Thread: Is Western Buddhism Cultural Appropriation?

  1. #1

    Is Western Buddhism Cultural Appropriation?

    Soto Zen teacher Brad Warner asks "Is western Buddhism cultural appropriation? (Approx. 11 minutes)




    Any comments?



  2. #2
    Global Moderator
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Location
    UK
    Posts
    818
    I suppose the worst thing for Buddhism would be someone pretending to have qualifications they don't have, to push their own form of Buddhism. That and something like McMindfulness, pushed by Western business practices.

  3. #3
    Forums Member
    Join Date
    Sep 2010
    Location
    UK
    Posts
    498
    Quote Originally Posted by philg View Post
    I suppose the worst thing for Buddhism would be someone pretending to have qualifications they don't have, to push their own form of Buddhism. That and something like McMindfulness, pushed by Western business practices.
    Could not agree more Philg, the slight problem I have with the sentiment is that where do people get qualifications, who is the authorising authority and where do they get their authority from

    This brings us potentially to the idea of lineage but does even this guarantee purity of transition, I think not, even a cursory glance at the Buddhist organisations that are on the dubious list, lineage seems to be a very unreliable test

  4. #4
    Global Moderator
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Location
    UK
    Posts
    818
    Quote Originally Posted by McKmike View Post
    Could not agree more Philg, the slight problem I have with the sentiment is that where do people get qualifications, who is the authorising authority and where do they get their authority from

    This brings us potentially to the idea of lineage but does even this guarantee purity of transition, I think not, even a cursory glance at the Buddhist organisations that are on the dubious list, lineage seems to be a very unreliable test
    Authority is a real problem, and although we live in a time where we can readily check up on original texts and practices, not everyone does so. My concern is people who pretend to have qualifications directly from a given lineage in order to push something which is taken out of context or is not part of mainstream Buddhism anywhere in the Buddhist world. It's not to say we in the West can't contribute something new and unique, but that we need to be upfront about any differences.

    A few years ago I was researching how big business here has taken mindfulness out of context to become part of regular training. At one time the British Government even stated that practices such as mindfulness are an inherent human behaviours which are context free, and nothing to do with Buddhism or any religion. Unfortunately businesses use it to say to employees that they have had mindfulness training and so that if they are still stressed by work it is their own faut, and not that of the business practices which really cause the stress in the first place.

  5. #5
    Forums Member Thinker's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2016
    Posts
    139
    Not a fan of Brad appears to be advertising different things, that some may not approve of? Subliminally selling?

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Thinker View Post
    Not a fan of Brad appears to be advertising different things, that some may not approve of? Subliminally selling?
    Hi Thinker,

    I think its more likely to have been a humorous look at "cultural appropriation" rather than an intention to advertise anything!


  7. #7
    Forums Member
    Join Date
    Sep 2010
    Location
    UK
    Posts
    498
    Quote Originally Posted by philg View Post
    Authority is a real problem, and although we live in a time where we can readily check up on original texts and practices, not everyone does so. My concern is people who pretend to have qualifications directly from a given lineage in order to push something which is taken out of context or is not part of mainstream Buddhism anywhere in the Buddhist world. It's not to say we in the West can't contribute something new and unique, but that we need to be upfront about any differences.
    An interesting response, it seems that you value authority and qualifications, is this cultural baggage from a deeply rooted Christian perspective, if you have a revelatory religion, authority and qualifications are everything.
    I think many people have this problem

    The Buddha did not have the problem because the Buddha taught a path, a process whereby the individuals compassion and wisdom grew from their own experiences from sincere practice, in this paradigm the authority and qualifications of the teacher is irrelevant, they can be adept meditators or scholar monks but what they understand and know does not mean it will magically transfer to the pupil

    It takes depth of practice and wisdom to teach the path, because the teacher has to see and understand where the pupil is on the journey and point the way.

    This may sound kind of new age airy fairy, but in reality any tradesman such as a carpenter will understand, when you are trying to transmit a skill, you have to have mastered the skill sufficiently to advise the apprentice, like the Buddhist path, you can read about carpentry, see videos, and make efforts toward mastering the skill, and in doing so you may flourish and become competent, but if you want to really become a master craftsman you need to find your teacher and only then the path to mastery becomes turbocharged

    The teacher you need will depend on many factors, the type of carpentry you are engaged in, your temperament, the teacher's temperament, the opportunities to practice you have and a conducive environment

    Notice that in all of that there is no Authority or Qualifications, but there is as the Buddha recommends discernment

    If there were more discernment a lot of the periodic scandals we here about quite large, longstanding institutions, many of whom have turned Buddhism into a lucrative business, would not survive,

    It should not be about the organisation and its authority and qualifications, it should be much simpler than that, it should be about peoples wellbeing and happiness, unfortunately it seems the reputational damage is more important to many organisations

    A few years ago I was researching how big business here has taken mindfulness out of context to become part of regular training. At one time the British Government even stated that practices such as mindfulness are an inherent human behaviours which are context free, and nothing to do with Buddhism or any religion. Unfortunately businesses use it to say to employees that they have had mindfulness training and so that if they are still stressed by work it is their own faut, and not that of the business practices which really cause the stress in the first place.
    In the same vein, if you are concerned with the wellbeing and happiness of the individual then your comment is only relevant if the mindfulness training offered is not very good, it doesn't matter what the context is if the quality of the mindfulness practice is sufficient to give the pupils a glimpse of the freedom mindfulness offers, after all Kabat - Zin took Buddhism out of his MBSR courses but they were very successful

  8. #8
    Global Moderator
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Location
    UK
    Posts
    818
    Hi McKmike. Good points, and thanks for responding.

    1. The question of authority is one I have thought about a lot, especially as I spent my whole career as a teacher in schools, mainly as a science specialist in a primary school setting. I used to research the different subject areas I had to teach on changing from secondary to primary teaching, namely everything you associate with teaching 5 to 11 year olds. What are the key features which make each subject unique, and how to you introduce key concepts at an early age? What, in essence, is the 'authority' which gives an 'authentic' introduction to the subject?

    When I became interested in Buddhism through experimenting with meditation I researched it in the same way. What were the key features in such a diverse 'religion' that kept reappearing throughout history and kept developing in unique ways? I was lucky enough to have access to a huge Buddhist library and, as a mitra, access to many different teaching pathways through the vastness of the dharma, as part of a sangha interested in my development as a Buddhist. In the end I came to the conclusion that 'authority' and 'lineages' were useful as checklists, and, as the product of many years of practice, had a relevance not lightly to be ignored.

    Eventually I left the sangha to go my own way and follow my own journey along the path (not agreeing with some key things there), but still refer back to many different Buddhist teachings, whether I adhere to what they say or not. An authority is to ponder and maybe use, but not something to do its bidding. Qualifications are only a problem for me if people pretend to have some when they don't. 'I was given a teaching'- really? What does that prove?

    2. In terms of taking mindfulness out of context I read a lot of studies which took place at the time. They showed that although the mindfulness practices used had some positive, measurable effects, interested problems cropped up. The industry based system ignored the toxic business practices that led to stress amongst employees, instead promoting mindfulness as a stress-buster while continuing with the practices. They shifted the blame for continuing stress onto their employees, saying that they must have not got the full value of the practice, so it was their own fault for still being stressed. MBSR is good, but doesn't address some basic causes of stress such as ill-health or poverty or toxic environments, which individuals still have to deal with.

    Mindfulness practice really works, but what happens when you become more mindful of what is going on around you? Of your relationship with other people and the world around you? Without a sangha to go to to discuss things? Without access to other practicess such as Vipassana and Samatha meditation? What bits can be safely ignored and what bits do you need? At what stage of your development? What have you missed out on which you may not have needed before, but do now? Mindfulness practice will change you, but where do you go to next if you are not aware that there could be a next?

  9. #9
    Forums Member
    Join Date
    Sep 2010
    Location
    UK
    Posts
    498
    Hi Philg

    Thanks for your considered reply, for me it represents a problem in Western Buddhism, not all Western Buddhism I hasten to add but some organisations typified by the Sangha you refer to in your response, taking your last paragraph as illustrating my problem

    In the west we are culturally attuned to the Abrahamic revelation religion paradigm, what this lends itself to is cults that are authoritarian, with a priestly hierarchy that interprets the will of God in a closed system that is self-contained and restricts the message the members receive to manipulate the faithfull, so we have a Catholic cult, a Protestant cult, a Shia cult and a Sunni cult

    All of these cults have similar structures and because of the authoritarian nature, supported by a heirarchy they have similar abusive outcomes, the organisation becomes more important than the message, case in point the Sangha you refer to had the public relations officer also holding the post of safeguarding officer despite a long and public exposure of abuse of vulnerable people

    This paradigm is not Buddhist, particularly in the east, Buddhist organisations in the east are not closed, they have a long history of close cooperation between the various sects of Buddhism, monks travel to a monastery to learn particular practices, there are centres of excellence and much cross sectarian debate

    This is because Buddhism isn't a revelatory religion, so there is no need to be the only holder of the true way, there is no need to protect the authority of the hierarchy, Monks can take ordination for a rainy season, a Monk is a Monk for only as long as they are practicing, they can disrobe anytime and return to civilian life, because a monk is no different from a lay practicioner in as much as both practice but the monk has renounced all lay responsibilities in order to give more time to practice and in turn has to make available the insights gained to the lay practitioner who then supports his practice

    The emphasis is on the path, on the wisdom and compassion that arises from a deep dive into your own mind using the guidance of the Buddha, who was pretty scathing of authoritarian hierarchies, refer to the Kamala Sutta

    Buddhism is not a revelatory religion, it is a path of understanding arising from your own practice, the Buddha put emphasis on the importance of spiritual friends on the path, but a spiritual friend is not an authoritarian figure approved by an organisation like a church, a spiritual friend is some one also engaged in the path who is open and willing to share experience and knowledge honestly within their own understanding, you are expected to take responsibility for your own development and seek an appropriate teacher

    Unfortunately in the west we are conditioned to look up to figures of authority and accept on face value whatever they say, we lack discernment because we want the security of knowing that we are doing the "right " thing, the acceptable thing, going in the right direction, low self-esteem is endemic in the west and this makes us vulnerable to charismatic cult figures with the answers

    So when you say:-

    Mindfulness practice really works, but what happens when you become more mindful of what is going on around you? Of your relationship with other people and the world around you? Without a sangha to go to to discuss things? Without access to other practicess such as Vipassana and Samatha meditation? What bits can be safely ignored and what bits do you need? At what stage of your development? What have you missed out on which you may not have needed before, but do now? Mindfulness practice will change you, but where do you go to next if you are not aware that there could be a next?
    It demonstrates that cult-like conditioning, that inability to use your own experience, honestly observed, as the bases of your own wisdom, when an organisation comes along and says we have the answers to your questions, follow our direction, do not go outside of the organisation, there is no need, we have all the answers here, look at our library, look at all our advanced practitioners, western people recognise a religious structure and open to manipulation and sometimes abuse

    It is not Buddhism in my opinion, it is a cult that uses Buddhism and in the case of the Sangha you refer to a dose of Nietzsche
    not for the wellbeing of the members but to exercise power and influence

    In which case, is going to such a Sangha to discuss things, to get advice and access to other techniques, to give it the authority to tell you which bits can be safely ignored and which bits you may need, is that a good idea on any level

  10. #10
    Global Moderator
    Join Date
    Mar 2017
    Location
    UK
    Posts
    818
    Hi McKmike,

    Good points which should be helpful to anyone reading them. My reply you quoted was really a plea not to ignore thousands of years of practice which have had their ups and downs, making mistakes and finding out which works, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. I don't advocate a slavish following but to realise that it would be folly to ignore what has worked in the past and the warnings they have thrown up when it doesn't. At its best it shows ways of protecting ourselves from possible consequences of our actions, to pre-empt things which arise as a result of our practice. A sangha, also at its best, can offer advice when we hit problems or brick walls. Many have been there, have done all that and have got the tee-shirt.

    Of course, cult like organisations do exist and I remember keeping an eye on the shrine room door as a possible means of escape when I first went to the Buddhist Centre, so I actually went with the worst possible outcomes in mind, just in case. It didn't turn out that way, but perhaps I was old enough not to be caught up in the whole conveyor-belt-to-ordination thing. They also tried the 'stay within the teachings of our organisation' you mention. As if I was silly enough to fall for that old chestnut! Like you say, you have to use your own wisdom when in such a situation, even if you accused of being a butterfly Buddhist. And to know when to leave, or fly away, as I did.

    The downside with trying to find advice from the past yourself is the language it is couched in. Most of it still makes my brain hurt when I am attempting to get to the central message of some sutta or sutra or whatever, even when I can find a decent commentary. I also follow one or two people who translate things directly, rather than reading a few different versions and aiming for a 'best fit' to write about, but it still isn't easy. My own take on things stems from the things that happened to me before I did any Buddhist practice or went to any centre, the result of experimenting with meditation generally. It did things to me that I wanted answers to, and found them in the library at the centre, and so became a sort of Buddhist for the last forty years.

Los Angeles Mexico City London Colombo Kuala Lumpur Sydney
Wed, 5:36 PM Wed, 7:36 PM Thu, 1:36 AM Thu, 6:06 AM Thu, 8:36 AM Thu, 11:36 AM