archaistic oppression

The ever-clever (and able to hold her liquor) SJ commented on my last post asking, I think, for a rant about archaism and oppression masquerading as tradition. And post-colonialism. Dear me. That’s a lot. But I’m always up for a challenge!

This issue of archaism and oppression masquerading as tradition is pretty important, I think. And it seems to fuel the rhetoric of a lot of, shall we say, less than forgiving conservative members of our collective civilization. The best example, the one that leaps instantly to mind, is the whole “marriage has always been between one man and one woman and therefore we shouldn’t go mucking it up!” argument.

This argument against gay marriage is actually easy to refute. No, actually, marriage has not always been between one man and one woman; and even if it has always been that way, one could also make the argument that white people always owned black people, so let’s bring back slavery while we’re at it.

The idea that “this is the way things have always been” strikes me as intellectually lazy at best. It also strikes me as willful ignorance to the extent that one necessarily has to reject the idea that cultures change over time, that change is inevitable, and that our reading of history is, always, an act of interpretation. Of collective, selective, story-telling. Did a family like the Cleavers exist in 1950s America? Probably. But not every American family was like the Cleavers. There were single mothers, queer folk, and divorceés living right next door to them. And, chances are, the Beave’s dad probably had post-tramautic stress disorder from World War Two, drank too much, and abused his wife. Ah, tradition!

As I’ve said before, and these folks say much more eloquently, history is a weapon. If we use this sort of selective history, i.e., an appeal to “tradition,” to justify current social or political structures that are inherently imbalanced, that by design or accident disenfranchise whole groups of people and privilege others for no other reason than an accident of birth (like skin color, who you’d rather go to prom with, or what country you were born in), then history is being used as a particularly vile, violent, and nasty weapon.

Then again, what is a weapon? A weapon is really just a tool, and history can be a pretty instructive tool, a weapon for good, if you will. (I’m going to resist the very strong urge here to extend this metaphor to its breaking point and instead just get the hell on with it.) One of the things that history can do for us is illuminate how past instances of oppression are operative in the present. And how to undo that mass of suffering.

This is where post-colonialism comes in, and this is extremely relevant, in my opinion, to the study and practice of Buddhism in the west. (Or anywhere, really.)

In case, like most Americans, you skipped this lesson in high school history, for a Very Long Period of Time, several European (and later American) quasi-government and commercial enterprises controlled most of the known world. Between the early 16th century and World War Two, these folks literally drew maps of the world, set up national borders where, previously, there had been none, gave new names to vast empires and territories, relocated or killed millions of Africans and indigenous peoples, and set up shady business deals in East Asia involving drugs and spices. Good times (if you were white).

How all of this is relevant to Buddhism is simple: during this period, Europeans (and later Americans) believed that the riches of the East were ours for the taking. And these “riches” included Buddhism. There were several people who were busy running around India and Nepal and Tibet and China and Japan gathering up Buddhist texts, carting them back to the great universities in Paris and London and Massachusetts and translating, translating, translating. And from all this busy work emerged an image of a rational, non-ritualistisic, atheistic, mystical, meditation-centric, antinomian, and iconoclastic religion — no, wait, philosophy — that had been degraded and corrupted over time by these inferior Asians who didn’t know a good thing when they had it.

In other words, the rhetoric that Arunlikhati sharply pokes fun at in his post “Western Buddhists to the Rescue” is a rhetoric that Europeans and Americans have been using for no less than five centuries. Probably more.

How’s that for tradition?

So, the question I have for folks who would claim that Western Buddhism is going to be “fixed” or “made better” by the influence of Western philosophy or culture is two fold. (1) What Buddhism are you talking about? The Buddhism being practiced by actual human beings? The Buddhism that might be filled with elements of religion like dogma and ritual and devotionalism that make you uncomfortable? Or some bastardized version of Buddhism you inherited from the likes of Emerson and Watts? (2) Is your uncomfortableness with these aspects of religion a reflection of something “wrong” with Buddhism, or is it a reflection of something “wrong” with you? That is, are you not projecting your own prejudices against what’s wrong with other religions onto Buddhism (i.e., using something archaic to Buddhism) which suggests something unsettled or unfulfilled in your own mind, not in Buddhism?

This is not meant to refute the idea of cultural change or the idea that Buddhism shouldn’t be altered or adapted to the American cultural milieu. And it certainly isn’t to claim that white folks shouldn’t be practicing Buddhism. What this rant is really all about is a way of saying, hey look. For more than five centuries, white folks have been telling not-white folks how to live and that their culture is inherently inferior to European culture. So when you climb up on your high horse and tell some young Asian kid that her Buddhism is simply “cultural trappings,” and she gets pissed off at you, guess what? She’s justified in her anger. And your ignorance of history is your problem. Not hers.

So in conclusion, and to quote the surprisingly wise Wil Wheaton: “Don’t be a dick.”


3 thoughts on “archaistic oppression

  1. I tip my hat to you, sir- this post manages both to “save” tradition and to lambast its misuse.. all depending on how you define it. Bravo.

  2. Very nice rant Scott!

    I would also add it’s good to be cautious how to use the term “superstition” which I see is more commonly used when referring to certain Buddhist rituals and practices (and not only by Westerners). This can be a very loaded term and dismissive of some important cultural traditions.

    I once carelessly remarked to my mom, (who was raised as a good old-fashioned superstitious Korean Buddhist!) that probably alot of what she was taught as a child was “superstitions”!

    (Anyone who’s read Lela Lee’s books will know it is not a good idea to speak to your old immigrant mom like this)

    She gave me a look (the kind usually preceding a smack to the back of the head) and said, in that tone of voice: “BUT THAT’S BUDDHISM!”

  3. @ Yuinen: Ha! Indeed it is, Yuinen, indeed it is!

    Oh, and hey, I hear you’ll be in Berkeley this Saturday at the IBS shin-dig. It’ll be good to catch up.

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