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Folk Religion: Folk Buddhism


Religious traditions are, by their very nature, complex. One the one hand, the symbolize the highest aspirations of the human mind and spirit; on the other, they sanctify and give meaning to the most ordinary and commonplace human needs and activities. The complexity of religion and its functions have been analyzed in various ways. There has been a tendency, however, to distinguish between those aspects created by and appropriate to the educated elites, for example, priests and rules, and those that help the uneducated, common folk cope with the uncertainities and exigencies of life. Scholars have sometimes referred to this distinction as obtaining between "great" and "little" traditions or between "elite" and "folk" traditions. It must be kept in mind that these formal distinctions do justice neither to the multiplexity of religious traditions nor to the organic unity that characterizes them, even though such categories may serve a useful function.

"Folk" Buddhism may be understood as a persistent, complex, and syncretic dimension of the Buddhist tradition characterized by beliefs and practices dominated by magical intent and fashioned with the purpose of helping people cope with the uncertainties and exigencies of life. Its varied expressions emerge along the wide spectrum between the normative Buddhist ideal represented quintessentially but not exclusively by the Buddha and the concept of nirvāa, and the indigenous magical-animistic and shamanistic traditions of the given culture in which Buddhism becomes institutionalized. Consequently, some aspects of folk Buddhism (e.g., the figure of the Buddha, the person of the monk, and the practice of meditation) appear to be closely affiliated with the normative ideals of Buddhism, while others are barely distinguishable from native, non-Buddhist religious forms. Folk Buddhist institutional structures, religious practices and practitioners, and oral and written literatures reflect this variation.

Buddhism has had a folk or popular dimension since its inception. Early Buddhist scriptures challenge the view of a "golden age" of pure monastic practice dedicated to the pursuit of nirvāa unencumbered and undisturbed by the needs and expectations of a simple, uneducated laity. That the Buddha and his followers were supported by laypersons for reasons of material gain and magical protection, as well as for spiritual benefit, cannot be denied. Even meditation, the sine qua non of monastic practice, was perceived as leading not only to equanimity and enlightenment but also to the acquisition of magical power. The Mahāvagga of the Theravāda Vinaya Piaka depicts the Buddha not simply as an enlightened teacher, but as a yogin who wins followers through his magic. Moreover, although the source is later commentary, it is significant that the future Buddha, just prior to his enlightenment, was said to have been offered food by a woman who mistook him for a tree deity. In general, Buddhist scriptures readily intermesh doctrinal exposition with magical and animistic figures and elements ranging from deva s (gods) to mantra s (sacred utterances).

To be sure, folk Buddhism became a more dominant aspect of Buddhist institutional and cultural life as the religion grew in size and cultural significance throughout Asia. In India, Aśoka's strong support of the Buddhist monastic order in the third century bce proved to be crucial to its growth and diffusion, and the appropriation of folk elements from different cultures was a means by which Buddhism spread and accommodated itself to the cultures of Asia from at least the beginning of the common era. Indigenous folk religions, therefore, were the major media through which Buddhism became a popular religion not only in India, but in Southeast, Central, and East Asia as well. The fact remains, nevertheless, that the folk element within Buddhism has been a part of the tradition since its inception, and has persisted in different forms to the present.

Folk Buddhism has several different facets that reflect various modes of interaction between normative, doctrinal-institutional Buddhism and native religio-cultural traditions. In some cases, the normative Buddhist tradition made only inconsequential adjustments; in others, Buddhism emerged as a thinly veiled animism. The major ingredient of folk Buddhism is usually referred to as animism or magical-animism, that is, the belief in benevolent and malevolent supernatural powers and the attempt to avoid them or to enlist their aid. These powers range from spirits of the living and the deceased to deities of regional or even national jurisdiction associated with non-Buddhist (e.g., Brahmanic) pantheons. The dialectical relationship between Buddhism and indigenous animism such as the Bon of Tibet led to the parochialization of Buddhism, but also changed the face of those native traditions encountered in Tibet, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere. For example, Shintō, rooted in an autochthonous animism, developed in Japan in competition with the more sophisticated traditions of Chinese Buddhism, just as religious Daoism in China institutionalized, at least in part, in response to Indian Buddhist influence.

The complex nature of folk Buddhism can be analyzed in various ways, but the method should do justice to its common or generic elements as well as the uniqueness of distinctive religio-cultural environments. Folk Buddhism as an essentially syncretistic phenomenon can be seen in terms of three types or modes of interaction between Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements: appropriation, adaptation, and transformation. These categories are intended to characterize particular historical instances as well as describe general types. Although they have overlapping qualities, they point to the variety within folk Buddhist belief and practice as well.


In many cases, folk Buddhism merely appropriated and subordinated indigenous symbols, beliefs, and practices with very little change in meaning. This is particularly true in the incorporation of a wide range of supernatural beings and powers into the Buddhist system. Generally speaking, these supernaturals, whether gods or spirits, malevolent or benevolent, were subordinated to the dominant Buddhist symbols and motifs. Most often they played a protective role, standing guard at a sacred Buddhist precinct, be it temple or maala, or functioned in an appropriately subordinate way in relationship to the Buddha. In Sri Lanka, for example, a kind of divine pantheon evolved, a hierarchy of gods and spirits ranging from the most localized guardian spirits of village and field to the suzerainty of regional gods the likes of Skanda and Viu with the entire structure under the sway of the Buddha. In Tibet the gods of the everyday world ('jig rten pa ) became protectors of the dharma, obeying the commands of the great teachers. While they are so numerous and indeterminate as to defy a fixed ordering, they generally are divided according to the traditional Indian tripartite cosmology of heaven, earth, and the intermediate realm. In Burma (Myanmar) the indigenous nat spirits are incorporated into Burmese Buddhism as deva s. Thagya Min, for instance, is assimilated into Sakka (the Brahmanic Indra), and resides in Tāvatisa Heaven as king of the deva s, but is also said to be ruler of the "thirty-seven nat s." In Thailand various supernaturals including devata, cao, and phī have a complex relationship to Thai Buddhism involving linkage, hierarchy, and instances of both opposition and complementarity. In Japan, Buddhism absorbed native Japanese deities or kami. In many cases the kami are taken as manifestations of Buddhas or bodhisattva s (the theory of honjisuijaku ), although a uniform set correspondence did not develop. A similar story can be told for Buddhism in China, Korea, and other parts of Asia. While the specific list of supernaturals appropriated into the Buddhist system varies from culture to culture, these beings represent a hierarchy of powers and suzerainties dependent on, under the authority of, or even in tension with, Buddhist figures, symbols, and motifs.

These supernaturals have been assimilated into the Buddhist cultus as well as into Asian Buddhist worldviews; they are amalgamated into orthodox ritual activity or become a distinct ritual subset. Throughout Buddhist Asia the guardian spirits of a temple precinct, such as the phī in Thailand or the kami in Japan, may be propitiated prior to an auspicious ceremonial event. In Tibet, Tantric ritual has provided a framework for customary religious practices in which Tibetan deities exist side by side with Indian Buddhist ones. In Sri Lanka, devout Sinhala Buddhists paying respects to the Buddha at the famous sanctuary of Lankatileke outside of Kandy will make offerings before images of the Hindu deities enshrined in devale s around the perimeter of the building. In Thailand, Brahmanic deities (e.g., Viu) may be invoked during a customary Buddhist ritual, and offerings are made to the guardians of the four quarters as part of the New Year celebration at a Buddhist monastery (wat ).

Of special significance in folk Buddhism have been the belief in the soul (the existence of which is scarcely maintained in scripture), or spirit element(s), of the individual, and various rituals associated with this belief, especially life-crisis or life-transition rites. The role of Buddhism in the conduct of mortuary and death anniversary rites for the souls of the dead in China, Korea, and Japan is well known. In Japan, the Obon festival celebrated in the seventh month honors the return of the souls of the dead. Graves at Buddhist temples will be cleaned in preparation for the spirits' return, and the household altar (butsudan ) will be decorated with flowers, lanterns, and offerings of fruit. In Burma, mortuary rituals are performed to prevent the soul of the deceased from remaining in its former haunts and causing trouble. In Thailand, soul-calling (riag khwan ) rites are performed at life-transition times such as weddings and even as part of ordination into the monkhood.


In assimilating indigenous magical-animistic and shamanistic religious beliefs and practices, Buddhism itself has changed. This process of adaptation and parochialization has been part of the Buddhist tradition from its outset: the Buddha as teacher but also miracle-worker, meditation as the vehicle for the attainment of insight and supernatural powers, the monk as nirvāa -seeker and magician. In the Theravāda traditions of Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia the miraculous power of the Buddha is attested to not only in supernatural feats of magical flight, prognostication, and the like, but also in the cult of Buddha relics and Buddha images that typifies ritual practice in this region. The Mahāyāna and Tantryāna traditions elaborated the salvific function of the Buddha through the proliferation of Buddhas and bodhisattva s. In China, Dao'an (312385) popularized Buddhism by promoting Maitreya as a savior Buddha, the god of Tuita Heaven, an earthly paradise accessible to all. Huiyüan (334416) did for Amitābha Buddha and his Pure Land (Sukhāvatī) what Dao'an did for Maitreya and Tuita Heaven. Both Maitreyism and Amidism became fundamental to folk Buddhism. In Japan, one of the specific adaptations was the assimilation of popular elements into the figure of the bodhisattva Jizō (Skt., Kitigarbha), who thereby came to occupy an even more important place than did his Chinese counterpart, Dizang. Not only does Jizō deliver souls from hell, but he also helps women in childbirth and, like Kannon (Chin., Guanyin), another popular savior, is seen as the giver of healthy children and a guide to the Western Paradise of Amida.

The supernormal powers associated with meditation adepts has a close association with shamanism. Monks have become famous for their skills as alchemists, for their ability to communicate with the spirit world, and for their prognostication of future events, activities that conflict with the Vinaya. The biographies of such Tantric adepts as Padmasambhava and Mi la ras pa attest to this type of parochialization, and even the lives of the Chan (Zen) patriarchs are not exempt from supernatural hagiographic elaboration. In Sri Lanka, ascetic monks are revered not only for their piety but for their magical prowess as well, and in Thailand a significant cult of monk-saints has developed. Popular magazines attest to their extraordinary deeds, their advice is sought for everything from lottery numbers to military ventures, and their amulets are worn for protection against danger and disease.


Buddhism appropriated magical-animistic and shamanistic religious forms and adapted its own beliefs and practices to this type of cultural milieu. The degree to which assimilation and adaptation has occurred has led to profound transformations of the tradition. While decisive turns in the development of Buddhism have taken various forms, popular sectarian movements have provided one of the most fruitful contexts for this kind of transmutation. Examples abound throughout Buddhist Asia. In Burma and Thailand messianic Buddhist groups emerged in the modern period centered around charismatic leaders often claiming to be Maitreya Buddha. In China, Buddhist sectarian groups led by "rebel monks" split off from monasteries in the Northern Wei kingdom (386535) as early as the fifth century. The best known is the White Lotus movement, a complex of rebel eschatologies active from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. Other major sects include the Maitreya, White Cloud, and Lo, or Wuwei. These groups were lay-based, heterodox, and syncretistic, and were often politically militant. The White Lotus sect developed its own texts, a married clergy, hereditary leadership, and by the mid-fourteenth century a full-blown eschatology derived from both the Maitreyan tradition and Manichaeism. By the late sixteenth century the principal deity of the White Lotus groups was a mother goddess. Eventually, by the late nineteenth century, the Buddhist elements were so extenuated that they had become congregational folk religion rather than a distinctive form of folk Buddhism.

In Japan as early as the Heian period (7941185) holy men (hijiri ) developed a folk Buddhism outside the orthodox ecclesiastical system. In the tenth and eleventh centuries Amida hijiri and Nembutsu hijiri, preeminent among whom was Kōya, a layman of the Tendai sect, taught universal salvation through the repetition of the Nembutsu (the formulaic recitation of the name of Amida Buddha). The Nembutsu came to be seen as a powerful form of protection against the spirits of the dead and evil spirits (goryō ) and a means to release them into Amida's paradise. While the founders of the orthodox Pure Land sects, Hōnen and Shinran, rejected the animistic and magical aspects of the Nembutsu, the attitudes of the common folk did not substantially change. The Amida mantra was considered a causally effective means to attain the Pure Land after death as well as a magical spell for sending evil spirits to Amida. Popular sectarianism has continued to develop into the contemporary period. Some of the so-called new religions (shinkō shūykō ) in Japan represent a unique form of folk Buddhism. Arising in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in a period of political and social crisis, these religions, which developed around strong, charismatic leaders, are syncretistic and often utilize magical ritual practices. Two of the best known are Risshō Kōseikai and Sōka Gakkai. Both are indebted to the Lotus Sūtra -Nichiren tradition. Through its political wing, Sōka Gakkai has become a sometimes militant force in Japanese politics.

The Buddhist encounter with folk religion, which has taken the forms of appropriation, adaptation, and transformation, has not occurred without conflict. In Southeast Asia stories abound of the Buddha's encounter with indigenous supernatural beings who are only eventually subdued and made to vow their allegiance to the dhamma. Other heroic figures exemplify a similar pattern. Especially noteworthy is Padmasambhava's propagation of the dharma in Tibet. The key to his success, in contrast to the previous failure of the great teacher Śāntirakita, was Padmasambhava's magical prowess in subduing the powerful Tibetan deities. Such conflict may be mirrored in Buddhist ritual as well as in myth and legend. In northern Thailand, for example, offerings of buffalo meat to the guardian spirits (phī) of Chiang Mai are made as part of the New Year celebration; however, this ritual activity has no formal connection with the elaborate ceremonies occurring at Buddhist sanctuaries in the area.

The practitioners of folk Buddhism likewise present a great diversity. Those most closely tied to the autochthonous animism may be likened to shamans, for they function in a shamanlike manner. They have the power to enter into the realm of the supernaturals, an act often symbolized by magical flight; they may also become possessed by supernatural beings or function as a medium between the supernatural and human realms, and have the knowledge to enlist or ward off their power. In Tibet, mdos rituals are performed by wandering lamas (Tib., bla ma s) or exorcists (snyags pa ) for protection against dangers, hindrances, injuries, illness, and obstacles caused by evil powers. The person who carries out exorcistic rituals (gto ) must be an expert in meditating on his yi dam or tutelary divinity. The yamabushi or mountain ascetics of Japan, while affiliated with the Tendai and Shingon sects, perform exorcisms and function as village magicians. The Chinese shaman (wu ), who exorcised spirits of evil and illness and danced and chanted to ward off disasters, influenced the popular conception of the charismatic leadership of folk Buddhist sects in China. Often, lay Buddhists are the principal practitioners of the folk traditions, especially because many of the magical practices associated with folk Buddhism are either forbidden or discouraged by the orthodox Vinaya. In the Esoteric schools of Buddhism (e.g., Shingon), as well as in sectarian movements, the differentiation between mainstream beliefs and practices and those of the folk dimension are more difficult to perceive. Even in the Theravāda countries of Southeast Asia, however, actual monastic custom and practice may be far removed from the strict ideal of monastic discipline, which discourages fortune telling, alchemy, and the like.

The texts of folk Buddhism also reflect the ways in which the normative tradition has appropriated, adapted, and been transformed by indigenous folk religion. An important genre of folk literature is the miraculous tale, often purporting to be an episode from the life of the Buddha or a famous Buddhist figure such as Maudgalyāyana or Vimalakīrti. Included in this literary genre are the Jātakas, which are themselves examples of the appropriation of folktales, mythic accounts of heavens and hells (e.g., Petavatthu ), legendary elements in chronicles, lives of the saints in various Buddhist traditions, and vernacular collections such as the Chinese pien-wen (texts of marvelous events). Other texts, such as the paritta (scriptural passages that, when chanted, are said to have apotropaic power) in the Theravāda tradition, function in a magical manner in Buddhist ritual, even though the content reflects the highest ethical and spiritual ideals of the normative tradition. The Bar do thos grol (Tibetan Book of the Dead), although at the center of the Tantric technique of liberation, certainly incorporates shamanistic elements. Another type of folk Buddhist literature includes those texts specifically related to the practice of astrology, fortune telling, and animistic rituals.

In the final analysis, folk Buddhism should not be seen as a later degeneration of the normative Buddhist ideal. Rather, it is a complex dimension of the tradition, present from its origin, that has provided the tradition with much of its vitality and variation from culture to culture.

See Also

Arhat; Avalokiteśvara; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, article on Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; Chinese Religion, article on Popular Religion; Hijiri; Honjisuijaku; Japanese Religions, article on Popular Religion; Kitigarbha; Mahāsiddhas; Millenarianism, article on Chinese Millenarian Movements; Nats; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements in Japan; Nianfo; Popular Religion; Priesthood, article on Buddhist Priesthood; Worship and Devotional Life, articles on Buddhist Devotional Life.


In recent years studies of folk or popular Buddhism have been greatly enhanced by the work of anthropologists, especially those working in Southeast Asia. These descriptive and analytic studies provide an important complement to the work of cultural historians and historians of religion. Notable of mention for the Theravāda Buddhist cultures are the works of Stanley J. Tambiah, in particular his Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-East Thailand (Cambridge, 1970). While this work is a microstudy, like many anthropologists Tambiah offers a more comprehensive interpretation of the religious system in northeast Thailand. Tambiah's structuralist-functionalist approach contrasts with the social-psychological perspective (as found, for instance, in the works of Abram Kardiner) of Melford E. Spiro's Buddhism and Society: A Great Tradition and Its Burmese Vicissitudes, 2d ed. (Berkeley, Calif., 1982). A dominant theme in anthropological studies is the nature of the interrelationship between the folk or "little" tradition and the "great" tradition. In various ways this theme is addressed in Michael M. Ames's "Magical-Animism and Buddhism: A Structural Analysis of the Sinhalese Religious System," in Religion in South Asia, edited by Edward B. Harper (Seattle, 1964), pp. 2152; Gananath Obeyesekere's "The Great Tradition and the Little in the Perspective of Sinhalese Buddhism," Journal of Asian Studies 22 (February 1963): 139153; Manning Nash's The Golden Road to Modernity: Village Life in Contemporary Burma (New York, 1965); and A. Thomas Kirsch's "Complexity in the Thai Religious System: An Interpretation," Journal of Asian Studies 36 (February 1977): 241266. This theme figures in studies of the religious systems in Central and East Asia as well. See, for example, J. H. Kamstra's Encounter or Syncretism: The Initial Growth of Japanese Buddhism (Leiden, 1967), Alicia Matsunaga's The Buddhist Philosophy of Assimilation: The Historical Development of the Honji-Suijaku Theory (Rutland, Vt., and Tokyo, 1969), and Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf's Morals and Merit: A Study of Values and Social Controls in South Asian Societies (London, 1967).

Popular Buddhist millenarian movements constitute another theme addressed by recent studies of folk Buddhism. For Southeast Asia, E. Michael Mendelson's "The King of the Weaving Mountain," Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society 48 (JulyOctober 1961): 229237, and Charles F. Keyes's "Millennialism, Theravāda Buddhism, and Thai Society," Journal of Asian Studies 36 (February 1977): 283302, are particularly noteworthy. For China, Daniel L. Overmeyer's Folk Buddhist Religion: Dissenting Sects in Late Traditional China (Cambridge, Mass., 1976) is definitive.

Studies dealing with folk Buddhism that do not take a particular thematic perspective abound. Francis L. K. Hsu's Under the Ancestors' Shadow; Chinese Culture and Personality (New York, 1948) treats Chinese popular religion and the ancestral cult. H. Byron Earhart's A Religious Study of the Mount Haguro Sect of Shugendō (Tokyo, 1970) deals with the Shugendō sect, a popular movement combining Esoteric Buddhism with Japanese folk religious beliefs. René de Nebesky-Wojkowitz's Oracles and Demons of Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective Deities (The Hague, 1956) treats popular Tibetan protective deities. For folk Buddhism in Japan, see also Hori Ichirō's Folk Religion in Japan; Continuity and Change, edited and translated by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Alan L. Miller (Chicago, 1968).

New Sources

Gellner, David N. Monk, Householder, and Tantric Priest: Newar Buddhism and Its Hierarchy of Ritual. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Gombrich, Richard, and Gananath Obeyesekere. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, 1988.

LaFleur, William R. Liquid Life: Abortion and Buddhism in Japan. Princeton, 1992.

Mumford, Stan Royal. Himalayan Dialogue: Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal. Madison, Wis., 1989.

Numrich, Paul David. Old Wisdom in the New World: Americanization in Two Immigrant Theravada Buddhist Temples. Knoxville, Tenn., 1996.

Ortner, Sherry B. High Religion: A Cultural and Political History of Sherpa Buddhism. Princeton, 1989.

Swearer, Donald K. "Folk Buddhism." In Buddhism and Asian History, edited by Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa and Mark D. Cummings, pp. 351357. New York, 1989.

Tannenbaum, Nicola. Who Can Compete against the World? Power-Protection and Buddhism in Shan Worldview. Ann Arbor, 1996.

Donald K. Swearer (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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