August 18, 2010

Ditch the Asian Straw Man

I was writing a long response to David Nichtern’s Huffinton Post piece—but then I realized that lunchtime is almost over. So I leave you with these images.

Is Asian Buddhism versus Western Buddhism a fair comparison? Honestly, it’s like comparing characteristics of America to the Perth metropolitan area. There is a real issue of scale here.

Not to mention that the timescales aren’t exactly comparable, either. When self-styled Western Buddhists are writing about “Asian Buddhism,” it’s never entirely clear to me if they’re writing about something they saw the other day or read about in a historical text written by some clueless white guy European colonialist.

Buddhism in Asia is greater, more diverse and far, far older than Buddhism in the West. It will continue that way for the entire span of your natural life. When writers like David Nichtern attempt to describe Buddhism in Asia, they end up as nothing more than blind men feeling about an elephant. Their arguments create a fictional Asian Buddhism to use as a straw man in order to define their vision of a separate Western Buddhism. This rhetoric is colonialist at its root, and I encourage them to do better. I have no doubt that they could.

Update: In response to some thoughtful commentary below, I had to put it in print: sometimes I get it wrong.

18 comments :

  1. Yeah, that article is kind of grating because it seems to think respecting your teacher is somehow wrong. It smacks of American-culture superiority (we call our teachers by their first-name, we rock). :p

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  2. "by some clueless white guy."
    You really do label this blog correctly.
    I bow out.

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  3. Sabio, you don't think there are any clueless white guys? Come on. I'm a white guy, and I have no trouble with that phrase whatsoever. It's true. I've read plenty of commentaries about "Buddhist history" from white guys who clearly had no idea, or simply didn't want to do the work to create a broader picture.

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  4. @ Nathan :
    Say these to yourself:
    "some clueless Jew"
    "some clueless Black guy"
    "some clueless Yellow guy"
    "some clueless small guy"
    "some clueless Christian"
    "some clueless Mahayanist"
    "some clueless American"
    "some clueless Woman"

    Don't they all sound wonderful, mature, insightful, productive. I've read histories of Buddhism by Japanese folks who you would feel had no idea either. I have heard women write on Buddhism who you would feel had no idea either. Would you label these the same.
    Does that make it clear?

    I agree that Western vs. Eastern is not too useful except in broad strokes. I get that people who have not lived among a certain people can have a hard time understanding them. I get that images persist in spite of facts. But Arun's posts have an particular ironic righteousness about them that I can't quite point out well enough.

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  5. Arun, love the visual aids by the way. They get funnier everytime I read this post.

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  6. Maybe I'm not seeing what you and JLAR are. Isn't Nichtern just acknowledging the culture clash?

    And as for respecting the time scale, in the article he states: "It might be too early to talk about "American Buddhism." History tells us that it could take several hundred years to really have some perspective on this kind of evolution. But it is intriguing to look back over the last 50 years and also look at the current situation."

    There it seems he acknowledges it's infancy, and tries putting this argument into this perspective.

    I don't see the straw man either, but again, maybe I'm missing something. I see him using examples of Guru worship in Vajrayana Buddhism (in which he practices) and pointing out different cultural aspects that might be hard to meld in the mind of someone entrenched in Western culture.

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  7. Hi... not sure why you take such offense to this article. Seems pretty straightforward to me. I think the author would agree with your diagrams and didn't imply that Asian Buddhism was inferior to Western Buddhism.

    And your metaphor about the blind man feeling the elephant... wouldn't that be more applicable as a description of your parents having sex?

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  8. What does Arun mean by "Buddhism is greater..." etc.?

    Uses less artificial colors and flavors?

    More chocolate chips?

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  9. It is always interesting when comments about "white" people come up and many white people get into such a tizzy about it.

    White people aren't used to being questioned or criticized, fairly or unfairly, due to their skin color. I would hope that some might make use of the discomfort that causes, really look into it and feel it and consider how having to be confronted with that in both blatant and subtle ways every day can influence a person's viewpoint.

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  10. As one of the folks above who NellaLou may be speaking about I must say:

    (a) Understand prejudice is very hard for those in power -- if not almost impossible. Your point is valuable.

    (b) Living in Asia for 12 years as an adult, I have been shot at with sling shots, held up against a wall by machine gun in the desert, beaten unconscious on a train, had a sickle held to my throat with threat of execution, spit on, name called and more. All because I was white.

    (c) But I have also known of far worse things done to non-whites because they were not white.

    Thus, I think your point is valid but being white should not also negate my opinion -- Since we can't tell race here, I am curious if any non-whites objected.

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  11. @Nella - my issues are with Arun's terrible portrayal of Nichtern's article.

    Arun writes "Is Asian Buddhism versus Western Buddhism a fair comparison?"

    Yet no where in Nichtern's article was this message conveyed, or this point brought up. It isn't a this Buddhism vs. that Buddhism article. It is an article that is trying to convey an important message, one about culture, not geography or race.

    Nichtern states: "This devotion is actually found in many other Asian teaching systems". Note: he didn't say "found in Asian Buddhism", but was pointing out a cultural norm, which seems to be the centerpiece of the article.

    Nichtern also goes on to say: " In Vajrayana Buddhism, the guru is considered to be enlightened and equal in value to the Buddha..." again, he isn't pigeon holing Asian Buddhism or Western Buddhism, but rather talking about an experience from one tradition.
    Next "When self-styled Western Buddhists are writing about “Asian Buddhism,” it’s never entirely clear to me if they’re writing about something they saw the other day or read about in a historical text written by some clueless white guy."

    The insult to Nichtern aside, I think that if one reads the article in question, it is clear what is being talked about: 'guru worship' and East vs West culture clash that is inevitable because of the different accepted cultural norms in each respective culture. Nichtern isn't simply talking about geography here, which Arun seems to imply as well.

    And then Arun writes: "When writers like David Nichtern attempt to describe Buddhism in Asia...Their arguments create a fictional Asian Buddhism"

    I've re-read the article several times, and at no point did this happen. He never attempted to "describe Buddhism in Asia". He was using concrete examples from his own Buddhist tradition! Yes, the words Asian Buddhism and Western Buddhism did appear in the article, but I think if that is all Arun got out of the article, he is suffering from a terrible case of not being able to see forrest for the trees.

    It seems like the only straw man I see is in Arun's portrayal of Nichtern's article, set up as a way to attack someone simply for using the terms Asian Buddhism and Western Buddhism.

    Honestly, I had to go back through a couple of Nichtern's articles just to make sure that Arun had actually linked to the correct one.

    Are we not allowed to talk about cultural norms, and their consequences, without resorting to playing the race card?


    The only point at which I could see Arun drawing such a conclucsion would be when Nichtern writes: "Even within the Asian Buddhist system this dichotomy can catalyze a creative tension in the student's learning process, but mixed with our Western democratic bias, there can be at times an almost insurmountable dissonance in the student, who is now struggling to synchronize two very divergent leadership models, democracy and monarchy."

    Yet if you read the rest of the article, you can see that he isn't just talking about Asian Buddhism when he uses that term.

    I read Arun's blog because he brings to light many issues overlooked by the fluff that is the Tricycle-type establishment. I've had my issues with several posts here, but find value in his posts from time to time. Usually when I find offense, I just ignore the post and move on. I felt compelled to comment not because I'm white, but because Arun is reading undertones in Nichtern's article that simply aren't there. Nichtern brings up some very valuable points and then invites discussion based on those points. Points that are very important regarding the culture clash that IS happening and IS an obstacle for some seeking the dharma.

    ReplyDelete
  12. @Nella - my issues are with Arun's terrible portrayal of Nichtern's article.

    Arun writes "Is Asian Buddhism versus Western Buddhism a fair comparison?"

    Yet no where in Nichtern's article was this message conveyed, or this point brought up. It isn't a this Buddhism vs. that Buddhism article. It is an article that is trying to convey an important message, one about culture, not geography or race.

    Nichtern states: "This devotion is actually found in many other Asian teaching systems". Note: he didn't say "found in Asian Buddhism", but was pointing out a cultural norm, which seems to be the centerpiece of the article.

    Nichtern also goes on to say: " In Vajrayana Buddhism, the guru is considered to be enlightened and equal in value to the Buddha..." again, he isn't pigeon holing Asian Buddhism or Western Buddhism, but rather talking about an experience from one tradition.
    Next "When self-styled Western Buddhists are writing about “Asian Buddhism,” it’s never entirely clear to me if they’re writing about something they saw the other day or read about in a historical text written by some clueless white guy."

    The insult to Nichtern aside, I think that if one reads the article in question, it is clear what is being talked about: 'guru worship' and East vs West culture clash that is inevitable because of the different accepted cultural norms in each respective culture. Nichtern isn't simply talking about geography here, which Arun seems to imply as well.

    And then Arun writes: "When writers like David Nichtern attempt to describe Buddhism in Asia...Their arguments create a fictional Asian Buddhism"

    I've re-read the article several times, and at no point did this happen. He never attempted to "describe Buddhism in Asia". He was using concrete examples from his own Buddhist tradition! Yes, the words Asian Buddhism and Western Buddhism did appear in the article, but I think if that is all Arun got out of the article, he is suffering from a terrible case of not being able to see forrest for the trees.

    It seems like the only straw man I see is in Arun's portrayal of Nichtern's article, set up as a way to attack someone simply for using the terms Asian Buddhism and Western Buddhism.

    Honestly, I had to go back through a couple of Nichtern's articles just to make sure that Arun had actually linked to the correct one.

    Are we not allowed to talk about cultural norms, and their consequences, without resorting to playing the race card?


    The only point at which I could see Arun drawing such a conclucsion would be when Nichtern writes: "Even within the Asian Buddhist system this dichotomy can catalyze a creative tension in the student's learning process, but mixed with our Western democratic bias, there can be at times an almost insurmountable dissonance in the student, who is now struggling to synchronize two very divergent leadership models, democracy and monarchy."

    Yet if you read the rest of the article, you can see that he isn't just talking about Asian Buddhism when he uses that term.

    I read Arun's blog because he brings to light many issues overlooked by the fluff that is the Tricycle-type establishment. I've had my issues with several posts here, but find value in his posts from time to time. Usually when I find offense, I just ignore the post and move on. I felt compelled to comment not because I'm white, but because Arun is reading undertones in Nichtern's article that simply aren't there. Nichtern brings up some very valuable points and then invites discussion based on those points. Points that are very important regarding the culture clash that IS happening and IS an obstacle for some seeking the dharma.

    ReplyDelete
  13. @Nella - my issues are with Arun's terrible portrayal of Nichtern's article.

    Arun writes "Is Asian Buddhism versus Western Buddhism a fair comparison?"

    Yet no where in Nichtern's article was this message conveyed, or this point brought up. It isn't a this Buddhism vs. that Buddhism article. It is an article that is trying to convey an important message, one about culture, not geography or race.

    Nichtern states: "This devotion is actually found in many other Asian teaching systems". Note: he didn't say "found in Asian Buddhism", but was pointing out a cultural norm, which seems to be the centerpiece of the article.

    Nichtern also goes on to say: " In Vajrayana Buddhism, the guru is considered to be enlightened and equal in value to the Buddha..." again, he isn't pigeon holing Asian Buddhism or Western Buddhism, but rather talking about an experience from one tradition.
    Next "When self-styled Western Buddhists are writing about “Asian Buddhism,” it’s never entirely clear to me if they’re writing about something they saw the other day or read about in a historical text written by some clueless white guy."

    The insult to Nichtern aside, I think that if one reads the article in question, it is clear what is being talked about: 'guru worship' and East vs West culture clash that is inevitable because of the different accepted cultural norms in each respective culture. Nichtern isn't simply talking about geography here, which Arun seems to imply as well.

    And then Arun writes: "When writers like David Nichtern attempt to describe Buddhism in Asia...Their arguments create a fictional Asian Buddhism"

    I've re-read the article several times, and at no point did this happen. He never attempted to "describe Buddhism in Asia". He was using concrete examples from his own Buddhist tradition! Yes, the words Asian Buddhism and Western Buddhism did appear in the article, but I think if that is all Arun got out of the article, he is suffering from a terrible case of not being able to see forrest for the trees.

    It seems like the only straw man I see is in Arun's portrayal of Nichtern's article, set up as a way to attack someone simply for using the terms Asian Buddhism and Western Buddhism.

    Honestly, I had to go back through a couple of Nichtern's articles just to make sure that Arun had actually linked to the correct one.

    Are we not allowed to talk about cultural norms, and their consequences, without resorting to playing the race card?


    The only point at which I could see Arun drawing such a conclucsion would be when Nichtern writes: "Even within the Asian Buddhist system this dichotomy can catalyze a creative tension in the student's learning process, but mixed with our Western democratic bias, there can be at times an almost insurmountable dissonance in the student, who is now struggling to synchronize two very divergent leadership models, democracy and monarchy."

    Yet if you read the rest of the article, you can see that he isn't just talking about Asian Buddhism when he uses that term.

    I read Arun's blog because he brings to light many issues overlooked by the fluff that is the Tricycle-type establishment. I've had my issues with several posts here, but find value in his posts from time to time. Usually when I find offense, I just ignore the post and move on. I felt compelled to comment not because I'm white, but because Arun is reading undertones in Nichtern's article that simply aren't there. Nichtern brings up some very valuable points and then invites discussion based on those points. Points that are very important regarding the culture clash that IS happening and IS an obstacle for some seeking the dharma.

    ReplyDelete
  14. @Nella - my issues are with Arun's terrible portrayal of Nichtern's article.

    Arun writes "Is Asian Buddhism versus Western Buddhism a fair comparison?"

    Yet no where in Nichtern's article was this message conveyed, or this point brought up. It isn't a this Buddhism vs. that Buddhism article. It is an article that is trying to convey an important message, one about culture, not geography or race.

    Nichtern states: "This devotion is actually found in many other Asian teaching systems". Note: he didn't say "found in Asian Buddhism", but was pointing out a cultural norm, which seems to be the centerpiece of the article.

    Nichtern also goes on to say: " In Vajrayana Buddhism, the guru is considered to be enlightened and equal in value to the Buddha..." again, he isn't pigeon holing Asian Buddhism or Western Buddhism, but rather talking about an experience from one tradition.
    Next "When self-styled Western Buddhists are writing about “Asian Buddhism,” it’s never entirely clear to me if they’re writing about something they saw the other day or read about in a historical text written by some clueless white guy."

    The insult to Nichtern aside, I think that if one reads the article in question, it is clear what is being talked about: 'guru worship' and East vs West culture clash that is inevitable because of the different accepted cultural norms in each respective culture. Nichtern isn't simply talking about geography here, which Arun seems to imply as well.

    And then Arun writes: "When writers like David Nichtern attempt to describe Buddhism in Asia...Their arguments create a fictional Asian Buddhism"

    I've re-read the article several times, and at no point did this happen. He never attempted to "describe Buddhism in Asia". He was using concrete examples from his own Buddhist tradition! Yes, the words Asian Buddhism and Western Buddhism did appear in the article, but I think if that is all Arun got out of the article, he is suffering from a terrible case of not being able to see forrest for the trees.

    It seems like the only straw man I see is in Arun's portrayal of Nichtern's article, set up as a way to attack someone simply for using the terms Asian Buddhism and Western Buddhism.

    Honestly, I had to go back through a couple of Nichtern's articles just to make sure that Arun had actually linked to the correct one.

    Are we not allowed to talk about cultural norms, and their consequences, without resorting to playing the race card?


    The only point at which I could see Arun drawing such a conclucsion would be when Nichtern writes: "Even within the Asian Buddhist system this dichotomy can catalyze a creative tension in the student's learning process, but mixed with our Western democratic bias, there can be at times an almost insurmountable dissonance in the student, who is now struggling to synchronize two very divergent leadership models, democracy and monarchy."

    Yet if you read the rest of the article, you can see that he isn't just talking about Asian Buddhism when he uses that term.

    I read Arun's blog because he brings to light many issues overlooked by the fluff that is the Tricycle-type establishment. I've had my issues with several posts here, but find value in his posts from time to time. Usually when I find offense, I just ignore the post and move on. I felt compelled to comment not because I'm white, but because Arun is reading undertones in Nichtern's article that simply aren't there. Nichtern brings up some very valuable points and then invites discussion based on those points. Points that are very important regarding the culture clash that IS happening and IS an obstacle for some seeking the dharma.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Oh well that sucks. My apologies. Having issues (more than I thought) with blogger's service.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Stuff like this reminds me why I <3 you so much.

    =)

    Although, I would have loved to read your long response to Nichtern on Huff Post, if only for breath-of-fresh-air factor. (the entitlement in the comments is smothering me...my neurons are dying as I type this...)

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  17. @ Adam

    I love your points in this comment. Well said. Well balanced.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I want to swap out a few words used by Nella above for impact. See if you think this reads as racist after I change the words.

    "It is always interesting when comments about 'black' people come up and many black people get into such a tizzy about it.

    Black people aren't used to being questioned or criticized, fairly or unfairly, due to their skin color. I would hope that some might make use of the discomfort that causes, really look into it and feel it and consider how having to be confronted with that in both blatant and subtle ways every day can influence a person's viewpoint. "

    ReplyDelete