definitions

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?

Update: I’ve had a couple of people ask me what this post is all about, what it’s referencing or in response to. And it’s been linked to by a couple of bloggers out there, and criticized (fairly, for the most part). But it leads me to believe that there’s some confusion about what I’m up to here, so I thought I’d do my best to clarify.

This post is nothing more than another drop in that bucket of conversations this summer across (part of) the buddhoblogosphere about race, representation, privilege, and Buddhism. It’s a conversation that, frankly, is wearing a little thin for me, but not for reasons you’d expect. Reasons that will have to wait for another day.

All I am attempting to say in this post is that when we define our Buddhist selves or communities in opposition to or as somehow “better” than some other Buddhist selves or communities, we’re engaging in behavior that is sure to offend someone. To the extent that I think we ought to treat other Buddhists with respect, even those Buddhists with whom we disagree, and to the extent that we certainly do not need to engage in this kind of “my Buddhism’s better” behavior when we could just as easily use different language altogether, why do we persist in using this sort of disrespectful and derogatory language? Why not just change our behavior? Why defend it?

It’s a simple point. And the only reason I didn’t link to anyone else’s posts or examples of what I’m talking about was because, after a long and exhausting summer, I am just that — exhausted.

There are some who have seen to fit to claim things about me that aren’t true. There are those who have pigeon-holed me into the role of “that guy who hates whitey.” There are those who think that I believe we shouldn’t use the words “American Buddhism” or “Western Buddhism.” I’ve never claimed any other those things. All I have ever suggested is that we should be mindful of the power of our words and the negative effects that they have on others.

It is, after all, one of the precepts, and right there in the Eightfold Path.

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3 thoughts on “definitions

  1. Lovely bit of wisdom here: “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.”

    Yes yes yes yes yes!!! It also makes me ponder the utility in academics labeling certain contemporary Buddhists “modernists,” which seems to me to simply be a derogatory term indicating such Buddhists are not “really” authentic because they are not “traditional.” But who the heck is “traditional” in this time period? None of us! It’s the same old Orientalist search for Original Buddhism, Pure Buddhism, Untainted Buddhism–imaginary Buddhism. No thanks, I’ll pass on that.

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