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.

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.

The “westerner” Dharma community

To elaborate on the last post, let me start with the frequent use of words “we westerners” or “in our western culture” by some Buddhist teachers in North America.  The teacher is sitting up in the teacher’s seat and s/he frequently talks about something like “given our western upbringing” without realizing (I hope it’s unintentional) that this term does not include everyone.

What is unclear is whom this word includes and whom it excludes.  People have differing opinions of the boundary, but one thing is clear: white folks definitely don’t have to wonder whether they are included. Others may have to.  And guess who is the most likely to have to wonder? The people whose heritage is from the very place that the speaker was trying to draw a contrast with – Asia.  So if the conversation and the community is about “us westerners”, Asians have to wonder.

How about using the word “we Americans” or “our (American) culture instead? This is a rather objective statement of nationality or the geography in which we operate.  Yeah, it makes sense that maybe an Asian master’s story of growing up playing with friends in the paddy fields, catching frogs together in Vietnam or Thailand is something that people in America cannot exactly relate with.  But then imagine if you talk about growing up with green bean casseroles, milkshakes, clam chowder etc – that might not be necessarily the experience of all your fellow Americans in the audience. Understand that if someone grew up in Chinatown or if their parents were cooking Japanese at home or sending them to Carnatic music lessons, it definitely wouldn’t fall under the speaker’s definition of a western upbringing, but it WAS an American upbringing  and it wasn’t necessarily a Buddhist one! 

If the impact on Asians isn’t intuitive yet, think about the opposite. Who is an easterner in the Buddhist context? 

To convince yourself even more that this is exclusionary and I’m not just imagining it, think about this – go to any traditional Chinese/Burmese/ Thai/Japanese/Vietnamese Buddhist congregation (a majority of members would be Americans – whether of 1st, 2nd, 3rd or greater generation). Would you expect to hear the Dharma teacher talk about “us westerners”? So why would an assembly that purports to be open to all these people use those words?

There is, in some Dharma circles, a subtle resistance to using American as a self-descriptor, preferring instead to use Westerner (more on that in another post), but folks, please be aware that we feel excluded.  Isn’t it amazing that the person may be thinking they’re being super inclusive using a term that includes Norwegians, Austrians and other non-Americans, but may make their own countrymen and countrywomen, sitting right next to them, feel excluded?

I can sort of understand and empathize with where it comes from.  A lot of those who did us the favor of bringing the teaching and setting up meditation communities spent years in Asia in the Cold War era. Some of them are heroes to me. Imagine you’re an American living in a culture where you are an outsider. There are fellow seekers from Europe, Australia etc (mostly white). You are distinct from the local population. The local population treats you all the same, you are white foreigners to them and distinct from themselves.  It’s natural that as you form friendships and connections, you want to self-describe using words that would include all of you. An identity as a westerner is more inclusive in that context than say, identifying primarily as British or Italian.  But now, decades after the teachers are back, when America’s demographic make up is quite different, as Americans of all races are seeking the teaching or are sought by communities, is it wise to embrace the term westerner and avoid the term American or North American in describing a collective “we”?

It shows up in translations too.  I have seen the words of several Thai, Burmese teachers translated into English, in books, Facebook or websites, with prefaces describing the translation work as “so that the teaching can be available to westerners”. I get it, people in traditionally Buddhist countries, of course, have  a certain familiarity with teachings that foreigners might not. Some amount of different explanation is needed for foreigners. But that is needed for all foreigners, not just westerners.  At the monastery in Myanmar that I know and love the most, the largest contingent of foreign meditators comes from Vietnam, the most supportive and enthusiastic community is from Malaysia, a large number comes from Korea. There are yogis from Japan and India, Indonesia. Some of these countries do not have any significant Buddhist population at all. And some of them have Buddhist traditions (Japan, Korea, for example), but of a flavor quite different from the country of the master whose work is being translated. For people from many Asian countries, the English translation is their sole access to the master’s teaching too, but they have to pick up the book and find the unnecessary commentary that it is for western students.

I haven’t yet touched upon the not so subtle putting down of Asian Buddhism in some of these circles, just talking in this post about how the inadvertent and insensitive use of certain language can be excluding of Asian Americans.   

Are Asians welcome in certain American Buddhist circles?

American Buddhists are racially pretty cool and inclusive, right? Or at least many individuals in Buddhist circles imagine themselves to be.   Yet, many Insight and Zen communities created in America which are purportedly open to all Americans end up being very white – a fact which sometimes prompts some reflection and embarrassment and to others, it’s just … normal.  I’ll speak more about the Insight community as it’s the style rooted in the strand of practice that I found myself the most attracted to and follow today. 

In an admirable step, many of these communities are actively trying to combat this with outreach to minorities – black and latino folks were told that they too can practice the Buddha’s teaching.  That didn’t quite do it as people still found it a rather white space and many minorities didn’t feel comfortable. Then, in centers that are retreat-focused, came the realization that it’s difficult to be in a predominantly white space if you’re living the legacy of slavery or colonial brutality, for example (we all are, regardless of which side of the perpetration your ancestors were on, but that’s a matter for another time). People of color retreats came up, many of which are taught by teachers of color. Further other issues were imagined/discovered – such as the fact that minority communities may not be able to afford fees – scholarships become available.  One center in New York City (with its retreat space upstate) provides free bus rides from the city to retreat location for people-of-color retreats. Social justice and activism itself is a focus area.

These measures have had some success, but the fact remains that these spaces are disproportionately white.  I wish to speak about the possible reasons for this. I notice the much more lukewarm enthusiasm for Asian Americans. Why? – I wonder.  Most spiritual organizations are happy to grow and Asian Americans seem like a natural constituency. For one, even if Asian American individuals themselves had nothing to do with Buddhism earlier, they are more likely than other groups to have come across some Buddhists in their life and are least likely to think they are stepping into something scary, weird and unknown. Many might even have had parents or grandparents who are Buddhist.

Yet, it seems that there is a feeling in some Insight communities that “our Buddhism” is different in some way.  That “we” follow our own thing. Making sure to stress that this is not the Buddhism of your family’s ancestry. This is “our” space. That stuff is “over there in those ethnocentric temples” (Thai, Burmese, Chinese etc).  There are many gestures, large and small, that sanghas (I use the term loosely here) do which eventually makes Asian Americans go away, go to some center more peopled either with those of their own ethnic make up or at least of other people who may not feel a sense of belonging or maybe lose enthusiasm for the Blessed One’s path altogether. 

I myself feel that there are few aspects of American life where I am made more aware of my race and color than in Buddhist circles. I realize that, to many white fellow Dharma practitioners, this is almost unbelievable. Spiritual circles are where people are at their best, right? How it is possible?

I contend that there are deeper causes for this than many realize – that holding POC sessions is not going to solve this.  This is one of the themes I shall explore in this blog. I shall also contend that some of the outreach attempts are counterproductive.

Practice in the time of nCOVID-19

Words of Dhamma inspiration from my teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya. Click this link to get the pdf document.

Questions addressed include:

Q: How can a person practice to maintain awareness and equanimity with all the fear, anxiety and uncertainty that Covid-19 has unleashed?

Q: Does the present extreme circumstance present any positive opportunities
for our practice?

Q: Why should we try to maintain continuous awareness of such mundane activities as getting out of bed, brushing our teeth, noticing which foot goes through a doorway first, which arm goes through a T-shirt first, and so on?

Q: I share a space with my partner, and we are around each other much more often than before. We both practice Dhamma, but being around each other so much is tense, like we are breathing down each other’s necks. What advice can you offer someone living in close proximity with a loved one during this lockdown?

Q: I have been unemployed and my job prospects now seem hopeless. I have a family to support and children to educate. I have been practicing awareness but I frequently can’t sleep at night due to panic and fear. How can I approach all of this with wisdom and equanimity?

Q: How does one clear tension from the mind?

And my favorite in this document is the answer to the following question

Q: Some experts say that about 70% of us will eventually get Covid-19. How should we practice if we get sick, or if we’re dying?

Here again, is the link to get the pdf document.

Will nothing be the same again?

Many of us fear the world will never go back to what it was before COVID-19 and to be prepared for that, i.e., that there is no going back.

That may well be the case, but it’s okay because it’s not as if there will be some new permanent mode of living post-COVID.  Things will be that way until the next big thing shoves everything aside and radically  changes everything again.  Incessant and huge changes are just the nature of things.  Just speaking from a US perspective – President Obama’s election changed “things forever” – then the Arab Spring changed everything “forever” and Brexit changed things again and the world was never going to be the same gain. Then the 2016 elections made it feel like Obama’s times were normal and now everything is changed forever.  Then stunners started happening on a daily basis and the trade war with China was going to change things forever, fires in California, the Amazon and elsewhere changed things beyond recognition and the nuclear standoff with another country was a whole new reality whose impact was supposed to be for 10 years… until the virus came along.  The list of every unprecedented thing positive, negative and ugly that happened in the last few years is long.

Some even fade from memory of those who didn’t experience it directly. The unprecedented blackout during the Camp fire may not be on many minds soon. The virus too is unprecedented, but I can’t help feeling that it’s just that way until the next crisis and is the world really that much different from the “end of times” in 2003 when a big war was about to be launched? Many good things have happened, racism and various unsavory sentiments have reared their head time and again, amazing cures have emerged, much brutality has happened. It is hard to say in many dimensions, whether the world has gotten better or worse since, say 2003.

We do acknowledge this in terms like the new normal – except it’s said tinged with a sense of sadness.

Many of these thoughts arise because of the illusion that something or the other was not going to change in the first place. As if the EU, for example, were an exception to this – the union wasn’t born a mere 30 years ago. But of course, everything that ever came into existence is impermanent, is subject to change, deterioration and eventually ceasing to exist. The Buddha called this anicca. The simile of the desert applies to the world – always changing, but in many characteristics, the same. Rather that worry about the new normal, we can recognize frequent arrival of drastic change as it has always happened. Change is the Old Normal. The Forever Normal.

Back to the virus – I do see that everyone washes hands a lot better and am delighted by that.  Against all better sense, I hope that this is a change that is for good. Of course, I’m hoping for the quick discovery of vaccine/cure and do think it’s a serious situation, just not buying into the whole “game-changer” narrative.