By Daniel Scharpenburg
Historically, there have been two forms of Buddhism.
Actually, there are a lot more than two, but I’m just going to talk about two here.
For simplicity I’m going to refer to them as Temple Buddhism and the Other Buddhism.
Temple Buddhism exists in temples—often simply among monks and laypeople that visit them. Temple Buddhism is centered around the temple, as the name suggests. It involves strict adherence to traditional forms, whether they seem helpful or not.
The Other Buddhism leaves the temple. The Other Buddhism involves going to the forest or going out into the street to take the Dharma to other places. It involves innovation. Often that innovation ends up leading to a new form of Temple Buddhism,which is different from the original.
Right after the Buddha’s death, the Sangha started organizing as monks in temples. And this worked out for a while. People venerated the Buddha. They chanted and did rituals in his name, spent time meditating and it was good.
But then there have been the renegades. I can point to a lot of examples.
Bodhidharma arrived in China and saw a Buddhism that was practiced in the temples there. He thought this Buddhism was lacking, so he went to live in a cave by himself. In Japan, Ikkyu left temple life to go teach the Dharma to prostitutes and alcoholics. And Dogen, thinking that the Buddhism in Japan wasn’t authentic enough, took the journey to China to try to find “real” Buddhism.
In Thailand Buddhadasa Bhikku left temple life to create a retreat center in the forest.
The Buddha himself went to live alone in the forest because he found the spirituality of his time to be lacking. That’s where Buddhism comes from.
We’ve lost a lot of this maverick spirituality in modern Buddhism. People are concerned with being attached to temples, practicing the exact way their teacher did, and not really thinking much outside the box. I’ve known plenty of Buddhist teachers who spend a lot of time just telling stories about their teachers, even doing an impression of their teacher’s accent (when it’s a foreign teacher). To me that’s really weird, but it’s very common.
Like religion in general, too often Buddhism can just become routine.
We perform rituals with no real meaning behind them. We just go through the motions, without really being serious about our practice. I can point to parallels in other religions, like the people who go to church and just sing beautiful hymns in monotone voices, without even thinking about the meaning or enjoying the spiritual practice.
It’s out of these kinds of issues that the Other Buddhism has repeatedly emerged. Because rebellion is what the Buddha did, it’s a natural part of Buddhism. That’s why there are such diverse lineages and practices. Change is an integral part of Buddhism.
To an extent I think we’ve lost sight of that in the modern world. People do have a tendency to think that things have to be a certain way because they always have been.
I often wonder, why.
Editor: Dana Gornall