“Dude, I just heard we’re not Western Buddhists!”
I’m at it again. I am sure that Kyle Lovett was entirely without ill motive when he wrote that he is not ashamed to be a Western Buddhist. He should not in any way be ashamed to be a Western Buddhist. But he should be ashamed of writing this:
For most of us Westerners, Buddhist study is not something we were born into, pressed into by culture, family or tradition, but approached by our own curiosity and initiative, with a free will and as true beginners. We all place logic, reason and good judgment over believing what is told to us out of a book or a sermon; relying on understanding over dogma and experience over blind faith.
We have, by our very open mindedness and divergent backgrounds made accessible the whole enigma that traditional Buddhism used to be, into something that is shared in an accessible and candid community. It is very difficult to find this anywhere else in this world, as practice for many traditional Buddhists is much more culturally based, and not often shared between denominations.
Let me be clear that these are all good qualities, but are these qualities uniquely bound to the self-styled Western Buddhists? The subtle message is that they are. Here is how Lovett’s first sentence reads if you flip the negation:
For most of us non-Westerners, Buddhist study is something we were born into, pressed into by culture, family or tradition, but not approached by our own curiosity and initiative, with a free will and as true beginners.
That’s what I saw when I read Lovett’s post. His point, I imagine, is not to denigrate or malign others, but to celebrate the benefits of the label Western Buddhist. But the label is both powerful and corrupting.
Lovett embraces the empowering qualities of the term Western Buddhist, where the union of these two words frames an identity that binds the philosophical and democratic heritage of Western Europe with a religion that leads to the cessation of suffering. But Western philosophy and democratic traditions are not a birthright confined to self-styled Westerners (neither are the qualities of curiosity, initiative and free will). This is where the trouble starts.
There is nothing inherently insulting about the term Western Buddhist, but Lovett’s use of it disturbs me greatly. He uses it to divide the Buddhist world, where Western Buddhist is contrasted with traditional Buddhist. The logical inference that follows is that one cannot be both a traditional Buddhist and a Western Buddhist. Western Buddhism upholds certain ideals (see above) which traditional Buddhists don’t. And I hope Lovett doesn’t believe anything as insulting as this distinction.
By creating these false categories, the power of the label corrupts even the good intentions it might be used for. But all this talk is just about this one label. I get the feeling that when the self-styled Western Buddhists go on talking about themselves, as they do, they’re really talking about two separate issues, which they generally don’t distinguish.
First, there’s the rise of Global Buddhism, or maybe we should call them “Buddhists without Borders.” The global movement is an old one, but it’s picked up a lot of momentum in the past century. I certainly consider myself part of this group. We see our religion both as separate from our cultural background and also as a unifying transnational force. Yes, there is bickering about other people’s cultural blind spots, but I can assure you this sort of cultural back-and-forth isn’t just an “East vs West” phenomenon. (You should hear what Theravada monks say about each others’ cultures!)
Then there’s the issue of converts. In both the Americas and Europe, non-Asian Buddhists are predominantly converts. These Western convert Buddhists (not necessarily non-Asian) have decided to designate themselves “Western Buddhists” to distinguish themselves from all other Buddhists, namely the hundreds of millions of Buddhists in Asia and the hundreds of thousands of heritage Buddhists in the West. But the issues that set convert Buddhists apart from heritage Buddhists have less to do with “Western” ideals and more to do with neophytic attitudes.
Parading these dual attitudes under a regional banner such as “Western Buddhism” is unfair. It’s unfair for those of us raised in the West, who are both heritage Buddhists and self-styled traditional Buddhists. Are we not Western enough for you? We can also be Global Buddhists or converts, or even both.
The Western-traditional/Other distinction also stems from the ridiculous assumption that the handful of Western convert Buddhists can be fairly compared with the phenomenal diversity of heritage Buddhists. It’s like trying to measure the United States up against Asia. I’d guess that means that the self-styled Western Buddhists either think extremely highly of themselves, or perhaps they think extremely little of all the other Buddhists in the world.
That said, I’m 100% fine with the term Western Buddhist. It’s certainly a useful banner for converts to use so they don’t have to think of themselves as, well, converts (or children thereof). But when we use the term “Western” to exclude people based on considerations of ethnic or cultural heritage (i.e. “traditional Buddhists”), then are we really using this term to celebrate values such as tolerance, freedoms and human rights?
(A long rant late at night. Too tired to tag. I have a feeling I’m going to regret some of this in the morning.)