Following are some generalizations, based on personal observations and discussions with practitioners, both ordained and lay. Be mindful that these are generalizations, and do not fit with every Buddhist practitioner.
We humans say and do stupid things and we say and do bad things. (More and more, I hear Buddhists referring to this as ‘sin,’ a concept borrowed from the Judeo-Christian traditions. Look up “sin” in a good dictionary of religion or philosophy. You will be edified!) When we say and/or do a dumb or mean thing, there are consequences. One of these consequences is some sort of “residue” or “residual,” often referred to with the term “karma.” This residue/residual clings to us for a very, very, very long time. This residual clinging to us (or perhaps it’s the clinging of the residual) causes us to be “impure.”
Both the "severity" or "intensity" and the "duration" of the karma generating behavior play a part in the degree to which the karma weighs us down and sticks around. Also the degree of "heinousness" of our actions has an important influence on the nature of the residue.
The “reason” we do and say stupid and bad things is because it is our nature. Our nature is to be unwise (avijjā) and be driven by unwholesome desires and cravings (taṇhā) and delusional clinging, attachment and grasping (upādāna).
We humans sometimes say and do “smart” (read “wise”) and good things. Doing smart and good things has consequences, too: Doing smart and good things generates / earns us “merit.” Merit, in some way or another, counters karma. This results in us becoming more “pure.” I recently heard a Sinhalese (Sri Lankan) bhikkhu describe this process as functioning “enzymatically.” Merit breaks down, or dissolves the residue/residual, thus ridding us of karma (or karmic effects, or sin). This, according to the Sinhalese bhikkhu, proves the scientific nature of Buddhism.
It seems that "strengh" of the goodness of, and the "frequency of occurance" of merit producing behavior plays a role in the efficacy of merit in reducing the karmic debt load.
I don’t know why we sometimes do smart and good things. I think that this also is probably in our nature, just not as prominently, therefore we have to constantly and consciously practice doing good and being smart.
All of this is very important because of the cosmology of popular Buddhism. That cosmology has multiple levels or planes of existence / reality, all of which are populated by sentient beings of various sorts. There are heavens populated by Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and devas. And there are hells populated by such beings as “hungry ghosts.”
The popular Buddhism cosmology asserts that we are born again and again, and again. And we may be born into/onto any of the levels / planes of existence. The reason we are reborn is the aforementioned “residue/residual” (karma). The particular level / plane we are reborn in/or is determined by our accumulated residue/residual. The more residue/residual we have, the lower the level / plane of existence. The less residue/residual, the purer we are, and the higher the level / plane of existence.
So, for popular Buddhism, functionally speaking, the “problem” is rebirth, caused by the accumulation of karma due to malicious and/or unwise behavior on our part. The solution is to act wisely with loving kindness (mettā), with compassion (karunā), and with selfless generosity (dana) toward all sentient beings, thus generating merit. Merit counters karma, and if we generate / earn enough merit, then voila! we are reborn in heaven! So, popular Buddhism Buddhists assert, our “fate” is in our own hands. It is through our own actions that our future rebirths are determined.
Many popular Buddhism Buddhists also believe that the aforementioned Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and devas are endowed with extraordinary, supra-mundane powers. They are imbued with compassion and beneficence as well. Therefore, if “prayed” to, in the manner prescribed, these divine beings will give us an “assist,” a boost up, if you will, in getting reborn in their particular heaven (e.g., Sukhāvatī; the western Pure Land of the Buddha Amitābha).
Being reborn in heaven is good for two reasons: One, there is no suffering (dukkhā), no unpleasantness, and two; in heaven one accumulates only merit, thus completely eradicating karma. This leaves us “pure,” and we all know what happens when we attain “purity.” NIRVĀNA!
Oh, yeah, there is also Enlightenment (with a capital “E”). Enlightenment seems to be understood as the “realization” of some sort of (spiritual or religious) understanding. It is often asserted that this “realization” is NOT cognitive, but occurs in some sort of “higher mind” beyond the rational, ordinary mind. It also seems to be a “state” attained when the cycle of rebirth ends. Some say it is a “state of mind,” bearing in mind that this is a non-rational, non-cognitive “higher mind” state. Others seem to say it is a “state of being,” either some sort of “purified” being, or some sort of “pure being.” (If you want to spend some time in confusion, study up on the Mahāyāna concept of “Buddha Nature” or “True Nature.” Different lineages; different understandings. Have fun!). And some (mostly Theravāda lineages) connect Enlightenment with the elimination or transcending of all human desire (taṇhā) and suffering (dukkhā).
All of the schools, traditions, lineages, etc., of which I am aware employ “chanting” or “recitation” to a greater or lesser degree. Most advocate for meditation in some fashion. And each has a “devotional” aspect to it. These are all considered “practices” which will get one where one wants to go – heaven, Nirvāṇa, or Enlightenment, however understood or defined.
I was once told by a Tibetan lama (and I paraphrase), “Every valley has a lama. Every lama has a dharma. Every dharma has Truth.”
What would an “American” or “Western” Buddhism look like? What would be an “American” or “Western” dharma?
More to come . . .