notes on religion and cultural appropriation: the case of US Buddhism

(With several colleagues, I will be teaching a pilot course on religious pluralism and civic life this fall. This post is one of several that reflect my pre-reading and thinking.)

In 1998, in a generally enthusiastic overview of Buddhism in the USA, Charles S. Prebish noted the “bifurcation” between Buddhism as the “native religion of a significant number of Asian immigrants” and “an ever-increasing group of (mostly) Euro-Americans who [have] embraced Buddhism primarily out of intellectual attraction and interest in spiritual practice.” He described the latter group as urban, highly educated, and “even elite in its lifestyle orientation”–and growing very rapidly.

More than 20 years later, the tensions seem more evident. Rev. Christina Moon critically assesses “the erasure of Asian cultures, and of Asian and Asian American people, in mainstream Western Buddhism.” She writes:

Over the fifteen years before coming to Chozen-ji [a temple and monastery founded by Asian Americans], I sat with more than a dozen different Buddhist communities where I was often the only Asian and sometimes one of the only non-white people in attendance. When non-Asian Buddhists (particularly at American Zen centers) wore Japanese clothes, bowed to me theatrically, referred to me as “Cristina-san”, responded to requests in English with “Hai!”, and expressed rigid attachment to the technical accuracy of certain Japanese and Buddhist forms, it looked more like cosplay [dressing as a character from a movie] than a means to enter Zen. 

I find this situation troubling, but it’s also a provocative case for thinking about culture, religion, and racial identity: how to define them in general, how they relate to each other, and what we should do as a result.

Before suggesting some general ideas about these issues, I should recommend Moon’s specific guidance related to Buddhism in the USA. She identifies a set of practices that are common across Asian and Asian-American communities, such as bringing food to share and helping people who are more experienced or older do menial tasks. She writes that “Asians do not own these behaviors,” but they are notable in Asian communities and are consistent with Buddhist ethics as described abstractly. Thus they are “ways to bring the dharma alive.”

For similar reasons, there is value in practices like “maintaining a shrine, prayer, prostrations and pilgrimage, engaging in the arts, [and] offering alms” that some converts to Buddhism might dismiss as “merely cultural.” More generally, we might identify virtues of respectful curiosity, fallibilism (i.e., any of my ideas can always be wrong) and mild self-abnegation. I think it is fruitful to understand these virtues in a specifically Buddhist way, but also to endorse and use them in other contexts–for instance, when one encounters an Abrahamic tradition.

I would propose some general propositions that extend beyond this case:

  • A religion is not best understood as a coherent set of abstract beliefs that are necessary and sufficient for membership and that contradict some of the beliefs of other religions. That is not a complete description even of the Abrahamic faiths; it is even less accurate for other religions. Instead, any religion is a whole body of accumulated beliefs, stories, values, practices, and institutions. It always encompasses a great deal of diversity and has porous and indefinite borders. In that sense, religion is very much like culture, or is even a category used–often by outsiders–to name certain aspects of culture. (See Wilfred Cantwell Smith, discussed here.)
  • A culture is not something to which individuals belong, and it does not affect individuals. A culture is a name for a large set of beliefs, values, skills, habits, etc. that individuals have and can use. Everyone has a unique set at any given moment. However, we sometimes gain insight by categorizing people within a culture when we notice that they share a lot of the same repertoire and differ from others whom they encounter. Often, what is salient about a culture is its tension with other cultures that it interacts with. (See “a mistaken view of culture“).
  • A race is a social construct that arbitrarily makes some extremely superficial attributes, such as skin color, falsely seem important. It originated in a desire to dominate and exploit. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored, because centuries of racial oppression have taught people to see in terms of race and have created injustices that require remedies. One result is that the loose categories that we name as “cultures” very often have racial overtones as well. In situations like the ones that Christina Moon describes, people should be mindful of race. (See “what would happen to race in a just world?“).
  • Specific ideas can be good or bad, right or wrong. For instance, I would defend Moon’s guidance for behavior in an Asian-American temple as good advice, not merely as an expression of a specific group’s values. Because we think–and sometimes correctly–that some of our own ideas are important and good, we are motivated to spread them, including to people who come from very different backgrounds. We are also motivated to absorb and adopt new ideas from diverse sources when we find them persuasive. Evangelism is not limited to Christianity and Islam and should not be equated with cultural imperialism. The traditions that originated in Asia, like those from the Mediterranean and elsewhere, have been deliberately propagated to outsiders and sometimes willingly received. In fact, we might say that all people have a human right to all sources of wisdom, regardless of where the ideas originated. (See “a richer sense of cultural interchange.”)
  • Whether the spread of a given idea is good depends on whether that idea is good. This is a question that each of us must consider with the resources we happen to have: the other ideas, values, skills, etc. that we have already absorbed. We should not be biased in favor of ideas that cohere well with what we already believe; that is “motivated reasoning.” On the contrary, we should try to be open to ideas that trouble our existing beliefs.
  • All cultures are hybrid. Nothing human is pure, and the desire to keep national cultures distinct, coherent, and homogeneous is pathological. It is the root of much cruelty and exclusion.
  • East and West are not useful categories. Although sometimes we gain insight by categorizing people, these particular classifications are far too vague to shed any light, and they have problematic histories and motivations. Besides, specific traditions that seem classically European or Asian have long been intertwined. For example, one of the most influential seedbeds of Buddhism was Greek-ruled Northern India after Alexander, when coins literally had Greek imprinted on one side and Sanskrit on the other. (See “avoiding the labels of East and West.”) Two concepts that can be more useful than East and West are imperialism and modernization. But these are not simply “Western” phenomena. Japan was imperialist, and all Asian countries have experienced modernization. (See “don’t name things Western but call out imperialism.”)

In the US, there is a certain tendency–I don’t know how widespread–to see Buddhist thought as ahistorical. The Buddha is treated as a contemporary; the meditating mind lives only in the immediate present. There is also a tendency to acknowledge Buddhism’s roots in Asia but to depict Asian or Eastern “culture” as monolithic, apart from superficial aesthetic differences that people can browse like consumers.

Thus it’s possible that the white/European-American Buddhists whom Rev. Moon has encountered differentiate between the transcendent truths of the Buddha and optional traditions and behaviors that they label “culture.” They then pick and choose from the traditions without recognizing that they (highly educated, mostly White Americans) are every bit as immersed in their own stream of inherited behaviors, aesthetics, beliefs, and values, which influence their choices about what to borrow from Asian contexts. Linda Heuman writes:

The French philosopher and sociologist of science Bruno Latour famously described it this way: “A Modern is someone who believes that others believe.” A modern Buddhist, in Latour’s sense, is someone who believes that Asian forms of Buddhism carry the “baggage” of their host cultures but who remains unreflective about the assumptions that shape his or her own modern adaptations.

Any mind is ineluctably historical. As we develop from speechless infants into adults, we absorb a vast array of classifications, assumptions, and values that other people invented before us. We can never escape this historical contingency. You might think that you can have an unmediated experience of nature, but your tastes in nature, your words and concepts for nature, and even your physical location in front of a specific patch of nature are all historically conditioned. (See “the sublime and other people” and “the sublime is social“.)

History is highly complex, diverse, and often cruel, whether we happen to know the details or not. Evils are widespread–consider, for example, the use of Buddhist ideas in imperial Japan or in Myanmar today. Human beings widely and blatantly violate principles that they expressly teach, such as nonviolence and compassion. On the other hand, people all over the world also create practices and institutions that reflect wise goals and choices. What we think we know is a result of this complex, globally interconnected, and fraught past.

An ahistorical approach may actually contradict important Buddhist ideas. For one thing, the assumption that you can have an authentic, personal experience of nature or of your own body contradicts the idea of no-self, whereas to acknowledge that all your ideas originated with other people and will outlast you seems consistent with rebirth.

Besides, Mahayana Buddhists have presented the development of Buddhism as a series of “turnings of the Dharma wheel.” This story–rather like Hegel’s idealist history–understands the truth as we know it today as a historical achievement that reflects logical development over time. Idealist histories can offer insight by explaining the development of ideas as deliberate mental work. But it’s usually worth bringing materialist considerations into view as well. What we believe today may be a result of other people’s good thinking, or the outcome of power and self-interest, or both.

Unfortunately, analyzing the mind as historically conditioned–and history as rife with power and injustice–requires a lot of knowledge. My understanding of Mahayana Buddhist historiography could fit on an index card, and I would be hard pressed to learn a lot more, if only because I don’t know the relevant languages. I am supposed to know more about German idealist philosophy and historiography, but there too, I am woefully ignorant. And there are so many other traditions to learn.

Christina Moon’s description of cringy behavior at Zen centers is a portrait of people who want to pick and choose ideas and practices that they find comfortable without taking seriously the historical development and interconnection of those ideas, without being genuinely open to practices that might challenge them, without being careful about their own status and impact, and without wrestling with the connections among racial hierarchy and exclusion, everyday culture, and the abstract beliefs that we might classify as Buddhist philosophy or theology. Yet the solution is not to declare these beliefs off limits (nor does Moon suggest that), because everyone should always be looking for good beliefs to adopt. We just have to do it with a lot of care–not only about the ideas and their affect on our inner lives, but also about the other people we touch.

See also: a Hegelian meditation; diversity, humility, curiosity; individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; Buddhism as philosophy; the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theology; what is cultural appropriation?

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.