Ikuo Hirayama

Renowned artist and cultural conservationist Ikuo Hirayama (平山 郁夫) has died at age 79.

He is known for his efforts to preserve cultural treasures such as the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia, China’s Mogao Caves and Afghanistan’s Bamiyan Buddhist monuments, which were dynamited in 2001 by the Taleban.

His goal was ‘to make people of all races and religions aware of the value of these human treasures, thus leading to mutual understanding and the promotion of world peace’, said the UN cultural organisation, which made him a goodwill ambassador in 1988.

You can see images of Hirayama’s own art here and here. To learn more about the Ikuo Hirayama Museum of Art, visit here or here.

Are Asians Against Nuns?

On his blog, Ajahn Sujato was asked if the sexism he described in the English Sangha Trust reflected an Asian British mentality—“That’s the only configuration that I can imagine would create this governing body. The women’s rights movement took birth in England.” Ajahn Sujato responds:

The EST is not comprised of Asian British, it is an old-school organization which has, so far as I am aware, always been made up primarily of ‘English British’.

This is an important point, for it is often misunderstood that ‘Asians’ will be less interested in a fair go for women, and that the socially progressive movement will be stimulated by the West. This is very far from the case. I know several Asian women whose active support for bhikkhuni ordination was stimulated by their shock at seeing how discriminated the nuns in England were.

For most of the Asian Buddhist world, bhikkhunis are a normal part of life. They are an integral part of Buddhism in lands east and north of Thailand, and have become widely accepted by the Sri Lankan people (who, may I add, are among our major supporters here at Santi).

There is a popular racist argument that assumes that the West couldn’t possibly be sexist, that the bhikkhuni issue is really an Asian problem. This notion can be defended by anecdote. I have personally witnessed sexism as an entrenched issue within several Asian societies, and I also recognize the great advances in the West towards gender equality over the last century. My mother was raised to find a husband and pop out kids—when she retired, she was making more money than my father. But that’s not to say that Asia is sexist while the West is post-gender. (Tell that to Hillary Clinton!) There are anecdotes, there are trends, and there are racist conclusions—it is important not to confuse these. Best to steer clear of the latter.

In Search of Lost Writing

I was notified of broken links in a previous post (Angry Asian Buddhist Reader), namely:

These links might have been broken during the revamp of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship website. (It looks pretty slick now.) If you happen to have access to full copies of these texts, please let me know!

Much to Offer

Phra Cittasamvaro writes about the custom of the offering cloth and the issue of contact between men, women and celibate monks and nuns.

The etiquette with the offering cloth is this: if a female is offering food, clothing or medicine to a monk, he will lay a cloth/bowl or other suitable item in front of him. The lady puts the item on the cloth and it is then ‘offered’ – which means it has formally been given to the Sangha of monks. And of course vice versa between nuns and laymen.


Things are ‘offered’ in this way so there is no discrepancy between what has been given to the monk and what has not – so that he does not take something on presumption, that the owner might not feel is appropriate. If a layperson touches the offered item after this point, it is then considered ‘unoffered’ and the monk will not take it for his own use.

The post ends with a discussion of cultural traditions and attitudes (namely attitudes towards others’ cultures). It’s certainly nice to discover that some of the customs I’ve witnessed (such as the “drop method”) are not merely idiosyncratic customs of particular monks I know.

East Side/West Side

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.

Asian-Free Buddhism

Thanks to Barbara’s Buddhism Blog, I was pointed to a Beliefnet post by Jerry Kolber, where he explicitly argues for stripping Buddhism of its Asian features.

Image is everything, and unless we figure out a way to make the image of the Buddha hip and cool, we’d be better off figuring out some other way to present the techniques without the awesome smiling face of our Eastern inspiration.

Bless his non-soul for proposing a sincere and unequivocal argument for whitewashing Buddhism. He has no compunction whatsoever about smugly proclaiming that Buddhism in America is far better off if only we can ditch the Asian guy. And he is like a gift that keeps on giving, except that I really don’t care for this narishkeyt…

Buddhism in America is at the long end of the initial boom sparked in the 60’s among intellectuals and artists who craved that elite connection with the east.

With a single sentence, he dons the hat of a historical revisionist and wipes American Buddhist history clean of its Asian affliction. The author disregards the basic fact that Buddhism in America enjoys an unbroken history that stretches back over 100 years. For all those years, it is Asian Americans who have constituted the outright numerical majority of Buddhist Americans—even today, we are still the majority. Plain and simple, Buddhism in America wouldn’t be half of what it is without its Asian American members, and for Jerry Kolber to patently neglect our contributions with utter impunity smacks entirely of excessive hegemonic privilege.

White Privilege Isn’t a Bad Thing

I tend not to read long blog posts, but I often mark them with a star and sometimes sift through them on weekends. Over on My Buddha is Pinka couplesuch posts from early August really resonated with me this morning. Richard Harrold writes about how as a journalist, he got involved with the local Lao Buddhist community in Michigan.

Richard reached out to help and get involved in the community, even though he didn’t share a common ethnic or cultural background. He helped teach English, and offered to assist with challenges involving the local township board. Even when his overtures were declined, he still managed to publish articles highlighting the local Buddhist Asian community. He spoke directly with the township attorney about specific issues that may have underlain miscommunication with the Lao temple board. I imagine none of this was smooth riding. Indeed, Richard expresses his personal ambivalence with regards to the linguistic and cultural differences, especially on the topic of sexuality.

Some of what Richard was able to accomplish was due to resources available to him by virtue of his white privilege. Importantly, he was able to bend his privilege to the benefit of others who were relatively disadvantaged. Being white gives you an edge when talking with white administrators, when writing to a majority white audience, and even to the extent of being involved in the publishing industry.

In a sense, I have nothing against white privilege. I’d just like all of us to share these privileges. One way to move past institutional racism bias is by making use of our privilege—be it of gender, culture, sexuality, race, etc.—for the benefit of others with less privilege. You might want to see what you can do to help bridge cultural chasms in your local Buddhist community. Or say, if you happen to be a regular contributor to Shambhala Sun or Tricycle, then the next time you talk with the editors you might ask them if they’d considered offering more articles to be written by People of Color. Think of it as a democratization of noblesse oblige.

Kathina Time is (Almost) Here

Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery has announced its celebration of the Kathina holiday this fall. Click on the link and you’ll find a description of the festival itself.

If you haven’t attended a Kathina celebration before, you’re in for a treat. I’ve come to think of it as the equivalent of all our lay holidays rolled into one. There is the abundance of Thanksgiving with gratitude for the completion of a long retreat and for having monastics in this country. The chance to gather together with gifts resembles the winter holidays of Hanukkah and Christmas, combined with a kind of birthday anniversary marking another year of monastic life. It’s a particularly joyous time to show appreciation for those who have gone forth into the homeless life and who provide support and inspiration to lay practitioners. It’s especially timely as fall and winter draw nearer, when visitors become less frequent and a full storeroom of supplies is so valuable.

Some close friends and I have for several years now been recontextualizing Kathina in the giving spirit of Hanukkah or Christmas as another opportunity to bestow gifts on friends, temples and 501(c)(3)s. Since this degeneration of Kathina into a Christmas-clone is (so far as I know) practiced only within small and isolated circles, I’m not too worried about the potential dilution and commercialization of what was once a mighty and precisely meaningful Buddhist holiday. I can’t shake the guilt though—I’m an Asian Buddhist kid whitewashing a perfectly fine and ancient Buddhist tradition with commercialized Western cultural values. But I like it this way.

Customary Perspective

On a topical note, I ran across a couple of articles on nokanshi(“encoffineers”), a central theme in the Oscar-winning movie Departures. One perspective presents the nokanshi as a traditional practice that preserves the spirit of Japan’s cultural artistry—a practice that may seem irrelevant in modern times.

Such an “art” of preparing the dead body seems unnecessary in today’s modern Japan: by law, the body will soon to be cremated, so pragmatism dictates only the minimum preparation. In Departures, even the grief-numbed family of the deceased cannot fully comprehend why this art is taking place. Other funeral directors do not really acknowledge that the occupation of nokanshi even exists in modern Japan.

In contrast, a post on the Wall Street Journal describes the popularity of this specific funeral custom in light of recent commercial development.

In the past, encoffination was often a matter-of-fact procedure performed by family members, neighbors and doctors to prepare the body for the wake, funeral and cremation. It wasn’t performed as a formal ceremony or even considered a part of the proper funeral … Two decades ago, a 40-year-old company called Sapporo Nokan Kyokai, based in the northern city of Sapporo, started promoting encoffination as a formal ceremony, for an additional charge. The company had long been performing the ceremony in Sapporo, but it had begun to receive inquiries from people in other parts of Japan, where the ritual was less common. Some of these people had attended funerals in the Sapporo area and liked the proper, personal attention given to the deceased.

These two articles aren’t written in opposing terms, but they offer different perspectives on a “foreign” custom. On one hand, the nokanshi profession stems from a primal artistic urge that is an inseparable part of Japanese culture. On the other hand, the fully ritualized nokanshi is a contemporary phenomenon in its widespread form. Again, these descriptions aren’t mutually-exclusive. They remind us that foreign customs and rituals are not necessarily “traditions” that date back centuries, and yet can still be just as meaningful as traditional customs that do.

In the context of Buddhist Asian customs, it’s easy to get caught up in a romantic notion of a timeless and unchanging tradition. This often mistaken assumption provides the foundation for unskillful conclusions. For example, the false assumption that tradition equals authenticity, or that ancient means irrelevant. Some of these foreign customs have developed to address modern concerns in an urban and industrialized context. It’s a point to keep in mind when we wrestle with terms such as “modern” and “traditional” Buddhist practice.

Western Buddhism’s Likely Demise

On a recent post over at Progressive Buddhism, Kyle bemoans the contemporary fragility of Buddhism in the West.

We are now experiencing Buddhism in the West’s struggle through its own Valley Forge. Like Washington’s army and the hopes of the American Revolution that were in dire peril in 1777, so is the future of Buddhism in the West today.

I think his grumbles are well-founded. After all, the dominance of the West will only last for so much longer. With the end of Western superiority, the very existence of a Western Buddhism will be put in question. If Buddhism cannot thrive in a globally hegemonic culture, then how will it fare once that ascendant culture is tearing at the seams? In an ever more democratic and globalized humanity, the West will have to lose its prestige, and so will diminish whatever special Western prestige comes with “Western” Buddhism.