The ‘Exclusive’ Trap

Foreigners to Thailand often comment on the ‘mix of animism and Brahmanism’ with the more traditional Theravada Buddhism. Newcomers here tend to read a couple of suttas on Mindfulness or the Four Noble Truths and then point fingers at activities of Buddhist cultures as ‘non-Buddhist’, animist or Brahmanic.

But this idea of Buddhism becoming ‘mixed’ with other ideas is perhaps a remnant from being brought up in ‘Christian cultures’ – (the use of quotation marks here recognises that these terms are vast over-simplifications.)

Traditional Christianity for the most part, had claims of exclusivity. If you believed or practised anything else, you were wrong, and very likely doomed. This view was the driving force during the Dark Ages, when even literature or public plays were strictly limited to Christian stories by an all controlling church (see the book ‘Morality Play’ for a dramatisation of the life of a travelling troupe of performers).

Buddhism was never like that.

The Sandaka Sutta (m76) finishes with a response of a Brahmin Sandaka to a teaching by Ananda:

It is wonderful Ananda, it is marvellous! There is no lauding of one’s own Dhamma and no disparaging of the Dhamma ot others; …. But these Ajivakas … laud themselves and disparage others

Ok – so Sandaka himself is here lauding Ananda and disparaging his previous sect, but the point remains that Ananda had no interest in promoting Buddhism as exclusively true and other sects as mistaken.

Magandiya, another brahmin in a sutta that bears his name too M75), tried to join the Buddha and the newly forming sangha after a sermon – but was told to wait for 4 months first out of respect for his former school.

In fact many times the Buddha advises people inspired by his teachings to keep on supporting other sects and groups. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, which outlines the last days of the Buddha’s life, he specifically tells the Vajjian laypeople to maintain customs of old, and not to neglect local shrines :

“What have you heard, Ananda: do the Vajjis show respect, honour, esteem, and veneration towards their shrines, both those within the city and those outside it, and do not deprive them of the due offerings as given and made to them according to tradition?”

The robes that Bhikkhus wear, are also not ‘Buddhist’, but from the Samana tradition which predates Buddhism probably by about 4000 years. The local people had many expectations of those who wear robes – such as they should not be in town joining in singing, dancing and shows etc.. All pre-Buddhist ideas that were upheld by the new Sangha.

And for animist rites – how about when the Buddha cast his bowl into the stream demanding that it float upstream if he was destined to attain enlightenment? Is this not some kind of ‘non-Buddhist’ ‘superstitious’ rite?

On the night of Enlightenment, the Buddha reportedly called on Darani the earth goddess to be witness to all the good deeds he had done in the past. After each deed through many lifetimes he had poured water on the earth to symbolically share merits – a custom Thai’s still do in temples. This water pouring is a Brahmanic tradition also.

Other times he confirmed tree and air spirits, and many times taught about ghost realms. He also gave chants to the monks to ward off unpleasant influence.

One such example is the Metta Sutta – the chant that all Theravada monks memorise by heart in the original Pali. The monks once had been having a hard time meditating in the forest. The Buddha told them there were some unfriendly devas in the area, and that by chanting these stanzas of Metta (loving kindness) it would placate the angry devas and their meditation would be able to progress. And it worked too.

If you talked about your meditation with a monk now, and he advised that your building had an unpleasant astral influence, for which you should recite a particular chant – you would probably again, point the finger of animism at him.

Another chant was given to ward off attacks by animals – the 2 footed, 4 footed, many footed and the footless kind of animals. How many people would see a Thai monk doing this chant and think that it is ‘not Buddhism’ or ‘nothing to do with the Four Noble Truths’, being instead simple animism?

Sure – many customs are not going to get you Enlightened; like praying for something you want at the Erawan shrine or having a monk draw a Khmer symbol on your new car or above your door in a new house. But then, getting married, drinking coffee or buying an ipad is not gonig to get you enlightened either – but that is no indication that the person is deluded as to Buddhism.

Thus the Thai love of some Hindu shrines, and folklore customs is quite ok with Buddhism. There is no clause of exclusivity that you follow only the Four Noble Truths, otherwise you don’t understand Buddhism or are an ‘animist’. Our teachings are there, available for anyone who wishes to use them to enquire within. There is no threat, no discord with other teachings, religions, shrines, or folk customs.

It should be clear then that even ‘original’ Buddhism was full of aspects that are today condemned as being non-Buddhist. The religion grew up and was practised in a society that accepted many of these things as the norm. The monks even adopted many of the practises – such as the gatherings on the full and half moon days. The lines between superstition, animism and the tradition of Enlightenment were blurred right from the outset, and there is nothing wrong with this approach.

13 replies on “The ‘Exclusive’ Trap”

  1. A truly brilliant article. Very clear and useful. If you ever put together a book Cittasamvaro Bhikku (and, really, you should) please include this essay!

    With palms together,

    Marcus _/_

  2. First of all, excellent article pointing out how Buddhism was/is embedded within the prominent cultural conditions of the day.

    But I’m not sure where you get your statistics about Foreigners in particular. As a foreigner and former Thai Monk my experience is slightly different.

    You see, it’s more about holding onto the cultural baggage from India/Nepal of some 2500+ years ago, not about it mixing within the culture, nor does it stem from expectations of exclusivity. Most of us farung simply don’t understand the culture of these ancient times because we were raised in a culture where it wasn’t relevant. Because of this there is an expectation of Buddhism to also be able to fit within our modern culture just as it did within the culture during the time of the Buddha. I don’t personally think this is a unrealistic expectation.

    When Buddhism it’s presented instead with all the baggage of the past mixed with various other cultures along the way, which are also foreign to us, it becomes very difficult to gain any sort of real understanding. Even after being translated quite well, without an underlying understanding of the culture conditions at the time of the Buddha, reading the suttas leaves us with a skewed understanding at best.

    In my own case my teacher explained that if I practiced meditating it would reveal all that Buddhism truly is about without getting caught up in all the trappings of ceremony and culture. My practice grew into a steady meditation and examination of myself whether we were on alms round, presiding over funerals and later meditating upon the burning corpse, chanting before the sun came up, or just riding on a bus.

    When replying to all these foreigners who inquire, perhaps it would be better to just mention that it’s really all about exploring and understanding ourselves, everything else is merely how it fits within various cultures. There isn’t a foreigner, or Thai, who should have any problem with that explanation. Don’t be surprised if, more often than not, it helps them move closer to the practice.

    Take care of your heart,

  3. It is like someone who once has Thai Som Tam, and then later sees a Thai person putting Ketchup on his rice, and criticising they don’t know what Thai food really is ….
    You’re free to choose your food.
    I gotto run – university rituals to attend to….

  4. Bhante, your article opens up a very interesting line of questioning. You point to exclusivity, the Christian tradition presenting itself as superior, but I’d like to consider it in a different way.

    Firstly to reinforce your argument of “adding-on” one of the greatest confusions for me as a western Buddhist is the vastly different practices that go on under the name of Buddhism and established by practitioners with reference to the suttas. Perhaps some might discuss these practices in terms of development – Mahayana and Vajrayana – vehicles their proponents claim “improve” (a different discussion). But when you consider Tibetan Buddhism how much of their ritual and practice is actually based on the Bon tradition or existing customs and practice within Tibet? In China their religion was described to me as a mixture of ancestral worship, Confucianism and Buddhism. In Thailand you describe it as Buddhism, Brahmanism and animism.

    It is very interesting to read that your quotes say that the Buddha intended for his teachings to be “added”. How they are to be added is a very interesting question. Are people interested in Buddhism expected to add the customs and practices of the culture in which their teachers learnt Buddhism? For those of us in Thailand who follow monks who link to Wat Pah Nanachat, do we then follow the Animism and Brahmanism? Do we follow belief in phi and Animist or Brahmanistic practices?

    Perhaps we are fortunate in that we do not have to follow such but it is important to consider what Buddhism is “added” onto in western culture. For some this is Christianity but for many interested in Buddhism like myself Christianity had no hold. But there is something very significant in my life that Buddhism did add on to, and that is education. Whether we were successful or not in education our education system is integral to our cultural upbringing, the background to which Buddhism was “added to”. There is one significant term that stands out for me in my understanding of our education system and that is the term used by Pirsig in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” – the Church of Reason. Is it a fair description of many Western Buddhists that we apply our rational tools to analyse Buddhism? Certainly if you look at the forums that is the case. And what about those who are successful within our education system? In my own case I left uni with a severe case of arrogance because for so many years I had worked towards bits of paper and had succeeded in getting them. In my view whilst I had some “success” I also got so much more baggage which I have since tried to unload.

    Culture is temporary, and surely Buddhism teaches us that we seek the permanent – the Deathless. Recognising what is beyond culture is a means of working towards that permanence. When we can compare different Buddhisms we can begin to see that which is beyond culture and perhaps gain a glimpse of the permanent?

  5. In a Thai lesson a textbook gave the following:-
    “Thai people believe that the head is the most important part of the entire body. It is inhabited by the kwan which is the spiritual force of life. So never pat a Thai on the head even in the friendliest of gestures.”
    I said I thought that was not a Buddhist idea, and my teacher investigated the Thai internet coming up with:-
    ขวัญ หมายถึง นามธรรมอันหนึ่งคล้ายพลังจิตที่มีอยู่ในตัวมนุษย์ตั้งแต่เป็นเด็กทารก มีความเชื่อว่าถ้าขวัญของผู้ใดอยู่กับตัวผู้นั้นจะมีความสุขกายสบายใจแต่ถ้าขวัญของผู้ใดหายไปนั้นจะมีลักษณะอาการตรงกันข้าม
    The teacher translated this as:-
    “Kwan is an abstract noun meaning spiritual power which comes with human from their birth. It’s believed that people with their kwan will have both mental and physical happiness. On the other hand, if they lose their kwan, they will be unhappy.”
    I have since been informed that kwan is part of the Farmer’s day ceremony, see this extract from Wikipedia:-
    May, arbitrary date Royal Ploughing Ceremony and Farmer’s Day วันพืชมงคล (Wan Phuetcha Mongkhon)a
    Ceremony giving blessing to the country’s farmers. Officially known as วันพระราชพิธีพืชมงคลจรดพระนังคัลแรกนาขวัญ (Wan Phra Ratcha Phithi Phuetcha Monkhon Lae Charot Phra Nangkhan Raek Na Khwan). Also observed as Farmer’s Day. Each year’s date is astrologically determined and announced by the Bureau of the Royal House Hold.

    Please note the use of “Khwan” in the description. I was also told by the same Thai teacher that this ceremony is conducted by a Praahm – Brahmin?

    Is this part of the Brahmanism that has been added to Thai Buddhism? Can anyone shed any light on the meaning of kwan?

  6. This is an excellent article that has got me thinking. I’m guilty of falling into this exclusivity trap; the desire to think of aspects of Thai Buddhism that I don’t agree with as being un-Buddhist. Ironically, I can get a bit hot under the collar when other people (for example Stephen Bachelor) cherry pick the bits of Buddhism they like and call the rest not the real teachings, but I do this as well .

    I suppose it is a desire to get to the ‘meat of Buddhism’ that drives me to try to separate it into Buddhist and un-Buddhist elements. It is also handy to be able to disassociate from the less savoury practices of some Buddhists by claiming that they are not really practicing Buddhism – people of all philosophies/religions seem to use this defence.

    It is interesting that both my wife and I would call ourselves Buddhist but in some ways we have very different ideas about what this means.

  7. Todd, Thanks for sharing your experience of your practice whilst ordained, your teacher sounds a wise man. I completely agree that the journey is about exploring and understanding ourselves but at the same time I believe the Tradition has much to offer on that journey. But it is hard to recognise what is genuine in the Tradition and what is cultural, especially in a populist religion like Buddhism in Thailand. I further agree meditation is the guide within this but it is nice to have Traditional pointers especially in trying to overcome the misdirections of my mind based on my own culture . How has the journey developed for you now?

  8. “You’re free to choose your food.”

    – That’s a great motto and wonderful summary of this discussion. I’d go further, I’d say it is a summary of the practice life. We can get pointers on how/what to eat, but the exact combination that is best for us, well, only we know. Thank you Bhikku.

  9. An excellent article, a wonderfully researched examination of an empowering philosophy. Thanks for the new insights.

  10. I have been guilty of dissing a Thai visiting monks who sometimes comes to our centre as “fond of playing water”, he always insists on performing blessing with water for us (we’re not in Thailand, and no other visiting monks has this kind of “habit”, so it was a new thing for a newcomer like me). Never mind my wrong thoughts/speech, that’s another beastly defilement of mine that I have to face…. I realise that monk does so out of his compassion to us, wanting us to be blessed and happy, but now there’s another perspective that I have to consider, shouldn’t be so quick to judge “rituals” as not-Buddhist.

    1. Some Thai’s in a centre here where I sometimes lead events are upset because I don’t give the precepts or do the evening chanting. We all have attachments. Actually I would do it if there were more Thais who know the routine so that the Westerners can follow the example. The centre you talk about is in Indonesia right?

  11. I believe that ceremonies and rituals are not the essence of Buddhism but as practitioners come from different countries and different stages in life it may be easier for some to follow the ‘pure’ teachings and meditate on them and for others to follow a ritual such as morning and evening chants and some find it useful to receive a blessing for important events in life such as Birthdays, Weddings, Funerals – existing in other belief systems too – as it helps them to focus on that particular stage in their life and gives them a feeling of comfort and belonging…

    1. That’s well put Verokika. I think rituals are both nice and important. Symbology is a big part of being human – witness the wedding ring or the handshake.

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