By John Pendall
A few years ago, I visited a good friend and saw a little Hotei (the chubby laughing Buddha) figurine on his table.
“Well that’s fun,” I remarked, pointing at the statue, forever captured in a state of pure, almost disturbing, hysteria. I mean, who the hell is that happy? What is he laughing about, anyway? I can only guess it’s something inappropriate; like a priest farting at a funeral.
“You like that? I got it at Spencer’s the other day. I love Buddha statues.”
“Well, that’s not the Buddha ya know? That’s Hotei, a Chinese folk legend.” He stared at me, blankly curious. “The historical Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama. He came from Nepal, or at least the region that has become Nepal.”
“Oh,” he replied with unconcealed disinterest. Then we smoked a few joints and listened to The Wall.
He’s a good man, a great man, but like many of us, he’d just treated a foreign culture like a commodity. This happens a lot with Buddhism. People deck themselves out in beads; they buy statues, fancy robes, and Buddha t-shirts. They share memes by the e-Buddhism FB page without realizing that it’s 100% full of crap.
Seriously, check out that page for a second, I’ll wait… Isn’t that BS? Who keeps coming up with this stuff? Another one is Buddhist Teaching & Science; e-Buddhism frequently shares their posts. The real problem with all of this isn’t misrepresentation, but that when earnest practitioners correct these misunderstandings, well, we sound annoying as hell. I mean, don’t I sound just a little bit annoying complaining about all of this? I’m annoying myself.
Cultural (mis)appropriation happens when the majority culture adopts elements of a minority culture.
It’s sort of like a cowboy-hat-wearing country boy blasting Dr. Dre through subwoofers powerful enough to create a rift in space-time. That would be like Snoop Dogg—sorry, Snoop Lion—sitting on his porch in a straw hat and coveralls picking out Holston Valley Breakdown on the banjo. Cultural misappropriation is different from enculturation and acculturation. Enculturation is when a person learns and adopts the customs of the culture they were born in. Acculturation is when a person adopts the customs of the culture they move to. Buddhism is fantastic at acculturation; it’s often used it to its advantage over the millennia.
Translating Pali and Sanskrit terms into English and then putting those terms into circulation is acculturation; using a faux Asian accent when you quote your Asian teacher is cultural appropriation. When someone learns about the symbolism and mindfulness practice behind the gassho (bow) and then applies that mindfulness to a handshake, then they’re acculturating Buddhism. If a Westerner starts gasshoing all the time, then he or she is misappropriating.
“But in a monastery, a gassho is a sign of respect to the monks. I don’t want them to think I’m disrespecting them.” If a monk thinks you’re disrespecting them by giving them a handshake instead of a bow, then they’re probably not someone you’re going to want teaching you Dharma. That would mean they’re attached to rites and rituals, which was on Buddha’s short list of, “Four things to not cling to.”
So, misappropriation isn’t just common among non-Buddhist Westerners who like beads, but among Buddhists as well. This is a far more serious issue that just makes Western Buddhism look tawdry.
Buddhism isn’t defined by its outward forms that can be picked up and twisted by hosting cultures; it’s a mind thing. Each time an American Buddhist gasshos, prostrates, or wraps themselves in robes, they’re practicing Indianism, Chineseism, Japaneseism, etc., but not necessarily Buddhism.
This might be one reason why a lot of Asian teachers aren’t passing on their lineages when they retire. They see that the Buddhism they had at home just doesn’t work here. Instead of it freeing people, people get attached to it and think that incense, ordination and, novel Asian Buddhist names are what it’s all about. I even have a fancy Asian name, but I can’t really remember what it is. I’d have to look it up. It means “Windy Way” or “Wild Way.”
Buddhism isn’t defined by the words each culture uses to share the teachings.
The teachings aren’t about the words, they’re about the message. That message is always wordless; it’s known directly, the same way we see something with our eyeballs. Buddhism isn’t something you display, it’s something you see in everything that life displays to you.
Even the Four Noble Truths and the precepts are pointing to a direct realization that we only loosely approximated as, “The Four Noble Truths,” and, “The Precepts.” You could easily come up with an alternative, but comparable, set of Truths and precepts inspired by the same message. The old legend says that Siddhartha was hesitant about teaching people when he was first enlightened. He couldn’t see how to explain his realization in a way that people could understand.
With that in mind, do you really think that something as blatantly rational as the Four Noble Truths, Dependent Origination and the Three Marks of Existence were his profound insight that he struggled to express with words? In the Suttas, each time a person remarks on how simple and straightforward a teaching is, Buddha admonishes them by saying, “It isn’t so! The meaning is subtle and difficult to understand.”
You don’t need to gassho to someone; a high-five, hug, or handshake will do just fine. You don’t need to wear robes when a comfy t-shirt would do the trick. The only time overtly Asian Buddhist forms like beads are necessary, is you’re just beginning to practice and need something tangible to remind yourself to not be an asshole.
But there comes a point when we’ve gotta let all of that stuff go and just return to ourselves. A Buddhist retreat isn’t just confined to the monastery or meditation center. We’re on retreat from the second we decide to act differently than we did prior to learning about Buddhism, and it goes on until we have an insight that plops us back into our pre-Buddhist stream-of-thought.
That’s when our muster is really tested; when we step back into our own shoes and pound the pavement without a walking stick.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".