Archive for the ‘Western’ Category

Growing the Dharma: Negotiating the Dharma

November 7, 2013

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

Chapter 7. Negotiating the Dharma

The whole world is talking about Buddhism.

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

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

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

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

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

The Agents of Negotiation

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

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

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

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

Elucidating the Dharma

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

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

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

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

Nudging toward the Dharma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assimilating Folk Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

Championing Path Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creolizing the Dharma

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

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

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

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

“Organized religion, hierarchy, bah!”

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

“Religious imagery, sacred objects, twaddle!”

“Rituals, bows, balderdash!”

McMahan14 writes that in accord with the Protestant Reformation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compromising the Dharma

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

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

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

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

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

Marketing the Dharma

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

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

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

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

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

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

Losing One’s Head

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Negotiating with the Broader Folk Culture

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

2King (1964), p. 59.

3Williams (2008), p. 26.

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

5Sharf (1995b).

6Sharf (1995a, 1995b).

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

8 Sharf (1995a, 1995b).

9 Sharf (1995a).

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

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

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

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

14 McMahan (2008), p220.

15 Prothero (1996), p. 95.

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

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

18 Sharf (2001), p. 23.

19 Cintita (2013).

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

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

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

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

24 Jaffe (2001), p. 131.

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

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

27 Sharf (1995a).

28 Jaffe (2001), p. 232.

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

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

Growing the Dharma: Folk Buddhism

October 28, 2013

Let’s get sociological. You are reading a serialization of the ebook Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework. In this rather long installment we consider how there are always two kinds of Buddhism side by side, Adept and Folk.

Chapter 6. Folk Buddhism

Each weekend many people set out to conquer the mountain in the middle of the state park, a large and very mixed group of people of every age, state of health, type of footwear, size of backpack or picnic basket, degree of inebriation or caffeine fortification. The group that appears on any particular day will naturally spread itself out from the trail head just beyond the parking lot along the trails that weave and intersect throughout the park and that occasionally empty a weary hiker to the top of the mountain for the final ascent up its rocky peak.

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

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

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

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

It is important to recognize that Buddhism is not a cookie-cutter enterprise. Most religions tend to be. That is, they define a set of practices or standards that all adherents are equally responsible for upholding, producing rather standardized norms of behavior and understanding. They do not put so much emphasis on the aspirations and needs of the hotshots and rocket scientists as Buddhism does. In fact, Buddhism cannot be a cookie-cutter enterprise because its standards are extraordinarily high: perfect purity in action and thought, penetrating insight and imperturbable serenity. Those adepts of highest attainment understand and live something extremely sophisticated and rare, beyond the reach of the more typical among us.

The other side of the story is that straggling is quite permissible in Buddhism. Nobody requires that we undertake five precepts, least of all God; it is our choice. No one requires that we drop anything into alms bowls, nor that we attend Dharma talks, nor that we cultivate the mind; we choose to, individually or as families. Buddhism provides choices at every level, hopefully with the support and advice provided through our communities to make these with due deliberation on the basis of Buddhist wisdom. We Buddhists spread ourselves out on the Path based on our choices, on our determination and on our aptitude. But the stragglers can rely on adepts for guidance and encouragement when they like. The scalers of peaks nonetheless inspire us all in a wholesome direction.

Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism

Let’s get sociological. Attainment and understanding, interest and commitment, time and energy, differentiate the more adept members of the Buddhist community from the more average members. Thereby, adepts tend to serve as the inspiration and the guides for those who have yet to excel and, adepts, taking the botanical metaphor one more step, tend to be the cultivators and breeders of authentic Buddhism beyond the full comprehension of much of the larger community. The adepts are the horticulturists who ensure that a well nourished and domesticated Sasana endures. A corollary is that in virtually any Buddhist society we can distinguish two kinds of Buddhist practice and understanding living side by side: Adept Buddhism, a Buddhism cultivated through artificial selection, and Folk Buddhism, a product of natural selection in the context of the prevailing folk culture. One flower is fragrant and produces a bright blossom, the other is scraggly. More accurately the two Buddhisms are ends of a continuum running thought adept, mostly adept, mostly folk and folk, just as domestication and wildness are ends of a continuum of more or less narrowly refined gene pools.

CometI find it helpful to visualize the community, of either plants or adherents, as a comet, all of us oriented in the same direction but with some clustered closer to the head and others trailing out along in the tail, much as hikers intent on mountaintops.1 This is a demographic depiction of the Sasana, showing how the members of the community distribute themselves according to their influences. This metaphor is a way of looking at the social dynamics of a particular Buddhist community. I am not a sociologist, nor for that matter an historian, though I purport to know something about Buddhist doctrine. However I have found that sociological research on Buddhism consistently fails to make a distinction between Adept and Folk Buddhisms and thereby fails to account for how resiliency can exist alongside malleability, that is, how the integrity of authentic Buddhism tends to be preserved in spite of ongoing change. It even fails to explain what it means to preserve the integrity of authentic Buddhism in the midst of a multiplicity of understandings and misunderstandings, practices and malpractices. Research that fails to make these distinctions also fails to interpret the significance of different kinds of innovations and account for their varying effects on the historical evolution of Buddhism. I hope that this recognition will help resolve much of the interminable back-and-forth between Theravada and Mahayana, Eastern and Western, early and traditional, secular and religious and other dichotomies we tend to read into Buddhism.

Adept Buddhism

Consider how domesticated flowers and fruit trees that manifest those fragrant, colorful, sweet and plump traits so valued by humans, first arose and have been sustained over the centuries, even when propagated to different parts of the world: There has been an ongoing process of artificial selection, of deliberate human intervention into the evolutionary process, that has served continually to re-domesticate Buddhism, to preserve, to enhance or where necessary to restore Buddhism’s pristine functional authenticity that might otherwise quickly degrade in an environment where those qualities might otherwise count little toward survival. The result is an Adept Buddhism that runs counter to the prevailing expectation that something as sophisticated as Buddhism will run down under the influence of the embedding folk culture. Adept Buddhism is the authentic practice and understanding upheld through deliberate cultivation and breeding by members of the adept community. Adept Buddhism is what scholars have also sometimes named normative Buddhism or high Buddhism.

Who are these Adepts? Roughly they are the rocket scientists, the surveyors of views, the bearers of high-tech water bottles, those capable of comprehending and ensuring the authenticity of Buddhist practice and understanding even as Buddhism takes on new forms. Clearly those of the highest attainment and understanding are found in the Noble Sangha, the Noble Ones who have reached at least the first stage of Awakening, at which self-view and doubt have fallen away, who see clearly Nirvana and the Path that leads there. Those formally entrusted with the task of domesticating Buddhism are the Monastic Sangha, institutionally the guardians of the Sasana. The relevant parts of their mission statement are the last four points described in Chapter Four:

“The arousing of faith in the faithless,
The increase of the faithful,
The establishment of the true Dharma,and
The fostering of Discipline.”

It is the Monastic Sangha that also tends to spin off Noble Ones, so we can therefore regard the Vinaya as the basis of Adept Buddhism, along with the Path. But additionally there may be non-noble non-monastics who can be considered part of the adept complex, particularly dedicated lay scholars and practitioners who contribute their own peculiar expertise to the process of cultivation and breeding the Sasana. Therefore I prudently use the word “adept” rather than “Sangha” to name the adherent of Adept Buddhism.

In brief, this is the profile of Adept Buddhism:

Adept Buddhism

Adherents

2 Sanghas, specialists, “Adepts”

Basis

Vinaya (+Path)

Quality

Authentic

Content

Orthodox, limited fold adaptations

The content of Adept Buddhism tends to be relatively orthodox in that it is not nearly so subject to innovation and to culture-specific understandings, trends or fads as Folk Buddhism. This means also that Adept Buddhists are very likely to share most of their understandings and practices with the Adept Buddhists of other lands, cultures and traditions, and so to possess what is most universal about Buddhism. However Adept Buddhism itself is also over time shaped by the local culture as its adepts sometimes appropriate in a deliberate manner expressions of that culture into their adept understanding or practice. A primary example of a later cultural intrusion into Adept Buddhism comes from the Far East as the fashioning of formal and ritual elements under Confucian influence into the Buddhist practice of mindfulness.

It should be noted that adepts are typically conversant with a local Folk Buddhism, having been raised as folk Buddhists before becoming adepts. They are effectively bi-religious. When some of Suzuki Roshi’s American students traveled back to Japan with him they found him engaging with Japanese Folk Buddhists in a way that was quite distinct from what they were used to and in fact incomprehensible to them. Although he imparted Adept Buddhism in America he could also become a Japanese Folk Buddhist on demand, keeping the two Buddhisms separate in his mind alongside the two languages he used to engage them. Other adepts seem to have more trouble knowing where the Adept Buddhism stops and the Folk Buddhism begins, not really a problem as long as there is not contradiction, until one is required to teach Buddhism outside ones own culture. I suspect that the Asian masters who became successful teacher in the West are those able to keep their Buddhisms straight.

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

The Example of Burmese Adept Buddhism

Burma is largely representative of most of Asia. Moreover, Burma is within the range of Indian cultural influence, and also has so far to no great extent suffered the flings and narrows of outrageous modernity, so its Buddhism is particularly archaic. Monks still fill the early morning Burmese streets, bowls in hand as they go for alms. Winston King describes the shape of the Buddha-Sasana in Burma as follows:

There is a traditionally orthodox centre represented literally by the scriptures, doctrinally by the conservative tradition expounded by the Sangha and the orthodox core of lay followers, and practically by the conventional Buddhist morality for laymen and meditational practice by the spiritually elite in both Sangha and lay ranks. Living cheek-by-jowl with orthodoxy, often frowned upon but never rigidly excluded, and hence become a nearly integral part of “Buddhism”, is the religion of folk-lore and the popular devotional cultus of adorational worship of the Buddha image and prudential reverence to the nats [tree spirits].2

This relationship between an orthodox center and the folklore cultus is typical of the Adepts and the Folks in traditional Buddhist lands. The particular strength of Adept Buddhism in Burma is evident in Burma in meditation practice, in the large proportion of monastics in the population, in the relatively high standards of monastic discipline and education and in the widespread study of the scriptures. A number of Burmese monks in recent years have been widely regarded as arahants and certainly Noble Ones are common. Monks and nuns are ubiquitous; everybody knows them and most in fact are related to some of them. Even the smallest village has a small monastery. Furthermore there are a number of prominent lay scholars and meditation teachers. The Sangha is the most respected segment of Burmese society and the locus of Dharmic authority. It would be improper to contradict a senior monk on Dharmic matters.

Doctrinally, the Burmese adepts, as Theravadins, have a high regard for the Pali Tipitaka, consisting of the Vinaya, the Suttas and the Abhidharma of very early origin preserved in a very early Indic dialect, giving the most direct access available to the early teachings of the Buddha. Scholarship for the Burmese adepts is largely based on memorization of these Pali texts, and competence in Pali is widespread; there are monks who can recite hundreds or even thousands of pages from memory. There is, on the other hand, almost no tradition of scholarly debate as we are used to in the West.

The Example of Western Adept Buddhism

In this formative period, the West is quite dissimilar to the Burmese case. I will write of “Western Buddhism” quite a bit in the rest of this book, so let me clarify that “Western” is a rather inadequate designation of a vaguely defined culture, not of a geographical area. Others have used “convert,” “modern” and “non-Asian” at least as inadequately and sometimes even more awkwardly, pairing these variously with “ethnic-,” “cradle-,” “traditional-” and “Asian-Buddhism.” “Western” can be variously correlated with physical presence in the geographical West, with the influence of the European Enlightenment, scientific rationalism and Romanticism, with car and iPhone ownership and, perhaps most reliably, with the use of forks as the primary eating utensil. When brought together with Buddhism it is further correlated with new “converts” (first-generation Buddhists), a very high level of education and social status. An Indian or Singaporean can be remarkably Western in all of these senses beyond the geographical.

In the West, the traditional Sangha is as yet almost completely absent! Very few Western Buddhists have direct contact with monks or nuns, or have ever even met one, and wouldn’t know what to feed it if they did. Nonetheless prominent monastic teachers and authors known at a distance through books and other media are highly influential and active in the West: Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron, Bhante Gunaratana, Thubten Chodron, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Ajahn Sumedho, and so on. All of these are widely regarded as extraordinarily wise people, excellent resources for conveying the Dharma and exemplary role models, just not generally physically present.

At the local level, the role of adepts among Westerners is probably most closely represented variously by ordained priests in the Japanese or Korean Zen traditions, typically with some training in a monastic setting, by certified lay lamas in the Tibetan tradition, many of whom have lived in a cave for three years, by a number of ex-monastics, primarily trained in the Theravada countries of Asia, and by various Buddhist scholars who also practice Buddhism. Unfortunately, this does not constitute a set of adepts that is consistently recognized as such by the wider community, and in fact the value of any kind of clerical authority is dismissed by many in the West in any case. Moreover many in the Western Buddhist community are confused by the conflicting standards concerning teacher qualifications, by the only rough conformity among the views and methods of the teachers trained in diverse Asian traditions and by the strong admixture of charismatic but totally self-qualified lay teachers, popular bloggers and even self-certified arahants.

The Third Gem, to muddle issues even more, has no particular referent for most Western Buddhists. It is widely assumed by default that “Sangha” applies to the community at large, contrary to any Asian usage I am aware of, for instance, lending this word to names for informal weekly meditation and discussion groups like “Sofa So Good Zen Sangha,” or “Muddy Lotus Sangha.”3 On the other hand, the Western Buddhist community as a whole enjoys, given the current demographics, extremely high levels of education and inclination toward study of Buddhist source texts and toward meditation practice as compared to their Asian counterparts. Adept knowledge, in short, is less intensely concentrated and more widely distributed than in the Asian context. It is as if in the opening scenario of this chapter very few indeed were to have the fortitude to scale the final peak, yet everyone would show up at the state park trailhead wearing cutting-edge shoes, so that young kids, for instance, can take another step, and so on.

Folk Buddhism

We are all physicists, at at least a naïve level, insofar as we must deal with the world of mass and motion, light and liquids, gravity and gyrations. Try asking some folk physicists things like: What keeps the moon and airplanes up but us down? Why is the back of the refrigerator so warm? How can radio waves carry sounds and pictures? What makes water freeze? … and you may receive in return an astonishingly imaginative array of folk understandings that trail off into total misunderstandings, superstition and “old wives’ tales,” alongside some sound guesses. Music, philosophy, art and engineering are other areas in which expert or adept knowledge or skill exists side by side with naïve or folk understandings. Buddhism, because of its extreme sophistication, is no different, never has been since the earliest days, and never will be.

Folk Buddhism is a wilder, less domesticated and more popular understanding of Buddhism than Adapt Buddhism that manifests in a particular social, cultural or regional context. Accordingly malleability is a prominent property of Folk Buddhism. Folk Buddhism includes many elements found also in Adept Buddhism but also a hefty admixture of folk beliefs, highly devotional practices, elements of non-Buddhist religious, ethical and philosophical traditions, many colorful elements from myth or popular entertainment, and many false understandings of Buddhist teachings.

Understand that Folk Buddhism overlaps Adept Buddhism. Its defining characteristic is its relative popularity among the general Buddhist population. For instance, the mass meditation movement in Burma counts as Folk Buddhism because of its wide popularity, far from majority appeal but way beyond adept circles. Meditation of exactly that sort is at the same time a basic Path practice, quite in line with Adept Buddhism and widely encouraged by the adepts. Understand also that Folk Buddhism is a necessary part of the Buddha-Sasana in order to make Buddhism comprehensible for most Buddhists and non-Buddhists. Its importances should not be discounted. It is Buddhism’s interface with the folk culture.

If Adept Buddhism is resilient and Folk Buddhism is malleable, what holds Buddhism together? Folk Buddhism is tethered to Adept Buddhism by Refuge! As Buddhists who have taken Refuge in the Triple Gem, those in the tail know in which direction the head is found and are open to the softening and shaping influence of Adept Buddhism. For this reason, Folk Buddhism is not Buddhism in decay, eaten at by the prevailing folk culture. Rather it is something suspended between countervailing forces, the domestication of Adept Buddhism and the wilds of the folk culture, and trying to reconcile itself with both. Refuge, veneration for the Buddha and the Dharma, and for the Sangha that represents them, keeps Folk Buddhism firmly under the influence of Adept Buddhism and lends authority to the word of the adepts. This does not make Folk Buddhism identical with Adept Buddhism but tends to make it consistent with it. As fads and fashions come and go, this relationship ensures that trends that run counter to Buddhist values are noticed, admonished and nipped in the bud.

This is much like the popular relationship to science. For instance, if I don’t have much of an understanding of how the weather works I might have some odd notions about it and even share these with other people. If someone disagrees with me we generally have a way to resolve the disagreement: look it up or ask an expert. If I refuse to be corrected by the experts, my understanding will degrade as it loses its mooring in science and floats off into supposition and superstition. It is more normal in our society to defer to scientists as authorities and thereby at least open ourselves to an improved understanding of science. Similarly, the Folk Buddhist will defer to adepts lest he float off in a wildly devotional cultic bubble. In short, the adepts have the soapbox.

Here is Folk Buddhism contrasted with Adept Buddhism

Adept Buddhism

Folk Buddhism

Adherents

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

Basis

Vinaya (+Path) Refuges

Quality

Authentic Consistent

Content

Orthodox, limited fold adaptations Mix of Buddhist, folk-cultural elements

It is inevitable in Folk Buddhism that, along with some proper understandings of authentic teachings, there will also be naïve misunderstandings, for instance, that there is a soul or a fixed self that acquires merit through good deeds, and that Nirvana is a particularly felicitous realm where that self can be reborn and dwell forever. It is likewise common in Folk Buddhism to seek protection from outrageous fortune in amulets or in special chants or in the simple presence of monks or nuns. Folk Buddhism is highly conditioned by the embedding culture, as well as by universal human needs. Many Asian cultures have had strong animist and shamanic influences since before the advent of Buddhism ,and these have since become indistinguishable from Buddhism in the popular mind. In East Asia, for instance, ancestor worship is very much integrated into Folk Buddhism with its many traditional expressions, such as symbolic burning of money. Folk Buddhism serves as a middle way between Adept Buddhism and the general embedding folk culture, and is an enduring part of a healthy Sasana.

The Example of Burmese Folk Buddhism

A frequent Burmese visitor to the monastery in which I live in Texas, a laywoman who likes to come on weekends to prepare food for the monks, was up late one night and spotted a monk standing in the sky above one of the new buildings near where a new pagoda was about to begin construction. She called other people hither, also Burmese laypeople, who indeed verified the presence of this monk in the sky, only by this time he was sitting in meditation posture. It was generally agreed among the witnesses that this monk had teletransported from Burma. A couple of weeks later I heard the story retold by another layperson not an original witness to this event, and in the retelling that the monk in question was our own founder, who lives in Burma, undoubtedly checking out the new construction site. I personally often feel in many such circumstances like Clark Kent, who never happens to be present when Superman appears, never present for the occurrence of such miracles.

The average Burmese Buddhist knows maybe a little about meditation but does not practice it regularly, knows basic teachings of Buddhism largely from Jataka tales (primarily a Children’s literature), but is primarily informed by a vibrant Folk Buddhism. Burma is a land of pagodas, statues of the Buddha, and numerous monks and nuns, before all of which people bow, fully touching their foreheads to the ground in reverence. The average Burmese Buddhist also inhabits a world of tree spirits, miracles and magic, largely of pre-Buddhist origin but often blending in his mind seamlessly with Buddhist practices and doctrine. Appeasing tree spirits (nats) is a common duty of monks.

In Burma, blessings are routinely sought from monks. As in other Theravada countries, the chanting of any of the Parittas, a set of eleven suttas or composites from the suttas, by monks on one’s behalf is widely believed to be efficacious in protecting one’s welfare. This practice has parallels in many religions and other Buddhist traditions, including the use of talismans or amulets and bestowing blessings. A revealing study reports that in fact the vast majority of monks, all of whom provide this priestly service routinely believe such practices have no special power other than to produce self-confidence in the patient.4 I have often heard monks pointing this very thing out, but folk beliefs persist, as does the chanting of Parittas by the monks.

In Burma, many lay people have daily contact with monastics when they offer alms in the morning, rice and a little curry. People have a particular regard for monks who are accomplished meditators, have impeccable discipline or are recognized scholars. Although monks rarely mingle in social gatherings, alms rounds or visits to the monastery on quarter moon days provide the laity an opportunity to learn some Dharma or ask questions. Although all monks are respected, people learn of individual monks’ reputations as teachers. Moreover, in this electronic age many people listen to recordings of Dharma talks and Paritta chanting at home, featuring their favorite famous sayadaws (teachers), as routinely as Americans listen to talk shows.

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

Relics, and also consecrated statues of the Buddha, have special powers.5 Kyaik Tiyo, the golden rock, is a huge boulder, maybe 40 or 50 feet in diameter, perched on top of a sheer cliff, at the very top of a tall mountain in southern Burma, in such a way that it has been just about to roll off for maybe the last several hundred thousand years or so. The story is told that some of the Buddha’s hairs are contained inside of the rock and that the rock remains in place by the unexplained “power of the Buddha.” Once upon a time, some non-Buddhists tried to push the rock off the cliff in order to undermine people’s trust in the Triple Gem, but they were turned into monkeys. In an inspiring, hopefully not foolhardy, display of faith, there is now a nunnery directly below the rock, exactly at the point of first bounce.

The Example of Pure Land Buddhism

How often does a particular school or regional variant of Buddhism lose it authenticity? If Buddhism loses its horticulture, its adepts, it cannot expect to be fully authentic. We will see some examples where this seems to have occurred, but I think we will find it is far less common than might be imagined. Buddhism has shown itself to be extremely resilient.

Let’s consider Pure Land Buddhism, which we encountered in the last chapter as a huge movement for the last many centuries in East Asia, but which is also widely criticized as promoting an inauthentic devotional path of practice, the nien-fo, the invocation of the name of Amitabha Buddha, with the promise of rebirth in the Western Pure Land as the primary goal. What sets off alarms is the appeal to an external power for salvation, bypassing the Buddha’s teaching of karma, that our own deeds determine our attainments. Pure Land’s appeal to a higher power has been compared the Abrahamic faiths and has provided a sitting duck for Theravadins seeking to disparage the Mahayana, for indeed it represents a large proportion of the entirety of Mahayana practice.

The point I want to make is that Pure Land is Folk Buddhism pure and simple, and therefore need not bear any claim to authenticity. What makes Pure Land distinct from other Folk Buddhist understandings and practices is its immense popularity and its organization as movement with an independent identity. On the one hand the Pure Land movement has the hallmarks of Folk Buddhism: Its single-focused practice, its devotional quality, its easy-answer, easily comprehended and implemented approach and its popular appeal. For much of its history in China it has been promoted through specifically lay organizations, often called White Lotus Societies, and grown through proselytizing among the laity.

On the other hand, the Pure Land movement does not seem to be a cultic bubble that has dislodged itself from Adept Buddhism. The Pure Land has historically almost never been a separate school but has rather taken hold within and across non-Pure Land schools that have sustained an Adept Buddhism alongside a Folk Buddhism. For instance, there is no recognized monastic lineage of Pure Land patriarchs analogous to that found in Ch’an, T’ien-T’ai or other major schools in East Asia, and any of the monastic names historically associated with Pure Land turn out to be affiliated with non-Pure Land schools. Even today the Ch’an/Pure Land syncretism is the norm for Chinese temples.6 In short, Pure Land is a Folk Buddhist practice almost always tethered to, and recognizing the authority of, a domesticated Adept Buddhism. Like many Folk Buddhist practices and understandings, Pure Land has been promoted within the various schools, even by and for monastic communities, as a part of a healthy Sasana. Its existence is no more evidence for the inauthenticity of some part of Mahayana Buddhism than the belief in forest spirits is for the inauthenticity of Burmese Buddhism or, for that matter, than a near majority belief in creationism in America is for the poor quality of American science. Nonetheless, we will see in the next chapter what happens when Pure Land in Japan cuts itself off from its adepts to become a truly separate school.

The Example of Western Folk Buddhism.

Buddhism has has by norms of Buddhist chronology only begun to blend with Western folk culture. Tweed (2000) examining the first wave of this process, ending some hundred years ago, identifies three types of early adherents, each with its own focus of interest: The esoterics were attracted to the occult metaphysical and experiential aspects of Buddhism, the rationalists to almost the opposite, to the discoursive, scientific and non-religious aspects, and the romantics to the exotic aspects of Buddhist cultures, to their art and architecture. Each of these had a distinct understanding of what Buddhism is all about, all found what they were looking for, and all of these are still with us. McMahan (2008) provides an excellent catalog of those many trends in current Western Buddhist practice and understanding that have clearly traceable Western cultural roots, roots generally in Protestant Christianity, in the European Enlightenment and scientific rationalism, in Romanticism or in psychotherapy. Let me take just one example of this kind.

A popular understanding in the West is that Buddhism is about freeing one’s authentic (innermost/true) self (nature/voice/heart), a self that has been suppressed by social conditioning and other unnatural factors, but when unleashed is the source of creativity, spirituality, virtue and wisdom. This authentic self is typically accorded the following qualities:

  • The authentic self exists independently of social roles, culture and conventions.

  • Social roles, culture and conventions are oppressive to the authentic self.

  • Creativity, spontaneity, goodness and art are external expressions that flow out from the authentic self. This is known as self-expression or being natural.

  • Spirituality adheres in the authentic self, while religion is found in external rules, conventions and dogma.7

  • We must learn to trust the inner experience and inner vision of the authentic self, that which comes naturally, that which is true to ourselves.

Although such statements have a long and venerable history, it has only a short Buddhist history. In fact, this authentic “self” is far more metaphysical than what Buddhism generally endorses. The idea of the authentic self does bear a kinship to practices of introspective examination in authentic Buddhism, but we would be hard pressed indeed to find any of the rather specific statements above represented in Buddhist literature of any tradition. For instance, where in the scriptures might one find an answer to a follow-up question like, “Is the authentic self capable of jealousy or vengeance?”

If the notion of the innermost heart does not have a Buddhist origin, where did it come from? The answer is: from European Romanticism and its later expressions.8 It is found in people like Rousseau, Schiller and Schliermacher, representing the idea of human thought free from social constraints, of morality and wisdom coming directly from the human heart, of naturalness. The outflow of the inner self is often taken up in the art of the Romantic era; Wordsworth, for instance, stated that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.”9 Such Romantic themes can be traced through the American Transcendentalist movement and through turn-of-the-last-century metaphysical movements, where they played a role in the early attempts to comprehend Buddhism in the West,10 then later entered the American countercultural movements of the middle twentieth century, which provided the fertile soil in which Buddhism began to take root in the West.11

The authentic self is probably useful in highlighting the importance of interior or introspective experience in pushing up and ascending the stem of the flower. The Path is in many ways a solitary one. I don’t want to dismiss its useful role in Western Folk Buddhist understanding. However, from the perspective of authentic Buddhism it has some problematic qualities as well. First, until one has reached a degree of attainment, the uninstructed worldling is generally assumed to be enormously deluded, mired in greed, hatred and delusion. Under this condition, trust in any inner voice would seem most ill-advised. Second, the authentic self does not seem particularly helpful in the project of deconstructing the self and in fact contains its own potential for self-centeredness. Third, the inner self would seem to dismiss the role of the Buddhist community and the importance of the Sasana as simply social constructs, inimical to the authentic self, and therefore irrelevant to “real” Buddhism.

In short, the authentic self, a pervasive and popular understanding in Western Folk Buddhism, lacks a firm basis in authentic Buddhism. To a great extent, the popular understanding of Buddhism in the West is a patchwork of many analogous understandings sewn in with some pieces of authentic Buddhist cloth.

A Western American Wanders into a Chinese Temple

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

A culturally European American once walked into a culturally Asian Chinese temple. He had been reading books on Buddhism, primarily by Asian adepts, had been favorably impressed and wished to develop his personal experience in the matter. After entering, he was taken aback by the peculiarity and anomaly in the practices and beliefs of the laity he encountered, by the formal style and insistence on liturgy, by the presence of unfamiliar dramatic figures in temple statuary, by unfamiliar rites at temple altars, by chanting the name of some guy he had never heard of and by hocus pocus all around. The devout temple laity witnessed yet another dismayed European American run out the door and into the street yelling something about an “egregious corruption of the Dharma.” What gives?

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

The physical center of a comet is not the head but somewhere in the tail. Wild flora outnumbers domesticated. When we encounter someone else’s Buddhism, we tend to see not its Adept Buddhism but its Folk Buddhism, since this is the most outwardly visible part of Buddhism, upheld by the most people. It is also generally the most overtly religious. On the other hand, when we regard our own Buddhism, we identify with its Adept Buddhism, because our own aspirations head in that direction. Even while we realize that Adept Buddhism preserves an understanding that our own cultural assumptions and faulty understandings makes obscure to us, that Adept Buddhism nonetheless belongs to us and is there when we need it. In this way, the impression arises of a Buddhism fragmented into East and West, Mahayana and Theravada, secular and religious, and beyond repair. Buddhism is more or less fine! The integrity of the authentic traditions has been retained with remarkable resilience, yet Buddhism has proven itself at the same time highly tolerant of cultural and regional diversity. Are we as tolerant?

1The adept scientists among my readership will appreciate that this simile depends on a folk scientist’s understanding of how a comet works.

2King, 1990, p. 67.

3I have not been able to pinpoint the origin of this generalized usage of the word sangha. During my onetime research of this very issue, the late scholar John McCrea, a specialist in East Asian Buddhism, emailed me, “I agree that the western usage of ‘sangha’ to include ordained and lay practitioners/believers is unusual, or idiosyncratic.”

4Spiro (1982) Ch. 6.

5Almost all monks, according to Spiro (1982) Ch. 6, agree that relics have special powers, though images of the Buddha do not.

6Sharf (2003) reviews this evidence for the historical dependence of Pure Land on other schools of Buddhism.

7That is, the authentic self is spiritual, not religious.

8McMahan (2008), pp. 76-87, also Thanissaro (2002).

9McMahan (2008), p. 82.

10Much as Taoism provided the lens through which Buddhism was interpreted in China almost two millenia earlier.

11McMahan (2008), p. 85.

Growing the Dharma: Introduction

August 10, 2013

This is the second serial installment of my recent ebook draft. I couple of people who posted comments to the first installment see value in focusing on one segment at a time as a readership community.  I encourage critical feedback and comments. I don’t expect what I write to be wildly popular; I wrote it precisely because it runs counter to dominant but improvident trends in Western Buddhism. The complete ebook is here.

Growing the Dharma: Buddhism’s Religious Spadework

Chapter 1. Introduction

Is Buddhism a religion? Of course the answer 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 rather a way of life. It seems to me this is exactly what is expected of any religion when embraced fully: it should be a way of life. But let’s go on:

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

This last seems at first like a sloppy criterion, but 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 family resemblance criterion the deciding factor.

The degree of this family resemblance, or the elements that indicate this 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 what I will call Path elements–the somewhat unique and therefore more “secular” doctrinal aspects and program of personal practice. Yet some have argued recently that Buddhist religiosity is rather a product of cultural accretion that began after the Buddha and has little to do with the core message of the Buddha. Indeed, if we take the core message of the Buddha to be the Four Noble Truths, which includes the Noble Eightfold Path of practice, this view has some merit, as these indeed are rather short on elements one would be inclined to call “religious.” For instance, there is in the Noble Eightfold Path

  • No “Right Bowing,”
  • No “Right Robes,” and
  • No “Right Ecclesiastical Governance.”

My response to this will be something of a middle way. The evidence, which will be reviewed here, makes it undeniable that many elements of religiosity were an intrinsic and functional part of the early Buddhist message, albeit carefully circumscribed in many ways. However through cultural adaptation in virtually every tradition the degree of religiosity has grown more prominent, sometimes exceedingly more prominent. On the other hand, this fortified religiosity, I will maintain, seldom obscures the core message of early Buddhism, in spite of appearances.

In this book I will outline the important aspects of religiosity in early and authentic Buddhism and will illustrate its enhancement in a sample of later traditions. I will then turn to the process of cultural adaptation that shaped these historical traditions and its implications for modern Buddhism. Buddhism stands out in the following two ways: First, if it is a religion it is the earliest world religion, succeeded 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 has been remarkably well preserved through these cultural adaptations. This combination of resilience and tolerance to adaptation is likely what made Buddhist the first world religion. I will locate the mechanism, as a matter of fact, outside of the Path elements, in the more religious elements.

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 allows 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 early functionality throughout the Buddhist world in spite of enormous variation. 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 relieved. It also includes placing trust in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, a prominent role for the monastic order and particular emphasis on the practices of generosity and virtue.

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 other laity, the garb of the other monastics, the style of other 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.

I hope to gain in this book a recognition and explanation of the great resilience of Buddhism in retaining the integrity and functionality of its authentic teachings that exists alongside a great tolerance for adaptation and change.

Religiosity in Buddhism

Religiosity seems to be a universal, found throughout the world. Scholars of comparative religion have looked at this in detail, but here are the recurring features that I observe in almost all religions and that 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 or sacred 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 sacred 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.
  • Salvation. The ultimate goal is generally some form of transcendence of this one worldly life.
  • Clergy. There is often a class of professionals who dedicate themselves to understanding and practice of the religion, who generally conduct or lead the rituals and who take care of the community and sometimes enjoy the status of ritual artifacts themselves.
  • Institutions. The community is generally organized according to certain principles and this organization sustains the clergy, owns ritual spaces and objects and provides some degree of governance and authority.

A shorter list of topics I will focus on here is as follows:

  • Devotion.
  • Community.
  • Salvation.

I make no further attempt to define religiosity than to provide this list and its summary. The common statement, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” seems generally intended to sweep aside many of the elements on this list, particularly the more institutional elements. Why this list comes together as something requiring special attention, evoking even alarm, in the Western mind is discussed in a few chapters.

It is worth noting parenthetically that each of these features listed here to as characteristic of religion is nonetheless found also in what would normally be regarded as secular contexts, or at least their close counterparts are. 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 typically a sense of tradition. Government functions and places of government exhibit almost every one of these features, by my count, with appropriate substitution of terms, elected officials for clergy, etc. Armies likewise exhibit most, with analogous substitutions, maybe because they need to be equipped to deal with fundamental issues of life and death. Even Academia exhibits a lot of these features. We are, in other words, far from a definitive definition of religion, but this characterization will suffice for our purposes.2

These elements in Buddhism that I collect under religiosity, or under devotion, community and salvation, we will see, have a unique flavor in Buddhism that doubtlessly originated with its founder. In their early manifestation they are functionally very rational, systematic and clearly articulated. The functions they serve are as follows:

  1. They provide methods of practice that help purify and develop the mind in wholesome ways, but that lend themselves to community, casual and even children’s practice.
  2. They provide a social infrastructure in support of off-the-deep-end types of intensive practice and study and for its propagation and transmission to future generations in its full integrity. That is, they support the BuddhaSasana, lived Buddhism in all of its dimensions, including historical and social.
  3. They provide an attitudinal context that gives rise to individual aspirations to undertake the intensive practice and study that can culminate in Awakening.

To purge these religious elements across the board from one’s understanding is simply to miss the larger context in which the Path of practice is sustained; it is to fail to appreciate the past and to take responsibility for the future. If Buddhists of the past had purged religiosity from Buddhism in this way, had been consistently spiritual but not religious, there would be no baby left for us in the twenty-first century befuddlement to throw out with the bathwater.

Overview

My reasons for writing this book are as follows:

  • Buddhist elements of devotion, transcendence and community tend to be poorly comprehended and unappreciated in the West, producing a limited and lopsided system of understanding and practice. I hope this book will contribute to a more well-rounded practice and understanding within a still incipient Western Buddhist movement.
  • Religiosity is deeply implicated the sometimes wild culturally conditioned variations observed among and within the various Buddhist traditions. I hope that by bringing some order to these variations, I hope this book will provide a perspective that will make the Buddhist landscape easier to navigate.
  • The non-Path elements of devotion and community provide the mechanisms that underlie, as I will show, Buddhism’s remarkably tolerance of variation including its capacity for absorbing many elements of local cultures, alongside its amazing resilience with regard to maintain its authentic functions. I hope this book will serve to articulate this important yet rarely recognized aspect of the genius of Buddhism.

I will begin with religiosity in early Buddhist doctrine, drawing on early sources, particularly the Pali discourses and monastic code, to show the functional role of devotion, transcendence and community in early Buddhism. I will make use of a botanical metaphor, in particular its physiological aspect in order to bring out the functional interrelatedness among the various elements of practice and understanding. I will discuss how the religious elements are integrated into an organic whole in clear and rational roles.

I will I then seek to deepen our understanding of these roles progressively as I turn to historical, sociological and personal aspects of these religious elements. Just as we turn from botany to plant genetics in order to understand change and variation through time, we will turn from doctrine to history in order to see how Buddhist traditions have taken on many different forms, particularly embellishing under cultural pressures the religious elements that concern us, yet remarkably preserving for the most part the early physiology. Just as we turn from botany and genetics to hortoculture in order to understand the role of human intervention in the well-being of the plant and in the breeding of domestic variants with desirable features, we will turn from doctrine and history to the sociology of Buddhist communities in order to understand the role of an adept subcommunity in domesticating and maintaining an authentic Adept Buddhism, alongside which a wilder Folk Buddhism inevitably exists. This is the source of Buddhism’s resilience.

Finally, just as the gastronome must make choices among the great varieties of domestic and wild foods at hand in the culinary world, the would-be student and practitioner of Buddhism in the West must find his way among the great variety of Buddhisms, Eastern and Western, spiritual, religious and secular, early and traditional, Theravada and Mahayana, village and forest, folk and adept, in the modern landscape. Having brought the reader from the field almost to the dinner table, I will conclude with tips on navigating the Buddhist buffet counter.

1This term comes from Wittgenstein.

2See Tweed (2006) for a discussion of the many attempts to define religion, and a recent bold attempt at a new one.

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

Preface

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 Bows to the Buddha and to the Sangha

April 17, 2013

Uposatha Day, First Quarter Moon, April 18, 2013

A handicap in being a Westerner or a child of the European Enlightenment is that it makes bowing problematic. I learned this first as a personal exemplar of this profile and second as a Buddhist teacher who has felt compelled to teach bowing to other exemplars. Even children beyond a certain age find bowing problematic. And yet anjali, the mudra of joined palms, often embellished with prostrations, was a ubiquitous expression of respect or greeting in Buddha’s India, and was accordingly used to venerate the living Buddha as well as the Sangha, and this practice of veneration, including veneration of images of the Buddha, has continued in all Buddhist lands in which Buddhism has taken root. No culture that I am aware of has chosen either to abandon it nor to substitute for it an indigenous expression, such a wave, a salute, a nod or a hearty hand clasp. Its adoption in Christian prayer speaks of its crossing over some yet to be fully understood ancient connection between two great traditions. Why is the bow so important in Buddhism?

Refuge and veneration are causal factors in attaining wholesome qualities of mine. Bowing and other expressions of veneration powerfully generate personal humility, they deflate the ego, knock it out of its privileged position in the universe by deferring to another. This seems to be a function of veneration or worship in all religions I am aware of, and I presume an essential function of God as an object of veneration in most. Prostration in particular seems also to be a natural embodiment or enactment with deep genetic roots; consider how lesser dogs instinctively make a similar gesture to express submission to our greater furry friends. This practice is an easy and profound antecedent to the gradual weakening, along the Path, of self-view. Expressions of veneration result in calm and the stilling of inflictive emotions as self-centeredness relaxes.

Bowing belongs to ritual conduct, as does shaking hands or wearing a tux to a formal dinner party. Robert Sharf writes, “Ritual habituation inscribes the self with a set of perceptual orientations, affective dispositions, automatic responses that are precognitive.” It begins by enacting these as if in play within an implicit frame of reference that one does not have to believe in or acquiesce to any more than one believes in the grammar of one’s mother tongue. To bow to the Buddha is to enact veneration for the Buddha, to enact veneration of the Buddha is to feel veneration for the Buddha, to feel veneration for the Buddha is to put aside one’s preconceptions and open one’s heart to the teachings of the Buddha. To do this is to align with the Buddha’s path. Any culture involves many such implicit frames of reference; consider how we carve out personal space, for instance: in the West a couple of square feet in front of you as you sit at a table is understood as “your space,” such that if someone puts something into that space it counts as “yours.” Most Asians make no such assumptions. Bowing invokes a frame of reference little known in the West; we must learn it.

In Burma children learn to bow before they can talk. They learn to bow to five kinds of people: to the Buddha (actually a representation thereof), to the Sangha, to parents, to teachers and to the elderly. Imagine the benefit of learning veneration for teachers! This is not a difficult practice if learned in a Buddhist temple environment in which bows and other ritual expressions of veneration are observed. It is a practice even easier and more pleasurable for kids than adults who have not learned its intricacies from childhood. The adult generally has the greater ego to complain. Either benefits enormously from the practice of bowing; one might even venture to state that Buddhist practice begins with bowing.

Let me recount my own personal experience, very much as a rationalized adult, in ritual expressions of veneration some fifteen years ago, from Through the Looking Glass:

My corporate job allowed me a certain amount of vacation time each year and I began to spend it all in sesshin [Zen meditation retreat], which meant a couple of long sesshins each year. The next spring I want to Green Gulch Farm above the ocean in Marin County, to sit a sesshin led by Rev. Norman Fischer. This was far more elaborate in form than anything I thought was possible. In fact I would suffer cultural shock for the next seven days.

Shortly after arrival, before the start of the sesshin in the evening, newbies were instructed in the fine art of oryoki. This involves a ritual process of receiving and eating meals, and of cleaning one’s bowls and utensils, all in the zendo, seated in meditation position. … This is not all: There were precise ways to enter the zendo (for instance, leading with the right foot, not with the left), to hold the hands as we walked, to bow toward those seated in our row then to those in the remaining rows, taking care to turn clockwise, then to sit backwards on our zafus and spin around to face the wall. For lecture we continued to sit cross-legged, not to raise our knees to our chins if we could stand it. I longed for the days when just not throwing spitballs nor passing messages got my by.

Service was a complex affair with many bows, led by Fischer Roshi, who offered incense initially with the help of an attendant and who also at precise points in the chants would make additional bows or approach the alter to offer additional incense. We, in the meantime, held our chant books in a certain way and were to chant with energy. Behavior outside the zendo was also similarly regulated. We did not break silence but bowed upon encountering each other, we could make ourselves tea, but had to sit while we drank it, and so on.

Of the minority with no robes,  I seemed to be the lone person in the sesshin who had not known to wear black or highly subdued colors. I wore things like green or blue., thankfully not yellow or orange Fortunately I was later relieved to see that, digging deeper into their suitcases during the week in search of a change of clothing, other participants came up with increasingly brighter colors eventually to rival or surpass my own.

This was all amazing to me. Why would people do all this? This was not at all like the Zen described, promised, so vividly and accurately by Alan Watts, not like real Zen. It wasn’t even cool and it entailed a lot of bother and stress. And this was on top of the agonizing pains in my knees and back from the unaccustomed long hours of sitting for seven days. I was already suffering from Zendo Stress Disorder.

In contemplating the challenge to my cultural sensibilities and natural inclination toward the casual, during the subsequent weeks I came up not so much with a resolution as with a way of arriving at one. The easiest response to my discomfort would have been,

“Balderdash! Ritual forms are nonsense, they are a perversion of real Buddhism, of real Zen, or … or else a cultural artifact of the East Asian cultures in which these ritual forms arose that are of little relevance in the critical-thinking West. Ha!”

With this response in hand I would have been free to seek out retreat centers that loosened up on this nonsense. I did not know at the time of the ubiquitousness of such Buddhist meditation centers, largely to satisfy the demands of the thriving “balderdash” community. But the “balderdash” response was not good enough: How would I know that the response is correct?
In what for me was an almost unprecedented display of good judgment, of smarts and wisdom, I chose the opposite response: I accepted as a working assumption that there is a purpose for all of these ritual forms and related nonsense that I simply had yet to fathom. How could something persist generation after generation with no purpose? Furthermore the only reasons I could think of not to participate in the ritual forms all had to do with ego, pride and self-image, things I knew I was supposed to let go of in any case. For these reasons I make the decision to begin sitting every week with … Flint Spark’s group at the Clear Spring Zendo, the group infamous for its bows and ritual forms that until then had inhibited my participation.

I did not yet know it, but this is the moment when I fully aligned myself with Buddhism, the moment when I acquired Buddhist “faith” and in return relinquished the arrogant assumption that I already knew what I was doing. I had already learned in my career as a scientist that there was little danger in such a leap of faith as long as one did not thereby relinquish wisdom and discernment as well. I had given myself over to Generative Grammar on a similar basis as a linguistics student, and in fact came eventually around to rejecting it rather soundly, yet in the meantime developed quickly into a scholar. If the ritual and bowing thing did not work out, I would simply give it up and be all the wiser for it. What I did now was to establish a general policy to accept with a degree of wholeheartedness whatever I was taught by respected Buddhist teachers or texts, at least until I got to the bottom of it in my own experience. This policy would serve me well in the years to come and sustain an explorer’s sense of curiosity throughout my career of training.

The reader might well be wondering, How did the leap of faith thing work out, especially all the bows? Reb Anderson once wrote,

By giving up our habitual personal styles of deportment and bringing our body, speech, and thought into accord with traditional forms and ceremonies, we merge in realization with buddha. We renounce our habit body and manifest the true dharma body.

A short time ago this would have been incomprehensible to me; now it made perfect sense.
I discovered that learning ritual forms had gone through stages.

The first was awkward. There was uncertainty whether I was doing a bow correctly or holding the incense properly. My self, Little Johnny, was manifestly embarrassed and hoping nobody was looking.

The second was smooth. I knew exactly how to do the bow, where to offer incense, when to ring the bell, how to walk, to hold the chant book, to open the oryoki bowls. Little Johnny was manifestly proud and hoping everybody was looking. (They were of course too busy being either embarrassed or proud themselves.)

The third stage was clear and serene. I knew to care for the form, to bring body and mind fully into accord. The last hint of Little Johnny dropped away, along with his agenda, along with his perpetual “what’s in it for me,” along with his resistance and anxiety on the one hand and with his pride on the other. For at least the moment I could experience what liberation must be like, complete perfect release from all the little self’s baggage. At that moment  a hammer struck emptiness, there was no actor, there was only the form and the awareness of body and mind following along. The form was doing me.

I had discovered a crucial Dharma gate that I had a short time been ready to dismiss on the basis of unexamined tacit assumptions.

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:
Meditate

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Negotiating the Dharma

March 11, 2013

Uposatha Day, New Moon, March 11, 2012

Chapter 8. Negotiating the Dharma

Buddhism is radical in any culture. It goes “against the stream.” The Noble Ones understand that virtually all progress toward peace, happiness, virtue and understanding one is likely to make on the Buddhist Path will be directly correlated with what is given up or curtailed: the physical trappings of life, relations and obligation like fame and car ownership, self-view, identity or being somebody, behaviors like partying flirtatiously, and particularly the clinging emotions rooted in greed or anger. The practice of the Noble Ones has been no more and no less than a long process of disentanglement strand by strand from soap-operatic existence, a process of progressive renunciation. This makes little sense to normal folk.

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

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

A Variety of Negotiations

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

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

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

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

The Adepts’ Conversation with Core Buddhism

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

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

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

The Adepts Tell Folks What’s What

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A challenge to Folk Buddhism is the danger of succumbing to the onslaught those personal and cultural factors of the wider society that cause the distress and suffering Core Buddhism is intended to resolve. Rather than following the direct path advanced by Adept Buddhism unwary followers of Folk Buddhism may come under distracting or unsavory and opprobrious influences inimical to the teachings, practices and values of Core Buddhism. For instance, Folk Buddhism might begin to assume much of the materialism, acquisitiveness or intolerance of the embedding culture, and in the worst case even think some of this belongs to the Buddha’s teachings!  It may even come under manipulation of special interests who exploit Folk Buddhism, for instance, for commercial interests or as a means of controlling public opinion and legitimizing the illegitimate.

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

Now, from the perspective of Core Buddhism this is all an, uh, abomination. Modern consumerism is of an order that goes beyond satisfying human need to feeding human greed, which Buddhism teaches will never ever be satisfied and will in fact lead to bottomless depths of human misery. This conclusion is clearly verified in lands like America in the generally feeling of impoverishment even in the midst of wealth, the enormous degree of drug and alcohol abuse, the rate of suicide, the huge market for antidepressants, the ubiquity of daily fear, the widespread unraveling of social networks, the dissolution of  families and the renewed strength of class and racial oppression. And in the presence of so much stuff, we are choking on it. Ultimately this order has produced endless war, poverty for much of the world’s population and brought us to the brink of ecological collapse.

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

Folks Edify the Adepts

The dialog between the Adepts and the Folk Buddhists also works both ways. Although the Adepts have traditionally spoken with great authority, they are not authoritarian. One of the effects of the Buddha’s creation of an absolute daily dependence of the monastic Sangha on the laity, simply to be able to eat, is that the laity always served as a check on the monastics, particularly as a check on the behavior of the monastics. When monastics stop living the pure life, when they party, flirt, gamble, drink beer, seek amusements and don top hats, in other words, act like lay people, then the laity tends to become disinterested in providing support.

This also applies when the monastics become too aloof or uptight for Folk Buddhist standards. The Buddha was much concerned about  harmony between the two parts of the Buddhist community, once relented to Folk Buddhist demands with admirable discretion with words that still echo from yester-chapter, “Monks, householders need blessings.” In fact even in Burma many monks eschew worship of tree spirits and of relics as not pure Buddhism. King (1964, p. 59) reports of a monastic sect that that tried to eliminate pagoda worship and worship of images of the Buddha and were met with hostility on the part of the laity until the sect disappeared.

There appear at times to be critical points where Core Buddhism does not have its way, where values contrary to Core Buddhism are so entrenched in the culture that they cannot be dislodged and must be accommodated somehow within Adept Buddhism. Toe meets thorn. We have seen one such point that was reached in China where the Core Buddhist value of home-leaving ran right up against the unshakable value that family represented for the Chinese folk culture. We saw that the resolution seems to have been a clever side-step, a high point in the annals of public relations: Represent the Sangha as a great big family, with family lineages, heritages and a very long history. Just as a bride leaves one family to join another, so does the aspiring monk.

Another such point sees to have been reached even at the time of the Buddha or shortly thereafter, and also entailed a similar clever side-step engineered either by the Buddha himself or later by his close disciples. As far as I can see, gender equality is a fundamental principle of Core Buddhism. It was inevitable that it would step on the thorn of patriarchy endemic in Indian folk culture at the time of the Buddha (and up to the present day for that matter). I have written of this elsewhere (Dinsmore, 2013), but let me summarize.

Evidence of the first point is that the Buddha stated that women were as capable of Awakening as men, that he created a women’s Sangha, with participation in the privileges, obligations, independence and expectation of veneration that that entails, that he took great care in the monastic code to ensure the safety and well-being of the nuns, and perhaps most tellingly to ensure that they do not fall into conventional subservient gender roles with respect to the monks. His great concern would have been the acceptability of this arrangement within the prevailing folk culture and even among his folk following, particularly since the nuns like the monks would be dependent on receiving daily alms, and since the kind of independence he secured for nuns would be that commonly associated in that culture with “loose women.” The resolution was symbolically to put the nuns under the thumb of the monks, without ceding real power to them, through the now infamous Garudhamma Rules.
If this analysis is correct then Original Buddhism is not strictly speaking Core Buddhism. It is compromised not according to principle but for pragmatic means, to sustain harmony with Folk Buddhism. This is the function of Adept Buddhism: to adhere as closely to Core Buddhism as possible, to teach according to Core Buddhism wherever possible, but to be willing to compromise when necessary. Sometimes Adept Buddhism must adapt and adopt.  Original Buddhism is the Buddha’s Adept Buddhism.

Neutral elements of Folk Buddhism seem to enter Adept Buddhism quite readily. Since Adept Buddhists generally start out as wee Folk Buddhists and in their studies of Core Buddhism would see no reason to evict these elements, this is hardly surprising. Accordingly we find monks generally offering blessings, consecrating Buddha statues, sprinkling wisdom water on people, engaging in elaborate rituals, even exorcizing ghosts as part of their routine tasks, or simply incorporating folk customs and artifacts into the manner of performing various tasks. If an Adept tradition travels to a culturally distinct land these neutral elements may lose their currency. The Asian teachers that have been particularly successful in transmitting Buddhism to the West, for instance, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Chogyam Trungpa and Thich Nhat Hanh, I speculate, are teachers with a good sense of what is Core Buddhism and what is a cultural accretion. Most Adepts forget. The culturally determined features that they retained even in the West, the clothing, the incense, the bowing, many ritual practices, the rules of etiquette, and so on, by this account would be ones that have been integrated into the functions of Core Buddhism. For instance, when Buddhism came to China it encountered a highly ritualized culture which provided rich resources for the practice of mindfulness, that were then carried along as a part of Adept Buddhism. Western standards of scholarship and pedagogy similarly are already quickly finding their way into Adept Buddhism and into the understanding and interpreting of Core Buddhist concepts with profound and beneficial consequences.

A different kind of influence on Adapt Buddhism has not yet been mentioned: government interference, particularly in Sangha affairs.  Emperor Ashoka in the early centuries of Buddhism undertook to reform the Sangha during his reign, which he felt had become corrupted and divided, by expelling wayward monks, or at least monks of whose waywardness he was advised. In the Nineteenth Century King Yule Brenner of Thailand undertook to reform the Sangha, actually creating a hierarchy with government involvement at all levels in Sangha affairs which persists to this day. In Ninth Century Japan in the government strictly regulated monastic ordination in an attempt to reduce the number of monks, forcing many monks into a lesser non-Vinaya ordination from which it never recovered. In Nineteenth Century Japan a hostile Meiji government reformed the Buddhist clergy substantially by disallowing the requirement of celibacy. None of this is envisioned in the Vinaya and most seem to have in the end disrupted the proper functioning of the Sangha. But as they say, you can’t fight city hall.

When Adepts Make a Desperate Appeal to Folk Buddhists

Professional scientists often disparage their colleagues who are intent to popularize science. The ivory tower and the institutions that support it, the tenure system and the tradition of academic freedom, ensure that scientific results are not biased by popular taste or current affairs. The Buddhist adepts cannot afford to be so aloof; they are expected to teach the regular folks and make a direct difference in their lives. Yet they also require a degree of isolation from popular taste and current affair lest these draw them afield o the core teachings of the Buddha. And in fact the Buddha demanded that aloofness. A series of monastic rules of etiquette ensure that the monastic not teach to someone, for instance, who does not show the proper respect. This is probably why Buddhism has had a scant history of proselytization.

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

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

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

Today Buddhists and would-be Buddhists in the West encounter a media-enabled onslaught of  teachings, practices and teachers from which American Folk Buddhists are free, at a cost, to select those that appeal most, mixing and matching the various options much as they do with home furnishings or kitchen utensils. This is the way of the modern marketplace. Teachers and authors correspondingly fall into the role of promoting and selling particular practices and teachings as commodities, for a price, taking care how they are packaged and presented, for instance, in the form of popular self-help books, lectures, seminars,  CD’s, stage performances and personal hourly consultations.

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

Fundamentals of Buddhist Religiosity: Folk Buddhism

March 4, 2013

Uposatha Day, March 5, 2013

Index to Series

Chapter 7. Folk Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adept Buddhism and Folk Buddhism

Let’s get sociological.

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

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

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

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

Adept Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of Adept Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folk Buddhism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of Folk Buddhism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An American Walks into a Chinese Temple

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

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

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

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