Religions are a funny thing. People tend to project their own subjective beliefs onto their religions, and the result is that someone on the other side of the world who practices that same religion may do so completely differently to the point of where that broader religion becomes almost meaningless.
I’m going to look at a few examples. I’ll stick with the national religions that I am most familiar with- American Christianity and Cambodian Buddhism- and compare those to how their broader religious traditions are practiced elsewhere and how they are a product of those counties’ innate cultures.
America’s religious tradition stems from the puritanical branch of Protestantism. You may say that was a long time ago, but I think it has largely set the tone. Remember that the US was solidly Protestant for much of its history. People were very hesitant to let Catholic Italians and Irish in, but had no problem with Protestant Germans.
Evangelicalism is largely a modern adaptation of Puritanism, and Southern Baptists hold a much more reactionary ideology than traditional Baptists. Evangelicals and Southern Baptists have a massive influence over American culture and politics, especially in the South and Midwest.
I seems to me it would be a fair statement to say that they are now more political than spiritual. Religions keep their faithful coming back by giving them transcendental experiences or other experiences that they become addicted to. Like the awe inspiring experiences you receive from being in a magnificent European cathedral, the cavernous chill and the sound of the Latin hymns. For many American churches this is simply the dopamine hit you get from being around people who reinforce your biases and hate the same people you do. I would say they actually do more harm than good spiritually. Anything that emboldens the ego is not a spiritual endeavor.
I don’t think the Republican party would stand a chance without the help it gets from the Evangelical/ Southern Baptist crowd. Many of these institutions are fully on board with the Republican platform. Just look at this video of Michelle Bachmann and televangelists holding up the GOP platform during prayer. Take a look at this GOP Jesus video while you’re at it.
This alliance is extremely ironic. To quote Kyle Kulinski from a different video: “Jesus makes Carl Marx look like Ann Coulter.” These people should be Muslims; that would be a much better fit, but instead they claim to follow Jesus, a hippie communist. Jesus was in favor of lifting up the poor. He viewed wealth as inherently immoral. He was unabashedly pro-immigration; he thought sojourners should be treated as guests. The Bible is also pro-abortion. It is safe to say that Jesus would be appalled by the GOP platform. I think most people are probably familiar with this Gandhi quote.
This begs the question: can these people accurately be called Christians when they have so emphatically rejected the teachings of Christ? I don’t think so. This is an example of a national religion. We could call it ‘Americanism’ or something like that.
Other, more traditional, Christians around the world are starting to take note. The pope has been a vocal opponent of the American right, and the Catholic church in Latin America has, in many cases, been a defender of human rights and liberal values.
Rastafarianism is a uniquely Jamaican sect. It started as a part of the Pan-Africa movement, thus the colors green, yellow and red, but only really stuck in that island. It’s lingo is riddled with Patois words.
Another nationalist Christian outlier can be found in Armenia. It is known is the Armenian Apostolic Church (not to be confused with Arminianism). It claims a direct link with the biblical Noah who they believe landed on the nearby Mt. Ararat. Although this is impossible as the base of Ararat was never at sea level.
Many other counties including England, Russia, Greece and more have their own branches of Christianity. Though, as far as I know, none are quite as politicized and unchristian as ‘Americanism.’
Buddhism has existed in Cambodia for at least 1,500 years, entering the culture via Indian merchants. The national religion tolerates a reverence for Hindu deities, which is common throughout the Buddhist world.
In its current state, the characteristics that are perceivable by the casual observer are ancestor worship, paranoia over ghosts and demonic possession, a simplistic view of ‘merit’ that is mostly obtained through donations of food, drink and money, and a great respect for monks so that almost no ceremony is legitimate without their presence.
While ghosts play an integral role in the Buddha’s teachings, the Cambodian obsession almost certainly did not originate from readings of the ancient scriptures. I can say this with confidence because almost no one reads scriptures. Though it has been translated into Khmer, the Pali Canon is not a feature of the average household. In fact, if you were seen reading it, you would be viewed as rather odd. The same is true for any non-monk seen meditating. Children are taught mindfulness through the encouragement of detachment from physical objects and past events, not through meditative exercises.
Overall, most religious practices are far from people’s minds unless it is a holiday or ceremony. The only thing most people keep up with on a daily basis is lighting incense and giving fruit to ancestors and to please the local spirits. I believe this is a tradition that predates, or at least developed separate from, Buddhism, as I don’t see it stressed in much literature. It seems to be slightly less common in surrounding Theravada countries. People only consult monks on special occasions and holidays; they are viewed as bringing good luck.
Most people say they believe in reincarnation when asked, and I’ve met a few who can remember past lives. Most people say they believe in Karma, though many don’t act as if they do. The same could be said for the practitioners of most religions; their actions betray their true feelings.
As for what goes on inside pagodas is anyone’s guess. They probably each have their own cultures, and it is impolite for the unordained to pry. Becoming a monk for a short time is an admirable life choice and commonly done by young men and people in mourning. I would say a little under half of males do so at some point in their life. It is much less common for women to become nuns and pretty much only widows do it. All-in-all, I would say the Sangha (monkhood) is very similar to other Buddhist communities. I frequently see monks handling money and wearing shoes, both of which are supposed to be forbidden.
Local shamans, fortune tellers, astrologers, and healers are around, but fewer than before. They seem to coexist peacefully with the Sangha, a far cry from the adversarial relationship they have traditionally suffered under with the Christian clergy.
Some form of Buddhism does exist in Cambodia, which is more than we can say for anywhere in East Asia, where it is pretty much dead.
You can read scriptures. You can adopt rituals and honor a higher power within the framework of a system developed long ago and far away. But we can’t divorce that from your own cultural baggage. I think it is a legitimate question to ask whether or not people claim to be following a specific religion really are; obviously we need to take it on a case-by-case basis. I’ll declare the Cambodians as real Buddhists, although they aren’t exactly what the Buddha imagined his followers to be. I think many (though possibly not most) American Catholics and Episcopalians may be real Christians, but your average Protestants is fooling themselves. I guess, in the end, it doesn’t really matter what you call yourself; just worship how you see fit.