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.

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.