Baggage Buddhism

A suggested experiment for anyone who thinks that Asians come to the Dharma with “cultural baggage”: Try translating the word sīla as morality or mention morality to a Dharma audience in a “western sangha” and watch for the reaction.  Wait, wait, don’t call it morality, it’s better translated as ethics, you might hear. Well, why not morality, you ask. Explanations are forthcoming along the lines of how it has negative connotations from Christian conditioning/society, how some grandparent used to behave. Any signs of baggage there?

Other triggering terms are right/wrong as taught by the Buddha, translating someone’s address of the Buddha as “Lord”, translating pāpa as evil – people have objections to all of these. Same with the translation of the deva as god or hiri as shame.  Perhaps reflecting on these will reveal that everyone approaches the Dharma from their own context, baggage if you will. Shame, god, Lord, morality, right and wrong – these things exist in languages independent of Christianity/Abrahamic faiths and it’s a person’s conditioning that makes them evoke mythology of a certain religion when they hear these words.  

Furthermore, it’s a person’s particular experience with said faith/society that makes their reaction about the word negative or positive.  Someone inclined to Christianity might view the use of these words favorably while someone allergic to it has a different reaction. Both reactions are baggage specific to a Christianity-dominated society. Someone with a different religious upbringing (say, Hindu) but who also grows up with the English language, might have an altogether different reaction to these words.

As another example, translate dāna as ‘giving’, which is what it literally means rather than ‘generosity’, which is the preferred choice and see how that plays out.  Would it be easier to be called upon to cultivate a quality in our mind rather abstractly than to actually give stuff? 

This is a little like accents. It’s fairly frequent occurrence in some US cities, to hear people say “…Where are you from…you have an accent…”.  Mostly innocuous, and the meaning is quite clear to me, but I want to point out that this forgets the fact that the person asking has an accent too – an American accent! 

It is fine – come one, come all to the Dhamma, as you are, with your baggage. The Buddha’s teaching is truly universal.  One thing that’s not helpful, seeing another’s “baggage” while being blind to your own.

Asian Americans speak on the assumptions about them

Here’s an excellent article from the journal Religions, by Chenxing Han, author of the article We’re Not Who You Think We Are that I mentioned in the previous post. It features interviews with 30 young adult Asian American Buddhists as they share the type of issues faced and assumptions encountered that I described earlier.  Some of these matters are encountered also by AABs who aren’t quite young adults. The author has summarized the overarching themes revealed by the YAAABs in these interviews into an enlightening and enjoyable read. It includes discussion from 30 “first gen Buddhists” out of 89 interviews conducted by her in 2012-13. It includes interviews of YAABs who grew up in Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, multi-religious and non-religious families, from a variety of ethnicities – Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Iranian, Japanese, Korean, Nepali, Turkmen, and Vietnamese as well as from multi-racial families which include European, Central Asian and Latino ethnicities.

Abstract

This paper engages the perspectives of thirty young adult Asian American Buddhists (YAAABs) raised in non-Buddhist households. Grounded in semi-structured, one-on-one in-person and email interviews, my research reveals the family tensions and challenges of belonging faced by a group straddling multiple religious and cultural worlds. These young adults articulate their alienation from both predominantly white and predominantly Asian Buddhist communities in America. On the one hand, they express ambivalence over adopting the label of “convert” because of its Christian connotations as well as its associations with whiteness in the American Buddhist context. On the other hand, they lack the familiarity with Asian Buddhist cultures experienced by second- or multi-generation YAAABs who grew up in Buddhist families. In their nuanced responses to arguments that (1) American convert Buddhism is a non-Asian phenomenon, and (2) Asians in the West can only “revert” to Buddhism, these young adults assert the plurality and hybridity of their lived experiences as representative of all American Buddhists, rather than incidental characteristics of a fringe group within a white-dominated category

Why so swayed by visual appearance?

It is understood that there are two Buddhisms in this country.  One for the “people from traditionally Buddhist countries” (call it type A) and one for the “modern” rational, Westerners”, who “bring an intellectual curiosity to Buddhism as we do with everything” (call it type B). 

Never mind if these Asians or Asian Americans have never in their lives previously encountered Buddhism or if some of them might even be scientists. For some people, one look at their Asian face and there’s the illusion of knowing something about their practice – that maybe they are superstitious, that they were “raised Buddhist”, maybe follow some rites and rituals and most of all, don’t really know what the the Buddha actually taught, that their practice is “devotion based”, they are unquestioning etc. There are references to “cultural baggage” in the way Asian communities practice Buddhism. 

Two less-obvious areas  for this that I find quite jarring and to be based on misunderstandings are the veneration of monastics and dāna.

Is the special status of monastics important for the practice of the Dharma? I won’t debate this here except to acknowledge that this is at least a reasonable question to ask.  However, if you are one who thinks that veneration of monastics is irrelevant, is it necessary to ascribe the motives of the other side to be “blind following of Buddhist authority figures that is part of the Asian/(insert country name) culture”?

Or dāna.  I understand if some people are distrusting of giving money or material support as a means of supporting a religious org.  Maybe some people have had negative views from the relationship of certain spiritual leaders with wealth.  Maybe they don’t yet really understand how material support is essential to preserve the teachings.  In any case, there is no pressure on anyone to make dāna.  Then is it necessary to mock the dāna practiced by Asians? To call it blind faith, a practice based on superstition about a future life, to debase it as transactional just because the other person subscribes to the concept of good karma?  I have personally come across this condescending sentiment many times, including from people who are *huge beneficiaries* of this very generosity.

As I wonder about this kind of attitude towards Asians, an episode  comes to mind that not all people of color are the same in this context.  I was at a retreat where a young Latino man was on a scholarship (I appreciate the center for making that effort), for which he offered thanks to the center.  There was one other older latino man attending (let’s call him Edward).  Later, when we were all doing dishes in the kitchen as part of the chores, the young man remarked how grateful he was to see Edward there because it made him realize that someone like him, a person of color, could also practice meditation and that it’s not only for white people.  Most of the people present thought the remark made perfect sense but one person pointed out that it was never supposed to have been the preserve of people of European descent or some activity invented by them. In fact, until quite recently, the Dharma had always been practiced and preserved by “people of color”.

Yet the young man was not totally off.  He had deduced that the community is predominantly white and is led by white people.  People of color walk into that space with diffidence and uncertainty, wondering if they do belong.

The kind of people of color that had been practicing and preserving the Dharma are of course, not the kind that the community was making an outreach to.  There is membership focused outreach to African Americans and Latinos. There is sometimes also a welcoming, at least in lip service, of native American practices or Middle Eastern wisdom and not to mention any number of European philosophies, whereas the only practices to which I hear a discouragement or avoidance of is on something from a type A congregation and not really much outreach to Asian Americans for membership. It’s as if the type B communities are open to evolving in many different directions except the direction of the type A.  

This would all be kinda honest if type B were a community where Asian communities are explicitly excluded.  You know, just block type B groups out of your mind and move on.  But they claim to be communities which are inclusive, universal etc. When in reality, for all the show of trying hard to bring in people of color (and to some extent, they are trying – with races other than Asians), they really aren’t.  Type A communities are more clear and open about it: e.g., this is a Thai temple, you can expect to encounter Thai language and culture, foods, religious practices and monks ordained in Thailand.  Anyone is welcome to attend, but such and such is the practice here.  But type B does not claim to be a white-centric place, which is the reason we all wander in.  Then we are showered with messages of welcome and inclusion while the more subtle signs simultaneously tell us there is a certain mainstream here, that there is a certain dominant culture, that we can only belong if we integrate into this dominant culture.  The culture is not going to be flexible for us, it’s we who have to change.  In other words, no different from many workplaces or some other spheres of American life where white culture is dominant and normative and others are, well, fringe.  In other words, a place that operates with a rather narrow view of who is really American. 

Perhaps this concern about becoming a type A community is what drives the force field that many Asian Americans experience as they try to approach type B sanghas, where in paper, based on their own outlooks, they feel they might find a more natural spiritual home. 

Am I late to the discussion?  Maybe so given the attention that leaders like Larry Yang and several writers have pointed out have brought to the matter.  I also know that the leadership of several communities are making an effort to make changes to include people of color.

This is a hard post to write because things are not clear cut, provable.  On the one hand, I see some leaders in the predominantly European American Buddhist community* exert themselves to change the white dominance of the space and make it open to all and on the other hand, I see a number of members behaving as if to say “This is a white space” and not a space for all Americans by simply bringing their assumptions about other races right into the Dharma circle.  

In fact, as I write this, I find in my own mind a softening of the irritation in my own mind in the way Asians are perceived in type B sanghas.  On the one hand, I see type B sanghas partly defining themselves by saying what they are not – they are not Tibetan Buddhism or Thai Buddhism. They are not the Catholic church, not Christianity etc. Their distancing from Asian roots of the tradition is part of that negation. Unfortunately, that does not make them universalist and welcoming: they are not as clear-eyed about what they ARE permitting themselves to be – predominantly white, middle-class, politically liberal.  And people who can check off these three boxes of self-view have a different experience when they walk in and different ability to take ownership compared to the discomfort felt by those who don’t check all three.  But like many things – the fact that it’s not intentional is not sufficient reason to not wake up, acknowledge, understand, react, fix.

Writing about it is also hard because of being perceived as creating divisions where none exist. For example, I sent Funie Hsu’s and Chenxing Han’s articles to someone about this kind of thing in Dharma communities, only to get a reply that these articles are full of identity politics.  Well, that’s a bit interesting, isn’t it?  The nonchalant putting down of people of color is not identity politics, but speaking about it is? Right in the midst of a decade where people are occupying positions of high power by riding/inciting race-based identity, fools still see only the pointing out of such reliance on identity as “identity politics”.

Do I sound angry? Maybe, maybe not.  I’d like to be spared the burden of having to not sound angry. I’m stating the facts and experience for anyone who cares to see/hear what another’s experience has been.   Do I speak for all people of color? No, but I can speak for one – what that one has directly seen/heard. 

As to how all this appears to Asians, I plan to post a paper written by Chengxin Han that captures these feelings and experiences over a broader section than just one person’s.

* I called it European American Buddhist community above. I’m not sure what else to call type B since I’ve already expressed why I don’t want to call it:

a. “American Insight” (since the Burmese/Thai/Sri Lankan groups ARE American too).

b.“Convert Buddhism” (since many members consider Asian Americans who are also new to Buddhism to not belong there).

c.“Scientific/Intellectual” – because well, I totally reject that Asians are not that or that “westerners” have some kind of monopoly on that.

A suitable land

Among the many blessings listed by the Blessed One in the maṅgala sutta is “Living in a suitable land” (patirūpa desavāsa).  One can interpret that metaphorically (suitable conditions) or more literally as a suitable land.  This post is about the latter.

Indeed the land in which we live can profoundly impact our Dharma life.  Those who live in America can be fully satisfied that we are met with such conditions.  

Perhaps most important of all is the aspect of coming into contact with the teachings of the Blessed one. Tibetan Buddhism explains one of the requirements of this – just having a human life – with the analogy of the golden yoke.  But even having that, there is wide dispersion in the ease with which you can practice in a particular land.

The US constitution itself has ploughed the soil well

Through the establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the very first amendment, the constitution has expressly made sure nothing gets in the way of a new religion.  Buddhist practice in any meaningful numbers is an arrival in this land much after the state was established.   Yes, Christianity too was a new arrival in this land.  But let’s remember that it would have been far too easy for the religious faith of the new majority to have simply been made the law of the land.  This has happened time and again – is still prevalent in many countries and other religions are not given the same status or allowed to grow and be available to people who are willing to give it a try – and that includes countries where that privileged position is occupied by Buddhism. It was the nearly unique position of the founding generations, having tasted what religious persecution feels like in the old land that urged them to keep the new land free for all religions yet to arrive.

In fact, a similar environment of the free and (mostly) respectful, but vigorous exchange of ideas and room for new ones to arise is where the Dharma arose in the first place – India of the mid first millennium BCE.  Contrast that good fortune with lands where people of different religions are not allowed to pray together, not allowed to meditate at all and in some cases, even subject to intimidation and violence.  

I remember from about ten years ago, someone saying that Americans change religion as easily as changing breakfast cereal.  To some this might indicate a lack of depth of practice, but I think this idea that your religion is not assigned to you at birth or that you aren’t considered a rebel and troublemaker for adopting another has been helpful for the Dharma  to flower in many hearts.

It’s also a land that does not have disdain for religion – unlike some places and societies where irreligion is fashionable or required.

A land of immigrants

Being a land of immigration has been phenomenally helpful in the development of the Dharma. The beginnings of American Buddhism are certainly from communities in Asia who brought their practice with them.  Not only did they bring it along, they had to alter and adjust the practice to suit their American lives. The difficulties they faced were tremendous and are well covered – even touched upon in another post in this blog. 

The presence of teachers and communities

Some parts of the US, like the Bay Area, have phenomenal access to Dhamma communities.  Of course, as in any profession, not all who teach are actually teaching the Dharma and one has to choose wisely and all that, but imagine the difficulty of being in a land where there are none!  

There is also the blessing of being present in a fortunate time: This is a time when once you come into contact with an area of exploration, and that includes the Dhamma, you can learn more about it with a few finger taps, engage in discussion with other learners, ask questions and interact with teachers – whether in text, speech or even visually – right from your home!

The sight of monastics

I can’t even begin to tell you how inspiring it is for practice to see monastics living their lives, setting an ideal for the lay folk, just like in the time of the Buddha. Not only do I get to see this sight I never saw growing up, I also get to see a number of lay people interacting with them and many of these lay Buddhists are familiar with interacting with monks (per point above regarding immigration), providing them with support, knowing how to learn from them. I think of these lay folks as a freshman might regard a junior or senior – keenly watching for example.  

The willingness to go to the ends of the planet to learn more about what you think worthwhile

It’s argued that this quality of “going all out” is in abundance in America. I tend to agree.  A whole wave of Buddhist influence in North America is through people who either encountered the Dharma while in Asia or even expressly went there to spend years or decades learning with masters.  While I do have some irritation with the fact that in some minds, the teachings passed down by these students of the masters is considered  the real American Buddhism and “modern” while that brought by Asian students of the masters of the same previous generations is not… I am thankful for them too.  I came into contact with the Buddha’s teaching through just such channels.  They have greatly broadened the visibility of the Dharma to the population.  Another phenomenon that came with this wave: the prominence of lay teachers. 

The clear recognition of some forms of dukkha

Different cultures tend to be blind to different forms of dukkha they endure.  Whatever our society is blind to, one thing that’s fairly widely accepted in the US is that we’re pretty stressed, dissatisfied, and that some of our pursuits are quite exhausting.  Most agree on this, even if there is plenty of disagreement on whether such pursuits and dissatisfaction with the status quo are a good thing or bad.  And that’s great. It’s much harder for a person who does not recognize being in the grip of greed, hatred, delusion and suffering to realize they need the Dhamma.

With being in a leadership position in technology and innovation comes the unenviable burden  of being the first to meet new forms of dukkha. Social media is a fairly recent example, but there have been others for some time now, reminding us all the time that liberation from dukkha is a goal and undertaking of its own.  It’s not going to come by making progress on other matters of physical comfort or entertainment.  

Knowing that this is a home for the Dharma

Perhaps to me the most important aspect of living in America – in contrast to most other places is the feeling of being at home, regardless of where you come from. To cite a speech in 1988 from one of our former presidents, which is included in the little handbook that every naturalized American gets at their oath ceremony:

“America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said, ‘You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France to live and not become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany or Turkey, and you won’t become a German or a Turk.’ But then he added, ‘Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.’?”

This is as true for faiths and practices as it is for persons. Never mind that reality is lagging behind ideals. Never mind that there are many Americans who don’t subscribe to these ideals.  Or who think you’re not really an American at all.  But if *you* do subscribe to this ideal of the US and understand the country this way, then it should gladden your heart to know that in due time Buddhism will be as much of an American religion as any other. Remember that in some countries, the laws actually privilege some religions and can’t merely ignore those who will never accept the full status of your faith.  Buddhism will not be considered a foreign import any more than Christianity is considered a foreign religion in, say Europe.  This is in contrast to the pessimism that some hold regarding the future of Buddhism in America, that the Dharma is Anti-American, which I contend is based on some ideas of what the American ideal is and who Americans are and what American culture is. Unlike many other countries (and from the presidential quote above), there is no conceivable test for being a real American other than, well, legal citizenship.  Whatever I happen to believe or practice, is by definition, an American belief or practice. Not the American practice, but an American practice. Buddhist cultures in America are American cultures. 

Is this the only suitable land? Far from it, but we’re in great shape too!  Nor is much of what I say here unique to Buddhism – it’s true for all faiths, from Catholicism to Pastafarianism.

The universality of the Buddha’s teaching

The Buddha’s teaching did happen in one particular culture (that wasn’t East Asia, by the way), but the teaching was not directed to one culture or another.  The dukkha that was the central subject of the Buddha’s teaching is also independent of time. If you had a human birth in any era, his teaching applies to you.  In fact, that is the reason people all over the world and across thousands of years have found it appealing.  I find it remarkable when I read the stories and the teachings contained in them how similar human concerns are today and then, in totally different parts of the world, when the external context is hardly recognizable. I contend that no part of the Buddha’s core teaching needs to be changed and modified to suit any culture. Practices, rituals – yes, these have been made to suit the situation, but in the case of a sangha that intends and claims to not deal with rituals, there is no particular need to differentiate the east and the west.   

To reconcile the difference in the cultural  context of the seeker and the cultural context of the ancient teacher it is sufficient to gain some historical context of the Buddha to understand events in his life. Let me make an analogy with Christianity.  There are Christians in the Philippines, Korea, England, Spain, South Africa, Brazil and, China and Sweden. But they all learn the story of Jesus’s life set in the Middle East, without having to change anything. Pictorial depictions and rites have taken on lots of flavors. For example, in Europe, Jesus and Mary are often represented as white people. 

My purpose in writing this is to challenge the notion which is sometimes brought out as the prime reason why “our Dharma” needs to be different from “their Dharma” which has a different cultural context. Let’s consider the versions of practice found in the East Asian countries or the Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam etc.  Many works of art show the Buddha looking more or less like a person from their own country.   Artistic depictions of royal figures like Prasenajit (Pasenadi), Mallika, Ajātaśatru (Ajatasattu), Bimbisara etc show them dressed in local royal finery.  

However, when we look at the local teachers show the exhortation of the Buddha about the perfections to be cultivated by the practitioner: Ten paramī in the case of Theravada – dāna (giving), sīla (conduct/morality/ethics), nekhamma  (renunciation), pañña (wisdom), viriya(effort), khanti (patient endurance), sacca (truthfulness), adiṭṭhāna (determination), mettā (goodwill),   upekkhā(equanimity) or 6 pāramitā in the case of Mahayana – dāna, śīla, kṣānti ,vīrya, dhyāna (concentration/contemplation), prajñā.  These core teachings are not altered in any of these to “suit our culture”.  The difference in the two lists above is because of the difference in schools and not of the new host cultures.   

A particular mention is owed here to the law of karma – a concept that existed long before the Buddha, but to which the Buddha gave his unique meaning. Many teachers have explained how this is central to the Buddhas’ teaching.  Getting rid of this idea makes it quite hard to make sense of his teaching. I’m not going to talk here what karma really means – that’s an involved debate that scholars have had over the ages and about which there is copious literature.  Just urging everyone to look into understanding it and not reject it as something irrelevant to your cultural context.  Imagine if it were “true” – it doesn’t matter whether I know it or not, it applies to me.  Just as (to use a common analogy), I cannot escape the effects of gravity by refusing to believe in it or not hearing of it at all.  Or, permit me to use a religious analogy –  if the ideas of sin and virtue in Abrahamic faiths are true, I couldn’t just escape their effects by saying this doesn’t come from my culture or that I don’t believe it.

Again, I point to Christians in all Asian countries.  Theirs is not a distinct, not-quite-there Christianity.  It’s not uncommon to see Mary, mother of Christ dressed in local clothing in depictions, but you will never find any teaching of Christianity dropped because “it’s not suitable for our culture”. This is as true for old strains of Christianity that long predate Christianity in parts of Europe (St.Thomas Christians in India, e.g.) as it is for Christianity brought by missionaries who accompanied the European colonization. Their previous cultures do not have ideas of angels, satan, a second coming, all the dead being raised again then and Christian notions of a permanent selection of a soul for heaven or hell, but they accept the mythology as a fine frame in which the teaching is set. Likewise, Greece and many Nordic countries and other European countries had their own complex mythologies before the middle Eastern mythological setting for Christianity arrived.  And Christianity is openly recognized as a foreign arrival. They did not feel the need to reject all that.  They simply learned more about the prevailing beliefs and mythology in the time and place of Jesus’s life to understand his context better.  

There has always been tension within each of these communities as to whether this mythology is to be taken literally, whether it is believable, some totally rejecting the religion, some accepting it entirely and some giving non-literal interpretations to make it palatable to certain people.  But what I wish to point out is that the rejection was not on cultural grounds.  It was not because “that stuff is fine for them, but does not apply to our culture”. Same for the precepts.

I submit that it is just as possible to understand the Buddha’s Dharma as it was taught by learning more about the culture then and the mythology of the time and place.  But it is essential to understand the purpose of one’s practice – benefit to oneself and others – and from that, be able to note what is a teaching and what is a setting – and then practice, learn and teach all that constitutes the teaching.  The Buddha was quite a minimalist, never teaching more than what was necessary.  Another, starker way of stating the same thing – drop parts of the teaching and the Dharma is incomplete. 

I also find it a bit strange to see the opposite end of the spectrum – “this is the Buddhist cosmology, take it or leave it.  If you don’t believe in it, it is not Buddhism.”, but I don’t really hang out in circles where this is a big thing – hence not writing much about it.  

I’ll leave you with a funny image I saw about the depiction matter mentioned above.