Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Questioning Universalizing Statements about Buddhism

I have long enjoyed David Loy's writing. In particular, I very much appreciate his willingness to apply Buddhist teachings to broad, social contexts and to point out how suffering and karma, for example, do not just reside in individuals, but also manifest in collective patterns as well.

This interview from Sweeping Zen takes some fascinating turns, and is worth reading in full. However, one of the turns the discussion took really grated on me, as it went into some of the very territory that a recent post by Arun questioned, and which I followed up on in a post over the weekend.

Loy comments:

Today Buddhism has begun its most radical and challenging transformation of all in its encounter with the modern West. Again, we should expect transformation on both sides, which I see as necessary because each needs the other. I lived in Japan for many years and have traveled throughout most of Buddhist Asia, and it’s obvious that Asian Buddhism is stuck in various ways. The ways Buddhism has been institutionalized, and especially the way in which karma has degenerated into merit-making, is very problematical.

On the other side, the West is encountering Buddhism not a moment too soon. We are in a time of great crisis if not collapse. The globalization of the West has created enormous problems and much of it has to do with a basic worldview that is deluded and unsustainable. So Buddhism has something very important to offer the West. At the same time, Asian Buddhism brings with it a lot of cultural baggage that doesn’t work well in the West, where it tends to get in the way of Buddhism’s liberative potential. Buddhism needs to benefit from the best that the West has to offer, and not only scientifically. There are many magical and mythic elements in Asian Buddhism that we need to let go of. So it’s an exciting encounter on both sides. We are still in the early days but it’s started.

Let's pull a few issues out and consider them. First, the terms "Asian" and "Asian Buddhism." As Arun pointed out in his post "For one, there’s the issue of referring to “Asians.”The category “Asian” is simply too broad. Asia represents 60 percent of the world’s population and an untold diversity of cultures." So, I'd argue that a statement like "Asian Buddhism is stuck" is to broad to be accurate. It doesn't offer people an entry point into specific issues being faced, nor does it assign a clear enough location to where these issues are occurring. Furthermore, a statement like "Asian Buddhism is stuck" universalizes problems that are probably not universal. It's like accusations that American Buddhism is a self-help program for the bourgeois. This might be true in some locations, but certainly not in others. So, while it's clear to me (from readings, reports from other Buddhists, and discussions I have had) that issues like sexism and excessive institutionalization are playing out in many Buddhism communities in Asian nations, the specifics occurring within a given temple, Buddhist school or lineage aren't so clear.

There's also the problematic nature of the first half of the "stuck" statement. Loy says "I lived in Japan for many years and have traveled throughout most of Buddhist Asia..." What's concerning about this is the likelihood that Loy's experiences in Japan, which probably far outweigh the rest, color the whole story he's offering. He spent several years in Japan, and experienced some of the issues they are having. During that time, or afterward, he goes to several other Asian nations and sees or experiences some things that look similar, and thus returns to the U.S. and offers people the story that "Asian Buddhism is stuck." Differences between nations, between regions within a nation, or even from temple to temple, are totally glossed over. And given the experiences in Japan, there's also the question of whether something like confirmation bias is also operating here. You see too much emphasis on male dominated institutions, and merit making in Japan. You head to China or Burma or Thailand, and you locate more of the same. This isn't to say that these issues aren't a wide spread problem, but that the thinking behind the conclusions really needs to be examined.

Along those lines, it's interesting that Loy brings up science. Consider the ways in which scientists and other researchers set up experiments to test their theories. Any scientist worth a grain of salt will make a good faith effort to find opposing views, and allow conditions that might disprove their ideas to be included. Where do people like the Japanese "hip hop" monk and his followers fit into the "stuck" narrative, for example? Or what about the decided plugged in, hip, and modern Kenchara Buddhist center in Malaysia? It would be interesting to know how counter-examples of Buddhists doing creative, outside the box stuff in Asian countries are considered within the larger framework offered.

Finally, what grated on me most was the statement on "cultural baggage" and the sentence "There are many magical and mythic elements in Asian Buddhism that we need to let go of." Now, whenever a religious/spiritual tradition moves from one place to the next, there is a blending of the inherited with the ways of the new locale. And certainly, some elements associated with the previous cultural situation will be dropped in favor of the new locale's ways. This isn't a problem. However, the term "cultural baggage" itself imputes a negativity upon inherited cultural elements that is not only unnecessary, but is also insulting.

In addition, when we get into wanting to shed "magical and mythical elements," this implies a few things that need to be more carefully considered. First of all, there is clearly a privileging of reason and empirically comfirmable phenomenon here. Is that really wise? Second, given that Loy is speaking to a convert Buddhist audience - nearly all of whom have taken up Buddhism only in the past half century, it might be worth considering the question "Do we even understand why those mythical and magical elements are present in the tradition, or if they might be valuable to us in our practice?" It seems to me that even if the majority of convert American practitioners don't literally believe that Buddha was born from out of the side of his mother and that the earth shook upon his birth, there might still be something very important going on in that story for us to practice with.

Mostly, I point all of this out to get people thinking about the way in which board assumptions tend to miss the mark. Over the time I have been blogging, I have offered posts that done the same about different issues. One that comes to mind is a post I made a long while back about the lack of social outreach and social action projects amongst convert American Buddhist communities. In fact, the mistake I made there was to try to get specific based on the general view I had - which has some accuracy for sure, but for the example I brought up - San Francisco Zen Center - was terribly inaccurate. And I got quickly called out on that by a regular reader.

One of the challenges is that there are times when broad statements are helpful and/or necessary to convey a sense of what's occurring. And yet, the mind loves to take such statements and turn them into universalized truths, instead of seeing them as attempts to point in a certain direction. This is true in discussions about large scale social dynamics, and it's also true about more simple, deeply personal issues. Consider how often you make a mistake and then generalize that as meaning you're a screw up. Or for those with an overly strong sense of self cherishing, how often you do something well and think "I'm a bloody genius!"

It's a game we like to play. It's really just another effort to think we have some solid ground to hold on in this ever-changing world of ours. Somehow, it's easier to handle "being a complete screw up" than it is to just be, moment after moment. Just as it's easier to make statements like "Asian Buddhism is stuck," rather than spend the time parsing out all the patterns and manifestations occurring, and then pointing out ways in which they are similar across locales, and ways in which they are quite different.


Carol said...

Well said, Nathan. I tend to sloppily nod "unhuh" when someone says "Asian Buddhism is stuck" without really thinking about what a broad generalization that is, and wondering how many counter-examples there may be.

But, even moreso, I have a problem with throwing out the "magical/mythical" stuff in religion, including Buddhism, without examining what it's value might be, what it represents, what irrational/poetic imagery it uses to speak to and awaken intuitive insight.

Thanks for calling this out. I'm a big admirer of Loy's too.

Eco Yogini said...

I am admittedly not a Buddhist, nor know very much about Buddhism.

What I can comment on, however, is that I agree with you that statements like "Cultural baggage" are insulting.

I agree that the demeaning and negative connotations associated with "magical/mythical" comments grate. As a pagan, magical and mythical are a large portion of my ritual and spiritual life.

I can understand that it isn't for everyone, but I would argue that there can be value in everything. For myself, without the mystical and magic, where is the beauty and mystery of Life? The Spirit (for myself the Goddess) is in of itself a practice of the mystical.

great post :)

Ji Hyang said...

Agree with this-- having read his interview. There is real concern-- as well as an underlying assumption of a position of cultural privilege in deciding when we are, as a culture still so new to Buddhism-- what is universally of value, and what is not.

From spending extended time of my own in the East-- I know there is much which is deeply wise and beautiful in the traditional ways. And I agree with the above comments, that the mythical dimension is a powerful way of conveying truth-- which we need to continue to honor.

it is as if we culturally have received a huge gift, but are still unwrapping it-- some of those parts we nearly mistake as "packaging" will prove to be essential.

David said...

I haven’t read the interview yet, but I think that it should be important to remember that it is an interview, a conversation, and as such, it is informal to a degree. In an interview format, you don’t necessarily need to cite your sources and I have never seen an interview subject asked to provide footnotes. In conversation, people tend to speak generally, especially when addressing an audience that has some familiarity with the subject. So, I am not sure it is fair or appropriate to criticize someone’s words as though they were presenting a dissertation.

I may or may not agree with Loy’s views, but I definitely disagree with nit-picking on people’s words to extent that they should feel compelled to qualify everything they say. You said yourself in the post that he is speaking to a Buddhist audience, so is there really anyone who is not going to know what he’s talking about? Where does the interviewer’s responsibility to ask his or her subject to clarify or expand on remarks made fit in this? Frankly, if Loy was too general or unclear, I think that is due mainly to a bad interviewer, or perhaps because the subject you are focusing on was not the main trust of the interview.

Anyone who has had some firsthand experience with, let’s call it “ethnic Buddhism”, knows that there is indeed a lot of cultural trappings that vary from country to country, the vast majority of which have nothing to do with Buddha-dharma per se. How big a problem that is and whether it is something that Western Buddhists need to be concerned about is a debatable question. But I did appreciate your remark that we should not just dismiss these things but rather see what we might learn from them.

You might want to go through this and see what generalizations you made, and that goes for some of the responders. "statements like Cultural baggage are insulting" is pretty general itself. In what way? How?

Nathan said...

Eco Yogini - I'd say there are some similar undercurrents going on amongst North American Yoga students as well. Some of the secular yoga folks are quite insistent that the spiritual teachings aren't needed at all. And some of the spiritual yoga folks are quite insistent that we have to read the Yoga Sutras, The Gita, and any other yogic texts in a rational manner.

You're right to point out that things like the magical and mystical aren't for everyone though - that people can individually find inspiration where they find it. That's different than suggesting that it's baggage that needs to be tossed out of the entire tradition. I support individual difference in practice, but when it gets into the larger realm of what's valuable in a whole tradition, that's where we all gotta pause and consider carefully.

Nathan said...

"From spending extended time of my own in the East-- I know there is much which is deeply wise and beautiful in the traditional ways."

This is another thing that gets lost in those sweeping statements. Not only is there innovation occurring in some circles, but there is also so much that's been handed down from generation to generation which is worth preserving.

Nathan said...


Your point about the interview format is taken. I agree that interviews aren't going to be as specific. And certainly, the interviewer plays a role in how well someone comes off based on the questions at hand.

I have read nearly all of Loy's books and essays - perhaps I should have written about that - and these issues are something he has repeated in other contexts. It might have been better if I had quoted something from his texts as well. I saw the interview, and took what he said there - remembering that I'd heard it in more detail before in his writing.
So, that's a bit sloppy on my part.

""statements like Cultural baggage are insulting" is pretty general itself. In what way? How?"

I could argue that scientific reasoning and empiricism are cultural baggage amongst us "westerners." That they are two of "our" stories about how the world works, and they are influencing how many of us practice Buddhism. Now, I don't know about you, but I'd bet a fair number of people wouldn't be too happy with those things being deemed "baggage."

Finally, it's impossible not to generalize sometimes. I didn't emphasize that point enough I suppose. My point wasn't to say we should never generalize; it was to re-examine what I think are pretty commonly excepted generalizations amongst convert Buddhists.

The whole "we gotta strip Buddhism of all the cultural baggage to get to the essential teachings" narrative is something I see and hear all the time. And I think it really needs to be examined. What does that mean? What is essential? Who gets to determine that? And how does that impact our practice?

Another way to look at it like this.

Take Chan - or Chinese Zen. It wouldn't be what it is without both the Indian elements that arrived and continued on, as well as the Taoism, Confucianism and indigenous spiritual that mixed together. And all of that influenced Japanese Zen, which developed in it own way, but with heavy influence from Chan. And now Japanese Zen has come to the U.S. where it's being mixed with American influences to make what we have today. Many of the Zen monasteries in the U.S., for example, have been influenced by Christian monastic models. That's the example I am most familiar with(being a Soto Zen student), but the way I see it, trying to parse out some set of essentials from all of that not only feels next to impossible, but actually could also strip away some of the dynamism that comes when multiple cultural influences mix together. This doesn't mean some things aren't dropped off, but it's more about recognizing what functions here, and what doesn't as well. Like I think Americans function better with modified teacher-student relationship models, rather than maintaining the strong submission to teacher models that have been more common in Japan.

So, a focus on functional, as opposed to searching for some "essential teachings" - as if all those who came before missed it somehow.

Sheldrake said...

I am an admirer of David Loy and Buddhism in general but the words "cultural baggage" have gotten used so often that they really are an insult anymore. As if there was "one true Buddhism" that we could return to if we could just get rid of this other stuff...

Still, it seems to me that much of what appealed to me about Buddhism was what my fellow white westerners brought to it or projected onto it. The more I read about Asian flavored Buddhism, the less it appealed to me. On the other hand, I wanted to be honest with the material as it was packaged and not just assume that it can be reshaped to suit my desires. Not when so many other humans have a claim as to what it means to be a Buddhist.

I realize Stephen Batchelor was not the interviewee here but he seems to share the same view as Loy... although I think the words he uses is "accretions". After removing so much from cultural Buddhism, what is left to actually label as Buddhism? Maybe it would be better to call it something else entirely.


David said...

Well, I’m not denying that how Buddhism interacts with Western modernity is not an important topic or that some of our assumptions should not be reexamined. I suppose what I am reacting to is how we often discuss these topics, by taking exception to certain statements in a way that strikes me a nit-picking, and also the way some will analyze and categorize a person’s beliefs along with the perceived techniques that they use to explain/defend those beliefs. I say “we” because I do it myself sometimes.

I’ve now had a chance to read the interview and I am willing to bet that it was not an informal face to face encounter but instead probably an e-mail interview. Loy’s responses are actually a bit too polished to be spontaneous. At least, that’s my impression.

I wouldn’t mind if someone described scientific reasoning and empiricism as baggage, because it is sometimes. It gets in the way of our understanding. Buddhism was fashioned by a reasoning that is the exact opposite of ours. People need to understand that. One statement I get sick of hearing is that there is no difference between the Eastern and Western mind.

My history with Buddhist cultural baggage is different from yours. I practiced for many years with an organization that expected Americans to accept and embrace an almost purely Japanese approach to nearly everything. As we’ve seen during the nuclear crisis over there, the Japanese had a different way. They are not as forthcoming about certain matters as we are, the excessive group mentality thing and so on. I saw how that, combined with a largely mythological understanding of dharma left people utterly confused, not to mention, misinformed.

I don’t believe that it is necessary to strip Buddhism of ALL its cultural baggage, nor that Westerners need to completely abandon their native way of thinking. I see extremists on both sides and favor the Middle Way approach. One thing I have a concern with is the statement by whoever is on the SZ side in the interview about “those religions [Abrahamic] to interpret our tradition through their own lens.” But that’s a whole other subject. Gassho.

Algernon said...

Inside this remark about "cultural baggage," referring to the mythical elements of Buddhist lore and practice, is an all-too-familiar attitude about myth itself. Despite the popularity of Joseph Campbell's books, the value and power of myth is routinely discounted by people across educational levels and social classes in the west. Add the racial alienation ("these natives pray to trees, isn't that cute") and we get a clearer image of what's going on.

Nathan said...


I can understand, given your practice background, what some of your concerns were in the initial response. Trying to impose and maintain an entirely Japanese model in the U.S, Canada, or elsewhere is not a healthy approach.

"One statement I get sick of hearing is that there is no difference between the Eastern and Western mind." Yeah, a statement like this can cause trouble. I'd say it's an over-emphasis on emptiness, or the ultimate truth. There IS no difference. However, in the relative world, there's a lot of difference across cultures and nations. Practice, to me, is taking care of both sides of the story.

Sheldrake - yes, I thought about Stephen Batchelor when writing the post. I'd say he's more focused on these issues than Loy is. Loy's work is pretty eclectic topic-wise, which is one of the reasons it appeals to me.

David said...

Nathan, yes, you hit the nail on the head in regard to the East/West difference. Confusion about when to apply the ultimate and the relative contributes to much misunderstanding in discussions.

Algernon, your choice of words is interesting. “Educational levels.” Are you suggesting that only well-educated people are intelligent enough to see through what from your tone I assume you consider a false notion? I hope I am misreading you, and I am not sure that your statement is accurate.

“Cultural baggage” as a general remark refers to more than just myth, you know. It is lamentable that after these years, folks still do not understand Campbell’s central message, which was not so much about the value and power of myth as it was about the danger of misinterpreting myths and taking them literally. “The Power of Myth” should be required reading/viewing for anyone interested in religion and spirituality. There are parts of it that should be tattooed to people’s forehead, posted on refrigerators, chanted morning and night, memorized – whatever it takes for the message to sink in and take root.