Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

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Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

Postby christopher::: » Sun Jan 04, 2009 2:22 pm

This topic came up in another discussion. What of Buddhism in our world today (rituals, beliefs, clothing, social norms, etc) is a cultural add-on and what aspects are essentials of the dhamma? And are there any things which exist in a gray area, where the cultural add-on (such as constructing a Zen rock garden or shaving one's head for example) supports something essential for dhamma practitioners, or where we just can't say for sure?

I hope this doesn't become too contentious of a topic, if it does hopefully the mods will just close the thread.

:D
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Re: Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

Postby Fede » Sun Jan 04, 2009 4:24 pm

To my mind the Dhamma encapsulates every aspect of everyday life.
We walk the Eightfold path and adhere to the 5 precepts.

Whatever we choose to do in ignorance is not part and parcel of the Dhamma.
Whatever we choose to do Mindfully is part and parcel of the Dhamma and legitimate practice.
Whether it be sitting in meditation, or constructing a Zen rock garden.
Seek the Right View, Intention and employ Right Effort.
The Dhamma underpins whatever we do.
Whether it is original or an add-on.
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Translation: Just to stir things up seemed a good reward in itself. ;)

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Re: Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

Postby Ben » Mon Jan 05, 2009 6:47 am

Hi Chris

I would be inclined to say that much of the cultural baggage would have developed as a necessity to assist with the preservation and propagation of the Dhamma or with personal insight and development.
At the beginning of the 21st century, we have a unique perspective where we can practice the Dhamma outside of the culture which may have nurtured and contained it over millenia -or we can adopt those cultural artefacts with our Dhamma practice.
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Re: Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

Postby retrofuturist » Mon Jan 05, 2009 7:49 am

Greetings Chris,

I think it's necessary also to remember that Buddhism had "cultural add-ons" from day one... namely those of India 2500-ish years ago. The Dhamma has never been presented in a manner totally devoid of cultural influence. For those such as myself interested in the original teachings of the Buddha, it is worthwhile spending a little time so we can come to understand a little about India at that time so we can gain some perspective on the original scriptures. One case in point would be Elohim's post early on in this thread...

The Pros and Cons of Mythology
viewtopic.php?f=14&t=85

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Retro. :)
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Re: Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

Postby christopher::: » Mon Jan 05, 2009 1:20 pm

Excellent points, Ben and Paul.

Fede wrote:To my mind the Dhamma encapsulates every aspect of everyday life.
We walk the Eightfold path and adhere to the 5 precepts.

Whatever we choose to do in ignorance is not part and parcel of the Dhamma.
Whatever we choose to do Mindfully is part and parcel of the Dhamma and legitimate practice.
Whether it be sitting in meditation, or constructing a Zen rock garden.
Seek the Right View, Intention and employ Right Effort.
The Dhamma underpins whatever we do.
Whether it is original or an add-on.


I really like that, Fede.
"As Buddhists, we should aim to develop relationships that are not predominated by grasping and clinging. Our relationships should be characterised by the brahmaviharas of metta (loving kindness), mudita (sympathetic joy), karuna (compassion), and upekkha (equanimity)."
~post by Ben, Jul 02, 2009
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Re: Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

Postby Element » Mon Jan 05, 2009 8:36 pm

For me, core dhamma will always be two things: (1) what the Buddha called the 'unique or special teaching of all Buddhas', namely, the Four Noble Truths; and (2) what the Buddha called his teachings 'connected with emptiness'.
Then the Blessed One gave the householder Upali the gradual Teaching starting with giving gifts, becoming virtuous, about the heavenly states, the dangers of sensuality, the vileness of defiling things and the benefits of giving up. Then the Blessed One knew that the mind of the householder Upali was ready, malleable, free of hindrances, lofty and pleased and the Blessed One gave the special message of the Enlightened Ones: suffering, its arising, its cessation and the path to the cessation of suffering. Like a pure, clean cloth would take a dye evenly. In that same manner, the dustless, stainless eye of the Teaching arose to the householder Upali, seated there itself. Whatever arises has the nature of ceasing.

Upali Sutta


"Thus you should train yourselves: 'We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness— are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.' That's how you should train yourselves."

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Re: Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

Postby Cittasanto » Mon Jan 05, 2009 9:18 pm

Well I think if you look at anything including the suttas (well the popular suttas to areas and maybe some of the additional suttas/commentaries) you will find many add ons it is I think simply a case of try and see if it works for you keep it if not drop it!
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Re: Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

Postby rowyourboat » Tue Jan 20, 2009 9:45 am

we like to think we are culturally neutral, but being human, western culture must have crept into buddhism. it would be good to identify what the might be..
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Re: Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

Postby genkaku » Tue Jan 20, 2009 1:13 pm

There is a lot to be said about the add-on quality of so-called culture when it comes to honest Buddhism. I too have been critical and cranky and asked questions like, "what the hell does culture have to do with Dharma?" I was disdainful of the efforts to reduce Buddhism to another religion or other social adjunct.

But these days, I see my earlier approach as mistaken, or perhaps right for the wrong reasons. Sorry if I haven't got the energy to spell out every comma and semi-colon, but this is how I see it:

Those who practice Buddhism live in one culture or another. They are the product of one culture or another. This is just a fact. It has no "good" or "bad" to it: Water is wet, that's all. Each culture provides its own biases and those biases are bound to enter a Buddhist practice. Each of us probably knows a culture that will imply that its "Buddhism" is the "true Buddhism." It's nonsense, but it's not much different from my nonsense.

The good thing about a Buddhist practice is that it encourages us to examine our own nonsense. It is better to admit and examine the wetness of water than it is to have protracted discussions about some imaginary "dry water," some distinct and distinguishable "Dharma." I am, for example, an American. It would be ignorant and lazy if I were to ignore or not examine that fact.

I say, "I am American" and Buddhism asks mildly, "Who is an American?" It's not a matter of criticism or distinction, of purity or impurity. It's just a question that a Buddhist might consent to answer. If I were to assert that American Buddhism has the one true and pure answer, that would be idiotic. But it would be equally idiotic not to concede and examine my American-ness, my nonsense. After all, it's the only game in town: Pretending I am not American or that there is some elegant and pristine "Dharma" outside this American would be to turn Buddhism into some kind of religion, some kind of cultural gimcrack.

Bottom line (since I don't want to blither on forever) in my book: Everyone uses the lies at hand in order to discover the truth. Maybe it's a cultural lie, maybe it's a Buddhist lie, maybe it's a holy lie ... I don't know. The point is that it is the shit that grows the lotus and imagining that the lotus grows in some airy-fairy vacuum that is filled with milk and honey ... well, I suppose that is more good shit, but it certainly can be confusing. Buddhism encourages us to examine and take responsibility. That's its genius, for my money.

If any of that makes sense ....
Last edited by genkaku on Tue Jan 20, 2009 9:03 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

Postby piper » Tue Jan 20, 2009 7:27 pm

Hi Christopher:::

christopher::: wrote:What of Buddhism in our world today (rituals, beliefs, clothing, social norms, etc) is a cultural add-on and what aspects are essentials of the dhamma?

The essentials of the dhamma surely developed within a culture. I don't know if it makes any sense to interpret culture being added onto those essentials. But maybe you're simply asking what the essential aspects of the dhamma are?

I think it's essential for the dhamma to offer more than the dry essentials, because dry essentials, like mathematical formulas, tend to not be very encouraging. :console:

And are there any things which exist in a gray area, where the cultural add-on (such as constructing a Zen rock garden or shaving one's head for example) supports something essential for dhamma practitioners, or where we just can't say for sure?

A functional aspect of culture is to support common values & goals, so yes, of course.
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Re: Buddhism: Cultural Add-ons vs. Dhamma

Postby fig tree » Sun Feb 01, 2009 7:04 am

I think there's a useful distinction between cultural influence and "adding to the dhamma" from your culture. I would assume that for example the manner in which residences for monks would be built (what materials and so on) would have a lot to do with the ambient culture, but that's just a standard practice carried out under specific circumstances, as opposed to something added.

The criteria for what is dhamma, in for example the Gotami sutta, suggest to me that what makes a practice "extra" would be its being greedy, lazy, etc., or its failure to conduce to seclusion, effort, and so on, rather than whether it's recognizably in the "style" of a particular culture. I would guess that refraining from encouraging greed naturally requires setting aside quite a lot of the ways in which one's culture tends to express itself.

Just some thoughts.

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