'Western' Buddhism and 'Asian' Buddhism


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'Western' Buddhism and 'Asian' Buddhism

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Edited: Jun 30, 2012, 9:16am

I post this here hoping to find out about others' experiences moving from a 'Western' form of Buddhism (whatever that is) to a trip to Asia, perhaps to the home of your flavor of Buddhism. What were your impressions? What struck you as odd or unexpected?

I should preface this review: I am in a two-month program in Buddhist Studies at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute at Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche's Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery in Kathmandu. I see at least a few dozen Tibetan monks walking on the streets every day. My summer program involves both a meditative, monastic, and Western comparative religions approach to Buddhism. I am in Bodhanath, a religious site where many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have established themselves in exile, and also the location this time focuses upon.

Also as a disclaimer, I mostly skimmed this book to get a new perspective, so while I don't think I have opposed anything Moran says, I couldn't tell you where the line between his ideas and mine is.

Buddhism Observed: Travelers, Exiles, and Tibetan Dharma in Kathmandu, by Peter Moran
Finished 6/30/12

Though one of the poorest countries in Asia, one of Nepal's major exports to the West - and the Western imagination - is Tibetan Buddhism. I ordinarily don't read anthropology dissertations, but as a student of Buddhism in Bodhanath, Kathmandu, I identify not only places he describes but cultural dynamics. I mostly skimmed this book, but it opened up a new lens on my daily activity and personal investment I have in Tibetan Buddhism.

One of Moran's persistent themes is how Westerners come to experience Tibetan Buddhism with certain preconceptions. Orientalist stereotypes die hard: some Westerners see them as hyperspiritual, pure, simple. We/They bring our conceptions of what Buddhism is: focused on meditation as the base practice, also perhaps being literate in the canon. Westeners may have been told about the poverty of Nepal, but even that can become an idealization: they're so poor yet so devoted, they're not like the materialistic West!

The reality is quite different. Moran describes huge trash heaps on the road right outside monasteries. I see beggars invent increasingly deceptive and guilt-manipulating ways to get foreigners' money. Monks are doubly projected-on as both 'members of the cloth' (a projection Western Christians share) and embodiments of an idealized Tibetan Buddhism. Moran describes some Westerners' shock at seeing monks eat at nice restaurants and wear fancy clothes. One of my friends here accidentally caught some monks ogling at a newspaper spread of a bikini-clad model. Moran describes the surprise Westerners feel at the gritty human reality in the midst of the religion they came to see.

Moran also records the complex and subtle ways Tibetan Buddhists adapt to Western conceptions. For example, my understanding is that having an individual teacher in Tibetan Buddhism is unusual for a layperson. Yet many Western Buddhists in Bodhanath see having a lama as a mark of status or proof of one's depth of practice. The fewer students your lama has, the more esteemed it is to be his student. For generous donors to a monastery (mostly Taiwanese or Hong Kongese) there may be pressure to allow them into rituals traditionally reserved for monks. Even donating generously to a monastery can become a status symbol, especially if one doesn't even practice the dharma. Though Westerners hate to see the mixture of business and religion, the reality is that monasteries have to survive. They may not even realize the subtle ways tourism and pilgrimage affects them.

One of my main reactions reading Moran's work was a sigh of gladness that I do not have some of these projections. In fact, people in my class who do irritate me. One young man ranted about how 'real' Buddhism doesn't have any deity-talk, which Tibetan traditions have lots of. A girl in my class, who strikes me as more New Age dilettante than serious practitioner of anything, constantly goes in arms about anything in the sutras we have read that seems even vaguely sexist. She seems to feel that if Buddhism is not a completely egalitarian religion in all its cultural manifestations, there can be no place for her (or her Divine Goddess) in it.

Ironically, I see myself doing very little projection, despite being a member of a religion whose members may have far less open minds than the two above. As a Roman Catholic who (sporadically) practices Zen, Tibetan Buddhism is a completely foreign world to me. But many Western Buddhists come to Buddhism rejecting Christianity, often (I suspect) dissatisfied with the lack of 'authentic spirituality' in parish life or the gap between what is professed and what is practiced by Christians. Hoping to find that authentic spirituality outside the secularized and disenchanted West, they turn to Buddhism to find it. Then they come to Nepal and get shocked. Having already reconciled myself with being in a religion with major flaws in its human expression, I don't have this issue.

What I do feel most of all in Nepal is that I'm a guest. Tibetan Buddhism is not a tradition I can identify myself in. I have far fewer difficulties claiming allegience to Zen, though I prefer to only say "I practice Zen." Is that because I truly like the religion of Zen as I have encountered more? Or is it due to the large cultural gap, i.e. between the meditative way Westerners practice Buddhism and the devotionalism of Tibetan laypeople? I'll have to go to Japan to find out.

EDIT: I wrote this review for my reading journal and want to be more clear here. Most of the people in my program seem very open to this whole experience, and if they bring strong projections about "what 'real' Buddhism is" or what Buddhism needs to be for their practice, they haven't spoken about them. I am sure that I have preconceptions as well, and perhaps have just failed to identify them.

Also, being aware of the dangers of reifying big categories like "Western" or "Asian," I put those words in quotes in the thread title to say that I simply don't know any better terms there. Suggestions appreciated.

Jun 30, 2012, 5:07pm

hmmm......or are the issues you identify as their projections, YOUR projections?

and I have to say, regarding the the "girl" in your class, as compared to the "man", it is painful when you think you have found a safe place, to be confronted with the same old sexism, and often it is worse. I have found this especially painful in the spiritual realm.

I especially enjoyed this post and want to respond more later, because I think you have brought up some very important points. As I mentioned in our other thread (where we met) I tried very hard, and unsuccessfully, to fit into a Vietnamese Buddhist group here in the U.S. I might return at some point, but then I think why do that when previous American Buddhists have done all of the cultural translation for me. One issue that came up repeatedly was I had no context for their stories and teachings.

Later..........this is going to be a fun couple of months hearing from you!

Edited: Jun 30, 2012, 8:52pm

> 2

About the woman (I didn't notice I did that) - I think it goes more back to the issue of hoping for some perfect religious tradition. The professor warned us on the first day that we students might find stuff in the sutras or the history of Buddhism that we didn't like or didn't understand. So when we read the section in the Vinaya on the founding of the female renunciate order, the Buddha comes off pretty sexist. When I was studying the Hebrew Bible, I learned that it's quite unuseful (or even ethnocentric) to judge an ancient text by one's modern Western ideas of equality. In other words sexism was there. I can see it being painful to discover, but made worse by unrealistic expectations. There's not going to be some tradition untainted by sexism. Better to focus one's outrage on present issues and practices. We don't have to think the same way now.

As my friend says, it's all dukkha.

My first sesshin was with a female roshi who wrote a book on women in Zen, and the roshi I'm going to meditate with when I get home is also a woman, and it would be a loss to not have their teaching available because of discriminatory power structures. One of the things Moran mentions in his book is Westerners dismayed at how the Tibetan nuns have traditionally been excluded from the education and status the monks get. I understand a similar issue has been the case in Christian religious orders.

I'd like to hear more about your experience with the Vietnamese Buddhists. :)

Nov 14, 2013, 8:21pm

1: The disconnect is certainly something I've felt from the time I started studying the dharma in high school. One thing that is helpful for me is the way the new generation of teachers have begun presenting Buddhism. I just picked up a copy of Lodro Rinzler's two books, signed for the bookstore where I purchased them. One of them bares the inscription "Enlightened by 40 or the keg is on me." I've skimmed both books and that attitude seems to pervade his writing. This sort of "gritty reality lets not take ourselves too seriously." conception that I find welcoming.

A lot of older works either blend Buddhism and psychology, which to me seems to miss or dismiss quite a bit of important stuff in Buddhism, or comes off as new-agey hippy-dippy and unrealistic for life in the modern west. I think the more teachers we get like Rinzler in Vajrayana and Brad Warner in Zen the better. Not sure how much sense any of this has made, its been a long day and I'm feeling a bit worn down, but thought I'd throw it out there.

Dec 3, 2013, 12:38pm

I think it's important to critique one's own attitude of wanting to get something or gain something.

Dec 3, 2013, 4:11pm

I find this an interesting contrast. As one who came to Zen practice out of a Christian (liberal Anglican) background, I found an American Zen sangha congenial, but am now struggling a bit with a British teacher who wants to explore the Buddhist precepts. Having laboriously untangled myself from a lot of extraneous religious concepts and accretions from Christianity, I'm not really enthused by immersing myself in Buddhism's extraneous religious concepts and accretions. I certainly recognize the need to find one's salvation/enlightenment here and now, without taking on the perspectives and prejudices of past millennia, either Hebrew or south Asian.

Dec 3, 2013, 4:59pm

The Mind of Clover by the recently deceased Robert Aitken Roshi, founder of Diamond Sangha in Hawaii. Good treatment of Zen precepts in terms of today. Note that Aitken was a strong advocate of engaged Buddhism, which may bother some people (including me at times) but this is the best pragmatic interpretation of Buddhist ethics I have read. Clears out some cobwebs.

Dec 3, 2013, 8:38pm

6 - i was lucky enough to get a free early review copy of:

Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World by H. H. Dalai Lama

and think it might be something you would like.
I really really love it.

7 - Now I'm wanting The Mind of Clover - sounds great.