental principle of Core Buddhism. It was inevitable that it would step on the thorn 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 (Dinsmore, 2013), but let me summarize.

Evidence of the first point is that the Buddha stated that women were as capable of Awakening as men, that he created a women’s Sangha, with 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. His 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 that commonly associated in that culture 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 Original Buddhism is not strictly speaking Core Buddhism. It is compromised not according to principle but for pragmatic means, to sustain harmony with Folk Buddhism. This is the function of Adept Buddhism: to adhere as closely to Core Buddhism as possible, to teach according to Core Buddhism wherever possible, but to be willing to compromise when necessary. Sometimes Adept Buddhism must adapt and adopt.  Original Buddhism is the Buddha’s Adept Buddhism.

Neutral elements of Folk Buddhism seem to enter Adept Buddhism quite readily. Since Adept Buddhists generally start out as wee Folk Buddhists and in their studies of Core 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 exorcizing ghosts as part of their routine tasks, or simply incorporating folk customs and artifacts into the manner of performing various tasks. If an Adept tradition travels to a culturally distinct land these neutral elements may lose their currency. The Asian teachers that have been particularly successful in transmitting Buddhism to the West, for instance, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Chogyam Trungpa and Thich Nhat Hanh, I speculate, are teachers with a good sense of what is Core Buddhism and what is a cultural accretion. Most Adepts forget. The culturally determined features that they retained even in the West, the clothing, the incense, the bowing, many ritual practices, the rules of etiquette, and so on, by this account would be ones that have been integrated into the functions of Core Buddhism. For instance, when Buddhism came to China it encountered a highly ritualized culture which provided rich resources for the practice of mindfulness, that were then carried along as a part of Adept Buddhism. Western standards of scholarship and pedagogy similarly are already quickly finding their way into Adept Buddhism and into the understanding and interpreting of Core Buddhist concepts with profound and beneficial consequences.

A different kind of influence on Adapt Buddhism has not yet been mentioned: government interference, 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 monks of whose waywardness he was advised. In the Nineteenth Century King Yule Brenner of Thailand 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 in 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 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.

When Adepts Make a Desperate Appeal to Folk Buddhists

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. The Buddhist adepts cannot afford to be so aloof; they are expected to teach the regular folks and make a direct difference in their lives. Yet they also require a degree of isolation from popular taste and current affair lest these draw them afield o the core teachings of the Buddha. And in fact the Buddha demanded that 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 why Buddhism has had a scant history of proselytization.

In the late Nineteenth Century there began a particular strong movement among the adepts to bring Buddhism into line with Western tastes, a movement motivated largely by politics, and a movement not of Western origin but of Eastern. The European colonial empires in Asia presented a challenge to Asian culture in general and to the Buddhism in particular and Buddhist adepts most notably in Ceylon and Japan took up the challenge. The challenge was the presumption of the superiority of Western culture in general, along with Western science and technology, and of the Christian faith in particular. These were desperate times for a dispirited East. Buddhist adepts 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. The result was a renewed confidence for Asians in the strength of their own culture and faith, and an explosion of interest in Buddhism in the West. Shaku Soen Roshi of Japan and Anagarika Dhammapala of Ceylon were figures identified with this movement on the Asian side, and D.T. Suzuki took up the banner in the early Twentieth Century. Colonal Oltcutt of America and Rhys-Davids were Western figures who responded favorably to this movement.

This movement certainly provided a big boost for Buddhism around the world. The question naturally arises: Was this movement purely on the level? That is, To what extend did this movement stretch the authenticity of Adept Buddhism? Or an alternative question: To what extend did this movement breath new life into the calcified thinking of Adept Buddhism by opening alternative interpretations of Core principles and fresh options for the implementation of Core functionalities?

In the meantime the media of negotiation have changed radically in the last century. Buddhist teachings once passed quietly from the Adepts to the Folks and the Folks, hearts opened to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, encountered monastics on their alms rounds or approached them at their monasteries with questions or in order to hear Dharma talks, or simply learned to emulate their demeanor, their behavior, the simplicity of their lives and their kindness. The Dhamma was always offered freely, never as a means of livelihood (Once when a layperson declared he was offering a meal in recompense for the Buddha’s offered teaching, the Buddha refused to teach!), and therefore was honest and direct, unbiased by Folk understandings. One’s development as a disciple of the Buddha build organically from community involvement to climbing the stem of intensive practice toward the flower of Nibbana.

Today 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 appeal most, mixing and matching the various options much as they do with home furnishings or kitchen utensils. This is the way of the modern marketplace. Teachers and authors correspondingly fall 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.

Information, good information, about Buddhism is available as never before. Along with improving standards of eductation this should be a great boon for Buddhism. However the model of dissemination raises questions: Can the disciple of the Buddha develop in a organic way? Can the adepts convey the teachings in a direct, honest and complete way? Can the adepts engaged in the teaching marketplace maintain a clear connection and dialog with Core Buddhism? If the answer to any of the foregoing is “no,” what do we do about it?

The market produces a saleable  Buddhism. This will almost inevitably be a less than radical Buddhism, one that fails to challenge the assumptions of the folk culture in any way that might make too many shoppers uncomfortable. Renunciation and restraint, fundamental Buddhist concepts, will likely be relegated to the fringes of the Folk Buddhist vocabulary and consumerism as a life style will remain unchallenged.

The market produces a piecemeal Buddhism. Buddhist nuggets of wisdom and practice are added one piece at time, for instance, adding a meditation practice much as one would add a regular gym workout or skydiving lessons, without otherwise substantially changing any other parts of one’s life. Just as American homes and lives become cluttered with market products, Folk Buddhist lives become more cluttered with the accumulation of practices and teachings. Progress in Buddhist practice will add but rarely subtract anything. Renunciation (all about subtraction) therefore will find no place, and practices of virtue and generosity little because there would be nothing to acquire. Mixing and matching of freely selected teachings and practices will damage the coherence of  a Core in which all the parts of the practices are intended to work together as a unified organic whole. The piecemeal accumulation of spiritual products will largely exclude plunging boldly into a new way of life or taking on a Buddhist way of being in the world as the defining framework into which the details of one’s life are to be integrated. There is accordingly generally little mention in American Folk Buddhism of faith or vow, nor of aspects of Buddhism as a community project, nor a deep understanding of the Triple Gem. There will be little opportunity for Buddhism to shake one’s life to the core.

The market produces an impersonal Buddhism. When Buddhism is sold, an opportunity for generosity is lost on the part of the seller, and a resource that could be turned to generosity is lost on the part of the buyer. Instead a mutually self-interested exchange takes place. A global market undermines communities in this and many ways.

Conclusions

All over the world people are expounding Buddhism, in tea shops in Burma where people draw on the previous lives of the Buddha in evidence, in lectures at German universities where professors hold forth on text analysis of ancient documents, in paying respects to nuns in temples in Taiwan where questions are posed, in monasteries in Texas where young novice monks receive instruction, not far away in Texas where recent Western enthusiasts sit in a circle and relate their personal meditation experiences to one another, deep in forests where a young monk after weeks of search finds the legendary meditation master and requests instruction, in temples, in monasteries and in pagodas where people recite ancient texts together, in books, in blogs, in recorded Dharma talks, in Hollywood movies, in phone counseling sessions.

Just as people expound Buddhism in many languages — Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Thai, Spanish, French — they expound Buddhism blended and washed over with, and understood in terms of, elements of many different cultures — animist, Taoist, Confucian, European Romantic, Western Materialist, Punk, Geek. All of this shapes and reshapes Buddhism, and over many centuries has produced a rich literature of many alternative selections of sacred texts.

However, none of this generally degrades the integrity of Buddhism because Buddhism has a strong anchor, an anchor secured in the Adepts’ adherence to Core Buddhism, most traditionally in the Third Gem. And the Refuges provide the chain that keeps the ship of Buddhism from going completely adrift. This is what allows Buddhism in spite of its radical message to hang on in almost any cultural context. And it all depends once again on the sun, water, soil and a community with roots in a life of Dharmic purity.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Folk Buddhism

March 4, 2013

Uposatha Day, March 5, 2013

Index to Series

Chapter 7. Folk Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism

Let’s get sociological.

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

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

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

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

Adept Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of Adept Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folk Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of Folk Buddhism.

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

In one way of accounting offering one person a meal counts as offering one hundred dogs a meal, offering one novice a meal counts as offering one hundred regular people a meal and offering one fully ordained monk a meal counts as offering one hundred novices a meal! In any case, there is a bias toward generosity with a dharmic basis and little attention to the actual needs of the recipient. There are cases in which a meditating forest monk who gains a reputation as an arahant, partly on the evidence of his secluded lifestyle and of the modesty of his personal needs, becomes the recipient of multiple cottages built by various donors on his behalf, all of which stand unused, but which have presumably generated much merit for their donors. Contributing the building of a pagoda is also considered very meritorious, while for some reason contributing to the repair of an old pagoda is much less so, and as a result Burma is a land of shiny new pagodas next to old dilapidated ones.  A wealthy person is generally regarded a having much more opportunity to gain merit than a poor person and this is one of the reasons rebirth as a wealthy person is considered to be desirable, though the sense of sacrifice, of creating personal hardship through generous deeds is also considered particularly meritorious.

What is missing in this is any  reference to one’s intentions, which from the perspective of Core Buddhism is all that counts. In fact if an outward act of generosity is motivated purely by desire for personal benefit then it carries no merit. If a poor person acts out of the same kindness as a rich person but can only afford 1% of the expenditure, the merit is the same. Monks generally understand this are are often at great pains to explain this to the laity, but traditional was of calculating merits run deep. People little understanding naturally live in a world of observables, not in an internal world of perceptions, feelings and intentions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An American Walks into a Chinese Temple

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

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

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

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

Uposatha Day Post 1/5/2013

January 5, 2013

 

Buddhist Rules and Culture

The Vinaya, the First Basket of early Buddhist teachings is the Code for Monks and Nuns, the rules, regulations, policies and procedures by which the monastic Sangha lives. Although this is intended to be studied and followed only by those who have taken monastic vows I have gotten interested in the ways that they shape the broader Buddhist culture, Purisa and Sangha alike. There is no doubt that they were intended to do exactly this.

One example of this is the regulation prohibiting a monk from touching a woman, that is, “engage in bodily contact with a woman, in holding her hand, in holding a lock of her hair or in caressing any of her limbs” when “overcome by lust, with an altered mind.” (Sanghadisesa 2). Although this was enacted after a particularly ill-behaved monk did exactly this but totally unsolicited and unwelcome, the letter of the rule is violated through the mere coincidence of lustful intent and touch, which can arise together in an instant, and carries the harsh implication of a Sanghadisesa. Naturally great care is taken around this rule.

Although only a monk can violate this rule (there is a symmetrical rule for bhikkhunis), in Burma laywomen comply with this rule in a way that makes it easy for the monk not to violate. A Burmese Buddhist woman would never even think of touching a monk. If a monk needs to pass through a restricted space Burmese women are very quick to provide ample space and will alert others who might have their back turned. Burmese take great care that a monk is not seated next to a woman, for instance when a group is traveling in a car. Last week a couple of women undertook to make my bed here in Calgary after having washed the sheets, and I happened to notice them looking perplexed after having pulled the bottom sheet tight at three corners but unable to reach the far corner bordering on two walls. One of them ran into the other room and returned with her husband who climbed on the bed to perform the fourth stretch. I realized that in the minds of the women it would have been a violation of the monk’s space to climb on the bed, even his absence. This is how a monk’s rule not only invokes lay compliance, but evolves into a set of cultural norms about lay behavior.

A Burmese woman has no problem handing something to a monk as an offering as long as fingers do not touch, and sometimes they might inadvertently. In Thailand however a woman will  place what is to be offered on a cloth lying on a table or other surface so that the monk can then receive it by pulling the cloth toward him. This goes far beyond the letter of the relevant rule but seems to have evolved as an embellishment to a cultural norm around a monastic rule. Someone recently reported that Thich Nhat Hanh seemed to have no inhibition about holding hands during a mindfulness walk and sure enough when I checked there he was on Youtube holding hands with a little girl. Technically this does not violate the letter of the precept unless lust arises in Thay’s 85-year-old heart, and is more typical of the looser way in which Buddhists in Mahayana cultures tend to observe precepts or are willing to adjust them to circumstances.

Just as in some cultures many rules are interpreted in a manner stricter than the letter of the rule, often rules are interpreted more lax manner. Burmese routinely make small cash contributions to monks for the purchase of unanticipated requirements, taking care to place such a donation in an envelope. The Vinaya makes clear that a monk cannot receive money in any manner even if “wrapped in a wad of blankets,” but cash may be given to a lay steward on the monk’s behalf who they can use it to purchase material goods to offer to the monk. Furthermore regulations regarding transportation and clothing have been adjusted throughout the Buddhist world according to modern circumstances. Eating of meat is permitted in the original Vinaya, except that if a monk “sees, hears or suspects that it has been killed for him, he may not eat it.” Since the purpose of this qualification seems to be not to implicate a monk in the killing of animals, but to allow him to accept what is offered graciously when lay people wish to share what they have already prepared for themselves, it seems that the an appropriate understanding of this in the modern era of refrigeration and mass distribution of meat would seem to be, “that if he “sees, hears or suspects that it has been killed or purchased for him, he may not eat it..” After all, when a chicken is taken from a supermarket shelf another must be killed to replace it. However this is a rare understanding in Theravada countries. In East Asian Mahayana countries a stricter understanding has prevailed for many centuries: Monks don’t eat meat and they are not offered meat.

In the non-Buddhist West such rules have of course no cultural recognition whatever. The monk is on his own. The most immediate challenge to an Asian monk up arriving in, oh, say, Austin, Texas or in Calgary, Alberta, is as one Burmese monk once put it to me with great distress in his voice, “American women like to … hug!” The challenge for the monk is to avoid the coincidence of lust and touch. If he is not quick enough to avoid the latter he might need quick and very complete control of the senses. Actually technically this will not result in a violation if the monk stands there like a wet fish because in that case he is not complicit as an agent in the action. But that will make of him a disappointing hugging partner indeed. (Western men should take similar care not to hug Buddhist nuns.)

The greatest impact of the monastic rules for a Buddhist culture at large undoubtedly comes in connection with offerings of requisites, particularly food, to monks and nuns. Monastic rules remove every right to a livelihood, to any participation in the exchange economy, to growing or cooking one’s own food or even to storing offered food for the next day. For a monk to follow these rules requires very attentive compliance on the part of the laity; the monk is totally dependent on the laity and totally helpless without its kind offerings. Very rich cultural traditions have grown around this relationship and indeed it places the practice of generosity (dana) right at the center of the Buddhist community, a practice monks enjoy as well and that spills into all areas of the life of a Buddhist community.