This much I know.
No one likes their identity to be defined or described by a third party, particularly when that third party is an anonymous total stranger. No one likes to be labeled or defined or described by someone else; and when they are, they’re understandably upset by it.
Here’s a couple more things I know.
I have absolutely no problem, in principle, with white folks “remaking” Buddhism to suit their particular cultural needs. I have no problem, in principle, with Buddhist teachers reinterpreting Buddhist doctrines or practices to better serve the needs of some group of practitioners, regardless of ethnicity or cultural background. (I say “in principle” because the Buddhist apologist in me has concerns about some of these changes, but that’s beside the point. Or, rather, beside the point of this particular post.)
What I do have a problem with are the following two things: (1) making the claim that the new, reinterpretation of Buddhism to suit “Western” needs is somehow more “authentic” or closer to “what the Buddha actually taught” than the “cultural” Buddhism of some other group of Buddhists; and (2) the labeling and defining of other Buddhists from the point of view of an outsider who may or may not have had any long-term, sustained contact with that group (i.e., defining or labeling someone else, see first paragraph), and doing so in what are usually pejorative terms like “traditional” (which implies stagnant, conservative, or backwards) as opposed to “modern” (which implies dynamic, progressive, or creative).
Of the first point, anyone who attempts to claim that the Buddhism that they practice is “what the Buddha really taught” needs to be aware of the fact that they are, in some very real sense, talking about the Invisible Pink Unicorn. The fact of the matter is that none of us has a clear idea of what the Buddha really taught because (a) he died over two and a half thousand years ago, (b) all we have are written records put to paper nearly half a millennium after he died and written by a community of monks with a very different set of needs than the set of needs you and I have, and (c) even if those records were as historically accurate a court-room reporter, none of you have read all of those writings (with one or two possible exceptions), but instead are basing your idea of “what the Buddha really taught” on a small minority of hand-picked sources that somehow speak to your particular, culturally determined needs and you are overlooking other sources that somehow contradict your particular cultural needs.
Let me be clear. I don’t have a problem with cherry-picking the Buddhist sutras for bits of wisdom that make more sense in these troubled times. I have a problem with contemporary, unenlightened, dilettantes claiming that those choices are “more Buddhist” than other choices. Making that claim is fundamentally no different than the claims of some Christian fundamentalists who think that the Old Testament passages against homosexuality are still what God wants; but God has changed his mind about the ones that say slavery is okay. In short, how the hell do you know?
Of the second point, look. It’s all culture. When a progressive, modern, Western, white, whatever, Buddhist makes the claim that he or she is practicing Buddhism “stripped” of its cultural baggage, they’re implying that they live in a culture-neutral void. And that’s hogwash. We all live in particular cultural contexts from which we cannot escape and with which we interpret and contextualize the world around us. To whit, a number of you immediately understood my reference to the Invisible Pink Unicorn. Those of you who didn’t quickly clicked the link to Wikipedia article and contextualized that reference in the larger cultural milieu of “science v. religion” in late 20th, early 21st century American cultural politics. Scopes and monkeys may have come to mind, as well as Kansas and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Welcome. We are now able to have a conversation because we share a particular cultural context for understanding language.
So there’s nothing wrong with interpreting Buddhism from a particular cultural standpoint. But to assume that your interpretation, because it’s not bogged down by (Asian) cultural baggage, is somehow better than what’s come before is the height of arrogance (and, frankly, insulting). All Buddhists are modern Buddhists if for no other reason than the fact that we all live in the modern world and, therefore, need to deal with a similar set of modern crises. (Do you really think Asian Buddhists are all still living in Ming Dynasty China?) All Buddhists are in the process of reinterpreting their traditions, making deliberate and creative changes to the doctrines and practices in order to help them make sense of these troubled times.
The problem is when you make the claim that your Buddhism is more “authentic” than someone else’s Buddhism (because, ahem, that’s the very definition of fundamentalism), and then take that added step of claiming that your Buddhism is more “authentic” precisely because it is not the Buddhism of some “other” Buddhist. When you make that claim, you are not only defining yourself, you are defining the “other” and, like I said at the start, no one likes that. So knock it off.
In other words, feel free to define yourself and your Buddhist practice. But stop doing it as a means to differentiate yourself from some “other” kind of Buddhist.
Does that help?