Western Buddhists to the Rescue!

The emergence of Western Buddhism has long been chronicled, and I have no doubt that should “Western Buddhism” ever coalesce Angry Little Asian Girlinto a coherent tradition, it will stand apart from all other Buddhist lineages by the phenomenal level at which its early members were so perpetually enthralled in talking and writing about what their new tradition would be. It’s not even clear to me who counts as a Western Buddhist and who doesn’t, but I understand that’s not the point. Western Buddhism will “just happen” by combining the best of East and West, and we’ll all be long gone by then. Western Buddhism is simply the next phase in Dharmic evolution.

Some may see nothing strange in this perspective. After all, it’s glaringly obvious that Buddhism in Asia is a corrupt, backward and irrelevant institution for the 21st century. Buddhism needs the Enlightened people of the West to help it adapt. This judgment may sound prejudiced, but how else could one react to murderous monks in Sri Lanka, tiger temples in Thailand, corruption in Korean and Taiwanese sanghas, or the imminent death of Japanese Buddhism? As one commentator put it:

It’s good to realize though that Buddhist institutions are not perfect and we import the good with the bad (the Tibetan mores are a cultural artifact, not based on dharma). It’s not always so obvious either, and many Buddhist institutions are in horrible shape in Asia. The dream situation would be to ‘re-perfect’ things here (out of our own needs) and export it back, ironed and pressed.

So the ideal solution it seems, is that Western Buddhism, albeit fledgling, will grow and provide the White Knight who will restore Buddhism to its proper glory, return the Dharma to Asia, and save Asian Buddhists from themselves. I can already hear the masses cheering.

If you didn’t get it by now, everything above was written with my tongue in cheek. In previous posts, I would have labelled this Western-Buddhist-hero line of thought as racist, but I realize that’s the wrong word. I’m talking about excessive hegemonic privilege.

This hegemonic privilege runs hand in hand with ignorance. Buddhism didn’t develop in a hermetically sealed capsule called Asia, where it rotted in isolation. There have been interactions with the West going back centuries, and even more interactions within different Asian communities. On top of that, Buddhism in Asia has been marked by generations upon generations of reform movements and innovations.

In the last two centuries, Thailand has seen at least three major reform movements that have completely changed the face of Thai Buddhism. (As if there is a single Thai Buddhism!) The Forest Tradition was one of the most recent of these movements and produced “Western” teachers like Ajahn Sumedho, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Ajahn Brahmavamso and Jack Kornfield. And Thai people weren’t running around in the 12th century saying, “What will Thai Buddhism look like? I bet it’ll be great!”

Likewise, Chinese Buddhism has rapidly changed in the years after Western drug cartels stopped using the Middle Kingdom as its opium market. There have been numerous Chinese teachers who’ve pushed for a return to the original teachings, for better organized sanghas and for an emphasis on humanistic concerns. They even developed engaged Buddhism. The Taiwanese engaged Buddhist foundation Tzu Chi can alone claim more members than all non-Asian Buddhists combined!

Is this what we think of when we think of an Asian Buddhism that needs the West to fix it?

We are now in the internet age, and the boundaries that facilitated the growth of nationalist Buddhisms are being paved over by the information superhighway. Today’s development of Buddhism is being fed by innovations in Asia that are still being adopted by the West. There is much promise in organizations like the Vipassana Meditation network, which are modern, worldwide, self-sustaining and (by their claims) traditional. This network just coincidentally happens to be based in Asia and developed by Asians.

I can’t deny that there are problem Buddhists in Asia. They exist in every piece of territory where the Dharma’s touched ground. But to assume that the West will come to the rescue, or even that the West will make Buddhism better… well, those notions smack of excessive hegemonic privilege. Why would the West do any better? The quote (way) above reminded me of a passage by one of my favorite Asian American novelists, Michael Ondaatje:

‘American movies, English books–remember how they all end?’ Gamini asked that night. ‘The American or the Englishman gets on the plane and leaves. That’s it. The camera leaves with him. He looks out of the window at Mombasa or Vietnam or Jakarta, someplace now he can look at through the clouds. The tired hero. A couple of words to the girl beside him. He’s going home. So the war, to all purposes, is over. That’s enough reality for the West. It’s probably the history of the last two hundred years of Western political writing. Go home. Write a book. Hit the circuit.’

There is of course nothing wrong with being a Western Buddhist. There’s nothing less authentic or more innovative about it. But maybe the focus on “Western Buddhism” is a little too much focus on categories that don’t exist, and probably never will. At least, that’s the opinion of this Western Buddhist.

28 Replies to “Western Buddhists to the Rescue!”

  1. This whole “Western Buddhism” thing sometimes puzzles me. I wonder if people even know what they mean when they say it.

    How is Western greed, aversion and delusion different than the Asian defilements? Are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and non-self somehow different because of an oceanic divide? Do the Four Noble Truths appear differently through eyes with or without epicanthic folds? Does the Law of Kamma swirl in one direction in North America and in the opposite direction in Asia?

    Now, if we are talking about the superficial trappings, the ritual and ceremony,, which have value in and of themselves when understood properly, then maybe I can understand, but going back to the first paragraph, sometimes I wonder if people really know what they mean when they say “Western Buddhism”.

  2. If I didn’t know better, arunlikhati, I’d think you’ve been reading my dissertation. Thank you for bring in a little historical perspective on things.

  3. I’m not sure what passion drives these sorts of posts. Are you trying to convince White Anglo-American Buddhists of the errors of their ways or something else?

    As a White Anglo-American Buddhist trying to determine where my own Buddhist practice is going in the long-term and starting up a local sangha (which will probably, you guessed it, have mostly white people in it), the issues of Western Buddhism are very much front and center.

    It seems like certain people are arguing that we should all join the local Taiwanese temples or the like instead of making our own spaces.

  4. I agree that the term “Western Buddhist” is rather amorphous. I often wonder, “How are all the different traditions (Zen, Tibetan, Thai, etc.) going to be merged into one tradition–Western Buddhism?”

    I often say that I am a Western ZEN Buddhist to show that I am a westerner to describe my particular cultural tradition who practices Zen Buddhism. I think that is probably the more accurate and less arrogant terminology to use.

    Kind of like Tibetan Buddhism where Tibetan signifies the cultural influence on the general tradition of Buddhism. Does this make any sense? I hope so because it does to me. 🙂

    I just think that the “western” part should apply only to the western culture and how it adds and influences whatever school of Asian Buddhism that a westerner follows. I don’t think there will ever be a hodge-podge, watered down, bland version of Buddhism called, “American Buddhism.” Or if there is in my lifetime I’d rather stick to the original Zen tradition that I follow while allowing my western thinking to influence it here and there.

    Because as I said, “How do you merge all these fine traditions into one, cohesive Buddhism?”

  5. You don’t merge them into one cohesive Buddhism but we also aren’t required to practice Japanese Buddhism, Chinese Buddhism or Thai Buddhism as non-Japanese, non-Chinese, and non-Thai people living on the other side of the planet (not speaking for my fellow Americans who are Japanese, Chinese, and Thai ethnically).

    I advocate that we are in a potential great age for Buddhism with full access to all of the Buddhist traditions of the world for the first time in Buddhist history. Why should we, in the longer term, embrace regional sectarianism, especially when they aren’t even our regions or original traditions? For convert Buddhists, why try to be a faux Tibetan (as I’ve seen so many do) when you will never actually be a Tibetan unless your parents were such?

  6. Al, far be it from me to speak for Arun, but I think he’s just reminding us of our historical propensity to want to “save” other cultures as if they’re corrupted or incapable of saving themselves. This isn’t a radically new idea, nor is it directed at us as individual whiteys. It’s pretty well documented in that area of study known as Orientalism and post-colonial theory.

    I’m curious about your tacit assumption that your new sangha will have mostly white folks. But out of respect for this blog, I think I’ll ask you those questions off-line.

  7. I’ll address part of this here since it is relevant. I expect that my new sangha will have mostly white folks because we’re part of a Korean zen lineage that was transmitted by a Korean teacher to an almost entirely European and Euro-American crowd. Every member of the organization that I am is some sort of Anglo-American and, when we start up a group, I expect that our group will, at best, reflect the local demographics, which will make it mostly white. I also expect that many local Buddhists who are not white are probably not converts and, thus, if practicing, probably already have traditions that they are a part of. I meet very few non-white Buddhists unless I go to a BCA event, the Thai temple, or other non-white institutions. The priest running the new temple is as white as I am and, so far, the group is him, me, my wife, and maybe one other white dude.

  8. I actually disagree. I don’t think this is relevant here, not to this particular post. This particular post, I think, is actually very interesting in its critique of hegemonic cultural structures, assumptions, and categories, and has very little to do with the demographic make up of specific communities, yours or anyone else’s. Which is why I said I’d ask you that question off-blog. Which I will.

  9. Thanks for your comments.

    @Al: This post was mostly a reaction to that one quote at the top, notably that “Buddhist institutions are in horrible shape in Asia” which fed into the notion that the ideal situation is for Westerners to “‘re-perfect’ things here (out of our own needs) and export it back, ironed and pressed.” Nevertheless, I understand that the use of “White Knight” may have made it seem otherwise.

    Given all your comments on this blog, I don’t believe you harbor even an iota of either prejudices.

  10. I should have been more clear in that I agree with your point and understood.

    I don’t think of Asia as any sort of lesser place in need of saving by nice white folks at all. How 19th century! 🙂

    I still think that much of what is wonderful in Asia has been completely missed by the West and I’m only narrowly thinking of philosophy, art, and religion when I’m immediately pondering that.

  11. The book Reading Orientalism by anthropologist Daniel Martin Varisco seems relevant to this discussion. In particular, Varisco raises the point that Said’s critique of orientalism itself essentializes the West. The author summarizes the book here: http://bit.ly/QI7A3

    Characterizing all Western Buddhists (on the basis of a single comment on a website) as taking on the White Knight role seems to inherit from Said this same mistake.

      1. But you’ve haven’t made much of effort to examine or account for the great deal of variation in Westerners’ interaction with Buddhism, nor does your analysis seem capable of dealing with the phenomenon of Americans & Europeans of Asian descent who rediscover their ancestors’ religion through Buddhism in the West. Are they also racist?

        If Buddhism doesn’t need the West to save it from itself, does it need a westerner in the same White Knight role to save it from Western racism?

    1. If Varisco had bothered to read Said, he’d see that Said’s whole purpose wasn’t to essentialize anything at all, but to argue against all essentialisms. In the afterward to Orientalism, he explicitly addressed this issue and made it clear that he wasn’t “anti-Western” because “the West” does not exist anymore than “the East”.

  12. So the ideal solution it seems, is that Western Buddhism, albeit fledgling, will grow and provide the White Knight who will restore Buddhism to its proper glory, return the Dharma to Asia, and save Asian Buddhists from themselves. I can already hear the masses cheering.

    One word: Schopenhauer.

    Dude, I, as a “Western Buddhist” don’t care about “Western Buddhism.”

    There’s way too much suffering goin’ on.

    1. I don’t doubt that, which is why I wrote that “I can’t deny that there are problem Buddhists in Asia. They exist in every piece of territory where the Dharma’s touched ground.” There are lots of problems, and they need to be addressed. I just reject the notion that Asia needs some external power to come in and save it from itself.

  13. @MrTeacup: I appreciate your comments, but I don’t see how they directly address what I wrote here. I never called anyone racist in this post. It isn’t and was never meant to be a collective analysis of Western Buddhists.

    @Yuinen: Not to play on Mumon’s response with ambiguous universal quantification, but I think we all need to save ourselves from ourselves 😉

  14. Asia has a long beautiful history and culture that we’ve interfered with for far to long. We converts in America have our own problems figuring out the Dharma here.

    So anyone (please don’t think that I am directing this at anyone on this thread–i am just thinking out loud) So anyone thinking we need to “save” Buddhists in Asia seems a bit prideful and probably stems less from compassion then pity and pity is saying one is supperior.

  15. I would just like to add that the presence of Asian American Buddhists makes the issue all the more complicated. What are we, “Asian Buddhists” or “Western Buddhists”? If we’re an Asian American, but also a convert to Buddhism, what tradition would we belong to?

    I would also like to add that when I encounter the “White Knight” attitude, it’s mostly through people alleging that Asian Buddhism is full of unnecessary “superstitions” and “cultural accretions” which need to be purged, preferably with a good dose of European Enlightenment rationality. This mentality is implicit throughout Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, which doesn’t articulate a Buddhism without beliefs as much as it articulates a Buddhism with the beliefs and assumptions of the European Enlightenment worldview.

  16. Heh, a good read. I’m still baffled by the view that Asian Buddhism is in disarray. I suspect that such people who believe this only read about Asian Buddhism, but haven’t had a lot of experience in it.

    I don’t consider myself a “Western Buddhist” either. I just follow a certain tradition and leave it at that.

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