In her most recent post, Barbara O’Brien wades back into the Western vsAsian Buddhist debate. She proposes that “the big, honking issue in Western Buddhism is what parts of Asian Buddhism are essential, and what parts are not?” Her perspective however suffers from a common flaw also held by Jerry Kolber’s post on merchandizing Buddhism. Namely, it marginalizes the majority of Western Buddhists.
The majority of Western Buddhists are after all Asian Buddhists who practice various unique styles of Buddhism here in the West. By framing her thesis as she does, in one fell swoop Barbara relegates the Asian majority to the fringes of Western Buddhism and places her cultural perspective smack in the center. She almost deserves points for literary sumo, but her approach is regrettably more the norm than the exception in Western Buddhist discourse.
Then she goes on to tie our popular misconceptions to our culture.
The meat of her post is on Asian “folk” Buddhism, presented in contrast to the original teachings. The Asian “folk” Buddhism conveys karma as fate and rebirth as reincarnation of a singular soul. But there is nothing fundamentally Asian about these beliefs, as her words suggest. These ideas stem from simplistic ideas of the self, a problem not unique to Asian folk. The concepts of fate and reincarnation have ancient and enduring roots in Western culture, and self-styled Western Buddhists have already been (mis)interpreting karma and rebirth accordingly.
Buddhism in the West will likely have to deal with these misconceptions, home-grown or otherwise, in the same way that Buddhism in the East has had to: with study, practice and tolerance.