The Myth of Popular Buddhism and “True Buddhism”

Author’s Note: this is another old post I discovered recently, written way back in 2009 in an older blog I used to own, that I felt was worth reposting here. All the content below, aside from some minor edits, is the original text. Enjoy!

Lately, I have been continuing my read of Professors Reader and Tanabe’s book on practical Japanese religion. I mentioned this book before when talking about a trend called “American-Protestant Buddhism”, and in Chapter 2, the book takes up the subject of “orthodox” Buddhism and popular Buddhism.

People who see Buddhists praying at altars for things like good jobs, health and so on, may conclude that Buddhism is corrupted or that this is not true Buddhism. You can see this in criticisms by some scholars and priests in such sects as Jodo Shinshu and Soto Zen. Afterall, Buddhism is about letting go of the world as it shifts under your feet. So, why all the prayers for practical worldly benefits? This is a deceptively difficult question, and Reader and Tanabe show various ways that Asian and Western scholars have attempted to explain the two. They show how the typical rationalizations tend to fall into a few different types:

  • Buddhism was pure, but has been corrupted by outside practices.
  • Buddhist texts talk about practical benefits to attract followers.
  • Buddhism uses the notion of expedient means to lure people one way, while secretly teaching them another.

Reader and Tanabe show how all these arguments are essentially forced interpretations because the very sutras themselves speak of practical worldly benefits. Of course, the ultimate goal of Buddhism is to attain liberation and full peace of mind. But the same sutras also show through vivid examples how people who have faith in these teachings, in these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, also gain more immediate benefits in this life too. In their words:

Strictly speaking, then, our contention here is not that sutra Buddhism is a folk religion but that it takes its place along with folk religion within the common religion, which is entirely comfortable with and embraces both Buddhist scriptures and the popular practices of this-worldly benefits. The conflict, as noted earlier, is between these popular practices and sectarian orthodox doctrines based on notions of true and false religions….What is remarkable about sectarian interpretations is their adamant refusal to accept what the sutras say about practical benefits. (pg. 101)

So in a sense, Reader and Tanabe are telling “orthodox” Buddhists to get over themselves, albeit politely. 🙂

Earlier in the chapter, they presented an interesting example of Buddhism in action in Japan at a temple in Tokyo called Todoroki Fudōson Temple (等々力不動尊) in the Setagaya Ward of Tokyo. Todoroki Fudosan Temple is a famous temple of the Shingon sect, possibly established in the 11th century and even today remains a popular pilgrimage point. People frequently come to have fortunes read through omikuji (more on that in a later post), purchase charms, pray for health, wealth and so on. But also, on Saturdays the temple is also used for seminars. The authors noted a lecture on the Lotus Sutra that took place at the time they were researching the book, where about 40 people, mostly women, attended and together they studied the important Parable of the Burning House in chapter 3. This lecture came with full text, and careful line by line explanations. Then afterward, they sat for a time in quiet sitting even as people outside “jangled the bells, tossed their coins noisily into the offertory box… (pg. 72-73)”.

The point, the authors make is that there is no sense of incongruity between the two. Only in the minds of scholars and skeptics is there a problem.

So why do both exist? If Buddhism really does offer worldly benefits as the sutras state, then why even bother with the monastic life, letting go of cravings, purifying the mind and so on? As I read this chapter, I thought about that question a lot. In fact, I’ve pondered it for years.

I think for me the answer is that the worldly benefits provided by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are still subject to the usual laws of impermanence, and the mind that is never satisfied for long. If through your sincere prayers Kannon Bodhisattva does indeed help one achieve a successful business, or a good job, this is a mixed blessing. If you get lots of money, you have a more comfortable life, but you also have to now protect your wealth. If you have a successful business, you now have more responsibilities. If you pray for long-life, you still must die regardless of your lifespan.

But at the same time, what’s clear in Buddhism is that the Buddha Shakyamuni, and all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas strive to help people nevertheless so as to lessen their suffering even a little. If a Bodhisattva like Kannon turned a blind eye to people for the sake of doctrinal purity, that would seem pretty rotten wouldn’t it? It’s not about being right, it’s about helping people. Also, Reader and Tanabe bring up a clever point:

As we noted earlier in our discussion of the Flower Garland Sutra, to have the gods give us what we want is to be spared the vice of selfishness and to obligate ourselves morally to earn our rewards. This is a favor but it is not a free gift. To pray for practical benefits means to study diligently, to keep going to the doctor, to work hard at the job, and all of the other kinds of right conduct that prayers do not obviate but invoke instead. Commercialization does not require control of the gods; what it demands is the obligation to pay for what one gets. (pg. 87)

I admit I pray for certain mundane things myself. I pray for my wife’s and daughter’s safety often, and I often pray to get a suitable job in Japan (I work in IT), so that my wife and daughter can be happy and I can study the Dharma more easily. But I also have considered the fact that moving to a foreign country will also bring new challenges and problems. I lived in Ireland, an English-speaking country, for a year and even that was difficult at times (rewarding in many other ways…I often miss Ireland), so living in a non-English speaking country is even harder.

Still, I believe that praying for this-worldly benefits is like a bandage. The wound is still bleeding underneath, as it were. Any benefits I gain through good karma and Buddhism are temporary and still have some cost with them, or they will get exhausted in time. The only real solution in the long-run is to stop them at the source and prevent further “injuries” in the first place.

If I have problems in life, it is the result of my own bad conduct in this life or a past one. So, if I pray for help with my problems in life, it will help me recover from my own mistakes. But if I were to avoid making the same mistake later and follow better conduct, wouldn’t that be better in the long-run?

One of my favorite sutras in the Theravadin Pali Canon is the Maha-Mangala Sutta (Snp 2.4) which shows what the Buddha considered the highest blessing in Buddhism (trans. by Ven. Narada Thera):

…To support mother and father, to cherish wife and children, and to be engaged in peaceful occupation — this is the greatest blessing. To be generous in giving, to be righteous in conduct, to help one’s relatives, and to be blameless in action — this is the greatest blessing. To loathe more evil and abstain from it, to refrain from intoxicants, and to be steadfast in virtue — this is the greatest blessing….

Notice that this is taught as the highest blessing, not the only blessing. Also, consider the words of the Lotus Sutra, which is frequently cited by Reader and Tanabe for its frequent mentions of this-worldly benefits. This quotation comes from chapter 17 (Gene Reeves translation), emphasis added by me:

“Therefore I say that after the extinction of the Tathagata [the Buddha], if anyone receives and embraces, reads and recites this sutra, teaches it for the sake of others, either copies it himself or causes others to copy it, and makes offerings to it, they no longer need to put up stupas and temples or build monasteries and make offerings to the monks. How much more true this is of those who are able to embrace this sutra and also practice generosity, morality, patience, perseverance, single-mindedness, and wisdom. Their virtue will be the greatest, immeasurable and unlimited, just as space, which in the east, west, south and north, the four intermediate directions, and up and down, is immeasurable and unlimited. So too the blessings of such people will be innumerable and unlimited, and they will quickly reach all-inclusive wisdom….

Thus, in the Buddhist religion, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas strive to help all beings out of compassion and thus one cannot separate the so-called “folk religion” from the institutional one. Westerners who try to do so only shoot themselves in the foot. However, what many don’t realize is that in addition to everyday blessings, the Buddha offers so much more for those who are willing to listen, and who eventually grow tired of the petty gains in life. It might be today, it might be 20 years from now, but people change, and the door of the Dharma is always open.

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. Another parting thought by Prof. Tanabe and Reader:

The blame cannot be laid solely upon a modern notion of true religion, although in our own times it is far more difficult to justify superstitions than it might have been in the past, for the opposition is an ancient one. It is a long-standing schizophrenia born to a religious tradition that has declared war with the world but cannot quite bring itself to kill it. (pg. 101-102)

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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