part two: the homogenization of buddhism

Note: this is part two of a three-part series. Make sure to read parts one and three, as well as the introduction.

This post will focus more on that issue the of whitewashing culture, of the homogenization of culture. This will bring us closer to the task at hand, namely, figuring out why this issue is important for Buddhism in the West.

But perhaps the best way to understand this is to take a step back away from Buddhism, and even a step back from race, and examine a different homogenization of culture. And we can find such an example in the current debate raging over gay marriage.

For starters, I am going to be unequivocal here and say for the record that I am a big support of extending the right to marry to same-sex couples, largely on civil rights grounds (i.e., for the same reason I would have been against Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in Loving v. Virginia, had I been alive at the time). That is, the government should not be in the marriage business if it’s going to dictate unfairly who can be married.

Nevertheless, I must also accept that the very concept of “marriage” as it is enacted in the United States today is based on a white, Anglo-Saxon, and largely Protestant view of marriage, and is of extremely recent vintage. I must accept the fact that over the course of human history, there have been countless ways in which people have expressed their love to one another, countless ways to organize martial institutions, innumerable ways to raise a family, and that most of them would be considered “deviant” by today’s current, Puritanical, American morals.

What this means, then, is that when any two people within the United States enter into a marriage, they are necessarily enacting a culturally specific institution that would have meant very different things a century ago and will probably mean very different things a century from now. And this institution necessarily has very different cultural meanings in other places outside of America. Moreover, this institution is extremely European in nature and has been, historically, heterosexual.

It should be no surprise to some reading this that despite the publicity of Proposition 8, despite the united front the LGBT community has put on it, not everyone in the community cares about gay marriage. There are dissenting voices within the community who say, what we really want is to be accepted for who were are. If gay marriage is the only way to be accepted as “normal” by the larger culture, then this necessarily means that acceptance is predicated on queer folks acting like straight folks.

Moreover, as evidenced by this wonderful article, the marriage equality movement has dominated the discourse within the LGBT community for some time. As a consequence, issues that are more pressing for queer folk of color — HIV/AIDS funding or the fight against poverty to name just two — are getting drowned out by the campaign to make sure gay folks are able to do something that some folks are deeply ambivalent about.

This is what I mean by the homogenization of culture. The homogenization of culture simply means that a particular community’s discourse, its identity, gets distilled into a smaller and smaller set of issues, and dissenting opinion gets silenced.

There are consequences. As I mentioned very very briefly in my last post, being married is a privilege. It carries with it a host of social and financial benefits. So there are legitimate reasons why it is important that the LGBT community has the ability to participate in this privileged social institution. By not being legally allowed to do so, the government is effectively denying them the same rights and privileges they offer my wife and me for no other reason than an accident of history, i.e., we were born straight.

But this is not the only issue effecting the broader LGBT community. Not everyone in the community looks like Will Truman (let alone Jack).

From this point of view we can recognize that the issues facing the LGBT community are complicated. There are issues that are a matter of civil rights; there are issues that are questions of poverty or of government-funded programs; there are issues influenced by lingering racial prejudice. There are no easy answers. Because when you get right down to it, society is complicated. And distilling a complex community into a small set of essentialist stereotypes is, at best, intellectually lazy.

And here is where we can see the relevance of this conversation for the broader American Buddhist community. A cursory glance at the mainstream Buddhist press (and by extension the larger discourse on what it means to be Buddhist in America) yields — with a few, very good exceptions — countless articles about the Dalai Lama suggesting that he is The Most Important Buddhist Figure in the World; endless discussions about how meditation and mindfulness are good for your soul, good for your love life, good for your family, good for your kids, good for your physical health, good for your pets; how science is systematically proving that meditation and mindfulness are good for us; that despite the numerous, ambivalent sentiments to the contrary, it’s really okay to have whatever kind of (mindful) sexual relationships you want to have; and if you’re spiritually lost, you can go this retreat (or this one, or this one, or this one….)

Now, as much as I am a fan of gay marriage, I am also a fan of the Dalai Lama, meditation, mindfulness, and sex. But if we look closely at these issues that the mainstream press is obsessed with, we see our own, largely white, middle-class, cultural biases. The conversations about mindfulness and meditation are almost always about how to live a better life, how to be more productive at work, etc. — which assumes that those reading have jobs. (If there is an article in one of these magazines that explains how meditation or mindfulness may be useful in helping one find a job, please, let me know.) I am a big supporter of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan freedom cause; but the Dalai Lama is not the Buddhist Pope, nor does he speak for all Buddhists. So where are the full-page glossy profiles of other Buddhists? Our American obsession with sex, one could argue, is little more than a rejection of our inherited, Puritanical past; but we seem to have jumped from one extreme (sex is bad) to another (quick! let’s find a way to justify all sexual behavior within Buddhism even if Buddhism doesn’t actually care!) And we find a similar trend in the long history of Buddhists who want science to prove that they’re better than non-Buddhists. Sometimes, science isn’t the answer.

What I am suggesting here is not that the writers and editors at the Big Three are all wrong. (And I am certainly not suggesting that they are a pack of white racists.) What I am suggesting is that with a few very notable exceptions, they generally present one narrow view of Buddhism that is little more than one interpretation of the tradition from a particular, historical and cultural viewpoint.

That, in and of itself, is not the problem. Let me repeat. Interpreting Buddhism from one’s point of view is not the problem; indeed, it’s normal and and makes certain pragmatic sense. The problem is the following step: forgetting that one’s interpretation is just that — an interpretation — and then projecting this interpretation back onto the tradition and other Buddhists as “real Buddhism.” As normal.

It is the assumption that one’s particular, culturally conditioned values and beliefs are universal and then using those values and beliefs to judge others that is the problem. It is deeply problematic that we assume some things to be “real Buddhism” while summarily dismissing other parts of the tradition as “just culture” while at the same time believing that our own culturally conditioned and informed interpretation of Buddhism is not, itself, “just culture.” You’ll notice here an eerie similarity to the problem of white privilege discussed in part one.

It is within this dynamic between predominately Anglo-Saxon Buddhists who dismiss the “cultural trappings” of predominately Asian Buddhists that the problem arises. Given the long history of European colonialism, it is no surprise that many Asian Buddhists have a fierce sense of ownership over their communities; and when a non-Asian comes in and tells them, in effect, that what they’re doing isn’t “real Buddhism,” is “just culture” or “dogma and baggage” — it is understandable that this sense of ownership and pride would turn into defensive or exclusionist behavior. (It may not be “right” or “nice” or “Buddhist.” But, frankly, I don’t care about what is “right” and “wrong” in this context because that implies that there are moral absolutes, that we can make judgements about other cultures and peoples from a place of neutrality and objectivity and… oh wait, isn’t that the central problem with whiteness and white privilege? The assumption that there is, indeed, a place of neutrality and objectivity to which we can retreat?)

The concern I have then is that “American Buddhism” is increasingly being portrayed in terms that have most resonance with privileged white people (and here I’m using the term “privileged” in the narrow, financial sense of the word). For just one example, poor folks, they probably don’t care about meditation retreats. Going to a meditation retreat is something that costs money. Money and time. And if you’re going to take the time and money to go to a mediation retreat, why not take the family on vacation instead? A family vacation makes more pragmatic sense to an over-worked, working class mother since its benefits are immediate and measurable (i.e., she and her kids will have fun and she’ll be able to see how happy they are). Going to a mediation retreat, on the other hand, can be seen as something self-centered, something whose benefits are not immediately or obviously as applicable or relevant to the kids, to the family. It comes across as nothing more than going to a spa resort, something self-indulgent, something takes time and money which may be better spent on the family. So, these magazines that focus only on this one aspect of Buddhism are necessarily not talking to underprivileged people.

And that’s how you marginalize people. That’s how you silence voices. That’s how you whitewash culture and turn Buddhism from a rich and vibrant and diverse religion open to all into something only the rich and elite have the time or inclination to do.

Be sure to read the next installment of this series: work to be done.

4 thoughts on “part two: the homogenization of buddhism

  1. Our American obsession with sex, one could argue, is little more than a rejection of our inherited, Puritanical past; but we seem to have jumped from one extreme (sex is bad) to another (quick! let’s find a way to justify all sexual behavior within Buddhism even if Buddhism doesn’t actually care!)

    He he he, good point on this one. Some Buddhists would be disappointed to know that Buddhism has some conservative views on things, though not in the hell-and-brimstone sense you see with Christianity and other such religions.

    I just get annoyed when people make a political/social agenda out of Buddhism instead of studying Buddhism as-it-is, for better or for worse.

    Anyways, the whole economy surrounding meditation retreats kind of bugs me too. They do happen in other non-white cultures though. In Japan, some folks go on meditation retreats to Zen monasteries, but it has the same privileged, artificial feel that they do in the West, and in either case, I’d much rather not go on one.

    I am all for sincerely taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha for a time in a monastic setting, and many Buddhists do this throughout the world, but the “retreat” setting is emblematic of a kind of privileged vacation, and the ads and business that surround it only make things worse.

  2. @ Doug M: thanks for the comment Doug (glad to see you back, btw).

    Just to clarify my own ideas here a bit, what I was driving at in my sexuality and science bit was that there’s this tendency some folks have to continually ask, “What does Buddhism say about X?” But sometimes, Buddhism isn’t the answer. Sometimes Buddhism doesn’t really say anything about the issue. Sexuality is a good example because the vast majority of what Buddhism has to say about sex was written not for you and me — it was written for a monastic audience with very different needs and concerns. It would be a little like using the sexual politics and mores from a World War II navy boat to help you in your marriage. Some things might make sense. Most things probably don’t.

    Also, I’m sure that there are similar issues regarding retreats and whatnot elsewhere in the world. I’ve tried to make my own points in this piece about North America specifically. So I wonder if things happening in other parts of the Buddhist world that may, on the surface, look the same are the result of very different contexts and have very different consequences and systems of meaning. I don’t know. It’s worth thinking about but I think I’ll save those reflections for elsewhere!

  3. It would be a little like using the sexual politics and mores from a World War II navy boat to help you in your marriage.

    Good point (not to mention an amusing analogy). I hear a lot of the “What does Buddhism say about X” questions too, and sometimes the best answers seems to just be “use good judgment”. I think most people already know the answer, but want something on paper in verse form or something wave around.

  4. It is deeply problematic that we assume some things to be “real Buddhism” while summarily dismissing other parts of the tradition as “just culture” while at the same time believing that our own culturally conditioned and informed interpretation of Buddhism is not, itself, “just culture.”

    This point was of particular interest to me. I carefully researched and chose a tradition to practice when I decided to seriously pursue Buddhism. I chose an old Japanese tradition. Before I could tell you what is ‘Japanese’ about it and what is the unique, skillful approach to the Dharma I would fist have to understand every aspect of this tradition AND the Dharma to be able to see where (if it were actually possible) one ends and one begins. I’m conscious of that each time I attend the weekly services at my temple. Whether a given activity is my favorite part of the service or is something I feel I should do to support the sangha I have to be thankful for both, because it’s the unique expression of this tradition that I feel is most useful for my particular path. How can I pick and choose what to practice and still say that I’m humbly learning from the experience and wisdom of 800 or 900 years of fellow practitioners? Humility and integrity are much more useful that being normal or ‘accepted’.

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