Ordaining the Local Deities?

In thinking about Jiryu’s last post, “No Magic in Zen?” I’m reminded of the way Buddhism has always incorporated and absorbed local magical elements as it’s attempted to establish itself in new areas.  On some level traditions always do this—there’s a way of talking about “big” and “little” traditions in religious studies that concentrates on examining the way the “big” traditions, Christianity, say, or Buddhism, co-opt and absorb the “little” traditions of local spirit worship or healing rituals.  It seems to me that the distinction between “big” and “little” starts to break down when you look closely—it’s a little arbitrary to try to pull the pagan elements out of early Christianity or whatever—but still, it captures something of the feeling for the ways traditions spread, evolve, absorb and undermine each other.

Some of my favorite examples of how Buddhism has historically related to local traditions are the many, many hagiographical accounts of kami ordination in medieval Japan.  Basically the Zen priest comes to town, or wants to found a new temple, and has an encounter with the local mountain spirit.  After demonstrating his superior understanding in some way, the priest ordains the spirit, who willingly takes the bodhisattva precepts.  It’s a way of flexibly absorbing (if we’re feeling generous) or of rhetorically co-opting (if we’re feeling critical) the local tradition.  “Oh, the protector deity of that mountain that your parents and teachers taught you about?  Yeah, he came by the other day—I ordained him.  He’s a Soto Zen Buddhist now.”

William Bodiford lays it out in Soto Zen in Medieval Japan:

Just as local shrines supported village unity, local spirits symbolized traditional patterns of religious worship.  The ordination of local spirits provided religious justification for villagers to support new Zen temples without rejecting past village customs.  (p. 174)

So.  What are our local deities, our local village customs, and how has the Buddhist tradition attempted to press them into service?  The most likely candidates, it seems to me, are psychology and neuroscience.  Whenever I come across the latest study about the effects of mindfulness therapy, or the latest lab to hook meditators up to an EKG, I’m reminded of medieval Japanese Zen priests conferring the precepts on the village kami.  “Oh, the psychology and neuroscience that your parents and teachers taught you about?  They came by yesterday—I ordained them.  They’re Buddhists now.”

Finally, of course, even talking about things in this way is a little misleading, separates them out in a slightly strange way.  Is Buddhism absorbing psychological elements or is psychology absorbing Buddhist elements?  Did Buddhism become “Sinicized” in ancient China or did ancient China become “Buddhisized”?  (Although I’m pretty sure that’s not a word.)  Am I in time or is time in me?  Is that the wind in the trees or the trees in the wind?

But, still, it’s an interesting question.  Everywhere I look I see the Buddhadharma in relationship to the various local customs of our current village—postmodernism, psychology, neuroscience, feminism, democracy, environmentalism, materialism.  Flexibly absorbing or rhetorically co-opting?  Both?  How do you see it?



One thought on “Ordaining the Local Deities?

  1. If Buddhism is just a religion then it can stand alone and not be bothered by the rest of reality. If however it tells us something about reality and specifically about what it means to be human then it is going to keep bumping into overlapping representations of reality that exist and interact with them.

    Zen is perhaps more Taoist than Buddhist for instance but maybe Taoism was a more pure representation despite it’s other adornments and philosophy.

    If we look at science andin particular neuroscience and maybe even psychology then we hit an interesting conundrum.

    At the core budhism postulates that there are several ‘valid’ ways of perceiving reality and that one of those ways is better than and different to and no better than and no different to the others.

    If this postulate is unfounded then the practice of Buddhism may be considered as replacing truth with delusion or exchanging one delusion for another since we are talking about a function of mind.

    If the postulate has some foundation then it is reasonable to suggest there must be some biological mechanism or other physical thing that can be detected as being different when the world is perceived in one way verses another even if it’s only a difference in relative balance between parallel systems. Why can buddhas spot buddhas for instance?

    In the end though Buddhism has a pragmatic “what works?” approach that suggests it does not make special claims of something that only it can provide. That naturally lends itself to localisation. The alternative might be Star Trek Budhism – internally consistent, pure, seductive,unchanging and an engaging hobby but basically pointless.

    Sure people can rally around “The one true Buddhism” but it’s just a fight over an idea by which one has chosen to define oneself.

    I personally find being human and living with other humans to be engaging and demanding and rewarding. A guy on the street tried to hand me a booklet on “mind, body and spirit”. I found the episode ironic or lots of reasons.

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