I recently went on a small-group tour to Laos (with a little time in Vietnam and Thailand) and our local (Lao) guide introduced us to what he saw as the essentials of Buddhism. I was interested in the way his priorities cast a new light on Western Buddhism.
As far as he knew when he gave the talk, none of us (Aussies and a few Brits, aged in our twenties to our fifties) had any knowledge or much interest in Buddhism, but introducing us to the religion was part of his job of introducing us to the culture. It was also, as I found when talking to him later, something he believed in.
He sat with us on the floor of a temple in Vientiane and said a few words about where and when the Buddha taught, then went through …
• The Four Noble Truths
• The Noble Eightfold Path
• The Five Precepts, and
• The Ten Paramitas
The whole talk took, I guess, less than half an hour, and that was about as long as the interest of most of the group lasted. None of it was new to me, of course, but I was a bit surprised that the paramitas were given equal status with the eightfold path and the precepts.
His focus was quite strongly on sila. He didn’t speak at all about what I see as the devotional side of Buddhism – making offerings, praying for worldly benefits, etc – in spite of the fact that we were sitting near a very typical altar with its incense and flowers. Nor did he spend any time on meditation apart from mentioning it in the lists.
He took questions at the end and I talked with him and our (Thai) tour leader separately over the following day or two. Points that emerged in those discussions were …
• The fifth precept, for him, did not mean that lay people should abstain from alcohol, just that they should be sensible and restrained about its use. Part of that restraint was that you shouldn’t drink on days that you go to the temple.
• Likewise, the first precept did not mean that Buddhists should be vegetarian, just that they should not kill animals themselves for meat. And the butcher could compensate for his bad kamma by ‘making merit’ (that was his exact phrase) in other ways.
The conversations did go further but I probably need your questions about them to jog my memory.
(edited to fix formatting)