Buddhism as we experience it here in rural Thailand is mostly about being kind and pacific.
Children really are taught that the best thing to do in an uncertain situation is to determine which course of action is the kindest. Sure, they regularly bonk each other, but it’s usually in jest and rarely involves any real hostility. At home in the US, you hear kids whining and having tantrums; here, those sounds are nonexistent as at an early age people adopt an accepting attitude toward life’s unpredictabilities. To be gentle, accepting and passive — these seem to be personality features learned almost from infancy. While passivity is not always the best way of interacting with a world that needs fixing, it does help reduce stress.
When we hear recent news about feverish religious people in the world — for example, murder by religious extremists of random pedestrians in London, or a different brand of religious extremists murdering and imprisoning lgbt people in Uganda and Nigeria — Buddhism as it is practiced here in our community seems a shining example of decency and acceptance among the world religions. Living as the only non-Buddhists immersed in a Buddhist village, we experience a gentle religion without extremism.
And it seems to be a religion without severe judgment of others. If you lead a good life and are kind to others, your reincarnation will go well; if you don’t, it won’t. (We joke: “don’t squish that bug! It could be Uncle Dave!”) The outcome is your own business. We are hyperalert to judgmental attiudes about gay people, each being a gay boy raised among Christians in the US. And we notice that, as a married gay couple living in a remote agricultural village, everyone does their very best to take our couplehood in stride. (When I lived in a much larger agricultural town in Minnesota in the eighties, I remained closeted out of concern for my physical safety.)
There are overlapping edges, of course, with superstition. Hey, Catholics have their saints and Buddhists have their spirit houses. Is one any sillier than the other? Superstition is part of daily life. You may maintain a spirit house where daily you leave offerings of food and drink. You may lay prone on the floor and pay a monk sixty baht to throw a blanket over you and then tug it off slowly by pulling a long cord while incanting a prayer — all to improve your luck. A monk may advise you to change your name, also for good luck. Animist beliefs are big in Thailand (see this insightful blog for more discussion) and though good Buddhists say “that has nothing to do with Buddhism” — spirit worship and superstitions are as omnipresent as Buddhism.
Our thoughtful and peace-loving friends back in the US are drawn to a sort of Buddhism that’s not been affected by a deep cultural backdrop of animist beliefs. Some Buddhism in America looks a lot less fun than the Buddhism practiced here, and at least one manifestation is affected by American consumerism (“I chanted for a flat screen”, said one young man in an altar-call-like linup of testimonials at a Buddhist center in a Minneapolis suburb “… and I got one”.
But despite various associated cultural oddities … you’ve just gotta love the peace, man.