Sunday, February 10, 2013

Let it grow!

Photo courtesy of flickr user: Fellowship of the Rich.
Here's something I don't get--why it's okay for Buddhism to adapt to native cultures in Asia, but that process is for some reason prohibited here in the West. It's no surprise that Korean Buddhism looks Korean, Tibetan Buddhism looks Tibetan, and Japanese....well you get the picture. But for some reason, in order for American Buddhism to be considered "authentic," people expect it to look Tibetan or Japanese--basically Asian.

Why is that? Perhaps it's growing pains, or because many Western Buddhists, if they're not culturally Asian, feel insecure (or maybe "inadequate" might be a better word) about practicing a spiritual tradition whose ancestors hail from another part of the world than their own biological ones. I don't know.

As if Buddhism were exclusively an Asian birthright. It's not, at least not any kind of Buddhism whose aim is genuine Awakening. Buddhism is everyone's inheritance, for it points the way to our true, universal nature--Buddhahood.

Which means--at least from this perspective--that Buddhism is basically composed of a variety of skillful means aimed at helping people realize their true nature. The forms should always take back seat to waking up, not in the sense that we objectify our practice by reducing it to mere means to an ends, but in that we don't reify or become attached to the practice. We don't make it special.

When sitting meditation, sit in meditation; when driving, drive; when eating, eat.

What I am critical of is the Western Buddhist tendency to slavishly venerate the cultures that Buddhism hails from, as if everything Eastern is sacrosanct and everything Western is spiritually primitive. Part of this, at least in the Zen community, is attributable to D.T. Suzuki and his mythologizing Zen and Japanese culture. I hate to admit it, because I love his work, but Alan Watts is guilty of this too.

Too often I hear Buddhists comparing the idyllic happiness of Tibetans with the alienated, despondent plight of the American, as if Asians are somehow happier by virtue of their cultural worldview or heritage.

That's nonsense.

The Buddha identified the universal human condition as being suffused with dukkha. It's part of being human. Period. Japanese people have problems, perhaps unique to the Japanese experience, but they're not exceptions to the human condition. Neither are the Swiss or Russians or Chinese. That's what it means to be human.

But I digress.

My point is that there's a tendency in Buddhism to bash the West, and perhaps I'm guilty of this myself on this blog. In Buddhism's attempt to assert itself in America, I see two phenomena occurring: 1.) a blatant rejection of all things Western, and thus an adoption of all things Eastern; or 2.) a skim milk attempt to integrate Buddhism into Western religious traditions as if their goal or teachings are always the same.

Both irritate me, but I'll deal exclusively here with the former.

The first refers to those people in your Buddhist group who know all of the Japanese or Korean terms, and drop them ad nauseum, especially when there is a perfectly good English counterpart. Instead of kneeling meditation, it's "seiza"; instead of interview it's "dokusan."

Besides sounding pretentious, the problem is that this habit reeks of Western Buddhist anxiety, as if in order to really be considered Buddhist we need to pose as being Asian.

Here's my point: Buddhism needs to find its own course(s) in the West. Buddhism grows and adapts; it always has. So why is that process so anathema here in the West? Why is that process halted here in America? Why is America, or more broadly, the West, the exception?

I'm not proposing that we jettison the vast wealth of spiritual traditions we have inherited from our Buddhist ancestors, but I do think that organic growth is natural and necessary for the continued evolution and downright survival of Buddhism.

That means allowing Buddhism to grow in the West. Which is not to say that it won't be rife with conflict, because it will be. Take one look at Asian history and you'll see that Buddhist sects have often competed and quarreled. That's human.

But that's part of the process. It's my opinion that Buddhism needs to find its own authentic Western idiom and identity if it hopes to thrive on this soil; the alternative is an insecure, toddling Buddhism too fearful to step out of its Asian ancestors' shadow.


  1. Dear Doshin,

    I respectfully disagree.

    I'd like to address this statement: "Part of this, at least in the Zen community, is attributable to D.T. Suzuki and his mythologizing Zen and Japanese culture."

    First, my experience with D.T Suzuki is a very no-nonsense approach to dharma, delving into and translating sutras like the Lankavatara which hadn't been touched by anyone -Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tibetian, in hundreds of years. His explications of texts often travel over several centuries, several languages, hundreds of miles of dirt and myth, pointedly the questionable 18th century transliterated Sanskrit versions of Chinese origin. This is my perception of D.T's work, who markedly never ordained, despite the bulk of ordained scholars working by his side at Otani University, Living married, parallel lives, filling their coffers (not to mention the Soto-shu and Rinzai-shu coffers) with Sangha money, while D.T survived as just a scholar, lecturer, and professor.

    And Allen Watts is unknown to me, accept I put on a tyvek suit, clear the trail to his grave of poison oak, and neatly arrange the liquor on his huge granite rock that came from Tassajara. The place is intimate, hidden, and less visited than I expect it to be. But I feel a kinship on our behalf; maybe I should read one of his books.

    This is important to me. The comment above mine says, "Right on, brother!" I'm saying to you, "Maybe not always so, brother!" as we wear the Buddha's robe together (mine is lay, and blue,and small, but I am no householder and also, of no rank).

    This is important to me because D.T went out of his way to not mystify western Buddhists; He was raised Jodo Shinshu, and lectured on it in Japan, but refrained from doing so in the west, as he felt it was too esoteric and that Zen was more appropriate, though he said it was the, "most remarkable development of Mahayana Buddhism ever achieved in East Asia"

    Finally, my frustration is that we are not Japanese enough when Japanese people come here and see our very clean, spartan, and naturally wood grained statures, floors, walls in our zendo/Buddha hall, where we do nine prostrations instead of three by request of our founder (who was Japanese, but the practice is our practice, which is not Japanese).

    I wish I could show you my wool v-neck sweater and black long johns under my Juban and Kimono (Japanese), Sitting robe (Chinese) and 5 paneled kayasa (the Indian, small, Buddha's robe). All but the sweater and long Johns were worn in Japan, and that is our contribution to the tradition of about 800 years of "Japanese" practice (where the first 400 years, most sutras were recorded in Chinese, and in China, they worked hard to produce/locate Indian sanskrit and poly versions).

    My question is what stereotypes does cultural appropriation rely on: If we seem Japanese, wouldn't that require Japanese to be something other than what it really is, which is empty, which is a compassionate understanding that Japanese is completely free from whatever we think it is, and so are you, and so am I.

    Bowing the best I can,


  2. Hi Kogen,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. Admittedly, this is one of my edgier posts. It's a topic that I think we will be hearing a lot more about in the coming years as Buddhism finds its voice in the West.

    I admire and appreciate D.T. Suzuki's contribution to Zen scholarship. He was brilliant and I have very much respect for him and his work; however, his writing tended to elevate Japanese culture to mythic stature, and Japanese Zen along with it. The same could be said, I suppose, about many Eastern teachers (just as it can be said about Westerners).

    Western Buddhism is currently experiencing an identity crisis as it tries to carve out its own value system (informed by Western, democratic, egalitarianism), forms, etc. As a Zen priest and teacher in a Korean lineage, I tread a thin line--I'm not Korean, I don't speak Korean, and I've never studied in Korea. At the same time, the forms and practice I use definitely have more of a Korean flavor than Japanese. I wear Korean style robes in the Dharma hall, we strike a moktak (wooden fish) and use a chugpi (clappers), but I try to demystify the practice as much as I can by using English terms when possible. For all of these reasons, I feel most comfortable saying that I am an American Zen Buddhist practicing in the lineage of Zen Master Seung Sahn.

    Culturally, I cannot claim to be anything other than American, which is why I have a vested interested in Western Buddhism's developing its own distinct, authentic idiom. The way that I see it, as you pointed out, is that all cultures are relative, and the goal of Zen is to go beyond all relative dualities. This means recognizing the limitations of every culture, without elevating one at the expense of another.

    Ultimately, this means developing upaya or skillful means for our Western students.

    Again, thanks for reading. I don't know if I addressed your comments. Please let me know.

    Many bows,
    Andre Doshim

    1. To be met will always be enough.


  3. It may be less fret-worthy to posit that all formatted Buddhism, wherever it takes root, is simply advertising. I suppose we can dither about 'good' advertising and 'bad,' but in the end, no one in their right mind worries too much about advertising. You want a car? Don't worry about the advertising ... go kick the tires and get behind the wheel. Ditto spiritual formats ... there will always be advertising, but let's hope the car actually runs, no matter how many Tripitaka four-color brochures there are.

    Or anyway that's what I think at the moment.

  4. This is a wonderful post, certainly one which many buddhists I know, who are in love with the cultural aspect of Buddhism (form,) would cringe at. There is nothing wrong with enjoying, playing and having fun with form in this world. From home life to socializing, there are many ideals and traditions from Asian countries that I enjoy immensely and have even incorporated into my own way of moving through the world. But when it comes to something as Buddhism, making an agenda out of "preserving" it to look a certain way, and —even worse— pretending to "certify" it as legitimate based on methods and scripted rituals couldn't defeat the purpose to the Buddha's original mission of finding freedom from attachment to form, etc. —again, not that there's an issue with form itself, but our attachment to it.

    Many time I've wondered what would happen if for some unfortunate future circumstances we would find ourselves under a government or regime which would prohibit us from engaging into the Buddhist rituals and practices that we know. How many of us would collapse into a life of conflict and suffering from not being able to wear our robes, do our bows, decorate our homes with statues of buddhas... and how many of us would be able to pierce through these forms, re-focus on the essence of our original state of buddhahood, and re-invent the way we carry it through the world in order to keep serving others into liberation from suffering?

    I've never been a big fan of "Buddhist" Asian architecture, and honestly I've never found chanting musically-pleasing at all. On the other hand, I love the elegance of the image of Korean and Japanese monks as they sit in meditation with their robes gently sloping down as a quiet mountain; the way they hold their hands together, and the slow and careful way they bow when they hit the bowl. But in the end NONE of this has any real value when it comes to helping others awake and free themselves from attachment; a robe has never alleviated anyone's suffering, Japanese buzz words have never filled any stomachs, and no one's dharma name has made a homeless person feel understood. The problem is that most Buddhist I know are more concerned with the tangible than the intangible, and that is very unfortunate.

    Personally I don't care if Buddhism will remain looking Asian throughout the West. I don't care if it will look like something else completely different. Ultimately I don't even care if we start calling it something else besides "Buddhism." Monks, the freaking world is on fire. Everything is burning; the eyes are burning, the minds and hearts are burning... —that's what matters to me.

    The Buddha is appearing to us everywhere down the road, and we're not killing it; we're running to it in a rapture of enchantment.

    Sergio Q.

  5. Can I just say that I am really enjoying all this discussion as of late about "zen in the west." It seems to be popping up everywhere. You might enjoy this blog I follow by a Zen priest named Jiryu, it is called "No Zen In the West" The link I specifically pasted here is to a recent post about American Zen. I am glad I came upon your blog!
    There is no way we can be Japanese because we aren't. Clinging to forms, whether Japanese, Chinese or Indian is clinging to forms whether we want to dump it into the cultural appropriation* category or not. But this fight we are having as Zen settles into the west is not new or unique so we shouldn't beat ourselves up for being "stupid" Americans or something. It seems like a problem of translation. Translating what fit for one context into a new context and it doesn't happen overnight. For example, interview versus dokusan. I don't really feel like interview really captures the spirit of dokusan. Maybe it is because my American or english association with the word interview is very much tied to seeking employment or acceptance to something. 'Practice discussion' gets a little warmer. Maybe in some Buddhist sects (excuse my ignorance) an interview with a teacher really is like the interview as I understand it so maybe the title is more appropriate.
    But the idea that "it's okay for Buddhism to adapt to native cultures in Asia, but that process is for some reason prohibited here in the West," has not been my experience living in the zen center that I do. Not to say we have it all figured out or that it isn't marked by continuous change but it looks and feels more western to me. And the visiting Japanese monks often express similar sentiments.

  6. How wonderful it is to meet people that can see through the Eastern-ness of Buddhism. It is just geography that tha Buddha was born in India and the Teaching spread East. Zen is ordinary, everyday life, for us its ordinary everyday Western life and if we hold the Boddhisattva Vows then is it not good to show this beautiful Dharma to all the world? Having said that, I love ritual and perhaps if we take things too fast we could be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I think we have a fine line to tread to get this thing right!

  7. Some things translate, others don't. I agree with the above post that "interview" just doesn't quite describe whatever it is that we do. Don't forget cultural/linguistic imperialism--any voyage to Quebec will confirm that it works both ways. On a side note, Have a nice (I'll throw in some French here) weekend.
    Elevating a culture, whether one's own, an adopted one, or one that one fakes because it's cooler/better to the point of attachment isn't the Dharma. Ask any of those Japanese kids with the jackets with the seemingly random collection of English words on them, or the Latino who is constantly bombarded with demands to "Speak English!" and assimilate, whether one culture is better than another, or whether any of it has made them happy, reduced suffering, or helped them see their True Nature. We're in a practice that has determined that wordless mind-to-mind transmission beats verbal; but written and oral is what we're stuck with most of the time. I'm sure that even Shakyamuni and Mahakashyapa had a conversation or two.
    So, in closing,
    Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha.