All that we see with our mind is colored by our view, just as all that we see with our eyes is tinted by the color of our glasses. It's impossible to not possess views. But do we at least know we have them? Do we see the color of our glasses?
Why is it that the most liberal towns and cities are the ones where it is hardest for me to find a bathroom? Aren’t they the places that profess the most compassion? Many will say “Restroom are for customers only/No public restrooms”. Some will have “restrooms out of order” signs permanently (clearly a lie since the employees do use something). Some even have no sign there is a restroom at all and if you ask them, they’ll even tell a customer, “Sorry, we don’t have public restrooms”. Restaurants where you have paid are an exception.
This is very different from most other towns in America where I can walk up to pretty much any place and find a restroom.
You know who I am grateful towards in this regard? Walmart, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Burger King, Albertson’s – these will always let me use a restroom. In addition, Walmart has made a commitment for decades now that if someone wants to park a car in their parking lot overnight and sleep there, they will not prevent that. I have taken them up on that once when there were no motel rooms available one night during a long road trip and the hotel rooms were way too expensive for me and the Mrs. We slept in our car at a Walmart lot in Paso Robles…and used their bathroom in the morning.
By quite a coincidence, these very companies are targets of liberals for vilification. What’s the deal? What do liberals have against me peeing?
Ever notice how Hinduism/Indian culture is brought up in American Buddhist circles in the context of Buddhism and India only while discussing some aspect of Buddhist belief that is not readily digestible or palatable to a mindset with “Western” cultural baggage?
For example, rebirth concepts, the presence of spirits like tree spirits, guardian spirits and anything else that feels uncomfortable can be addressed like this: “You see, the Buddha used this language because that was the culture of that time in India and he wanted them to be able to understand the teaching” .
Has it occurred to minds that the Buddha himself could have held those beliefs? He was himself a product of that culture. He wasn’t born in the Yankee Stadium, you know?
On the other hand, concepts of karma, nirvana as well as practices of generosity, such as dāna supporting spiritual seekers of any tradition and more generally, a long-standing commitment/respect from society at large toward spiritual seekers – these are all practices of that time and place as well and very important in Buddhism. You don’t hear appreciation of India or the Hindu context.
Meanwhile, all ideas that we love about Buddhism are described by terms such as “so logical” or “compatible with Western/modern science” (though they too might be identical to Hindu beliefs/practices)
Not that in liberal Buddhist circles, there isn’t the standard bashing of “our culture” (America bad, Western culture bad) vs the “spiritual East”. I’m just talking about the invocation of Hinduism in particular, not “Eastern Spirituality” or “Eastern culture”.
You can also hear other comments born of people’s cultural baggage. For example, those of Christian backgrounds might say things like “Buddhism was a reformed version of Hinduism in the same way that Christianity was born out of a reformation of Judaism”. The implication here is that Hinduism and Judaism are the flawed primitive versions. These aren’t people who care for Christianity at all (they’re rejected their “religion of birth”), but the feeling of “mine” regarding Christianity is strong while they’re happy to throw Judaism also under the bus.
Those of Jewish background – you never hear them say this. Instead, they talk about the many similarities between Buddhism and Judaism.
This image is typical. I don’t know the author but see how the description of Hinduism is negative – shallow, all about caste and rituals and as a “religion” while Buddhism is a “way of life” focused on ethics and philosophy.
You can find the GDP of countries and continents and famous groups of countries on the World Bank’s (WB) website. Examples of groups are the Arab world, the EU, South Asia.
But you cannot find the GDP of Europe there or the GDP of Asia there. There is one of the European Union, but we know that not all countries in Europe are in the EU. There is South Asia, there is East Asia & the Pacific and there is South Asia.
In nominal dollars, Asia is already 37% of the world’s GDP (in PPP terms, it’s more than 50%).
What about Europe?
The EU is at only 18%. I have included the EEA (European Economic Area) and also the UK to arrive at 22%. Adding non-EEA countries and all of Russia into the mix, we get 25%. But you would never know from the World Bank’s site. I did the math by collecting the countries in Europe and adding them up
You can’t find a Europe bloc at the WB site. Instead, you find a category called “Europe and Central Asia”. I don’t know the rationale for considering Iceland and Tajikistan together. They are not really united by culture, religion or as a trade bloc. Unless…you went about finding the collection of countries of white skin color. But why is the World Bank choosing that as an aggregation criterion?
Asia, on the other hand…
Asia is a familiar concept to all. There is some question about whether Russia lies in Europe or Asia, with the Urals generally considered the boundary. The boundary between Asia and Africa is generally considered to be the Sinai peninsula (or Suez canal) in Egypt. So you could presumably, add up the Middle East, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia and South East Asia. to find the total for Asia. But that’s simply not possible because the Middle East is lumped with “Middle East and North Africa” (as if Iran, Israel and Morocco are in the same region – well, they are about the same if you have the European gaze, I guess. ). East Asia is lumped with “East Asia and Pacific” which includes New Zealand and Australia. And Central Asia is lumped with “Europe and Central Asia”. There is no separate ASEAN.
Where is Asia?
Where is the concept of Asia from this kind of map, with which children around the world get familiar by middle school? Not finding it, I had to again add it all up by individual countries (giving up all of Russia to Europe) to find that it has 37.1% of the world’s GDP.
I can’t help suspecting…
Europe was for a couple of centuries, the top economic power of the world, containing the bulk of the world’s GDP. For all of history before that, that status belonged to Asia. For a while, while under the colonial yoke of Europe, Asia’s GDP was indeed much smaller. The rule of thumb at the turn of the century was Europe ⅓ of the world’s GDP, the US has ⅓ and the remaining world has the last third. This is not true anymore.
As Europe is in decline, one way to avoid acknowledging the fact that it is slipping in prominence is simply to refuse to report these numbers, instead engaging in fancy footwork such as the ones above. Eventually, all white-enough countries can be declared European so that “and Central Asia” will not be a required adjustment at all.
That leaves one thinking and wondering about why the World Bank (an American dominated institution, unlike the European-dominated IMF) wants to think along these lines.
You can find the GDP of North America, but not South America. It’s “Latin America and the Carribean”. North America has 3 countries – US, Canada and Bermuda!!! Again, it’s somehow broken down by some white American view of what constitutes a region, not any data. For example, Mexico and Peru are nowhere in an enumeration of each other’s top trading partners, which are the US, China, Japan, Korea etc.
Here is the final table from my additions
% of 2020 GDP (84.7 trillion USD)
Australia & NZ
Total accounted for
Note: I’d started composing this post long before the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out, so not prompted by that, but more on that one later.
While this seems obvious, I have repeatedly come to the realization, each time with a small shock, that this is not so in the minds of many people. For example, consider retreats on some spiritual practice. People go there, spend a week or two doing something like movement exercises, eating delicious (and usually organic) food, hearing gentle music playing, resting well and otherwise engaging in self care. Overall, it is hoped, they don’t think about their usual worries of the outside world. And people are pretty sure about what’s not included – alcohol, social media activity and so on because those are obvious red flags that the whole world understands as “not spiritual”. Other “mind altering substances” though, can sometimes be included in certain of these putative spiritual endeavors.
Great stuff. But…all of the items I included above are about the body and the senses. And so they seem to contradict the name “spiritual”. Further, you’ll hear people say things like “There is a beautiful garden and a pond on the property…quite suited for meditation” or “Too much noise from the street outside the window of the place where I’m staying …really bad for meditation”. This kind of sentiment stems from the view that meditation has something to do with silence and a beautiful view – both are objects of the senses.
I was recently in a small lake town, known as a spiritual center in a not-so-wealthy country. The view is incredible. People from all over the world show up for spiritual retreats. These programs can be expensive. They include meditation/yoga, massage, splendid food, music and dance thrown in and in many cases, also social activities thrown in. Some centers do astrology, crystal healing and whatnot. Many of the lower level employees are the local people of the village. They serve food, clean etc and make their livelihood at these programs. It is not surprising that they cannot afford any of the programs, which cost a lot in terms of multiples of their pay, though not much from the perspective of the tourists’ countries. I have no criticism of the fact that some of these new-age things don’t make sense to me. It’s quite usual for a spiritual path to be incomprehensible to others. Rather, I note two things that are easy for me to comprehend.
One is what I mentioned earlier – a lot of what happens in the retreats is to address the senses – hotel resorts and cruise ships are only a little different – so why are these things such a big component of the offering of these purportedly “spiritual” places. Another reason to suspect that this isn’t really spirituality is that despite living in the midst of all this and being employed in this for decades, the local indigenous population is not persuaded to follow any of this. They mostly follow some form of Christianity brought to them by missionaries in the past or combine it with the practice of their ancestors. How can hundreds of thousands of people from the US and Europe be convinced that something is a spiritual exercise while not a single local person seems persuaded enough to take it up – is the claim that they are simply unable to comprehend the deep spirituality? Is the expense a valid explanation? – how spiritual can something be if there is an income/wealth level that you need for practicing it? I prefer the simpler explanation that these aren’t spiritual retreats at all and that they are merely corporeal, material and mundane experiences mislabelled.
I have thought long and hard about it and have not been able to understand why people in America and Europe are insistent (often angrily) that the Thai Sangha or some other Asian Sangha needs to change and promote equality of women in the religious context as it limiting women in corresponding spiritual circles in America/Europe. They have some choice words for the traditional Asian societies and their supposed gender discrimination (please note that what you see in the religious context is hardly representative of the rights of women in these societies at large – look closely at Myanmar, for example).
I am not for one moment thinking that it’s a bad idea or in any way support unequal treatment in any context. Just…why not set up our own Sanghas in our own countries to be as we like?
So why can’t this be done in America or anywhere else? Any monk who wants to support bhikkhuni ordination can do so if their monastery can still be supported by enough local people. Any bhikkhuni group can form a monastery if they can be supported by local people. Asian religious organizations that receive support from Asian people or mother temples in Asian societies have to behave in a manner that concords with what the people of those societies hold in high regard.
Ajahn Brahm’s famous example is useful to ponder. In relation to the Bhikkhuni ordination incident, for going against the rules of the Ajahn Chah tradition, he was expelled from that tradition. But please note that he is still a Buddhist monk! And he is widely respected and supported by the people.
But such ordination and community created in America would not have validity, you say. To which, I say validity comes from the faith of followers. Would you say that a pastor of the protestant church is not valid or that an Imam is not valid? It is true that from the perspective of the Catholic church, the entire world of protestants is not “valid”. But that’s not how protestants see it, is it? Or consider the example of the Greek orthodox priest who shouted “heretic!” at the Pope on his visit to Greece. A meaningful statement in his own bubble, but hardly meaningful in the Catholic world. All validity for a religious figure comes from the respect and regard of some lay people. So the question is – are there enough people in America/Europe willing to provide sufficient support to a Bhikkhuni Sangha or to monks who support such a Sangha? If there are, there will be such groups and if there aren’t.
I contend that the roadblock is more the lack of sufficient generosity and commitment in our society than the intransigence of another society. Mary Talbot of Tricycle summarizes that part quite neatly in this little paragraph from her article in the references below.
We may lack the ingrained, centuries-old cultural habit of supporting monastics, but nevertheless we need to put our money, and our hearts, where our mouths are. Plenty of us have jumped on the bhikkhuni ordination bandwagon, but the attentive generosity required to support a monastic community—support in perpetuity—is not yet keeping pace with our feminist, and humanist, enthusiasm.
As for those who claim they are agitating from the rights of Asian women … Asian women can take care of it themselves without your help, thank you. It may be news to some people that more Bhikkhuni ordination attempts happened in significant numbers by demand from Asian women, with the support of Asian male monastics before such events made their way to the Europe-descended world.
Am I oversimplifying the matter? Yes, I am, but only a little. I think it’s being overly complicated by those who express frustration with the Thai or Tibetan “central command”. If you think there is some example or argument about a local Sangha in America having ample local support from gender-equalists but not being able to operate in that way, please do leave that in the comments below.
Without spiritual practice, and even with considerable amounts of it, we all prefer feeling pleasant sensations and not unpleasant sensations and correspondingly, pleasant news over unpleasant news. However, there is also a preference for being the bearer of pleasant news and not that of the unpleasant.
This is less about pleasing one’s own five senses, but more about the sixth one (the mind), related to views about oneself, related to the constant quest to manipulate other minds to view oneself in a certain way.
Consider this example – We might know of someone in our family or organization who loves to jump ahead and be the first to hand out the goodies, the resources – be the one that delivers the good news etc, announce a promotion. The same person often hates to have the difficult conversation, ask the children to behave, bring news about layoffs in the company, send a fundraising email.
But also consider the broad example in the political field. The Left is known for its agenda – give out more benefits, even if it means raising taxes. The Right is known for its own agenda – lower taxes, even it means having to cut benefits. Now, everyone likes more benefits for themselves and everyone likes lower taxes on themselves. The difference in the two parties is just in which one they prioritize (and are willing to sacrifice the other). What is interesting is that it seems that when each party is in power, they are far more willing to give out goodies than do the unpleasant part. The Left is quick to announce (and implement) various spending measures – that tends to be their headline legislative achievement, but really drags its feet on raising taxes. The Right, on the other hand, bangs the drums about various tax cuts they quickly deliver and those are their flagship achievements. Cutting programs, if any, is done quietly*.
The thing is – this stuff doesn’t add up. Giving out the goodies (whichever one is preferred by either party) without the corresponding sacrifice leads to deficits. Both parties decry deficits, but they do so only when they are in the opposition (minority). When they have control of the government, they are too busy with goodie handouts and you would never hear a word about deficits.
They have two political solutions to that: One is to insist that the other side should be carrying out my agenda (the unpleasant part of it) when they are in power. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the Left cry while in minority about the yawning deficit and the cliff that is coming unless the ruling Right raises taxes. Likewise, the Right wants the ruling Left to cut benefits to make up for the benefits. This is most commonly seen with the Federal government asking the states of the opposite party to carry out the stinky part of the agenda.
The second political solution is more easily observed: It is to sell these ideas to the people by dividing them – most frequently on lines of racial identity, but here I will talk about economic identity. The Left’s sales pitch is “We will give you the benefits, but will not raise taxes on you. Instead, we’ll raise taxes on that section over there, the (evil) Rich. Vote for us”. The Right’s sales pitch, on the other hand, is, “We will lower your taxes, but don’t worry, the benefits cuts will not affect you. Instead, we will cut benefits on that group over there, the (lazy) Poor. Vote for us.
‘* – Only talking about the more moderate elements here. The extremes are more than happy to ignore the deficit entirely, have their goodies and gladly sacrifice the other leg (because the sacrifice will fall entirely on people who are outside of their own extreme base – people who they never had a chance with – landing a punch on them is no problem. If anything, a source of pride).
I got this from a post in the Black Buddhist Society’s Facebook page. Nobody in the group knew who had created it, so I cannot credit the artist. But I do want to post it here because it fits within the themes covered in other posts on this blog. I have also removed the title that was above the image.
This blog is not the first one to note that proclaiming that liberal politics is a natural consequence of Buddhadharma can only come from ignoring the presence of Asian Buddhist groups in America.
Here is an article from September 2008, just before the presidential election of that year, in Tricycle magazine. The article, which I’m assuming is an editorial since no author is named, started by noting how there is near unanimity in the “Western” Buddhist community and publications that the Democractic ticket is the one that aligns with Buddhadharma. The article notes that there are a number of registered Republicans Buddhists and that many of them are Asian-Americans.
One can only believe that Buddhists are naturally aligned with liberalism if no time has been spent among Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, Chinese, or other Asian-Americans…..At the same time, we have to be careful about stereotyping Asian-American Buddhism, a diverse phenomenon that also includes many Democrats and other liberals.
The article then goes on to talk about how the liberal position of convert Buddhists (their term, not mine) is perhaps not derived from the Dharma, but from their own origins.
When we look at the wider picture, the chorus of convert Buddhist support for liberals looks less like a religious position, and more like a class and ethnicity one. Most convert Buddhists already supported a liberal political orientation before they became involved with Buddhism, and convert Buddhism draws heavily from a section of the educated, white, middle-to-upper class demographic that supports liberal candidates regardless of whether the individual believers are Buddhist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or agnostic. Naturally such people are attracted to elements of Buddhism that seem to resonate with liberal values, but it is worth asking how much of this is an inherent liberal bias within Buddhism, and how much is the process of picking and choosing which selects only compatible parts of Buddhism and leaves aside other, central practices and views that are less supportive of liberal positions.
There is a brief discussion of the silencing of any other position in the convert Buddhist community:
Even within this demographic of convert Buddhism, there is reason to think that there are significant numbers of right-wing Buddhists who largely remain quiet about their views, perhaps from a feeling that they are actively silenced by the strident voices of their left-wing fellow practitioners…This should suggest that Republican convert Buddhists, a sizable minority, either do not have equal access to media to express their views, or feel intimidated into not making such expressions. The lack of a reasonable argument for Republican Buddhism, therefore, may not be because there is no such argument, but because liberal Buddhists create an environment wherein such sentiments are difficult to express.
Voting Buddhist, September 2008, Tricycle Magazine
The article closes with an appeal to try and bridge the gap rather than widening it in this North American Buddhist community already divided along lines of ethnicity and approach to practice. I can’t help noticing the mention of the fact (unnecessary to the argument) that the author’s own vote went to the Democratic candidate, pre-empting the aforementioned brickbats from flying as they certainly would if there is reason to doubt that the author might have voted otherwise.
The attitude I mentioned in the previous post towards American conservatives doesn’t seem unconnected to the attitude towards Asians and Asian Buddhism.
How is it that the plain fact that there are many American Buddhists who are politically conservative is simply missed by many? For example, I cite Miles William’s excellent blog post with data from 2016 presidential election (visualization of data originally from the Harvard Dataverse) when even many lifelong Republicans did not vote for the GOP nominee whom they could not stand. 24.3% of Buddhists voted for Republican candidate and 3.1% for the Libertarian one. In fact, among all non-Christian religions, the one with the highest fraction voting for the GOP-Libertarian combo was the Buddhist community in the US.
Why, then, does it seem like an oxymoron in some Buddhist circles? It seems that such a view can only be formed by isolating oneself from the other Buddhist circles that are Asian American. Williams goes on to show from the dataset that among the subgroups of Buddhists by race, the one that went most heavily for the GOP candidate was Asian. Some real mental gymnastics are required to refuse to see that many Buddhists are not liberal, though the majority are.
I have in the past referred to the disparagement of Asian Buddhists and Asian sanghas in the American Buddhist context by frequent reference to the “cultural baggage” of Asian Buddhism, mentions of superstition, “faith-based” and therefore not suitable for “us”. The solution then was to have a sangha fashioned and led by white people/teachers, for they alone are the suitable leaders as in any other sphere of American life. Of course, the word “white” would not ever be mentioned – “westerners” will suffice. Once a white-led sangha has been established, a liberal ethos is proclaimed, that the sangha is open and welcoming of all. To use the first person narrative for the thinking in the rest of this paragraph, it is somewhat like this — now that the sangha has been set up that is tailored exactly to my community’s tastes (this isn’t about country, within this very country, people grow up in communities with different upbringings and experiences – race, politics, wealth are not the sole differentiators, but they are important ones). You would be welcome if you can adjust your manner and background to fit into the set-up I have created. Never mind that the Asian congregations are also fully open to all and are also welcoming. However, there, the modes of operation of those congregations weren’t tailored by me. It is led by people who don’t look like me. I am the one who needs to adjust and learn a little bit. And that is unacceptable.
As mentioned in the last post though, the presence of political conservatives (social as well as economic) in many Asian countries provides a clear counterexample to the claim that to be Buddhist, one has to be politically liberal.
Now, there is a ready counter to that – which is to revert to the another thread of stereotyping – that perhaps those Buddhists in those countries don’t really understand the original Dharma. Although it was preserved with great effort by those very cultures for over a couple thousand years, it took “us” to arrive on the scene, with our “rational” and “analytical” thinking (that they apparently lack) to understand the true meaning. It’s convenient that to have a more consistent (if not necessarily true) view about the politics, a supercilious attitude towards the traditional Buddhist sanghas helps, along with that towards Christianity (Catholicism is a favorite and shockingly accepted punching bag in this community).
It’s perhaps also the motivation to frequently associate the “other” with something anti-humanist so one can feel secure that one had no option but to side with what one has already chosen and to argue that the Buddha’s teachings are best exemplified by whichever group happens to be the majority among Buddhists – for example to assume that conservatives are all homophobic or racist or lacking in compassion for the poor, just like the automatic assumption that an Asian Buddhist sangha is sexist and a hard place for women. How about the obviously contradictory data of women who are happy and content in those sanghas? That can also be explained away with stereotypes about Asian women! Another shocking stereotype that I have heard is that Asian sanghas more closely hew to orthodoxy and show greater deference to the monastic Sangha because Asians are “more obedient”. I don’t find it hard to imagine that if the American Buddhist community were dominated by political conservatives (as it is in some other countries), there would be frequent arguments about how liberals stand in violation of what the Buddha taught – with examples provided.
But I am just a blogger stating a pattern emerging before my eyes. I hope someone in the academic world would look more deeply and thoroughly into the connection between these two forms of othering and how distancing from the Asian sanghas is essential to maintain blindness to, and provide justification for the fact that the “American” sanghas continue to be white, liberal, middle-class social fora.
The other day, as I was describing some of the strange attitudes towards Asian Americans in “western” Buddhist circles, when a friend said (as many are quick to point out as soon as the conversation turns to race), that such elitism “probably exists towards poor or rural white people as well”.
Whatever the prompt for such a remark, there is truth to this. Much of what I have spoken about in some previous blog posts is how some in the largest demographic (white, middle class, politically liberal) use the Dharma circle to relish affirming to each other the superiority (moral, “scientific”, educational whatever) of their group over others – not in exactly those words, of course.
I have spoken of the condescension towards Asians and Asian sanghas. But the affirmation of identity doesn’t stop there. This is a crowd that looks down on others in the course of their regular lives – that’s rural folks, folks from the red parts of the state or the country, which is to say, the Midwest and the South, Christians and conservatives in general. When you live your life surrounding yourself with people who think like you, telling each other how shocked/disgusted you are with the “other”, how do you not bring that sentiment into the sangha too? And that is how it plays out. “Western” sanghas spend an inordinate amount of their time together telling each other about how bad the conservatives are and how their political position is the opposite of everything the Dharma teaches us.
If you were to become a member of one of these groups, you might conclude that the Buddha wanted you to vote for the Democrats (if not the most progressive wing of it), proclaim a stance against climate change (though not necessarily making any actual sacrifices for it, like eating less meat or having fewer children or pets, of course), oppose GMO, oppose Big Tech, Pharma and Wall Street, support various measures on health and housing and whatever else it is that is the current liberal political priority.
While none of these positions is really against Buddhist teachings, let me point out that both sides of the political spectrum in this very country have claimed that the teachings of Jesus really support their side. It is no different with Buddhist teachings. It’s just as possible to cite the Buddha to support either side of the debate. Let us note that in some countries – from Japan, to Thailand to Sri Lanka, there are plenty of Buddhists on the conservative side of the spectrum too. Here I use the word ‘conservative’ as in both senses of the word used in America, social and economic.
Here’s an effect of this: If you are politically conservative/Republican, you simply do not feel welcome in these “western” sanghas. It will be normal for you to hear people, both teachers and ordinary members, openly unload on conservative figures and conservative thought. Don’t dream about saying anything that any conservative’s position on anything is reasonable. The message is clear – only by being liberal can you be a good Buddhist.
I struggle to understand what exactly is the thinking behind this if you believe that the Dharma is a good thing for every human being. Who is unworthy of the Dharma? The poor and the rich, both have suffering, people of all cultures and races have dukkha. Young and old, prisoner and free, criminal and law-abiding, documented and undocumented, meat-eaters and vegetarians, all of us with all our varying abilities and histories have dukkha and can benefit greatly from the Dharma the Buddha taught us out of compassion for us. We should therefore make space for, and welcome, everyone. Except…the conservatives? People who work in tech? Landlords? People who may be on the chamber of commerce in your city?
I know this might well be the least agreeable of my posts here. Almost everyone will be quick to denounce an discrimination based on race (even those who might not actually be practicing what they preach), but welcoming conservatives into the sangha…not sure how many can be open to that. I mentioned attitude towards Asians in this same post because in my view, the two are connected, but I shall save that for the next post.
Note: I have used the word sangha here again in the commonly used (but not technically correct) sense – a Buddhist congregation, no reference to the monastic Sangha or the Noble Sangha is meant.