American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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mikenz66
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American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by mikenz66 » Wed Jun 06, 2012 9:45 pm

This series of articles by Bhante Cintita
https://bhikkhucintita.wordpress.com/ho ... -buddhism/" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
that Ven Gavesako linked to recently are an interesting, though somewhat rambling, discussion of Folk vs Essential Buddhism, and how they are necessary for each other. In particular, the theme is how Folk Buddhism involves integration of local culture.

And, of course, the key question (not fully developed in the series yet) is:
Which aspects of Western Buddhist practice are Folk Buddhism?
Here are a few random snippets.

https://bhikkhucintita.wordpress.com/20 ... uddhism-7/" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
A common factor in the way the Refuges are practiced and understood in American Folk Buddhism is free-thinking, captured for instance in the following quote:
  • “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” - “The Buddha”
Free-thinking is related to the Protestant rejection of authority that we discussed last week, but more importantly to the post-(European-)Enlightenment regard for rational or critical thinking and the parallel disparagement of “faith,” and accounts for the popularity in the West of the quote above. This passage was however never spoken by the Buddha. I don’t know who made it up.

https://bhikkhucintita.wordpress.com/20 ... uddhism-9/" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;
It is hardly surprising that individualism as a strong factor in American and Western culture should also be a strong factor in American and Western Folk Buddhism. Here, as with other aspects of Folk Buddhism, my interest will be in investigating to what extent its particular forms are friendly to, indifferent to or inimical to Essential Buddhism.
Our Authentic Self. A common Western Folk understanding is that Buddhism (or sometimes Zen) is about getting to know, trust and to free your 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. Often the authentic self is identified with Buddha Nature, a pristine aspect of ourselves free from defilement, which is capable of awakening or even already awakened.
If these statements do not have a Buddhist origin, where did they come from? The answer is … European Romanticism and its later expressions.
As Bhante says, a characteristic of Folk Buddhism is drawing on local culture...

:anjali:
Mike

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Goofaholix
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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by Goofaholix » Wed Jun 06, 2012 9:50 pm

mikenz66 wrote: As Bhante says, a characteristic of Folk Buddhism is drawing on local culture...
Looks an interesting article I'll take a read, but my first observation would be that by the above definition a very large proportion of Asian Theravadin buddhism would be in fact Folk Buddhism.
“Peace is within oneself to be found in the same place as agitation and suffering. It is not found in a forest or on a hilltop, nor is it given by a teacher. Where you experience suffering, you can also find freedom from suffering. Trying to run away from suffering is actually to run toward it.” ― Ajahn Chah

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mikenz66
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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by mikenz66 » Wed Jun 06, 2012 10:04 pm

Goofaholix wrote: Looks an interesting article I'll take a read, but my first observation would be that by the above definition a very large proportion of Asian Theravadin buddhism would be in fact Folk Buddhism.
Yes, that's the Thesis: In all places there is what he calls "Folk" and "Essential" Buddhism, both symbiotically supportive (as long as they don't go completely off the rails).

So the question is: which "folk" aspects in the West are supportive of "essential" Buddhism, and which might be destructive? And which, in fact, are the "folk" bits?

To be deliberately provocative, for the sake of discussion, one could wonder to what extent the western emphasis on individuality, analytical thought, and so on are potentially problematic?
I offer the forgoing as a caveat, since I sense that many of my compatriots are ready in the spirit of McKale [McKale's Navy] to reject many of the underpinnings of Essential Buddhism out of hand before they are properly understood. This reinforces the Protestant rejection of authority, elements of religiosity and disregard for the community institutions already described as problematic in American Folk Buddhism. We need to temper or individualism with wisdom that we not throw important elements of Essential Buddhism naively out with the bathwater.
I.e. do some western Buddhist who think they are practising "Essential Buddhism" really practising "Western Folk Buddhism"?


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Hanzze
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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by Hanzze » Thu Jun 07, 2012 1:56 am

I guess that what we are doing here, we can call Western "Folk" Buddhism. *smile* Guess what makes it mostly alive in Western world.
Just that! *smile*
...We Buddhists must find the courage to leave our temples and enter the temples of human experience, temples that are filled with suffering. If we listen to Buddha, Christ, or Gandhi, we can do nothing else. The refugee camps, the prisons, the ghettos, and the battlefields will become our temples. We have so much work to do. ... Peace is Possible! Step by Step. - Samtach Preah Maha Ghosananda "Step by Step" http://www.ghosananda.org/bio_book.html

BUT! it is important to become a real Buddhist first. Like Punna did: Punna Sutta Nate sante baram sokham _()_

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Ben
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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by Ben » Thu Jun 07, 2012 2:14 am

mikenz66 wrote:do some western Buddhist who think they are practising "Essential Buddhism" really practising "Western Folk Buddhism"?
Yep.
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

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Goofaholix
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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by Goofaholix » Thu Jun 07, 2012 9:24 am

mikenz66 wrote:I.e. do some western Buddhist who think they are practising "Essential Buddhism" really practising "Western Folk Buddhism"?
Inevitably there are of course, though I'm not sure whether he's presented a strong case for what constitutes Western (or American i'm not sure how this is supposed to differ from Western) Folk Buddhism.

His first article about authority appears to reach the conclusion that western democratic and egalitarian ideals are closer to Essential Buddhism (with the model of a teacher being a spiritual friend) than it is to Asian hierarchical structures, so presumably not Folk Buddhism.

The second article is about taking the invitation to test and come and see for yourself and the Kalama sutta etc too far, I guess he's got a point here. Critical thinking is an important faculty for human development though, it's not just a Western thing, but it does need to be balanced with confidence in the Dhamma.

The third about the use of the term Sangha to refer to a community or fellowship of Buddhists rather than the more narrow scriptural definition I agree is definately a sign of Folk Buddhism, though it's just a terminology thing really.

The last about Individualism again Western ideals of standing on your own two feet and taking responsibility for yourself are closer to Essential Buddhism than Asian attitudes, though it would be easy to take this too far and be too much an Island. However at the end of this the sentence that really points to Western Folk Buddhism to me is "It must be understood that Buddhism is not about self-expression, it is about expressly abandoning a self."

In the West Buddhism seems to be part of the self help industry and linked to western psychology. Often people are interested in digging deeply into their story and past traumas to look for healing they are looking to heal and reinforce the self rather than abandon it. Wheras Essential Buddhism is about seeing that self view is part of the problem not part of the solution and that by letting go of this all the stories with the self at the centre that we thought were such problems just fall away into irrelevance. To me this is the biggest part of Western Folk Buddhism, but as the article says it's a useful and important entry point for many people so not necessarily a bad thing.
“Peace is within oneself to be found in the same place as agitation and suffering. It is not found in a forest or on a hilltop, nor is it given by a teacher. Where you experience suffering, you can also find freedom from suffering. Trying to run away from suffering is actually to run toward it.” ― Ajahn Chah

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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by mikenz66 » Thu Jun 07, 2012 9:35 am

Hi Goofaholix,

Thanks for the extensive reply. I think you're right about the "self help" thing. And, of course, you're right that one of the overarching themes is that "Folk Buddhism" isn't actually a bad thing if it heads people in roughly the right direction.

:anjali:
Mike

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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by Sam Vara » Thu Jun 07, 2012 9:51 am

Many thanks for a very interesting set of articles which I have book-marked for later study.

I was initially puzzled as to how we are to define the "essence" in "essential Buddhism". It turns out that what Bhante is advocating is (essentially!) a healthy bit of philosophical realism, which cheered me up no end. Essential Buddhism is that which is sustained by those adepts who come into contact with the reality of what the teaching points to.

I find this as gratifying as it is elegant.

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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by Dan74 » Thu Jun 07, 2012 10:21 am

Many interesting points have been raised. Let me pick up on this one:
Goofaholix wrote: In the West Buddhism seems to be part of the self help industry and linked to western psychology. Often people are interested in digging deeply into their story and past traumas to look for healing they are looking to heal and reinforce the self rather than abandon it. Wheras Essential Buddhism is about seeing that self view is part of the problem not part of the solution and that by letting go of this all the stories with the self at the centre that we thought were such problems just fall away into irrelevance.
This sometimes results in the so-called spiritual bypass, when the stories are taken to have "faded into irrelevance" but are instead hiding in the shadow of a bigger and subtler self. My first retreat was with a lay Sri Lankan teacher who promptly informed me that he had more than 500 disciples in Sri Lanka ready to buy him land and property for a centre. He later signed up for a retreat with a Zen teacher and proceeded to try to demolish the teacher doctrinally while nominally a student in a strict Zen retreat. It was not pretty.

I also heard a teacher confess that after several decades of living at a temple, certain tendencies just don't arise anymore until one is in a lay environment, dealing with different kinds of people and new challenges.

The point is that few manage to cut the root and in the meantime, the branches are ready to sprout flowers and bear fruit given the "right" conditions.
_/|\_

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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by Mr Man » Thu Jun 07, 2012 10:31 am

Would an aspect of western folk buddhism be that there "is" an essence beyond folk Buddhism that can be found when all the layers are striped away (A Buddhist holy grail of pure and definitive Buddha Vacana)?
Last edited by Mr Man on Thu Jun 07, 2012 12:41 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by kirk5a » Thu Jun 07, 2012 2:28 pm

mikenz66 wrote:As Bhante says, a characteristic of Folk Buddhism is drawing on local culture...
such as as folk scientists.
"When one thing is practiced & pursued, ignorance is abandoned, clear knowing arises, the conceit 'I am' is abandoned, latent tendencies are uprooted, fetters are abandoned. Which one thing? Mindfulness immersed in the body." -AN 1.230

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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by daverupa » Thu Jun 07, 2012 2:57 pm

Mr Man wrote:Would an aspect of western folk buddhism be that there "is" an essence beyond folk Buddhism that can be found when all the layers are striped away (A Buddhist holy grail of pure and definitive Buddha Vacana)?
Probably; that there are, to be accurate, many Buddhisms is a necessary result of the very structure of the Sangha (alms-round, lay contact generally, etc.). Evaluating ones own flavor as superior is going too far, but looking for "the commonality" also seems to be going about it with flawed premises, as has been pointed out (Western emphasis on doctrine, canonical and ecclesiastical frameworks for understanding dhamma, sangha, etc.).

I tend to ascertain whether or not I am willing to call some circumscribed group 'Buddhist' according to the texts (broadly understood) they accept as authoritative. How those texts are then used is a distinguishing feature of the traditions, vehicles, etc. which are on offer. One common thing seems to be that people tend to have a few favorite Suttas/Sutras to which they refer; I think this approach, tempered with appropriate Sila and Samadhi, is probably of great benefit, but it makes the choice of texts a rather important affair...
  • "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.

- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]

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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by Viscid » Thu Jun 07, 2012 7:41 pm

Mr. Man wrote:Would an aspect of western folk buddhism be that there "is" an essence beyond folk Buddhism that can be found when all the layers are striped away (A Buddhist holy grail of pure and definitive Buddha Vacana)?
I'm pretty sure all Buddhist traditions, western or not, vehemently believe that their particular brand is most representitive of some 'essence of Buddhism.'

Westerners have their empiricism, their romanticism, their individualism, and appropriate the authority of The Buddha and Buddhism to validate those values. Hence we see the Kalama Sutta being waved about on here so often. The Western pursuit of an 'essence' in the texts leads them, naively, to their own image. Westerners love their own image, so I think we can characterize Western Folk Buddhism as being narcissistic.
"What holds attention determines action." - William James

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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by mikenz66 » Thu Jun 07, 2012 8:05 pm

Viscid wrote: I'm pretty sure all Buddhist traditions, western or not, vehemently believe that their particular brand is most representing of some 'essence of Buddhism.'
Don't overlook that the thesis of the blog is that every brand has adept practitioners of "essential Buddhism", and many others practising a form of "folk Buddhism".

Note the choice of words: "adept", not "serious".

:anjali:
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Re: American (Western) Folk Buddhism

Post by Goofaholix » Wed Jun 20, 2012 10:24 pm

I see in the last few installments he has moved on to the topic of gender equality.

Again no surprises from what I can tell Western Folk Buddhism has much more in common with Essential Buddhism than the inequality common in Asian Folk Buddhism.

I was interested that several monks and nuns rules were designed to prevent nuns falling into a servant role to monks as was common in wider society.
“Peace is within oneself to be found in the same place as agitation and suffering. It is not found in a forest or on a hilltop, nor is it given by a teacher. Where you experience suffering, you can also find freedom from suffering. Trying to run away from suffering is actually to run toward it.” ― Ajahn Chah

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