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 “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.