Hinduism as a foil

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.

Want to reform Asian Sanghas? Support your own

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.

Interesting references:

From a cartoonist

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.

“Western” Buddhism’s insistence on political orientation is not new

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.


Stūpas hold endless fascination for me.  They are constructions with no purpose other than religious significance. Some representations are tiny, and can be placed on your desk.  Some are among the largest constructions of the ancient world. Jetavanārāmaya Stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, built with over 93 million bricks, was one of the largest structures of the ancient world, the largest after the pyramids. 

Jetavanārāmaya Stupa in Anuradhapura (photos by the blogger). For scale, the seated Buddha in the image (yellow figure seen past the middle pillar, is life-size)
A nāga image at Jetavanārāmaya

They have different names and different shapes and styles, depending on the region. They may be called zedi (Myanmar), chorten (Tibet), chedi (Thailand), dagoba (Sri Lanka) and their counterparts found from Japan, Korea and Mongolia to Vietnam, Cambodia and India.

Some of them are said to hold relics of the Buddha himself. In many cases, they have some kind of a treasure in them, not necessarily of material value, but a reliquary nevertheless.

While these are the current interpretations by tradition, some believe that historically, they originated as burial mounds for important figures, common in the first millennium BCE in a large part of the world, from Phoenicia, across the fertile crescent, into Persia, Afghanistan and India and perhaps some other areas. The samaṇas (the Buddha was one) might have also used such structures before the Buddhist era began.

The shape itself, apart from the significance that various traditions attach to it, seems very calming and pleasing to me.  I’m not sure why, but the image of numerous stūpas passing through the mind as we go into the new year feels good.  Another such image that I find universally calming is the image of a person in meditation. It doesn’t have to be the image of the Buddha or any other famous person of any tradition.  The image of any woman or man in meditation or prayer is something pleasant – perhaps the stillness and non-threatening nature of the image is what attracts us. Which makes me feel – is it the agitated mind (of others, our own) what we really fear?

 Perhaps a New Year’s resolution-ish thing for me would be to share a little bit about some of the great stūpas and pagodas that I’ve had the good fortune to visit or hope to see some day.

Among the prominent ones, Ruwanwelisaya, the Great Wild Goose Pagoda, Bodhnath and Swayambhunath, Abhayagiri and Shwedagon Phaya.

The word “westerner”

Going back to the frequent use of the word “westerners” and “western” in American Buddhist circles, I have to always wonder what exactly the word means. I’ve already discussed some of it here. But today, I wanted to just look at the history of this word and the senses in which it’s been used in the past.

Sense A: Post World War II, as the Cold War was getting started, a new definition of “the West” was taking shape – it represented a military alliance – and this west was a concept shaped by the US. It stood in opposition to the Eastern Block of nations led by the Communist USSR. This distinction was not by skin color but more along politics and culture – Western Europe, USA and allies like CAN, AUS and NZL. It was a perfectly acceptable term in polite society.

Sense B: But prior to that, in the 19th century and upto the World Wars, as European colonial regimes observed cultures, usually of their colonies and studied them, colonial scholarship produced a clear “us” and “them”, the westerners and the “orientals” (no longer an acceptable term in polite American discourse).

Much of this scholarship also sought to establish the superiority of the west in racial terms, introduced words like “caucasian”, established that “logic” and “linear thinking” and “science/technology” as originated in the West, while it conceded/asserted that some kind of “spiritual” endeavors was the realm of the East. Often the studies were alongside religious studies by Christian missionaries/priests whose intention it was to learn enough about the religions of the east like Hinduism and Buddhism so as to be able to compare them unfavorably to Christianity.

The meaning that is in vogue these days among American Buddhists seems closer to sense B (minus any claims about racial differences or even a mention of race) as evidenced by the fact that Polish, Yugoslav, Russian, Romanian Buddhists are western Buddhists under the prevalent nomenclature. So we clearly don’t mean former NATO countries, but white/European countries.

Some will argue that this is not the case at all – the term means a person of European cultural heritage – and not race. So, they would argue that Black people in the US, for example whose cultural life may have been shaped by their American experience solely (which in turn is shaped at least in large part by a European heritage) and not by African culture would be westerners and therefore it’s fine as nomenclature. In effect, that this is a geographical term – all people in “the West” are westerners. But is that an honest line of argument?

Here are a few questions for pondering:

  • Do you think of Mexicans of largely indigenous blood, but maybe Spanish-descended culture, when you use the word ‘westerner’? What about non-white people of South America?
  • What about the Americans who have immigrated from Africa in the last few decades? They are definitely not eastern. Do they fall under your use of the word ‘western’, though?
  • And of course, Asian Americans – westerners or easterners? Clearly, there was Buddhism in the West from the 19th century onwards, long before “Western Buddhism” of the westerners came into existence in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I can’t think of a clearer demonstration of the fact that in Buddhist discourse, Asian Americans are not considered westerners.

Just know that the sense in which Buddhist circles use the word is as the opposite of a word that is no longer okay to even say.

As I mentioned in this post, go to any Asian American Buddhist community and tell me if the teacher uses words like “we westerners” in their teaching. If they don’t, one has to wonder why they don’t consider themselves included in by the word. Is it enough to just insist that all Americans would feel included if we say “in our western culture/upbringing/way of thinking”? So why is it a term that enjoys such popularity in certain other Buddhist circles?

Where can I find the Buddha?

Why, everywhere, of course! I mean evvvvverywhere. I’m speaking about images of the Buddha here.

You can expect to find him represented in a lot of the usual places – shrines and walls of people’s houses (the purpose is similar). But then also in some places you don’t expect, like billboards. Then there are some that can be quite disturbing to people who hold an image of the Buddha as sacred (and they number in the hundreds of millions too). For example, on this trash can, seen on Telegraph avenue in Berkeley, California.

Another common place to find Buddhas images in countries not traditionally Buddhist is the bathroom – unimaginable in a Buddhist culture.

I can see why people do this: In a century that saw bathrooms go from a place you want to spend the least time in, to a trendy, cool part of the house, it’s natural to want a peaceful setting. And there are few sights as calming to behold as a person sitting in meditation. However, can’t one be a little sensitive to those who view a buddha rūpa as more than more decoration? Whatever, one does in their house, at least avoid such bathroom decorations in public places where such people might have to come upon them, like in restaurants and spas?

Btw, it can be go beyond space decoration, as this toilet seat shows.

I have seen a Buddha head holding up shoes for display in a shoe store in California. Numerous images of the Buddha on shoes, like this one. All unimaginable in traditionally Buddhist countries. There have been some concerns about similar use of images of the Hindu deity Ganesha on toilet seats.

This has been discussed previously in many corners of the ‘net, such as on this thread. Many have pointed out – in a Western country, would you encounter a sacred symbol from Christianity, Islam or Judaism in a toilet? Then why so many Buddhas and the occasional Ganesha. Of course, on these threads, you will also find several people claiming that the Buddha himself would not be offended and that people objecting to this don’t really understand the “real” teaching of the Buddha. And that whole ball of string about “you are confusing Buddhism with a religion” etc. and a repetition of the supercilious view that Buddhists from Buddhist cultures don’t really understand the Buddha’s teachings – and their objections arise from such ignorance.

What a strawman argument, the one about the Buddha being offended! As if anyone said the Buddha could be hurt by this…the point always was…are you being disrespectful to Buddhists. Furthermore, there are accusations of intolerance aimed at those who aren’t chill about this – a bit ironic.

Oh, somewhere in this gamut, are gardens. In some cases, they are mere garden decorations, in others, they are outdoor shrines, tended with respect…Just know this – the practice of religious heads as decorative items in western gardens began in colonial times, which colonial officials in Asia bringing priceless art works and broken heads, the heritage of the people of the colonies, back home to Europe to display – not out of any reverence for the deity, but as decorative pieces and proof of the travels and worldliness of the “owner”.


Inside the Wonder House: Buddhist Art and the West, In Curators of the Buddha, edited by Donald Lopez. University of Chicago, 1995.

Other related reading.

The Buddhist Icon and the Modern Gaze, Critical Inquiry, Vol 24, No 3

The power of truth and nonviolence

A good bit of the story of Aṅgulimāla is told in the pāli canon in the Aṅgulimāla Sutta (MN 86). A small part of this sutta, a single verse, is often chanted as a protection.  The Elder Ahiṃsaka (Aṅgulimāla) is something like a patron saint of childbirth.  His story of becoming a bloodthirsty killer and then redeeming himself by becoming a monk and living the holy life is a rich starting point for various explorations – on causes and conditions, the ripening of karma even on one who has attained nibbāna, how one can be set on a destructive path by one’s own teacher, how excellence can engender jealousy, how one can be blinded by fervor of belief or a slavish sense of duty to carry out the most heinous of crimes and turn on even the ones who have been the most loving figures in one’s life, restorative/transformative justice, the power of love/courage and wisdom to subdue what even the most powerful weapons cannot.

In this post, however, I wish to focus narrowly on the immediate context of the paritta. One day, on alms round, the reformed and gentle monk Ahiṃsaka, whose name translates literally to “the non-violent one”, came across a woman undergoing the pain of a breech birth (feet-first birth) and as he was moved by her suffering, the thought arose in him – ‘How afflicted are living beings! How afflicted are living beings!’*

After discussion, the Buddha asked him to go and tell the woman –

Ever since I was born in the noble birth, sister, I don’t recall having intentionally taken the life of a living creature. By this truth, may both you and your baby be safe.

The story goes on to say that the woman and her baby came out of the childbirth safe and well and the birth became easeful.

I write this post to highlight two things about this very short verse.

  • The enormous task of not killing any living creature. One who is really serious about the first precept will find how hard the task actually is. If one expands the meaning of avoiding intentional killing as avoiding activities where one might end up killing a living being (cleaning, walking without being too careful not to crush creatures which could easily have been seen, drowning creatures as collateral damage),  it is a mighty hard task.   This is significantly harder in a rural/wild setting. Not having cruel intentions is not enough.  It requires care and consideration and a lot of continuous mindfulness to keep just this precept that many of us assume is something that we obviously don’t violate. And to not have ever done that is quite an achievement – one that the Buddha considered quite powerful.
  • The respect for the miraculous power of truth in the mythology/allusions of the time/place. There are several stories in various Indian traditions of a truthful statement having actual force to cause an effect in the physical world. In this case, a safe childbirth.  In other instances, people being unaffected by fire because of the truth of some fact or the other.  Not that society at any time or place was/is entirely truthful in practice, I am referring to the power attributed to the ideal in the common reference system of the teacher and the taught. 


  1. Apart from being recited to pregnant women, this paritta (chant of protection) is also recited as a matter of routine on Fridays in many countries.
  2. Some chants frame the paritta itself with a description of the protective power of this paritta in this way – even the water used to wash the seat of one who has chanted this paritta can ward off all danger/trouble!
  3. The line here (kilissanti vata bho sattā) would be literally ‘How defiled are living beings!’ and in this context of physical childbirth, perhaps better translated as ‘How tormented are living beings!’, I have chosen ‘afflicted’ as an attempt to bring together these two meanings.
  4. The sentence spoken to the woman concludes with the words “May your fetus be safe” (rather than baby), but I have chosen the word baby here as it accords with our normal way of speaking about something like this.

The image below is of the scene of Ven. Ahiṃsaka making his assertion of non-killing at the site of the childbirth by the great Burmese artist U Ba Kyi. In this conception, the monk makes the statement seated on a platform outside the home of the pregnant woman with the childbirth happening behind the screen. This and the painting at the top of this post of the Buddha’s first encounter with Angulimāla by the same artist are illustrations from The Illustrated History of Buddhism by Ashin Janakābhivaṃsa of Myanmar.


  1. Sutta Central for the text: https://suttacentral.net/mn86/pli/ms
  2. “Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala” (MN 86), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html 
  3. A translation of MN 86 by Venerable Sujato https://suttacentral.net/mn86/en/sujato 

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.