September 19, 2009

East Side/West Side

In her most recent post, Barbara O’Brien wades back into the Western vs Asian 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.

3 comments :

  1. "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."

    Amen to that sister. The Arthurian legend is an "ancient and enduring" tale of fate and reincarnation.

    Why is it that so many try to intellectualize Buddhism rather than just simply embracing it and practicing it? It's so much easier.

    Metta

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  2. @ Richard -

    "Why is it that so many try to intellectualize Buddhism rather than just simply embracing it and practicing it?"

    If they didn't, what would the smart people talk about?

    Cheers,

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  3. I commented on the use of language in the post. Specifically, the terms "Asian cultural baggage" and "Asian cultural clutter." To me, the sweeping generality of both of these, as well as the clearly negative connotations attached to them, are good lessons for the rest of us writing about Buddhism out there.

    It's really easy to string together phrases that sound smart, and seem to apply to what's going on. But in the process, how many people will simply tune out the rest of your message, having gotten zapped by the catch phrases you so excitedly posed? I know I have done this a few times, so it's definitely another reminder for me as well.

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