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?

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.

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.