Dhamma and Culture


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Back in the day, I had an ongoing discussion with my partner, that went on for years. She travelled a lot in Southeast Asia and knew the cultures there quite well. Her criticism went along the lines of: How can you be a Buddhist, have you seen how they treat women in those countries?

Which is entirely correct. They way women are treated in traditional Buddhist countries, even in monastic circles is often abominable. However, for all those years I failed at getting one crucial point across: There is a difference between the teachings of the Buddha (the Dhamma) and the culture/country in which the tradition got established.

The identity of the culture comes first, then later the teaching arrives. After learning about a new spiritual path, humans will always adapt the teachings to their home culture. What you end up with is a mixture of both, and sometimes the arising mixtures will even contradict each other.

I give you a simple example:
Say you are small businessman and you want to sell Buddha statues on a market in Sri Lanka. If you put a Buddha statue down on the ground and stick a price tag on it, people very soon will get very upset with you.
A Buddha statue cannot sit on the ground, it has to be elevated. If you build a shrine with an altar, you cannot even put the photo of your teacher next to the Buddha statue. The Buddha even has to be elevated above all the other teachers. This is why altars in Thailand and Sri Lanka often are constructed with steps, like a pyramid. They take the respect for the Buddha very seriously. You can end up in prison if you put a Buddha image on a poster to promote a party in a bar.

If you then travel to a Japanese Zen-Monastery to inquire about their Buddha statue needs, you will not only find that the Buddha in Japan has suspiciously East Asian looking facial features, but sitting down on the toilet, you might even find a Buddha statue staring at you while you do your business. It is supposed to remind you that whatever you do in there, you are still in a monastery. They also take their respect for the Buddha very seriously. You better bow down, when you enter the meditation hall. It just has a completely different emphasis.

Every culture handles its path to enlightenment differently and according to the unique personality of that culture. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, it is blessing and a curse at the same time.

The advantage is that you can find a cultural setting that fits well with your personality traits. For example: If you are the straightforward-no-bullshit-martial-art-type, than the Buddhism of Japan will suit you much more than the more colorful and esoteric version in Tibet.
The curse starts to hit, when people confuse the culture with the Dhamma.

Treating women badly is not Dhamma, it is culture (And a bad one).

Extremely strict hierarchy in monastic circles is Thailand – it is not the Dhamma (Ironically that was copied from Catholicism – true story).

Suffering through mountains of pain silently with a straight face without burdening the people around you, to the point where you just drop dead – that is Japan, it is not the Dhamma.

Using meditation to make you feel better about yourself and accept you for who you are so you can function better in your social environment – that is American Wellness Vipassana – it is not the Dhamma.

Yes, to tell the culture and the Dhamma apart is sometimes very, very complicated.
We have to be careful and we have to study a lot (which we can easily, thanks to the internet). Only if we know the difference, we can use it to our advantage. Especially for us, who live in a country that does not have centuries filled with established cultural Buddhism whatsoever, we have to learn the difference between the culture and the teachings of the Buddha very well, so we do not get misconstrued.

Picking apart stuff like this, analyzing the details and overthinking it is very German btw. Buddhists in South-East-Asia are much more trustful in their Buddhism than I am.

Buddhism in a Nutshell 04

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(From the preface of a German textbook on animal physiology)

“In the actual world around us,

there is no light or color,

no warmth, coldness, taste, smell or sounds.

Our perceived sensory world is a product.

It is an achievement of our brain.

It is not the passive copy of a real world.”

[Heinz Penzlin – Lehrbuch der Tierphysiologie, 1996, 6. Auflage]


Buddhism in a Nutshell 03

Buddhism in a Nutshell 02

Buddhism in a Nutshell 01



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According to the Lokavolokanasuttaṃ (The Discourse about surveying the World) the first thing the Buddha said, when he saw the world with enlightened eyes was:

“Ayaṃ loko santāpajāto.”
This world is full of torment. (The world is on fire.)

It’s a description of our society in one sentence, isn’t it? Everything we are seems to be about pain. It’s amazing, because evolutionary speaking, pain has a very limited use and purpose. That shooting pain in your arm was supposed to signal you that a saber-toothed cat is trying to bite it off and that <now> would be a good time to take action on the matter.

Somehow we got from there to a society that uses pain as it’s primary export product. A society that uses pain as a defining tool for the success of their citizens. A society that gets suspicious, if you are not suffering hard enough.

The Buddha realized that and so the very first of the noble truths in Buddhism is the truth of suffering. It is a truth which you are supposed to realize through practice. That means in Buddhism <suffering> and <pain> are your teachers.
The problem is, what exactly are they teaching us?

The Buddha taught that pain cannot be avoided or stopped forever. There is no place in this universe we can run to that is free from pain. What we can change, however, is out attitude towards the pain and the suffering. What the Buddha asked us to do is to understand pain and suffering and change ourselves according to these realizations. This is not a simple teaching.

The idea that there is no way to escape pain can easily be misconstrued to: You should not even try to remove it from your life. And the most fundamental idea in Buddhism, the idea to be happy, can be misconstrued to: You cannot progress on the spiritual path without suffering, hence you should suffer as much as possible to find enlightenment faster. 

You have to be very careful what people teach you. Even in Buddhism. There are whole branches of Buddhism that will tell you that you need pain in your life and your meditation to progress und who make it an unwritten goal that the more suffering you can endure in your life, the more enlightened you will get in the end.

I’ll make it short: That is plain nonsense.

People who teach stuff like that are just sad. The don’t need more Buddhism in their life, what they need is a good therapist. They think if they can suffer the best, there will be nothing in life that can throw them out of their path to success. This makes as much sense as saying you should watch all horror movies on the planet, so you can deal with suffering better, once it arises. That is just heaping up suffering on a fundament of solid delusion. It is a sure recipe for disaster.

The bottom line is: If you train yourself in suffering you will end up being a person that suffers. I know, it’s shocking. The Buddha taught us, if you live like a dog, bark like a dog und eat like a dog, you will be reborn as a dog. (No kidding. It’s in the Kukkuravatika Sutta (The Dog-Duty Ascetic) ).

Here is the first take home message:
Your mind associates strongly with the energy you train it to live around. If you make pain your life, guess what life you will find?

The Buddha did not teach us, to be really good at suffering. That is micchā-ditthi (wrong view). He tried to teach us to observe our mind. Since observing your own mind is really hard to do, you can start by watching your reactions in extreme situations. When we experience pain and suffering we have a tendency to switch to a different state of mind very fast. Have you ever heard yourself starting to curse wildly, when you stubbed your toe? These are the moments that can teach you about your mind. How do I deal with pain? How do I deal with situations that are unpleasant. What is my go-to-state of mind?

There are plenty of painful situations in out life already, you don’t have to go out of your way to create them, just so you can show how little pain means to you. A behavior like that is extremely dangerous, since it will condition you to go for pain and suffering as a default state in your life. Remember, our mind is very flexible and can get addicted to everything. Yes, suffering can be addictive! I know people who will proudly tell you that they practiced/taught meditation for many decades. Then you take a closer look at how they manage their personal life and you realize that all they have accomplished is to turn themselves very professionally and with strong effort into a swirling vortex of pain and misery. It gets worse. They very deliberately keep their lives in that state of constant pain and suffering, just so that they can view themselves as superior, since they are the best at suffering. I have seen this over and over again. That is not Buddhism, it is a form of asceticism. And a weird one.

Be wary of people who want to teach you how to suffer more and better.
Be wary of societies that try to make you feel bad about yourself if you dare to be happy.
Buddhism is about finding peace, happiness and freedom from suffering.

Here is the second take home message:
You are allowed to be happy!



See what Bahnte Sujato says about happiness in meditation. If you don’t believe me, please believe him!

And here is more of the Lokavolokanasuttaṃ.

Do you live in a society that claims you have to pay your dues because there is no free lunch? I would invite you to read Yuttadhammo Bhikkhus thoughts on why there too is such a thing as a free lunch.