Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Western Eyes


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The most recent post on One Human Journey, "Coming Out of the Closet About Enlightenment," sparked a lot of conversation. The question of whether, and how, people who attain some level of realization should talk openly about it is hotly contested. Check out the comments stream on that post for some great thoughts from readers (including a response from Kenneth Folk).

One reader who commented on Facebook prefaced his comment with this remark: "We could only be having this conversation in the West...." While the thoughts that follow were sparked by that comment, they are not a response to that particular reader. But his remark did get me thinking about a larger set of related issues.

The implication of such a statement seems to be that this conversation could only arise out of ignorance, because we (in the West) are new at Buddhism and we haven't figured out what Buddhists in Asia know from 2,500 years of experience. We have a lot of catching up to do. When we finally do catch up, we'll understand why Buddhists have traditionally been so reticent to speak openly about enlightenment or attainments on the path.

And of course, in some ways, it's true: we do have a lot of catching up to do. Buddhism is new in our culture, and we are only beginning to understand the ways Buddhism will change us, and the ways we will change Buddhism. The debate over people "coming out" and speaking openly about their level of realization -- whatever you think of that issue -- is just one illustration of where we are with that process.

Cultural Theism

It seems to me, in general, that a lot of Buddhists in the West carry some kind of self-deprecating, anti-Western sentiment inside. We hold up our Asian teachers and their cultures as the embodiments of wisdom -- and, of course, in many ways they are. But while we are holding them up with one hand, we are often putting down our own culture and denigrating our capacity for wisdom with the other hand.

Speaking from personal observation, I suspect this tendency may be particularly acute in the Tibetan Buddhist world, where relatively little has been done in the way of transfer of power and lineage to Western students, compared to the Zen or Theravada traditions. While many Westerners in those traditions are now fully empowered and passing on the lineage from one Westerner to another, most Tibetan Buddhists in the West are still studying with Tibetans; Western lineage holders in the Tibetan tradition are few and far between.

The reasons for this are complex and beyond the scope of this commentary. What I'm concerned with here is the disempowering effect this has upon Western students, who may -- consciously or not -- come to regard wisdom and genuine realization as something culturally foreign and therefore relatively unattainable. Because the power differential between teachers and students in that tradition falls more consistently along cultural and ethnic lines, Westerners may feel they are not capable of holding the lineage or manifesting the same degree of wisdom as their Tibetan teachers. Wisdom is out there somewhere, separate from us, embodied in representatives from another culture, and the best we can hope for is to model ourselves after that culture and hope that some of the wisdom rubs off on us. This kind of cultural theism can be especially acute in sanghas where all the practice liturgies are in Tibetan and embedded with intensely foreign cultural references and iconography. In some quarters, one finds Western students dressing like Tibetans and studying the Tibetan language and following Tibetan customs and eating Tibetan food, all in the belief that growing in the wisdom of the dharma somehow requires one to become more like a Tibetan.

With western eyes and serpent's breath
We lay our own conscience to rest
But I'm aching at the view
Yes I'm breaking at the seams just like you.

-- Portishead, "Western Eyes"

It is beautiful and proper to recognize wisdom in those who hold it, and to express devotion and respect for the lineages they represent -- lineages that have been holding that wisdom for two-and-a-half millennia. But everything in the light also has its shadow side. When we idolize the way Asian cultures have practiced the dharma and try to imitate them unquestioningly, we risk losing sight of the wisdom that is already in our own back yard. Even worse, when we put on rose-colored glasses and see only the bright and shiny side of those exotic cultures and traditions, we are not seeing the whole picture.

The wisdom that is held within the embrace of the cultural forms and traditions of Asian Buddhism is not the same thing as those forms and traditions. And those forms and traditions, themselves, are not faultless or immutable. As Buddhism goes west, it is being asked to change in profound ways -- and some of those changes are definitely for the better. The misogyny that has been enshrined in Asian Buddhist institutions for 2,500 years is being confronted by Western feminism, and the traditional subservient role of women in the dharma is increasingly recognized as unacceptable. So, too, is Buddhism's traditional homophobia being deconstructed as it encounters Western sexual mores. The Dalai Lama has been embroiled in controversy for certain remarks that were perceived by Western students as homophobic, yet a few progressive Tibetan teachers who live in the West, such as Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, are now reaching out to LGBT Buddhists and being more inclusive. And just as Western science is exploring new frontiers by studying ancient Buddhist practices in the laboratory, so too is Buddhism being forced to rethink old, outdated views in its encounter with modern science (like admitting, for starters, that the world is round, not flat -- an admission that didn't come easily to Tibetan monks, even in the 20th century).

Think for Yourself

In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha taught that we should not accept anything simply because it is handed down in tradition, or because someone in authority said it is so, or because it is written in holy books. Rather, we should use our own prajna, our intelligence, our eye of wisdom, to analyze what we receive. If it accords with reason and leads to benefit -- then, and only then, should we accept it. As Buddhism takes root in the West, we are engaged in precisely this process of analyzing and testing the teachings we are receiving from the source cultures in Asia. Inevitably, some aspects of the Asian presentation of Buddhism will be rejected in the West, and new forms will evolve. This is only natural, and is no doubt what has happened in every other instance of Buddhism transmigrating to a new culture. The exchange of wisdom is a sword that cuts both ways. Yet some will cry that the sky is falling when they see Westerners thinking for themselves and engaging with the dharma in a different way than their Asian forebears.

Many conditions are converging to make this a very unique moment in the history of Buddhism. In the West, we are not (as has happened in probably every other case throughout history) receiving just a single tradition of Buddhism, in a one-to-one cultural exchange. We are receiving *all* of the traditions of Buddhism in the West, all at once, and they are all mixing with all of the various cultures and languages in Europe and the Americas and Australasia. Urbanization and global travel and the Internet make it possible for people to study and practice more than one Buddhist tradition, and the degree of fertile cross-pollination that is occurring among Western Buddhist practitioners today is unprecedented. People reading this blog run the gamut from Tibetan Buddhists to Zen Buddhists to Theravadan Buddhists to non-Buddhists, and we are all sharing radically different perspectives on the dharma. No one can predict what the fruit of such cross-pollination will look like in a hundred years, or even twenty.

If our goal is to transform ourselves into little Tibetans or Japanese or whatever the case may be, then it's fine to create a Western Buddhism that is a carbon copy of its Asian predecessors. But if we are to have an expression of the dharma that is more suited to our place and time, more capable of taking root and flourishing in the soil of our minds, then we must apply our own discerning intelligence and work with the dharma in the context of our own cultural situation. Obviously, we are children at this, and we risk mistakes and misunderstandings. But those are nothing to fear; every child learns by making mistakes. What is to be feared is that we might never have a chance to grow up and find our own way because we're too busy trying to be just like our new adoptive Buddhist parents.


gate said...

You know, I think this gets closer to the heart of the matter than the question of making claims vs. making disclaimers: the big hoo-ha about 'keeping secrets' seems to be a modern Western preference for 'transparency.' Among those following a tradition from the culture of which it has been a part, historically-- this sense of wanting things to be clearly labeled for the consuming public seems absent.

The downside of traditional cultures responding to teachers in traditional ways has been described very clearly by Dzongsar Kyentse Rinpoche, in magazine interviews and somewhere in the movie 'Words of My Perfect Teacher.' Holding your teacher in absolute reverence is a way to make it impossible for her or him to actually teach you.

Unknown said...

@ gate
let's not forget that the first of the four reliances can help us make space for distinguishing "absolute reverence" from devotion. you rely on the teachings the teacher gives you, not on the person of the teacher.

Dennis Hunter said...

Gate and Pascal, those are good points from both of you. Maybe that's why some of these Tibetan teachers (especially the "crazy wisdom" ones) are so often slightly (or grossly) irreverent. It's a way to break up our tendency to hold them in absolute reverence, and get us to stop idolizing the person of the teacher and (hopefully) focus on the teachings.