Into the West a Look at Western Buddhism

After a conversation with a friend, I got sent down a rabbit hole. I do not pretend I have the answers though I have sought them through various voices. I have spent countless hours reading through articles, blog posts, and other social media trying to track down what is “White Buddhism” or even “Western Buddhism.” It is a struggle to put into words about the commercialization and the deluge of Buddhism into the West (Europe to America). It is a struggle in the light to of understanding appropriation and white privilege.  By no means am I the final voice but I am going to attempt to remain thoughtful as I give voice to this topic of Buddhism and appropriation.

I never really thought much of the commercialization of Buddhism when I first got involved a little over a decade ago. I was just grateful that I found a religion that gave voice to my own thoughts. I found a place in Buddhism where I could not with Christianity. I even considered for a time seeking to become a nun though I have changed my mind since then. My understanding of Buddhism has deepened as well.

Still, I remember when someone messaged me about a Buddha statue in someone’s garden. They were not Buddhist and neither was the person who had the garden. They were offended that the garden owner would have a religious statue there. At that time it really had not touched me and I sort of shrugged it off. I am still not offended but I have become to see that our commercialization of Buddhism makes our exposure only skin deep at times. We sometimes take from it but do not dive into the very depths. We do not have any context or that we distance ourselves from the origins. There are even cases where people draw on authority as “heirs” and abuse it or act superior. No, I do not want to hear the “not all people” argument here.

I am not saying that “American Buddhism” is bad or that all white Buddhists are bad. This is a complex issue with many nuances. For one we can look at the diffusion of Buddhism from its point of origination, somewhere in India. As it has progressed eastwards through Sri Lanka, Thailand, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, China, Japan, and other countries. Many various traditions or schools have emerged and adapted to these various cultures. Each new school of thought has added to teachings and used certain terms in way that are different from the other schools.

On top of that I would really urge to think about the Buddha’s message. The Buddha did not in the end gatekeep and I am referring more specifically to the decision of letting women become nuns. Buddha made no distinctions between caste, race, culture, or gender. His teachings are truly for everyone. What would Buddha want? That is truly a loaded question.

There is another powerful figure in Buddhism and that is the Dalai Lama. There is certainly an encouragement to embrace and preserve Tibetan Buddhism from Dalai Lama and other traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Despite this, the Dalai Lama once said, “I don’t want to convert people to Buddhism — all major religions, when understood properly, have the same potential for good.” He had said this in different ways and I have come to see this as well as I spend more time with the Bible. The Dalai Lama still encourages people to learn from Buddhism such as in the book The Leader’s Way wrote that both business and Buddhism attach importance to happiness and making the right decisions, and a company without “happy employees, customers and shareholders will ultimately fail.” Buddhism, science, and psychology often interact. Studies have revealed the benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices. There is encouragement on both sides to work together.

Perhaps what I really should point out is that why do we not look at the immigrants from these cultures? Why do not we look to those who have practiced for generations here living in America and other Western countries? “White Buddhism” has become divorced despite the struggles for diversity and inclusiveness. This “Western Buddhism” certainly has a way of emerging as cult-like at times and even hiding abuse and racism behind a smiling face.

Buddhism is incredibly popular and enjoys a very positive viewpoint in general. Most people would recognize the Dalai Lama than Yehuda Krinsky an incredibly influential Rabbi in America. In some ways it is not surprise it has become popular. It is the new fad, a “Buddha diet” to try and patch the wounds in our lives. It is something we can latch on because it is practical, rational, and analytical. It calls for us to question everything. You do not have to suspend logic to believe in it period. There are many other reasons why white people are attracted to Buddhism.

In the words of Bhikkhu Bodhi from “Climbing to the Top of the Mountain” an interview with Bhikkhu Bodhi at the Bodhi Monastery in USA. Insight Journal, Fall 2002:

“It is not difficult to understand why Buddhism should appeal to Americans at this particular junction of our history. Theistic religions have lost their hold on the minds of many educated Americans and this has opened up a deep spiritual vacuum that needs to be filled. For many, materialistic values are profoundly unsatisfying, and Buddhism offers a spiritual teaching that fits the bill. It is rational, experiential, practical, and personally verifiable. It brings concrete benefits that can be realized in one’s own life; it propounds lofty ethics and an intellectually cogent philosophy. Also less auspiciously, it has an exotic air that attracts those fascinated by the mystical and esoteric.”

It is not hard to see the attraction.

Where does that leave us? I do not think it is wrong to become Buddhist. I do not think it is wrong to be influenced by Buddhism. There are certain parts of Buddhism like taking refuge in the Three Jewels that is part of Buddhism. This is not practicing Vajrayana unless you are under a teacher as it is initiation only.

Most importantly I believe it is important to have right intention and right understanding. It is important that we have the context of history of both positive, negative, and current events. (Myanmar anyone?) Approach with the respectful curiosity, learn, engage, and change. This is a living tradition after all one that enters culture and transforms it. I am not questioning the authenticity of Buddhism or advocating for converting to Buddhism. What I am questioning is, how is Buddhism transforming our culture? How do we continue to ensure that this is positive change that flows with the Buddha’s teachings? How do we make sure we do not impact others as we awaken to our own inner Buddha?

 


I have included various articles that I have read on this journey to understand and give voices to this issue. This is not all of the articles but it provides a good selection.

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