Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

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Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Nikolay » Thu Feb 28, 2013 10:57 pm

There is a certain viewpoint that I often encounter. Basically, it says that since we were not born and raised in a Buddhist culture, we can never fully embrace and understand Buddhism on a deeper, more intuitive level. We have our own spiritual traditions, which influence our culture, and, by extension, ourselves through our entire lives, and if we want to make any significant spiritual process, we have no choice but to follow them.

Personally, I find this theory very disturbing, because it resonates with some of my experience. For example, while I find Buddhist philosophy and ethics essentially flawless, and practice instructions incredibly profound, I find it disturbingly difficult to relate to what I would describe as "forms" of Buddhism as religion. Buddhist symbolism and sacred art are, to be completely frank, alien to me. For example, I cannot relate to the way deities are depicted: it is clear that there are aesthetics and artistic conventions at work here, which are aimed at a totally different cultural background. Even disregarding style, I simply wasn't conditioned to perceive a many-armed figure as "divine", so it fails to cause appropriate feelings in me. On the other hand, I was conditioned to perceive a winged figure as "divine", so this symbolism works. Same goes for sacred music, literary style and metaphors, etc.

What do you think?
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby futerko » Thu Feb 28, 2013 11:09 pm

Whatever floats your boat.

One thing that surprised me was how I never really related to the Christian depiction of halos until I made some progress with Buddhist light visualizations.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby black_tea » Thu Feb 28, 2013 11:10 pm

One thing to consider is that Buddhism didn't originate in the countries that are now considered largely Buddhist. It traveled outward from India. So it was once new and different in China, in Korea, in Thailandm, in Japan etc. All Asian countries don't share the exact same culture (this shows in the different ways Buddhism is practiced in different areas). So to say that Westerners can't be Buddhist because Buddhism is new here and not ingrained in our culture, seem to be overlooking this fact. Also the 'West' is not monolithic -- some people have problems with ideas or imagery that other folks don't, but then those folks might have other things they find more difficult. That needent be a deal breaker.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby LastLegend » Thu Feb 28, 2013 11:15 pm

Yes, the Western attitude needs to be disarmed and dismantled. Ethnic people immigrate to Western countries and adopt Western culture seem to do fine. Why can't it be the same for you?
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Nikolay » Thu Feb 28, 2013 11:52 pm

black_tea wrote:One thing to consider is that Buddhism didn't originate in the countries that are now considered largely Buddhist. It traveled outward from India. So it was once new and different in China, in Korea, in Thailandm, in Japan etc. All Asian countries don't share the exact same culture (this shows in the different ways Buddhism is practiced in different areas). So to say that Westerners can't be Buddhist because Buddhism is new here and not ingrained in our culture, seem to be overlooking this fact. Also the 'West' is not monolithic -- some people have problems with ideas or imagery that other folks don't, but then those folks might have other things they find more difficult. That needent be a deal breaker.

Oh, sure, East Asian culture was very different from Indian, but:
1) By now, Buddhism has been there for many centuries. How do we know what it was like for an average Chinese person when Buddhism was still new in China? Maybe they faced similar problems for several generations.
2) In addition, Buddhist art, for example, underwent significant changes in these countries: for example you see Chinese-style drawings of Buddha Shakyamuni wearing Chinese clothes, etc.

I did not mean to ask "would Westerners be capable of becoming Buddhists if their rulers adopted and supported Buddhism for generations". Obviously they would. I was referring to our situation right now.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby David N. Snyder » Fri Mar 01, 2013 12:14 am

mirage wrote:Personally, I find this theory very disturbing, because it resonates with some of my experience. For example, while I find Buddhist philosophy and ethics essentially flawless, and practice instructions incredibly profound, I find it disturbingly difficult to relate to what I would describe as "forms" of Buddhism as religion. Buddhist symbolism and sacred art are, to be completely frank, alien to me. For example, I cannot relate to the way deities are depicted


There are some who have argued that for Buddhism to survive, it needed to go West. For many of us in the West, we wanted a Buddhism without too much ritual and cultural trappings. Some argue that this would be more in line with the Buddhism of the 6th century BCE. Tibetan Buddhism has a lot of those depictions of deities, but they are not found so much or at all in Theravada or Zen. Perhaps you just need to find the school of Buddhism that resonates with you more.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Jnana » Fri Mar 01, 2013 12:17 am

mirage wrote:I was referring to our situation right now.

Buddhism offers a universal soteriology that doesn't depend on ethnic notions or geographical locations, the way that the Torah and Old Testament do, or a linear world history culminating in an end time of divine judgement such as found in Revelations and other apocalyptic narratives.

Having been involved with Buddhism for many years now, I find the Abrahamic religions and Greek philosophies to be rather strange and foreign.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby jeeprs » Fri Mar 01, 2013 12:18 am

First, there are no 'real' Buddhists anywhere. People, same as anything else, don't have an fixed substance or essence which can be thus described. I often think of it like this: Buddhist is a working title, like the title applied to a film or a book which is a work-in-progress.

(Don't forget the Parable of the Raft.)

Secondly: be self-aware of Western thought. We are all brought up in that culture, we imbibe it with our mother's milk. It is our job to become deeply aware of typical Western ways of thinking and how we embody them. There are some great things about Western thinking - it is not bound by tradition, it is individualist, innovative and forward-looking. But it tends towards materialism, for very deep reasons, which are aspects of the collective unconscious of the Western mind. It takes a lot of work to really understand that deeply and separate oneself from it, and often you will never have get any external validation for having done so.

As regards Buddhist iconography and symbolism, I don't know if it is essential to Buddhism. A lot of that arose from the subsequent absorption of Buddhism into traditional Indian iconographic and sculptural forms. (The very early sculptural depictions of the Buddha did not show his image at all, but simply footprints or empty spaces.) Sometimes through deep meditative experiences, the meaning of certain symbolic forms can suddenly become clear. Many of them relate to archetypal structures and symbols (as explained in the works of Jung and Joseph Campbell.). But again, I don't think it is necessary to incorporate them into your own practice - they are not essential to the teaching.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby seeker242 » Fri Mar 01, 2013 12:19 am

Yes, westerners can truly become Buddhists. Buddhism isn't about culture, art or symbols, it's about dharma. Dharma is universal. To think that a person can never understand the dharma, because of where they are born, is not that different than Brahmins thinking they are better just because they were born Brahmins. The Buddha declared that as simply false. The Brahmins themselves declared that the untouchables could never attain much spiritually, simply because they were born untouchables. The Buddha declared that as false. Someone declaring that you can't attain the dharma, because of where you were born, is not very different than the Brahmins declaring that about the untouchables. One could argue it's basically the same thing.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby kirtu » Fri Mar 01, 2013 12:34 am

"We are one We are one mestizo people." Che Guevara

And we are becoming one global Buddhist people.

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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Nikolay » Fri Mar 01, 2013 8:01 am

David N. Snyder wrote:There are some who have argued that for Buddhism to survive, it needed to go West. For many of us in the West, we wanted a Buddhism without too much ritual and cultural trappings. Some argue that this would be more in line with the Buddhism of the 6th century BCE. Tibetan Buddhism has a lot of those depictions of deities, but they are not found so much or at all in Theravada or Zen. Perhaps you just need to find the school of Buddhism that resonates with you more.


Thank you, I do think that Theravada or Zen aesthetics might be more attractive for a lot of people in the West. However, I do not really have any issues with the concept of deities, or with ritual, or with any other features of Tibetan tradition. In fact, it was one of the things that originally drew me to it. So it is a bit difficult for me.

l
seeker242 wrote:Yes, westerners can truly become Buddhists. Buddhism isn't about culture, art or symbols, it's about dharma. Dharma is universal. To think that a person can never understand the dharma, because of where they are born, is not that different than Brahmins thinking they are better just because they were born Brahmins. The Buddha declared that as simply false. The Brahmins themselves declared that the untouchables could never attain much spiritually, simply because they were born untouchables. The Buddha declared that as false. Someone declaring that you can't attain the dharma, because of where you were born, is not very different than the Brahmins declaring that about the untouchables. One could argue it's basically the same thing.


But isn't one of marks of favourable rebirth "being born in a central country"? Are we sure that our countries really qualify at the moment? Maybe we are close to those "barbarians", rebirth among whom is considered to be quite unfavourable? I do not say that it means that all of us are completely incapable of Dharma practice. But I see serious obstacles, which people born into traditionally Buddhist societies do not face.


When people start to speak about "Western Buddhism", it usually causes some negative reaction, both from lay Buddhists and even some Buddhist teachers (I recall an interview with Thinley Norbu Rinpoche where he said, basically, that Western people are always trying to invent something new, even when there is no need for it). I suppose that's because most of advocates of Western Buddhism seem very keen on removing any elements of the Buddhist worldview that they are uncomfortable with, turning it into something like Steven Batchelor's Buddhism-Without-Everything-That-Makes-It-Buddhism. This is not my position at all. I would say that I am rather traditionalist where it comes to the actual content of the teachings, and it is my firm position that we should keep Buddhist teachings as they are, with deities, rebirth, heavens, hells, and everything else. Who are we to to judge what is necessary and what is not? It's simply hubris.

But, I look at countries like China, Japan and so on, and I see that the outer shell of the doctrine was heavily adapted every single time. Art style was changed to fit local conventions. Deity names were translated into local languages. Local gods were absorbed into the pantheon and many of them identified with Buddhas and Boddhisattvas. Even monk clothing was changed.

Now, I do not really notice any of this happening currently in the West. I do not see any deity images drawn according to Western artistic conventions. Avalokiteshvara is Chenrezig in Tibet, Guan Yin in China, Kannon in Japan. And in the West?

Many people would say that this is good, because we preserve the tradition as it is, without it becoming corrupted and diluted. There is truth in this. But I feel that if tradition's outer form does not adapt, like it always did in the past, then Buddhism in the West will fail.

(Everyone, please note that I do use "West" as a rather simplistic umbrella term. I am aware that there are different cultures in the West, and different people with different personalities. However for the purposes of current discussion I am going with the broad generalization)
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Sherab Dorje » Fri Mar 01, 2013 12:00 pm

Of course Westerners can become Buddhists. Look at the Greeks. They sent 40,000 monks to the inauguration of the Ratnamali Mahathupa of Sri Lanka. They taught Indian Buddhists Buddhist art and incorporated Indic philosophy, science etc... into their indigenous philosophical systems. Westerners have been Buddhists since 350 BC. S where is the problem?
"When one is not in accord with the true view
Meditation and conduct become delusion,
One will not attain the real result
One will be like a blind man who has no eyes."
Naropa - Summary of the View from The Eight Doha Treasures
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby kirtu » Fri Mar 01, 2013 12:21 pm

gregkavarnos wrote:Of course Westerners can become Buddhists. Look at the Greeks. They sent 40,000 monks to the inauguration of the Ratnamali Mahathupa of Sri Lanka. They taught Indian Buddhists Buddhist art and incorporated Indic philosophy, science etc... into their indigenous philosophical systems. Westerners have been Buddhists since 350 BC. S where is the problem?


A history of the re-introduction of the Dharma to the West "How the Swans Came to the Lake" . Rick Fields, was written in the 90's. So basically we need a history of Western involvement in early Buddhism (which exists of course in separate texts, but something typing together Bactira, Gandhara, King Nagasena, etc. I knew there were Greek monks but didn't know about the 40,000 - were these from Greece itself or Greek and Greek related kingdoms in Asia?).

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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Namgyal » Fri Mar 01, 2013 12:36 pm

gregkavarnos wrote:Of course Westerners can become Buddhists. Look at the Greeks.

Greg is right...if you put on an Ancient Greek tunic (Chiton) then everything in Buddhism will adapt perfectly. To modern Western eyes Buddhism seems very distant, but in the Ancient World it would have been considered exotic but easily understandable. In the same way the traditional medical systems of India, China and Tibet are far removed from modern scientific thought, but very close indeed to Hippocrates.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby seeker242 » Fri Mar 01, 2013 1:03 pm

mirage wrote:
l
seeker242 wrote:Yes, westerners can truly become Buddhists. Buddhism isn't about culture, art or symbols, it's about dharma. Dharma is universal. To think that a person can never understand the dharma, because of where they are born, is not that different than Brahmins thinking they are better just because they were born Brahmins. The Buddha declared that as simply false. The Brahmins themselves declared that the untouchables could never attain much spiritually, simply because they were born untouchables. The Buddha declared that as false. Someone declaring that you can't attain the dharma, because of where you were born, is not very different than the Brahmins declaring that about the untouchables. One could argue it's basically the same thing.


But isn't one of marks of favourable rebirth "being born in a central country"? Are we sure that our countries really qualify at the moment? Maybe we are close to those "barbarians", rebirth among whom is considered to be quite unfavourable? I do not say that it means that all of us are completely incapable of Dharma practice. But I see serious obstacles, which people born into traditionally Buddhist societies do not face.




Sure, people in non Buddhist cultures have obstacles. But so do people in Buddhist cultures. Everyone has obstacles regardless of where they were born. I personally see serious obstacles with people who are born into Buddhist cultures, as opposed to those who are not. All that cultural baggage, all that "attachment to rites and rituals", etc, etc. Japan for example. I was told, by a person who was visiting from Japan, that the majority of Buddhist laypersons don't even do meditation practice themselves. They just follow precepts and make merit offerings, etc. Serious and dedicated meditation practice is reserved "just for monks". She said that Japanese laypersons see western laypersons as a cross between layperson and monks, because they do so much actual meditation practice. I don't know if that's entirely true because I've never been to Japan but that's what I was told. More than once I have heard people, who are living in Thailand, criticize Thai laity for being nearly obsessed with self-benefitting merit-making activities, almost to the exclusion of actual Buddhist practice. Sounds to me like that would be a huge obstacle. The Dalai Lama said this about Tibet once. "In Tibet, there is great faith, but very little actual wisdom". Seems to me that everyone has obstacles, regardless of where they were born. I don't think western obstacles are any greater than eastern obstacles as all obstacles are completely self imposed to begin with.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Sherab Dorje » Fri Mar 01, 2013 1:36 pm

kirtu wrote:A history of the re-introduction of the Dharma to the West "How the Swans Came to the Lake" . Rick Fields, was written in the 90's. So basically we need a history of Western involvement in early Buddhism (which exists of course in separate texts, but something typing together Bactira, Gandhara, King Nagasena, etc. I knew there were Greek monks but didn't know about the 40,000 - were these from Greece itself or Greek and Greek related kingdoms in Asia?).
Well, was "Greece itself" (back then) only what is known as Greece now, or the entire "Empire" (well, it wasn't really an Empire, but anyway...)? Hmmmmm??? I mean, up until the 1930's large tracts of (modern) Turkey had a Greek majority which had inhabited these areas since before Homeric times. Anyway, if I remember correctly, the historical account mentioned that the monks were Yunani (not specifically Bactrian) so I imagine it was 40,000 monks from all over the Greek influenced world (including modern Greece).

As for this "Westerners" thing that keeps popping up. The historical myopia of Americans, that believe that the West "began" with the pilgrims landing at Plymouth in the early 1600's and that Buddhism first arrived in the "West" with the arrival of Chinese immigrants to the US in the 1800's is the source of these constant ridiculous and ahistorical discussions of Buddhism and the West.

Buddhism was/is not reintroduced to Europe. It was absorbed directly into modern Western (and here we refer to Northern European) culture via Ancient Greek philosophical/religious systems. Through contact with various Persian Empires (whose culture was heavily influenced by Indic culture, including Buddhist culture). Contact with the Mongols. Contact via the silk trade route. Marco frackin' Polo in the 1200's. etc...

Buddhism is nothing new to the "West", on the contrary the West has had contact with Buddhism (almost) since its inception.
"When one is not in accord with the true view
Meditation and conduct become delusion,
One will not attain the real result
One will be like a blind man who has no eyes."
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Namgyal » Fri Mar 01, 2013 1:53 pm

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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Indrajala » Fri Mar 01, 2013 3:21 pm

I've had some people imply or outright voice their doubts about white folks like me really being Buddhist, but then they don't demonstrate much knowledge or experience, so their opinions are irrelevant and frankly racist.

Here in Taiwan I've sometimes had the impression that while westerners are welcome in Buddhist organizations, the widespread sense is that they need to be taken care of, and will never really grasp the Buddhadharma, either in terms of conviction or wisdom. I know not everyone thinks like this, but this is just the impression I've personally gotten. In a community that emphasizes the "Chinese" in "Chinese Buddhism" if you're not Chinese, you're handicapped just by virtue of being non-Chinese.

In Japan most people thought I was Christian at first, even when doing my MA degree in Buddhist Studies. Most people couldn't understand why the hell I'd study such a subject, or what it entails. Some people assumed I was learning how to play wooden fish and bells. Some more mature individuals thought it was great I was studying Buddhism.

I think India is the most accepting culture I've lived in so far. When I was staying in Ladakh on the second day an Indian gentleman insisted on buying me breakfast because, as he said, "We should support holy men." I insisted I was no holy man, but accepted breakfast. He actually watches Ajahn Brahm's videos online and thinks highly of him. To most Indians, I suspect, a westerner being Buddhist or even a Sadhu isn't so unusual. Hell in India nothing is really unusual. That's the beauty of Mother India.

Personally I feel so emotionally and intellectually attracted to Buddhism that my own ethnic background is secondary to Buddhadharma.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby futerko » Fri Mar 01, 2013 3:25 pm

gregkavarnos wrote:...a Greek majority which had inhabited these areas since before Homeric times. ...Through contact with various Persian Empires (whose culture was heavily influenced by Indic culture, including Buddhist culture). Contact with the Mongols. Contact via the silk trade route. Marco frackin' Polo in the 1200's. etc...

Buddhism is nothing new to the "West", on the contrary the West has had contact with Buddhism (almost) since its inception.
Apparently Alexander the Great's army reached the swat valley and some of his generals converted to Buddhism.
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Re: Can Westerners truly become Buddhists?

Postby Indrajala » Fri Mar 01, 2013 3:27 pm

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