August 26, 2010

Sometimes I get it wrong

I had no idea how popular my last post would be. I’d love to respond to most of the reactions, but here I address just one. Several commenters called me out on a crude rhetorical slip. While David Nichtern’s piece examines the development of Buddhist institutions in the West within a certain cultural context, my reaction pivots—with only a brief reference to his article—to assail arguments rooted in an East-West dualism with a couple of annotated graphs. The problem is that the graphs and notes had very little to do with the thrust of Nichtern’s article.

In other words, I pulled the old “I see your point—which reminds me of this other point I wanted to make.” But I didn’t even say that much.

At least one commenter vigorously drew attention to this discrepancy. (“It isn’t a this Buddhism vs. that Buddhism article.”) His response to my post dwells on the specific exhibits that Nichtern presents—the different roles of teachers in different cultural contexts. Nichtern notes that the roles of Tibetan Buddhist teachers that he is most familiar with have no obvious corollary in mainstream Western culture. He ends his post with a question mark—in what way will the various and sometimes conflicting roles and expectations develop among Westerners?

To be clear, my gripe is not with what Nichtern asserts, but with what he presupposes. Nichtern continues the timeworn notion of looking toward a separate Western Buddhism, culturally distinct and segregated from the forms of Buddhism in Asia. This notion is what underlies his presentation of the three different routes of “transplanting Buddhist teachings in the West”—(1) transplantation of the traditional form, (2) hybrid growth and (3) complete transformation into Western modalities. These are three points on a progression where at one end sits “traditional form” and at the other sit “Western modalities.”

As pointed out at the buddha is my dj, most of the objections to Nichtern’s framework have been discussed before. Issues with oversimplified notions of Western Buddhism, including drawing lines between “traditional” and “Western.” Or the issues that arise when describing religious movements with analogy to evolutionary biology. (On that last note, Thomas Tweed does a better job explaining why.) And so on. But my post wasn’t about these issues, it was about something else. Though I may stand by my point, it was inappropriately made with Nichtern’s piece as a foil.

More than owning up to bad writing, I owe David Nichtern an apology for misrepresenting his writing. In the blogosphere, it’s easy to click through and see the original writing for yourself, but so often the gateway biases you before you get there. This was the case with some who passed through my post, leading them to mistake Nichtern’s point. Separately, this was also the case with the Reformed Buddhist, who falsely accused me of “dislike of whites” and “insinuating a racial superiority of Asians over white people,” leading at least one commenter to suggest that’s what I was trying to convey. Not at all what I believe or intended.

The act of publication (blogging included) comes with a measure of responsibility for one’s written word. I wish I had written differently what I did, but it was my decision not to take more time to do so, or have someone else review it first. Next time, I’ll hopefully at least set aside more than a lunch break. Many thanks for all the feedback.


  1. Your style seems consistent. You called me a racist (which of course you denied) and then just today you called me impertinent (which you may also deny). These comments seem to reveal less than stellar dialogue skills. Thus your rhetorical comments are probably not "slips" but manifestations of mental habits. But I may be wrong, I often am.

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  3. @Sabio Lantz: I might be mistaken, but I believe you already acknowledged that I didn’t call you a racist. Or perhaps you might have to educate me in the difference between “labeling” and “calling” someone a racist. In the same vein—which you so astonishingly predicted!—I didn’t call you impertinent either. I called a particular question of yours impertinent, which it very accurately was. If you’d like to continue insisting that I called you a racist and impertinent, then I’d very much like for you to show me that I did. Of course, you may choose to do otherwise :)

    @Connie Lo: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking up Nichtern’s presuppositions, but that’s simply not what I did in the previous post. I spun off and talked about something else. I could have easily written something like, “Nichtern mentions X, which reminds me of Y…” I’ve done that before, but didn’t do it here.