Of Culture and Generations

I recently had a talk with a monk who helped me reconcile a problem I have had with Buddhism for a long time, at least ever since I really started to learn about it.

My exposure to Buddhism started as a child, passed down through temple visits, chanting, praying, incense-burning – all of which can be roughly categorized as the devotional practice of Buddhism. These traditions have been passed down to my parents by my grandparents, and this chain of religious inheritance probably goes several generations back. Many of these practices seemed to originate from culture, meshing with folk traditions and superstitions to create a mixed approach to Buddhism (e.g. burning paper money for ancestors).

As I got older, when I started to develop more independent thoughts, questioning most of what I was exposed to, I started to question my parent’s practice of Buddhism. Their devotional practice of Buddhism seemed to conflict with the understanding of Buddhism I gained from studying books and listening to dharma talks. This later form of Buddhism I had discovered seemed to be more philosophical, conceptual, and scholarly. From the Eightfold Path to the idea of Emptiness, these concepts were new, never introduced to me by my parents. Therefore, I had a hard time connecting and relating these two types of practicing Buddhism – the scholarly versus devotional approach.

Moreover, the more I learn about Buddhism through books, lectures, and blogs, the more I begin to wonder how legitimate my parent’s form of practice is. Is praying to the Buddha for good health and good grades really a part of Buddhism? A lot of the devotional practices I’ve grown up with began to come into conflict with my current study of Buddhism and I did not know how to make sense of it.

Now, I come a full circle back to the beginning about the talk I had with the monk. After discovering a little about his background, he seemed to have been exposed to both worlds – devotional and scholastic. And so, after bringing up the issue, he shared some thoughts that have helped me begin the process of piecing together my experience with Buddhism from childhood until now.

1. There aren’t two opposing or contradicting sides. It’s not black and white. Buddhism can be practiced in many ways, devotional or scholastic or both.

2. It’s not about my Buddhism versus your Buddhism. Or my Buddhism versus my parent’s Buddhism.

3. It’s probably better to have a highly devotional practitioner who’s compassionate and moral yet doesn’t know much about the sutras, rather than a highly scholarly practitioner who’s arrogant and stubborn yet has studied many of the Buddha’s teachings.

Sure, my parents can’t name the Four Noble Truths and explain the idea of no-self to me. They seem slightly obsessed with burning incense and playing a chanting tape 24/7 without meditating or going to temple services regularly. And yet, I remember as a child my parents teaching me morals – kindness, appreciation, generosity, honesty – through the devotional practices of Buddhism. Maybe that’s what is important.

5 comments

  1. Yuinen says:

    Thanks for this post!

    It seems that for many years (going back to at least the 19th-century) many people who have studied Buddhism, or Buddhists themselves, have assumed that “devotional” and “scholastic” were mutually exclusive terms and/or identities, and you had to chose between one or the other. Only recently, and perhaps because of better communication between Buddhists and their communities, and scholars, these terms are beginning to be understood as no longer dualist, or perhaps even helpful.

  2. James says:

    I totally agree with the idea that Buddhism is a very diverse belief system and can be practiced in many various combinations of devotion, philosophy, meditation and/or all of the above. I think it couldn’t be any other way as we are all so very different despite being the same–being one.

    And I attribute those differences and thus different needs within Buddhism to different karma. Great post.

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