The Precept of Adapting to Local Customs

Practice That Is Fitting For The Times And For Society.

Besides teaching a number of principles for living, Buddhism also provides standards for putting these principles into practice. These standards are called precepts, or rules of discipline, and were applied originally in the early Buddhism Order as codes of behavior for monks.

So that these standards would not lapse into rigid ritualism, consideration was given to the times, the society, the culture and customs of the region in which Buddhism was being practiced. This consideration eventually became part of the Buddhist precepts of the Buddhist Order and is known as the precept of adapting to local customs. The Japanese term for this precept is zuiho bini. Bini is a transliteration of the Sanskrit vinaya, the body of rules of discipline for the Buddhist Order. Zuiho is short for zuiho-zuiji, zuiji meaning to adapt to or follow the times. The gist of this precept, then, is to follow the culture and traditions of the locale and the age in which one lives and practices Buddhism.

Buddhism highly values each country's traditions and culture.

A scripture entitled The Fivefold Rules of Discipline records Shakyamuni Buddha as saying that, even when it comes to rules that the Buddha set forth, if following these in another land is not considered pure and correct in light of local customs, then one should not adopt them. Conversely, he states that one should follow local customs and practices in matters that the Buddha did not expressly forbid or permit.

This conveys Buddhism's recognition that there may be cases in which it is crucial for practitioners to follow local culture, customs and traditions, even if doing so violates some of the precepts the Buddha set forth. Regarding this principle, Nichiren Daishonin wrote, "When we scrutinize the sutras and treatises with care, we find that there is a teaching about a precept known as following the customs of the region...The meaning of this precept is that, so long as no seriously offensive act is involved, then even if one were to depart to some slight degree from the teachings of Buddhism, it would be better to avoid going against the manners and customs of the country. It appears that some wise men who are unaware of this point express extreme views..." ("The Recitation of the 'Expedient Means' and 'Life Span' Chapters," The Writing of Nichiren Daishonin, p.72).

In one sense, this concept speaks of Buddhism's natural flexibility in adapting to the land and culture to which it spreads. After all, the purpose of Buddhism is to awaken people to the truth and potential of their lives. It is not to bind them with unrealistic rules or interfere with their lives as citizens of their native lands. As Buddhism spread from India to China and Tibet, and through Korea to Japan, it adapted many customs, manners and traditions of these cultures. In China, Buddhism even adopted terms and concepts from Taoism, the local religion, to explain the Buddha's teachings. In Japan, many ceremonies, deities and observances native Japanese spiritual life were also incorporated into Buddhism.

In observing the spirit of adapting to local customs, it is important to identify and uphold the core and essence of Buddhist faith and practice. At the same time, one should take care not to put excessive weight on cultural adaptations that have found their way into Buddhism but are not natural in the culture in which one lives.

One simple example of this is the practice of sitting on one's knees in the Japanese fashion known as zeiza while chanting. This is a common way of sitting formally in Japan, where for centuries tatami mats outnumbered chairs. Yet, for most non-Japanese who did not grow up with this practice, it can be uncomfortable if not painful. Of course, it is up to the individual whether to adopt this style of sitting. But to insist that people outside of Japan must sit this way might be considered a violation of the precept of adapting to local customs.

In applying this principle, it is important to be steadfast in upholding the most essential spirit and practice of Buddhism. Based on that, we can imbue our actions with wisdom and common sense, respecting and supporting the culture, customs and values of the country in which we live and practice.

Regarding this, President Ikeda has written, "The SGI always advances by spreading its roots broadly and deeply into society...The Daishonin [said]: 'A person of wisdom is not one who practices Buddhism apart from worldly affairs' ("The Kalpa of Decrease," WND, 1121). The Daishonin also clearly stated, in his explanation of the precept of 'adapting the teachings to the locality,' that we should practice Buddhism according to the manners and customs of the country we are in.

"Buddhism is reason. It does not exist apart from society, apart from reality. That is why it is important for each of us to cultivate good judgment and common sense. We must respect society's ways and try to harmonize with them. Respecting the life of each individual, we work among the people. This is the SGI's fundamental creed" (World Tribune, August 1997, p.13).

Living Buddhism, April 2002, p. 6