Archive for the ‘Lay practice’ Category

Growing the Dharma: Preface

August 4, 2013

Hmmm, the hits to this blog are in sharp decline. This is certainly because I have rarely posted in recent weeks, and in fact intend to do no writing until after vassa (rains retreat). Lest this blog realize final liberation before the rest of us, I have come up with the idea of serializing my ebook, Growing the Dharma. So here begins my serialization in bite-size  perhaps weekly segments. Much of this material has appeared on this blog before, which will lead some loyal long-time readers on a walk down memory lane, though never in such a polished and integrated form as in its present re-embodiment.

Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework


I’m spiritual but not religious!”

We’ve all heard this statement, generally along with an off-hand dismissal of “organized religion.”

Westerners often see polarity between the personal and the social. We love the lone individualist, including the spiritual virtuoso who boldly takes the path less traveled. We love it when Buddhism exalts that spiritual virtuoso, the light unto himself, the one who retreats from city or village life to explore in solitude life’s questions, an ideal well represented in the life of Buddha himself, who after much travail shattered the constraints to which the common person is subject. We love these guys but we have trouble reconciling them with temple life, the chanting, the bows, the hierarchy, the postures, the robes.

I wrote this booklet because I have become convinced that we Westerners often have little sense of the relationship between the spiritual and the religious, and that we have been limping along in a kind of disembodied Buddhism as a result. In fact the Buddha was not only a great psychologist but also a great social thinker whose vision of the ideal society resulted in what has become the oldest human institution on the planet.

Our misunderstanding begins with a failure to appreciate just how radically different this lone individual who has broken free is from the rest of us. He has broken through not so much social constraints as his own human nature, bursting the limitations of hundreds of millions of years of evolution that have otherwise produced frightened, greedy, hateful and confused beings, and has instead entered the rationalized and ethicized awareness of the Noble Ones. In our misunderstanding we then fail to appreciate the critical importance of the social context necessary, both to produce the conditions in which Noble Ones might arise, and to carry their civilizing influence into the world at large, a social context born with the Awakening of the Buddha and taught by the Buddha, our great teacher, as the Sasana (roughly, Buddhist movement) that has carried the flame of what he discovered to light one hundred generations of Buddhism.

I wrote this little book in order to develop readers’ appreciation of the reach of the Buddha’s thought, to provide a more complete and organic view of what Buddhism subsumes, to describe the groundwork of Buddhism that is all too commonly dismissed in the West as “just religion” even while it is so intrinsic in the East that it hardly bears mentioning. At the same time I hope to develop tools for critically assessing Buddhist traditions, to see at what point the flames they carry begin to sputter, sometimes choked by the accretion of too much religiosity or by the incursion of many other popular notions.

It took me many years to come to the viewpoints represented in this book. As a Westerner, a former academic, not religiously trained as a child, I came to Buddhism initially in its Western manifestations with a rational secular mindset. The supernatural has never been a draw for me. Alan Watts and Stephen Batchelor were early influences on the Path. My early exposure to Western Soto Zen showed me a ritual world that initially made no sense to me at all.

In the end I was curious and open-minded enough to want to get to the experiential bottom of this ritual world, held my nose and jumped in bodily. I trained in the Suzuki Roshi tradition at the San Francisco Zen Center, lived at its monastery, Tassajara Mountain Center, was a founding member of its offshoot in Austin, Texas, where I subsequently ordained, learned almost all the ritual ins and outs and ceremonies, and came with time to appreciate the roles of these things in a particular form of Buddhist practice. Established as a Zen priest, very much concerned with the future of Buddhism in the West, my curiosity and modest reserve of open-mindedness extended to the many ethnically Asian temples found in Texas, California and elsewhere, which felt to me intriguingly different from Western centers.

Somehow innately interested almost from the beginning in monastic practice I also began studying the Vinaya, the traditional monastic code that goes back to the Buddha and a recognized pillar for Buddhism throughout Asia – except in Japan, in whose tradition I had ordained. I considered ordaining in a Vinaya tradition for many years but still clinging to worldly ways had many doubts about my own capacity for living a celibate life. The deciding straw arose after much study and contemplation with the realization that the Monastic Sangha is, by the Buddha’s design, the lynch pin of the Sasana. The conclusion seemed inescapable to me that without real monks and nuns practicing in the traditional way Buddhism was not going to make it in the West! It never has anywhere else, it will not here.

I resolved to myself, “It’s a clean job, but somebody has got to do it!”

I ordained as a bhikkhu (full monk) in Burma, lived there for over a year and have been living here at a Burmese monastery in Austin, Texas now for a number of years. Living embedded in a devoutly Buddhist Asian culture and one that is decidedly pre-modern, inhabiting a world full of magical forces and tree spirits, has given me an appreciation for Buddhism’s rare ability to blend with elements of folk culture, and yet at the same time retain its full integrity, particularly in the minds and lives of its most adept and respected representatives.

Were this an academic work I would at this point in the Preface thank the various foundations and institutions that have supported me during the process of research and composition. As a monastic that support is constantly there along with the freedom to structure my time and energy as I feel benefits the Sasana. Therefore I would like instead to thank the many donors and supporters of the Sitagu Buddha Vihara in Austin, Texas (USA), and of the Sitagu Dhamma Vihara in Maplewood, Minnesota (USA) and the Calgary Myanmar Temple (Alberta, Canada) and of the monks and nuns who have lived there. Your devotion inspires me. I want to thank Alan Cook and Kitty Johnson for proofreading and Prof. Tom Tweed for commenting on earlier draft and encouraging me to extend and consolidate certain metaphors.

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Austin, Texas, USA
July, 2013

The Buddhist Child and the Sangha

April 25, 2013

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, April 24, 2013

Traditionally Monastics have played a great and pervasive role in the way Buddhist kids are exposed to Buddhism. Of the three Gems the Sangha is the only that is a living breathing presence. The Sangha exemplifies and teaches and at the same time becomes an object of veneration, generosity and affection for the little Buddhist.

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

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

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

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

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

Lest my promotion of the Sangha be seen as impure horn-tooting mention that it comes not from representing that Gem but the other way around. In fact I considered ordaining in a Vinaya tradition for many years because my practice leaned me in that way. My name, “Cintita,” which means “good thinker,” was given to me because I thought about this very matter for so long. However, clinging to worldly ways I suffered from many doubts about my own capacity for living a celibate life or for representing the Sangha well. The deciding straw arose after much study and contemplation with the realization that the monastic sangha is, by the Buddha’s design, the lynchpin of the Sasana. This meant that without real monks and nuns practicing in the traditional way Buddhism was not going to make it in the West. It never has anywhere else. And so I resolved to myself, “It’s a clean job, but somebody has got to do it,” and finally ordained.

Now, we have a dilemma: How do we teach a child to venerate and befriend the Sangha, to learn from its way of life and from its teachings, when there is no Sangha at hand? I have a few suggestions:

1. The Sangha is in America, for one, hardly anywhere very far away. However it is mostly in culturally Asian temples. Visit some! Both language and culture may be challenges, but will make it a great experience for kids, like traveling the world with them in tow. Do not be alarmed if what passes for Buddhism does not look familiar; this is folk Buddhism, and will differ from Western folk Buddhism (seem my writings about folk Buddhism). The nuns or monks will almost certainly know a more sophisticated Buddhism, …  but might not speak English. Make contacts, see how it goes. You will learn a lot yourself.

2. Just as kids learn from the life of the Buddha, they can learn from the lives of monks and nuns. The Dalai Lama is a monk and movies have even been made about him. I played Kundun for a group of Burmese-American kids; there were fascinated by it. Zen about Dogen Zenji, or Spring, Summer, Autumn Winter about a fictional monk might also work.

3. Try to find Western monasteries and develop a long-distance relationship with one. Arrange so that your child can make a regular financial contribution; the amount is no issue. Make a project out of it, explain to your child what the money might be used for. Then make an occasional trip to the monastery, offer a meal or find an occasion where people make robe offerings to the monks. Do not be afraid to ask someone about etiquette. Generally there will be times when you can “pay respects” to a nun or monk and meet privately. Ask your child to formulate a question.

Most Western monasteries are not as generously supported as Asian monasteries since support of monks and nuns is not yet integral to our culture. However their needs are very modest; they don’t own boats, nor are they running a bar tab, nor are they trying to put a child through college. I would particularly recommend (all other things being equal) finding a nuns’ monastery to support at a distance. Generally nuns have a harder time of it than monks, not so much in the Far Eastern traditions as in the Tibetan and Theravadin. The unfortunate reason is that in some Asian lands monks are more readily supported than nuns and the Asian monasteries in the West on average more readily absorb Western monks than Western nuns. Certainly if you hear of a monk or nun without monastery affiliation, sometimes living in an apartment or house trailer someone has provided, seek them out and offer to help, even if just a little. The success of the monastic Sangha in the West will depend as much on lay support of monastics as it will depend monastic aspirations taking root in laity.

4. If you happen to live near Austin, Texas, you are in luck. There are two Western monks and many culturally Asian monasteries, including the two we live at. Come visit. Otherwise if you have trouble googling up a monastery near you let me know and I’ll give it a try.

5. Look at the comments below for other people’s ideas and experiences!

The Buddhist Child and the Triple Gem

April 10, 2013

Uposatha Day, New Moon, April 10, 2013

Last week I brought up the topic of Buddhism for children. What do we teach them and how do we do it? I am glad that so many posted comments, which I take as indicative of the importance of this topic in many people’s lives. I proposed that we look at the following progression of practices or contemplations (I renamed a couple of them for clarity):

Refuge in the Triple Gem.
Development of generosity.
Development of virtue.
The higher prospects.
The drawbacks of samsara.
The rewards of renunciation.
The Four Noble Truths.
Right View, Right Resolve.
Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.
Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,Right Samadhi.

Today I want to take up Refuge in the Triple Gem. This topic began with my ongoing project of writing about Buddhist religiosity. I discuss the Triple Gem HERE. One’s task as a parent is to instill awe in the little ones for that which is truly awesome.

Trust in the Triple Gem is essential for bending our minds around the Buddhism, not always an easy project to internalize. Until we understand what it is the Buddha realized, what it is the Buddha taught and what it is the Sangha has upheld for one hundred generations, we cannot be certain where this way of life and Path of practice will lead us. Until we have experienced deeply this way of life and traveled far on this Path of Practice we will not understand what the Buddha understood, taught and entrusted to the Sangha. Therefore, until we have experienced this way of life and traveled far on this path we require trust, ardent trust in the Triple Gem, to nourish our Buddhist aspirations and practice just as sun, water and soil nourish a flower. This is what first turns our heads toward virtue, wisdom and peace.

The Triple Gem is the basis of Buddhist faith or trust as we embark on the path. “Faith” is not a bad word as long as we are clear that his is not blind faith. As we progress we have every opportunity to test it and actually until we verify it for ourselves we have not made it our own. When we take Refuge in the Buddha we see in the enormity of this personality the highest qualities we might choose to emulate. Refuge in the Buddha is nonetheless an act of trust that such a personality is even possible. With our own progress on the Path that we will begin to see how his qualities of mind actually start to begin to commence starting to emerge gradually. Trust is necessary in the beginning until we see for ourselves,
veneration encourages trust, it opens up the heart and mind to the influence of the Buddha.

Children seem to be easily fascinated with the life of the Buddha and telling the Buddha’s story is an traditional way of instilling awe in this personality. There is a range of versions of this life, some very simple and unembellished, others full of magic, earth quakes, heavenly visitors. Kids take it all in, but how much mythology is introduced might be a matter of taste. Make use of modern media! There are a number of movies about the life of the Buddha and documentaries, many of them can be downloaded for free. Of course we all naturally develop reverence for personalities.

Unfortunately in modern culture we find a hard time finding personalities that are worthy of awe; so we worship celebrities. The movie “Little Buddha” actually features a very well-known celebrity actor playing the Buddha, so that might be a sneaky way to divert your kids’ energy in a more wholesome direction. Next week I will write about ritual and bows as traditional physical ways of expressing, and therefore developing, veneration.

Art is also a way to relate to the Buddha. There are many depictions of the Buddha that can be quite inspiring. When I teach Sunday school I print up some pages from the life of the Buddha for the little kids to color.

The Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, is a bit more abstract for children, though adults who come to Buddhism generally start here. A unique quality of the Dharma is described by the Pali word “ehipassika,” verifiable, literally from “come-and-see-y.”  When the Buddha says “come” he is shouting down to us flatlanders from the mountaintop. To arrive at his vantage point we need to scramble up hills, struggle through brambles and ford rivers. When the Buddha says “see” we need to focus our eyes intently in the right direction to barely make out what the Buddha sees with great clarity of vision. In order to be willing to do any of this we have to establish from the beginning great trust that the Buddha knew what he was talking about. This is Refuge in the Dharma. What else would induce us to make the difficult climb up the mountain? Investigation and personal verification are necessary parts of following the Dhammic Path but they take time and effort before we can say, “I have come and now I see.” Until then trust is essential.

A traditional way to express reverence for the teachings is through chanting, though that might take some getting used to. Any exposure to the teachings is helpful. The Jataka stories, stories of the previous lives of the Buddha, are a media that children enjoy and that are good at conveying Buddhist values and can be used to promote discussion. Also the Dhammapada might work for older kids; it is full of short nuggets.

The Sangha is the living representatives of the Buddhist life. Living, breathing role models are found in every religious tradition, but in Buddhism these become primary objects of veneration and faith. This makes perfect sense since living breathing persons have the most immediate influence on our lives and are most likely to have brought us to Refuge in the Triple Gem in the first place. Unfortunately sometimes we often accord this privilege unknowingly to ruffians, scoundrels and celebrities rather than to admirable friends. In Buddhism the word Sangha is ambiguous: There is an Ariya-Sangha (Noble Community) and a Bhikkhu-Sangha (Monastic Community). The Ariya-Sangha is most worthy; these are people who have made great progress on the path, have reached at least the first level of Awakening. The Bhikkhu-Sangha is like a school that trains people to become Ariyans but actually lets in monks and nuns when they still have little attainment. It is actually the monks and nuns who are readily recognized as a Sangha thought their distinctive attire. As such the Bhikkhu-Sangha not only sustantially includes the Ariya-Sangha, but nuns and monks collectively or individually symbolize it, even if sometimes much as a piece of plaster sitting on a modern altar might symbolize the Buddha.

The Sangha is the easiest Gem to develop a relationship to … if you can find it! This is a big problem in the West, the Sangha (either kind) is pretty meager. However, this relationship is important for a number of reasons. First, the Sangha is a wonderful source of living breathing inspiration and teaching (the Buddha said that hanging out with admirable friends is the entirety of Buddhist practice since it inspires one to the rest). Second, their code of conduct actually defines the structure of the entire Buddhist community.

Next week I will talk about ritual and bows as means to develop awe. The week after that I would like make suggestions about how to find and cultivate connections with Sangha and Buddhist community in your area. In the meantime keep posting comments and questions.

The Buddhist Child in a Nutshell

April 2, 2013

Uposatha Day, Last Quarter Moon, April 3, 2013

threewalnutsLast week I outlined a gradual course of practice beginning with the Refuges and generosity and ending with samadhi, a course that gives a much broader and well-rounded perspective on practice than we are generally used to in the west, but most of which is much more familiar in Asia, and in any case comes directly from the horse’s mouth. After my post appeared an astute parent recognized the implications this course might have for Buddhist education for children and emailed asking if I might post something about teaching Buddhism to children. I would like to begin this topic herewith.

First I should mention an unsettling aspect of most of Western Buddhism: We don’t know how to involve our kids! Western centers are notoriously child-unfriendly. This should be astonishing because Buddhism over the last 100 generations has always involved children, ever since Rahula, the Buddha’s son, became a novice monk at age 7. How hard can it be to get a handle on this?

Sometimes it is a matter of attitude. I have heard some Buddhist parents say that their intention is to let their kids grow up so that then they can make up their own minds whether to become Buddhists or not. Personally this viewpoint puzzles me; it seems presuppose that we are each endowed with a degree of rationality and free-thinking that can be preserved in a pristine state through childhood and then let loose on the world. A free thought is in fact a rare thing; I am not sure I’ve had one for weeks. The success of the marketing industry makes clear how impressionable each of us is, suckers and chumps from toddlerhood  for the most irrational of influences.

The best any father or mother could wish for her or his child is that he or she be exposed to the healthiest, most wholesome influences possible, those that are maximally conducive to the development of personal happiness, of kindness and compassion toward others, and of wisdom all around. We as initially non-Buddhist adults are generally drawn to Buddhism because we recognize that it has exactly these qualities, and then we find we must persevere against our own upbringings to realize these qualities in ourselves. Our children are already such  easy marks for the many offensive influences running through our society that there is a certain urgency about making the values, world view and wisdom of the Buddha an integral part of their upbringing.

CoreFlowerI think this puzzling aspect of Western Buddhism arises from a far too narrow focus in our practice and understanding of Buddhism. This narrow focus not only shuts our children out of participation but inhibits our own development as well-rounded Buddhists as well. The realization of this is my reason for writing the series/ebooklet on “Buddhist Religiosity,” to try to instill a richer, more complete and holistic sense of what Buddhism is … without sacrificing a smidgen of rationality, free thinking or wisdom in the process. As I have described in this series, well rounded Buddhism is like a flower, while much of Western Buddhism is like the stem of a flower, or maybe just the upper third of the stem. The stem, the Path proper, culminating in meditation practice, is the most intense practice and tends not to be a draw for children. The rest is fun and more interpersonal, and provides a strong support for the more intense practice also for adults.

I propose that I go through the gradual path to discuss how each point in turn can be developed in the young, and even in adults. Recall that the steps are as follows:

Refuge in the Triple Gem.

Development of generosity.

Development of virtue.

MeditatorFlowerThe heavens, that is, an understanding of the transcendent dimension of our life and practice.

The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions, that is, an understanding of the downside of samsara, the soap-operatic quality of conventional life.

The rewards of renunciation.

At this point the mind is already “ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright,” but we might continue with what Western Buddhists are most likely familiar with:

The Four Noble Truths.

Right View, Right Resolve.

Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood.

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,Right Samadhi.

Next week I will write about children might develop awe for the awesome, for the Triple Gem, the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. I hope as we go through these points that parents post comments with their own ideas and experiences or confusion in working with these areas. I hope to focus on practical tips.

The Buddhist Path in a Nutshell

March 25, 2013

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, March 26, 2013

IntroBuddhaKutthi Sutta (Udana 5.3) mentions a gradual course of practice beginning with generosity that gives a much broader and well-rounded perspective on practice than we are generally used to in the west. I’ve been thinking about this since I began working on the “Buddhist Religiosity” project, since it emphasizes much that can be practiced in community and even by children, things that are implicit in Asia. By placing the Refuges at the beginning and expanding the Noble Eightfold Path at the end, the Path of Practice looks like this:

Refuge in the Triple Gem. This is the establishment of trust in the Buddhist way. The biggest problem in the West is the almost total absence of a technical Sangha in the West (the third gem). There are highly qualified teachers, but no uniformity of qualifications and many self-authorized teachers and popular bloggers in the mix with no agreement about who might stand in for Sangha … so we all do. The expressions of refuge are devotional but can be quite simple. Bowing should be learned as a fundamental practice the cultivates (and requires) humility.

Develop generosity, virtue. Traditionally these are at first learned in community. The characteristically Buddhist “economy of gifts” is traditional inspired by a dependent Sangha who also offer the Dharma for free. Western communities do well to approximate these conditions.

The heavens. This can be understood metaphorically as standing for the accrued benefits of practice. This can already be experienced through the practices of generosity and virtue and the idea of merit should be pointed out repeatedly from the beginnings of Buddhist education. “Heavens” should also be understood to include a realization of the transcendent dimension of our practice, that it has important implications beyond this fathom-length body and few decades of existence.

The drawbacks, degradation and corruption of sensual passions. You would think people could learn these from watching enough soap operas, but we do not seem to. How we get ourselves so easily into trouble should be pointed out repeatedly from the beginnings of Buddhist education.

The rewards of renunciation. Renunciation can be experienced as the most meritorious part of generosity The importance of renunciation should be taught from the beginnings of Buddhist education, because it is not obvious to people. The Sangha if present should stand as examples of renunciation and its rewards for the broader community. Practices of simplicity should be encouraged, including “voluntary simplicity” for adults; people should experience a sense of relief from letting go of things. Because consumerism is so deeply instilled through the Western media, the amount of commercial media consumption should be mimimized.

The Sutta then states that when the mind is “ready, malleable, free from hindrances, elated and bright,” the following should be taken up. Most of the steps up to here can be assimilated in community without much instruction and are suitable for children as well as adults. From this point instruction and training are required from qualified teachers (traditionally Sangha).

The Four Noble Truths. With a body of experience in generosity, virtue and renunciation and the beginnings of an investigation of the dangers of clinging, the Four Noble Truths can be understood experientially. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Eightfold Noble Path, the Path proper, which contain the remaining points.

Right View. Aside from the Four Noble Truths the core teachings of the Buddha should lead to further investigation of experience. The Three Marks, Dependent Coarising, Karma, etc.

Right Resolve. Aspirations to practice kindness, compassion and renunciation should become firm.

Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood. These steps deepen generosity and virtue. They should be understood and practiced from the perspectives of precepts, being of benefit to others and cultivating positive states of mind.

Right Effort, Right Mindfulness,Right Samadhi. The cultivation of mind,virtue and investigation of the previous steps should be supercharged with the methods that turn the mind into a precise instrument of insight, serenity and virtue. In most Western practice almost all effort is centered here, leaving it unclear what it is that is being supercharged.

Sometimes in the West the Path is reduced to:

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.


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?

Support our sisters

February 18, 2013

Friends in the Dhamma,

This is an opportunity to support a community of Western Theravada nuns in California. I know most of them personally, and have always been deeply moved by the sincerity of their aspirations and the dignity of their deportment as they endure more than their share of hardship and insecurity. They are now trying to meet the challenge of a matching grant that will allow them to establish a new monastery, having lost their previous home. You can help!

As many of you know nuns have been on an unequal footing with respect to monks for many centuries in all of the Theravada lands and in Tibet. This is due to a variety of historical and social circumstances along with unfortunate interpretations of the early monastic code, that has resulted in the loss of full monastic ordination for women (bhikkhuni ordination), in spite of the Buddha’s original intention. The bhikkhuni sangha is now being slowly revived, primarily in Sri Lanka and in the West, but is poorly understood in lands that have seen no bhikkhunis for perhaps almost a thousand years. Since monastics in America, including Western, still receive support primarily from generous Asian communities, the nuns have been at a disadvantage even here, slipping easily into misfortune.

I look forward to the day will come when Western-American Buddhists are as supportive of the monastic sangha as their Asian counterparts. This is a wonderful opportunity for you to get the ball rolling! …  and at the same time support the aspirations of those most worthy of offerings. The following is a letter  that was sent out recently that describes the needs of this small bhikkhuni community in the San Francisco Bay Area and provides some links to learn more about them. As I understand it, they need to raise $9,000 dollars by Sunday to meet the conditions for the matching grant I hope you will give their needs due consideration. Please email this to people you know, or repost it. Thank you.

In the Dhamma,
Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore
Austin, Texas

Dear friends in the dhamma,

The traditional holiday season is nearly upon us and many of us are planning to visit Aranya Bodhi Hermitage this weekend to celebrate Kathina. As we take this opportunity to enjoy coming together as a community, spending time with our noble monastics, and enjoying the beauty of nature, let us take some time to reflect on the meaning of the season.

This is the time of the year when we practice generosity, the first of the Ten Paramis otherwise known as the Ten Perfections. The practice of giving and what we give is referred to in Pali as dana. The Pali word for generosity is caga, which, incidentally, also means “letting go.” When we give dana with true intention from the heart, we are able to let go of our greed and forget our personal concerns for the moment while we consider the needs of another. In this way, we cleanse the mind. By each act of generosity, we get closer to becoming a truly generous person. The Buddha also mentioned, that the greatness of the gift relies not on the material value but on the depth of generosity from the giver. A small gift offered from the heart of one who has little is of greater value than a more costly gift given without thought from one who has much.

As you know, Dhammadharini has made a commitment to obtain shelter for those monastics who for health or other reasons are unable to live the rigorous lifestyle demanded by a forest hermitage. It is our hope to find such a place in an area that is readily accessible to lay persons so people can easily visit with their children and other family members. This commitment has been enshrined in our Monastery Fund, to which many of you have pledged. Recently, a kind and thoughtful anonymous donor has made a generous offering to the Dhammadharini monastery fund. This donation of $25,000 designated to serve as a downpayment on a monastery in a convenient location is contingent on receiving donations of funds of the same amount within the next three months.

When you are offering gifts this season, I hope you will keep the hopes and dreams of our community alive and remember this fund. If we can all offer what we are able, our vision of a warm and welcoming monastery will manifest soon.

“By giving, one unites friends.” Samyutta Nikaya 1.215

 If you make a donation for the Challenge Grant, don’t forget to write “Match the Challenge Grant” (or something like that :) on your envelope, in the Memo line of your check, or the Note or Dedication line of your electronic donation.

Much metta,

Shari Gent, President

Dhammadharini Board of Directors


“Women Upholding the Dhamma”

PO Box 1671, Fremont, CA 94538


Aranya Bodhi Hermitage, Sonoma Coast


Mailing Address: PO Box 16, Jenner, CA 95450, USA

New Message Phone: 1-707-340-4281, Skype “Aranya_Bodhi”


The Bodhi House, San Francisco East Bay

now closed ~ new monastery/vihara coming



Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Core Buddhism

January 25, 2013

Uposatha Day, Full Moon, January 26, 2013

Index to this series

Chapter 2. Core Buddhism

CoreFlowerThere is a Buddhism that shines through constantly through the various Buddhist traditions, a Buddhism visible first in the earliest scriptures and a common edifice behind the many often wild and perplexing guises appearing under the name “Buddhism.” In order to make sense of this, I am going to distinguish three related terms “Original Buddhism,” “Core Buddhism” and “Authentic Buddhism.” Imagine someone made up and told a story that was then retold many times, with different words and much retooling and embellishment of details, but keeping the basic story intact right down to the response to the punch line, we might say the “core” of the “original” story is preserved in any “authentic” retelling.

Original Buddhism is Buddhism as taught by the Buddha, and as formulated by the Buddha. It consists of two parts, the Dhamma and the Vinaya, the doctrine and the discipline. Generally the Pali Suttas, particularly the Digha, Majjhima, Samyutta and Anguttara Nikayas as well as the Suttanipata of the Khuddhaka Nikaya along with the equivalent Chinese Agamas are generally agreed by scholars to constitute the most reliable evidence of the original Dhamma. The Vinaya, the monastic code, is available in several traditions, the Pali Vinaya being the most easily available in English. Many will quibble endlessly about what is actually original, particularly since there are many contradictions and alternative interpretations in the texts transmitted to us, and clearly alterations. I have argued elsewhere that the resolution of these quibbles requires a recognition of the system that shines through when enough of the pieces are assembled, a recognition beyond the competence of pure scholars of Buddhism, but available to those who have entered deep into the path of practice to begin to see the Dhamma experientially.

Core Buddhism is a significant abstraction from Original Buddhism, a kind of eau de Buddhime. It is the system that shines through in Original Buddhism, but stripped of its particular formulation and stripped of extraneous elements of the ancient texts that are irrelevant to that system. This term serves as way to eschew the literalism lurking in original texts.

For instance it is safe to say that some form of mindfulness practice is a key functional element of Core Buddhism. This is formulated as the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in Original Buddhism, but the the quite distinctly formulated Zen method of meditation called Shikantaza in Japanese along with a set of off-the-cushion practices retain (I would argue, based on personal experience) its functionality. I therefore say both formulations maintain the same functional element of Core Buddhism and Zen is at least in this regard authentic Buddhism.

Also Original Buddhism was taught in a certain cultural context so it is inevitable that it will mention many elements that are not actually integral to Buddhism as a functional system. My own sense, for instance, is that the many devas, godly beings, who drop in on the Buddha in the early scriptures are such elements. Of course what it or is not Core Buddhism is subject to quibble at least as much as what is or is not Original Buddhism. For the most part I will describe Core Buddhism in terms of its intersection with Original Buddhism, but implicitly intend the qualification, “… or equivalent” at each step.

Finally, I refer to an Authentic Buddhism as any formulation of Buddhism that retains or even extends Core Buddhism, and thereby preserves the functionality or intention of Original Buddhism. A new authentic form of Buddhism might arise as Buddhism enters a new cultural space in which new ways of teaching are necessary to reach new ways of thinking. Naturally Original Buddhism is also the Original Authentic Buddhism. Other Authentic Buddhisms retool or extend Core elements of Original Buddhism or simply accrue extra elements, most particularly elements of religiosity. I hope this makes sense; these distinctions will be useful in coming chapters.

A Metaphor for Core Buddhism.

Buddhism is a flower. It is a system of interrelated inter-functioning parts that is much greater than the sum of the individual parts. Each part has a function and, regardless of whether or not you recognize at first what that function is, the whole flower would die if it were missing any major part. Here is in a nutshell how Core Buddhism would map onto the major parts of the flower:

  • The blossom of the flower is Nibbana (I will prefer Pali here, this is Nirvana in Sanskrit).
  • The stem that supports the blossom is Magga, the path, the instructions for practice and understanding, originally expressed as the Noble Eightfold Path, and leading to Nibbana.
  • The leaves androots are the Parisa, the Buddhist community, the roots are the Bhikkhu-Sangha, the monastic order of monks and nuns, actually a special role within the Parisa. They collect nourishment of sun, water and soil in order that the flower thrive.
  • The sun, water and soil that nourish the flower are the Triple Gem, respectively the Buddha, the Dhamma (Dharma), and the Sangha. They inspire and bend the mind in the proper direction.

Now, here is the same thing in more detail:


Blossom. This is Nibbana, the highest attainment of human character, liberation from suffering, liberation from the taints, perfect wisdom, virtue, enlightenment, awakening, all those good things. Notice that most religions seem to have the goal of liberation or salvation, often pertaining to a life beyond this one. Nibbana itself therefore has an aspect of religiosity, though other religions would understand salvation differently.

Stem. This is the Path of individual practice and understanding that leads to Nibbana. This is the most uniquely Buddhist part, and therefore the most distinct from religiosity. The stem is made of three strands, which are called Wisdom, Virtue and Mental Cultivation, each of which bundles two or three smaller strands. The underlying principle behind practice is loosening the entangling bonds of personal neediness, aversion and views. All the strands work together and, when taken up with conviction, energy and a sense of urgency, guarantee selfless progress. There is hardly anything like this in its practicality and sophistication in non-Buddhist religious traditions. Since this is the part of the flower that has the least to do with religiosity it will be the one I write about the least, even though it is the part the Buddha spoke of the most.

Leaves and roots. This is the community context, the community itself and community activities and also the locus of religiosity. The community is divided into to parts, lay and monastic, with clearly defined social roles, but a member of either can begin to ascend the stem.

Leaves. This is the Parisa,the Buddhist community, and its main component is the lay community. The main characteristic of the Buddhist lay community is that it is not explicitly organized nor commanded in any special way, but is rather inspired by the Triple Gem toward practice and understanding and toward a particular relationship with nuns and monks.

Roots. This is the Bhikkhusangha, the community of monks and nuns. Its main characteristic is that it is organized in very specific way, inspires the support of the lay community and in this way is able to sustain a rare lifestyle that is most conducive to Buddhist study and practice. It serves to produce Nobel Ones. The particular organization of the Bhikkhusangha is a primary teaching of the Buddha, the topic of the massive Vinaya. Although the lay community is not explicitly organized its behavior plays off of that of the Bhikkhusangha.

Nourishment for the Flower. Refuge is the part of Buddhist religiosity that allow the roots and leaves to absorb the nourishment of the sun, water and soil. Conviction focuses on the Triple Gem of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These nourish the entire practice, and in fact the beginning of Buddhist practice is generally considered to be Refuge in the Triple Gem.

The Buddha reached an advanced understanding, a level of insight and knowledge that he knew would be very difficult for others to achieve. As a teacher he had to consider the process whereby others can reach that understanding, and recognized that it requires a combination of confidence in the teacher and teachings, and direct experience of what these are pointing out. Faith or trust (Pali saddha) is necessary put aside accumulated faulty notions and to open oneself completely to the light of the Buddha’s insight and its current embodiment. Veneration of the Triple Gem is an important psychological element in the development of the necessary trust.

The sun. This is the Buddha himself. Conviction in the Enlightenment inspires the community’s commitment to deeper practice. The Buddha stands an an example to emulate, an admiral friend, present at least in the accounts of his life and in the Dharma-Vinaya, his teachings and in those most shaped by his influence.

Water. This is the Dhamma, the teachings of the truth that the Buddha directly experienced and the instructions for perfecting the human character constitute the clean water that flows into every aspect of our Buddhist life and practice, carried by the soil through the roots into leaves and up into the stem, to inform our practice at every level on our way to Nirvana.

Soil. This is the Sangha. This represents the adepts, past present and future, who have gone far in the practice, perhaps not reaching Nibbana, but progressing at least far enough to discern it and to attain unshakable trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. The Sangha nourishes the community through its visible example, its direct experience and its teaching. Notice that the Sangha here is properly called the “Ariyasangha,” the Noble Ones, to distinguish it from the Bhikkhusangha, the institution that spins off Nobel Ones. The roots are buried deep in the soil, the monks and nuns have Sangha between their toes, and the soil is made rich by the many generations of roots, of leaves, of stems and of blossoms.

The Religiosity the Buddha Did Not Teach

The Buddha lived in a very religious culture, made use of much of what he saw around him and dismissed what he felt was useless or harmful. He made use of a range of such religious elements in crafting his own system of thought, not only to produce practice and understanding, but also to providing the proper context to inspire correct practice and understanding now and for generations to come. I hope the reader will gain a new appreciation by the end of this essay of what a carefully conceived and well-articulated system he crafted. Let us look for now at what he pared down.

In expressing reverence the Triple Gem Core Buddhism acquires something at least like worship. However it is not veneration toward an otherworldly being or force, but of things this-wordly: a remarkable person long deceased, of a set of teachings for and by humans and of real people who happen to embody those teachings completely in their own lives. Actually there may be irony intended in the frequent appearance of such otherworldly beings in the ancient discourses. Even higher deities, rather than demanding reverence for themselves, instead venerate those same things the good Buddhist does as higher than themselves, bowing before the Buddha and even the monks. The Buddha did on many occasions expect of others that they show proper respect for him, and actually required that monks and nuns not offer teachings if their audience shows disrespect for them. However there is little indication that the Buddha intended to become the center of a personality cult. He discouraged some of the more extreme forms of reverence he received, once telling an awe-struck follower (in the most literal sense of follower),

“Why do you want to see this foul body? If you see the Dhamma you see me.”

Nonetheless the Buddha did specify four significant places from his life as destinations for pilgrimage after he is gone.

The Buddha also advocated veneration for parents, teachers, the elderly and even monastics of other traditions, yet eschewed the prevailing caste system. Reverence was clearly part of his thinking.

Likewise limited ritual practices are current in Original Buddhism. Bowing is frequent as a gesture of veneration, as is circumambulation, for instance, “keeping the Tathagatha to his right.” Notice however these are no more than expressions. In contrast the Buddha spoke in no uncertain terms of the dangers of rites and rituals (silabbata), even classifying these as the third of the ten fetters to be abandoned on the Path. He did not have in mind ritual or conventionalized expressions, which like words are means of communication, and which would encompass many things very familiar to us in the modern world, like shaking hands or waving goodbye and saying “Ta-ta.”

Indeed what is absent from Core Buddhism is the attribution of some special hidden efficacy to rites and rituals, for instance making a sacrifice to to gain the good favor of a deity or asking a priest to make an incantation to produce some kind of future good luck or a favorable rebirth. This way of using of rites and rituals was rife in the Brahmanism of the Buddha’s day and did not gain the Buddha’s endorsement. Specifically he did not want the monks and nuns to become priests and forbade such intermediary roles along with astrology, numerology or other means of predicting the future, as well, by the way, of exhibiting paranormal powers such as levitation in the presence of the laity.

Trust or faith has a prominent role in Core Buddhism. Refuge in the Triple Gem is the immediate example, a trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. However this is far from blind faith and in fact much like the trust a student of science puts into her teachers, a science graduate student puts into the paradigm her teacher represents. This is, in other words, a trust that is subject to personal verification as the attainment and understanding of the Buddhist develops and as such it is a faith that is replaced gradually with knowing. It is helpful in this regard that the Buddha was very parsimonious in his teachings, giving nothing as an object of convictionor investigation that did not have a function in the Path.

Another feature of Original Buddhism that bears mentioning is that there are virtually no special practices or teachings of consolation as found in other religions, beyond perhaps the peace of mind that comes with Refuge. There is no appeal to an outside power or metaphysical view that makes everything OK, old age, sickness and death and the rest. There is a notion of salvation, Nibbana, but its attainment is a matter of mental development.

How Buddhist Religiosity Works

The operating principle of the leaves, the roots and the nourishment of the Triple Gem is … friendship! In particular it is admirable friendship (kalyanamittata in Pali), that which is possible from having Noble Ones among us to provide wise role models and instructors. The principle is to have the opportunity to hang with persons consummate in virtue, in generosity and in wisdom. The following dialog expresses in a rather striking way the critical importance the Buddha attached to this simple principle:

As he was sitting there, Ven. Ananda said to the Blessed One, “This is half of the holy life, lord: admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie.”

Don’t say that, Ananda. Don’t say that. Admirable friendship, admirable companionship, admirable camaraderie is actually the whole of the holy life. When a monk has admirable people as friends, companions, & colleagues, he can be expected to develop & pursue the Noble Eightfold Path. (SN 45.2)

Just as it benefits us to have artists and good plumbers among us it ennobles us to have saints and sages, adepts and arahants in our midst, the more the better. These Noble Ones are the Sangha mentioned in the Triple Gem, disciples of the Buddha who root their lives entirely in the Dhamma, have already been carried far aloft by the stem of the Path and are an inspiration and a resource for us all. It is through admirable friends that the meaning of the Buddha’s life and Awakening is revealed and through such admirable friends that the highly sophisticated teachings are clarified step by step to lead the instructling toward and up the Path toward Awakening. It is the Sangha, by recognizing what shines through the words, that the core of Buddhism is preserved in its full integrity. The Sangha is therefore the soil that provides not only the nourishment of water and mineral but ensures that the entire practice, roots, leaves, stem and blossom, will not be carried away by the wind in the years to come.

The Ariya-Sangha arises from conditions and these conditions are secured by means of the Bhikkhu-Sangha. This is expressed approximately as follows,

And if these monks, Subaddha, live rightly, the world will not be empty of arahants.” – DN 16.

The world will be even less be empty of the Noble Ones, many of whom are not yet arahants, of sages and of admirable friendship. The Bhikkhu-Sangha is both a training ground and a dwelling place for the Ariya-Sangha, much like a university is both a training ground and a dwelling place for scholars. Without Noble Ones Buddhism cannot retain its integrity, and Noble Ones will be very few indeed without nuns and monks in the Buddhist community … or equivalent.

Let’s see how this works out for a young man, Aung Myint, born into a Buddhist family in a Buddhist community. First he will be taught even as a toddler to revere the Triple Gem, the sun, water and soil that sustains the Buddhist flower. The Buddha for him will exemplify certain values such as selflessness, virtue and serenity. The Dhamma is likely not to be readily accessible until he is moved to personal investigation outside of a few aphorisms like “Happiness comes only from within.” The Sangha, with which Aung Myint could well be in daily contact, will provide living examples of what it is to live deeply according to Buddhist principles, and of the joy and wisdom that emerges in such a life. Aung Myint lives among the leaves, as a part of the Buddhist community and supportive of the monks and nuns. He grows up with a mind bent toward Buddhist values and Buddhist aspirations. The Buddha once said,

Those who have joyous confidence in the highest, the highest fruit will be theirs. (AN 4.34)

He has noticed that people adopt a wide varieties of ways of life. He himself for a time thinks of marrying his cute neighbor Su Su and raising a family. But he learns what a problem life can be with no easy answers. He notices that the Noble Ones are more content and full of active goodwill than anyone else in spite of their utterly simple lives. This inspires him to follow the wise into the holy life, to forsake a personal footprint in favor of the selfless Path that blossoms in Nibbana. Aung Myint joins the monastic order and begins to study as a student of one of the sages, and from the root begins his ascent upward. Eventually he becomes one of the Noble Ones, in fact an arahant (to ensure this tale a happy ending).


This has been a brief sketch of the religious infrastructure implemented by the Buddha and its functions. In the next two chapters I will go into more detail concerning the two main components of this system, Refuge, including trust and admirable friendship, and Community, including its organized and unorganized components. After that I will discuss the ways in which this religious system has been modified in the many later Buddhist traditions, including through the incursion of features that the Buddha originally wanted to keep in check. However I will finally consider the ways in which the Buddha foresaw that the presence of Noble Ones, the adapts, the Sangha, would serve to preserve the integrity of Core Buddhism yet tolerate the many pressures toward variation within those traditions.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Introduction

January 18, 2013

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, January 19, 2013

Index to this series

I have been reworking some of my previous writings into an eBook of maybe about 80 pages. This will include some things I posted under “Buddhist Religiosity,” “American Folk Buddhism,” etc. also with new content, assembled into an integrated whole. I intend to serialize it here as I finish each of the eight chapters. I hope my readership finds this helpful. This week: The Introduction.

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity

Original Buddhism and its Cultural Adaptations

Bhikkhu Cintita Dinsmore

DRAFT, January, 2013

Chapter 1. Introduction

IntroBuddhaIs Buddhism a religion? Of course it depends on one’s definition. I see three options:

  1. A religion involves worship of God. This works for the Abrahamic faiths familiar in the West. Clearly Buddhism fails this criterion.

  2. A religion is a way of life. That is, it informs our life choices at the most fundamental level, our ethical standards, our values, our attitudes, our aspirations? Clearly Buddhism satisfies this criterion.

Many suggest Buddhism is not a religion because it is a way of life. It seems to me this is exactly what is expected of a religion when embraced fully.

  1. A religion is a matter of “family resemblance,” that is, if it looks like a religion it is.

This last seems at first like a sloppy criterion, but as a linguist I can report that family resemblance underlies the better part of language; firm definitions are the exception, even for scientific terminology. Maybe to determine if Buddhism is a religion we should try for two out of three. This would make the last, the family resemblance, criterion the deciding factor. Its applicability frames this essay.

The degree of family resemblance, or the elements that indicate family resemblance are what I will call “religiosity.” Surely Buddhism in all of its traditional forms seems to have something of religion about it, for instance, devotional, ritual, liturgical and institutional features, to supplement somewhat unique doctrinal aspects and a program of personal practice. Yet some have argued recently that Buddhist religiosity is entirely a product of cultural accretion that began after the Buddha and has little to do with the core message of the Buddha. This yields two kinds of questions:

(1) What is the degree of religiosity in the Buddha’s core message?

(2) What is the degree of religiosity for any particular Buddhist tradition?

My responses will be something of a middle way, that indeed elements of religiosity were an intrinsic part of the Buddha’s core message and that these same core elements are found in virtually every historic Buddhist tradition, but that through cultural adaptation in virtually every tradition the degree of religiosity has become more prominent, sometimes exceedingly more prominent. However this fortified religiosity may or may not be a diversion from the Buddha’s core message. A third question we will add to the mix is,

(3) In what ways is religiosity for any particular Buddhist tradition a hindrance or an asset to preserving the Buddha’s core message?

In this essay I will outline the important aspects of religiosity in core Buddhism and will illustrate its enhancement in a sample of later traditions. I will then turn to this process of cultural adaptation and its implications. Buddhism stands out in the following two ways: First, if it is a religion it is the earliest world religion, succeed only substantially by Christianity and Islam, which means that it has historically successfully adapted to often radically new cultures. Second, the integrity of the highly sophisticated core teachings of Buddhism have been remarkably well preserved through these cultural adaptations. I will locate the mechanism of this adaptation in core Buddhism, in fact in core Buddhist religiosity, and will illustrate this mechanism particularly with regard to current Western Buddhist adaptations and assess their implications.

Which Buddhism?

I count as one of those who see in Buddhism — in spite of all its doctrinal variants, sects, innovations, cultural manifestations and so on — a common core, that is, a set of unifying features that allow us to talk of “Buddhism” in the singular. In fact, it seems to me that a remarkable aspect of Buddhism — in spite of exhibiting much more scriptural variation than most of the other major religions — is that it seems to have much more consistency of purpose and understanding than, say, Christianity. Somehow, transmitted through many centuries, through many traditions and cultures, and in spite of its accrued variety, Buddhism has managed to preserve the integrity of its essential core throughout the Buddhist world. The essential core preserved in the traditions includes, for instance, a more-or-less common understanding of liberation and of the path of training toward liberation which focuses on virtue, wisdom and development of mind, and a recognition of greed, hatred and delusion as the primary qualities of mind to be appeased. It also includes placing confidence of the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha, the near ubiquity of the monastic order and a communal emphasis on the practice of generosity.

I realize that many people see in Buddhism exactly the opposite: They find it extremely fragmented, dispersed over an impossible range of doctrinal positions, beliefs, practices and rituals. For instance, any given Buddhist tradition considers itself almost invariably the almost unique heir of Buddhist authenticity. Yet in exploring other lands and other sects it is faced with peculiarity and anomaly in the practices and beliefs of the laity, the garb of the monastics, the style of liturgy, the presence of unfamiliar figures in temple statuary, unfamiliar rites at temple altars, unknown scriptures on temple bookshelves, and hocus pocus all around. For many in the West who first come to Buddhism and survey the entire array of traditions, unbiased by any particular tradition, the variance is even more striking and it is easy to see how they might throw their hands up in despair and perhaps entertain the hope that Baha’i or Sufism is easier to sort out.

Much of the observed diversity reveals more about the observer than about the observed. Different people and different cultures come with different perspectives and different expectations, and cultural Westerners are no different. Alongside differences in doctrinal understanding, for instance, fixed culturally induced interpretations arise for what is simply be poorly understood about someone else’s tradition. Different options for individual practice within a unified core Buddhism or progressive stages of individual practice are interpreted as distinct Buddhisms, as are differences in understanding, ranging from sophisticated to naïve, among the adherents within a particular tradition. In response I will isolate a common core Buddhism that can be recognized in the various traditions underneath their supplementary cultural accretions, and then attempt to sort out the rest.

Religiosity in Buddhism

The reasons I focus on religiosity are twofold: First, these elements tend to be more implicit in Buddhist teachings rather than systematically developed and therefore their significance bears exploring. Second, they tend to be conditioned culturally far more than doctrinal and programmatic aspects, for instance, sometimes assuming highly embellished forms in many of the Buddhist traditions, and they are therefore disproportionally responsible for the sometimes wild variety observed among and within the various Buddhist traditions.

Religiosity seems to be a universal, found throughout the world. Scholars of comparative religion have probably looked at this in detail, but here are the recurring features I observe in almost all religions, many of which contribute to the family resemblance of Buddhism and “religion” :

  • Ritual and Ceremony. These are conventionalized actions and activities.
  • Ritual spaces. Certain places and spatial relations are made significant through ritual or placement at an elevation or naturally central location.
  • Ritual artifacts. A central or prominent altar is common. Sometimes clothing is an indicator of social role in religious activities. Incense, candles, flowers and images are common.
  • Respect, Devotion and Worship. Certain rituals and gestures are used to express degrees of reverence or respect, either to designated people, to ritual artifacts, to abstractions or to otherworldly beings.
  • Scripture. Texts convey the basic doctrine or mythology of the religion and often go back to the founding of the religion. Scriptures are often regarded as ritual artifacts.
  • Tradition. Many of the rituals, artifacts, scripture and so on are archaic, that is, bespeak of an ancient time to give a sense of embeddedness in a long tradition.
  • Chanting. Typically this is a group activity and involves reciting scripture.
  • Community, and Group Identity. There is a sense of belonging to a community, often assuming a certain role in a community dynamics and interrelatedness, much like belonging to a family.
  • Common world view or conviction. This is faith in a certain set of doctrines, creeds or values or confidence in an authority.
  • Clergy. There are often a class of professionals who dedicate themselves to understanding and practice of the religion, generally conduct or lead the rituals and care of the community and sometimes have the status of ritual artifacts themselves.
  • Institutions. The community is generally organized according certain principles and this organization sustains the clergy, owns ritual spaces and objects and provides some degree of governance and authority.

Two things bear pointing out. First, “religiosity” is completely a Western notion. I doubt the Buddha would have read through this list and seen in it any more than a set of arbitrary features. Nor would he have thought to constrain the scope of religiosity in his teachings. I make no further attempt to define “religiosity” than to provide this list. Why this issue assumes prominence in the Western mind is discussed in a few chapters.

Second, although these features characterize “religiosity,” all of these features, or their close counterparts, are found outside of religion, that is, in “secular” contexts. For instance, table manners and proper arrangements of cutlery and plates and glasses in a proper table setting exhibit a large number of these features. Sports events also involve ritual, ritual spaces, worship, chanting, group identity, and often a sense of tradition. Government functions and places of government exhibit every one of these features, by my count, with appropriate substitution of terms, elected officials for clergy, etc. Armies likewise exhibit most, maybe because they need to be equipped to deal with fundamental issues of life and death. Even Academia exhibits a lot of these features. No traditional school of Buddhism I am aware of fails to exhibit any one of them. I do not know of any movements to “secularize” any of the other realms.


I will begin with a statement of the common core system that shines through virtually all of the Buddhist traditions. This includes doctrinal and programmatic fundamentals as well as some aspects of religiosity as discussed above, the latter in a much more skeletal form in core Buddhism than found in almost any particular later tradition. This statement will show how these religious elements are integral and necessary to the proper function of the whole system; their justification is in their functional efficacy.

All aspects of this core system as I will lay it out belong to original Buddhism as attested in the earliest scriptures, and also are consistently retained in virtually all traditions of Buddhism independently of the variety of cultures in which these variants have arisen. Two particularly important aspects of core religiosity are Refuge and the structure of the Buddhist community, without which a full understanding of Buddhism as taught by the Buddha is impossible. Therefore I will discuss these two aspects in some detail.

Having established a common core for Buddhist traditions, I will then survey the ways in which particular traditions have embellished or retooled this common core. We will see that religiosity is often greatly enhanced with elements of local cultures, often mixing freely with elements of indigenous religions and commonly taking on consolatory elements, and also that doctrinal and programmatic aspects are often expressed in new and typically culturally-conditioned ways that for the most part retain their authenticity and sometimes enhance it. This will be an incomplete survey, pulling out a few hopefully representative examples of the range of variations found among the traditions.

Finally I consider how the forms of religiosity promote or demote core Buddhism. One of the most important sources of variation in Buddhism is often overlooked. Within any particular tradition an individual understanding of that tradition will vary greatly. At the one pole are the adepts, those that have devoted much of their lives to study and training in Buddhism and may have reached some level of attainment, occasionally even Awakening. At the other pole are the normal folk — almost always historically the vast majority of adherents — who have often only a vague understanding of the tradition or of core Buddhism garnered from family and friends. This produces the inevitable dichotomy between Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism (actually two poles of a continuum). While an Adept Buddhism will general preserve the common core, a Folk Buddhism will tend to be a mass of culturally-conditioned understandings and misunderstandings. While an Adept Buddhism will be centered generally in the shape of doctrine and the program of practice, a Folk Buddhism will be centered primarily in the elements of religiosity. This is important, for generally we identify our own tradition, if we have one, with its Adept Buddhism while we see in any other tradition only its Folk Buddhism. No wonder the forms of Buddhism seem to vary as wildly as they do.

After exemplifying Folk Buddhism with regard to a few Buddhist traditions, giving particular attention to how much Western Folk Buddhism is also culturally conditioned, I consider how it is that Buddhism has maintained its essence through many centuries and through transmission into vastly divergent cultures and in spite of its great accrued variance. This answer involves the ability of Adept Buddhism to to give shape to Folk Buddhism rather than the other way around, to keep it in line well enough that contradictions are relatively rare and one grades easily from one into the other. This in turn depends on Refuge and the structure of Buddhist communities. This property therefore lies within the scope of the particularities of core Buddhist Religiosity, as envisioned from the beginning by the Buddha!


Chapter 1. Core Buddhism

Chapter 2. Refuge

Chapter 3. A Buddhist Community

Chapter 4. Modifications and Retoolings of Buddhism.

Chapter 5. Folk Buddhism

Chapter 6. Modern Trends in Folk Buddhism

Chapter 7. Finding our Way in the West