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?

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.


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