Theres High Buddhism and Low Buddhism

May 17, 2010

I read a very illuminating article by Julia Cassaniti that won the Richard C Condon Prize. I thought its worth sharing.

Cassaniti tries to explain the lived expression of Buddhism. To this end she identifies a locus for meaning making. This is her unique orientation towards cultural psychology. Her locus is the point of interaction of cultural ideas and individuals’ minds. Lord Buddha calls this the experiential self. So she establishes that the cultural ideas and the self are both real (external and constraining). She is aware that one’s own culture may influence the way one interacts with that culture and the incorporation of a multiplicity of personal perspectives is integral to cultural psychology. Soooooo, she is showing awareness of Bourdieu’s insistence that the objectivist stance of the anthropologist is itself a culturally defined way of knowing that shapes the outcomes of analysis. Anyway… I wanna talk about how Cassaniti distinguishes between Buddhism of textual abstraction and lived Buddhism. This is what Bourdieu observed as the distinction between the stated rules of behavior and actual practice. Something bumfucks from Washington to Kandahar are ignorant about.

So there is High Buddhism – the true Buddhism of textual abstraction and… Low Buddhism – that results in Vegas style Buddha statues. Made of gold, ofcourse. So how do Buddhists understand Buddhism? Cassaniti arbitrarily chooses the concept of anicca or impermanence to answer this query. Anicca represents the idea that everything causally arises (dependent conditioned origination) and is susceptible to decay. Through her interviews she finds out that some lay people face difficulty isolating anicca from other Buddhist concepts and use it interchangeably with dukkha –suffering. Anicca is a cornerstone of High Buddhism.

Cassaniti says that authoritative discourse, occupation, life experience and personal concerns are all involved in the ways that people give their meaning to the word anicca. In doing so, she steps on something interesting. She makes a connection between impermanence and (Freudian) trauma – some Thai Buddhists stow aside trauma through their folk understanding of impermanence.

Cassaniti states that scholarly work isolates Buddhism as an objective system that only elites can understand and it relegates lay Buddhists’ interpretations to a lower level of Buddhism that merely emphasizes increasing good karma through merit making rather than the pursuit of nirvana. She explores the tension between the scholarly stance and her own observation, and finds that lay people indeed understand concepts of High Buddhism and moreover, they understand it in a particular way.

Note: This is not the same understanding as the decontextualized Buddhism that is commodified for Western consumers, but a contextualized understanding gained through implicit evaluative orientations toward personal experiences. In other words, the notion of anicca is part of the cultural capital that lay Buddhists possess. This does not mean that there is no distinction between the abstract rules of Theravada Buddhism and its practice per se. But but but, she opines: there is no break in the different levels of understanding between the laity and the monks, nor is there different eschatological aims. Rather it means that the difference between practiced and abstract Buddhism is just of differential access and authority over Buddhist doctrine due to the hegemony of the symbolic capital of the monks which is reinforced by the habitus of the laity. But the monks and the lay are feeling the same vibe!

Futhermore, Melford Spiro discusses how Thai Buddhists distinguish between the nibbanic system of Buddhism and the kammatic system. Nibbanic Buddhism is concerned with release from the Wheel of cyclical existence and kammatic Buddhism deals with better positioning within it. Spiro explains how the people who are not necessarily aware of these terms, know how they differ in aim and technique. Now then, Spiro’s epiphany (lol) is… people follow the kammatic system, by choice. They aren’t ignorant in their hearts.

Phra Prayudh Payutto, one of Thailand’s most prominent scholar monks, writes in Buddhadhamma: popular understandings of Buddhism, or the cultural baggage, is peripheral to real Buddhism and not necessary for understanding the actual Buddhadhamma at all. So, why isn’t the understanding of lay Buddhists relevant in understanding the Buddhadhamma? Are the practices of lay Buddhists that delineated?

Cassaniti finds that in general, monks talk about anicca in a much more authoritative and confident way than laypeople. When the lay people were asked about anicca, they said, “Go ask a monk”. This is symptomatic of how people think about knowledge as residing in authoritative discourse. Religious knowledge is enclosed in the rightful community institution.

“Go to the temple and see the monk—the monk will explain. I

thought of anicca at the temple, but not when I’m home, not

when I became a householder. Impermanence is anicca —

everything is nature, birth and death. When you die, you can’t

take anything with you; this is anicca”


According to Paw Fai, the house is not the proper place to talk about anicca, regardless, if someone understands it or not. But then, paradoxically, he actually goes on to give a very succinct explanation of what anicca is. This hesitation on Paw Fai’s part reaffirms Bourdieu’s insight that creation of systems of knowledge is always a political act and that the symbolic power to impose the principles of the construction of reality – in particular, social reality – is a major dimension of political power.

In Northern Thailand monks have the symbolic capital that give them the authority to talk about anicca and all things related to dhamma. Such knowledge is out of the realm of authority of the laity. They are the practitioners of Low Buddhism and therefore should not meddle with things related to High Buddhism. This is the community compromise in Mau Chaem. Though Cassaniti does not talk much about the political involvement of the Mau Chaem or Ban Tong Fai monks in their communities, it is safe to say that they have some political power, which they hold dear.

Even religious language demonstrates differential access to power. Note, anicca is not a Thai word. It is a Pali technical term. The closest that Thai comes to it is the phrase, khwam mai nae non (lit., the general idea that things do not stay the same) or plian plaeng (lit., change). Words referring to chage such as mai thieng, mai thieng thae, mai nae non, yu samoe, prae, prae pruan, phan prae, and phan phuan are also used. Cassaniti was told that anicca is one of the most difficult aspects of Buddhism for lay people to understand.

Yet, lay people answer Cassaniti’s query about anicca with Monkish clarity and nuance. Unlike the monks, they do not mention meditation as the way to understand anicca. Unlike in the lives of the monks, anicca is not a motto or creed in their lives. But lay people perceive anicca as nulling of hope or emotional attachment. But the path they take to answering this is interesting. They contextualize anicca in terms of their trauma. Slavoj Zizek, while quoting ex-US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, explains Freud’s use of the word trauma as the unknown unknowns of ones psyche (as opposed to the unconscious being the unknown knowns of ones psyche). The Thai laity orients their discussion of anicca in terms of their livelihood. For a farmer, the discussion was along the lines of not hoping for a bumper crop, for a student it was not expecting high grades – AND this is not so they don’t jinx the crop or the exam results, it is because these things are impermanent and are results of dependent causality. Anicca is in the habitus and cultural capital of the lay people of Thailand. It resides in their psyche as an explanation for unfortunate events. Whether, they can put words to it or not is what boils down to the difference between Low and High Buddhism.

I hope this article is informative. It is a case study that can be used like structural adjustment programs and recontextualized in the case of mullahism in rural Bangladesh, etc etc.

The Article:

Cassaniti, Julia

2008   Richard C. Condon Prize Towards A Cultural Psychology Of Impermanence in Thailand. Ethos 34.1: 58-88.


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