The Topography of American Folk Buddhism


In the folk religion of Crow Peak we strive to become the mountains and rivers from where we were spawned. Chinese hermit-monks, in their time, strived for places of solitude high in cold peaks – foggy and surreal. When Japanese Zen masters came back down from those same summits they adopted the name of the mountain as their own – a testimony to their own practice. Feet digging deep into the earth – rooted and solid but still as fluid as the rivers that passed through lonely mountains passes and into the valleys below.

Our practice is what surrounds us. The paths that wind around our lives. We are reborn as mountains and rivers. We hear the stoic poetics and experience the subtle vitality of dark peaks. We embody the destructiveness of raging rivers and the fertility of the floodplains left when our waters recede. The strength of redwoods is thinning but we stand like billboards; we free-range on urban ranches; we flow like traffic. A constant hum of activity that explodes into white-noised silence. The roar of a highway is only a generation away from a roaring herd of bison. The screach of tires. The blare of horns. The call of a prairie hawk and the crash of thunder. Does it matter? It all goes back to the mountains. It all flows back to rivers. We each give practice a form and character so markedly different from anything that happened before or will happen since – cause and effect. No institutional religon can escape the fact that it breaks down when people think for themselves, when we form our own practice. When we become our own Mount Sinai or our own Vulture Peak, it threatens them. It negates their control and we fall into the river of cause and effect.

Unlike systematized religion, American folk religion is hard to define and impossible to pin down. It encompasses a bleak and stark prairie, parking lots and abandoned strip malls. It echoes the colision of Native American Shamanism with the faerie realms of the Old World. Pragmatism meets the Esoteric – the epic rise of the Zen Quaker, the Buddhist Atheist and the Amish Magician. The Return of the Rural Yogini and the Urban Shaman. Our folk-ways are made up of the vague microcosm of our family life within the framework of the land that nurtures us. Folk religion is the expression of the spirituality of nature, the topography of our beliefs and the cartography of this life. Mapped by experts but still the edges house the realms of dragons and serpents, Heaven and Purgatory, Pure Land and Hell Realm. We borrow, discard and revise ethical standards, religious structure, magical spells and philosophical concepts. These rites and rituals form the liturgy of the mountains and span beyond human memory and written words – it is a communal moment shared by many. The magic of our daily lives.

Beliefs, stories and myths are passed down like koans. Walls of the old established religious bodies – temples and churches – decay and fall apart. The folk-ways are tread by simple feet for ages but highways are even quicker allowing for bus-trips and outings. We moved our minds from working the fields and enter into spiritual pastures like sheep. Stuck in our minds now and spiritually dead we walk back into the fields – alone and expansive. A Buddhist at the plow. A Christian at the mill. An Atheist baling hay. Each reaping a harvest and milling wisdom. A mill powered by the river which flows down from the mountains. We are not tied to plow. We are not fenced in.

We walk from the halls of academia into reservoirs – man-made and well-stocked with wisdom. Monitored by professionals for our entertainment. Itinerant monks and gurus sell their wares at the marketplace. Single serving, microwave ready salvations and empowerments. Throw it in the garbage when you are done. Enlightenment comes in six-packs to be guzzled and ingested. Satori is the crack-cocaine of the modern spiritual huckster. Deeper meditation for deeper pockets and exclusive content if you act now.

Follow the paper trail of lineage.

It leads you like a river,

past the temples and churches

back to the mountains.

to the folkways of Crow Peak.