Is White Buddhism Cultural Appropriation?

White BuddhismThe other day I posted this on Facebook: Buddha isn’t just the historical Buddha (aka Siddhartha or Gotama or Shakyamuni — the guy had a lot of names). We are all Buddhas. It’s just that only a few of us notice it and even fewer of us ever really manifest our own Buddha-ness. So Buddhism is not the worship of a guy named Buddha, it’s learning to manifest your own inner Buddha.

Someone reposted it and one of his friends made the following comments:

“No please white American dude tell me again what Buddhism is. He knows white Buddhism, he’s culturally appropriation, he makes money off defining a culture that does not belong to him – which he tried due to his many failed business ventures and bands – and I have no problem with his identifying as Buddhist but with any white American defining Buddhism when that culture doesn’t belong to them.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard people saying that something they call “white Buddhism” is an example of something they call “cultural appropriation.” And it’s not the first time I have been accused of being part of this terrible thing.

I don’t like the term “cultural appropriation.” It’s a clever way of justifying racism in the guise of being anti-racist. It says that cultures and races should never mix — that “white people” should only like “white people” stuff, that “black people” should only like “black people” stuff, etc.

Some time in the 80s I watched a TV special made by the Ku Klux Klan. Their claim was that they didn’t think “white people” were necessarily superior, just that the races should not mix. The idea of “cultural appropriation” says pretty much the same thing.

Be that as it may, perhaps we can still ask if “white Buddhism” is cultural appropriation.

If you ask that then you have to ask some other questions. Is Japanese Buddhism cultural appropriation? Is Chinese Buddhism cultural appropriation? Are Tibetan Buddhism, Thai Buddhism, or Sri Lankan Buddhism cultural appropriation? Buddhism did not originate in any of these cultures.

The modern state of India is composed of many cultures and ethnicities, with their own languages and unique customs. The historical Buddha was a member of the Shakya clan and there is some debate as to whether their homeland was in what we now designate as India or what we now designate as Nepal. So perhaps you could even ask if Indian Buddhism is cultural appropriation.

Except it isn’t. None of these Buddhisms are cultural appropriation. Not even “white Buddhism.”

Right from the start Buddhism was a missionary religion. I know, I know. I always say Buddhism is not a religion. But I will admit that in some ways it is a religion and in some ways it’s not. In the sense that it has always had something we might call “missionaries,” Buddhism is a religion.

The historical Buddha decided to teach what he had discovered to other people. He made no distinctions between caste, race, culture or gender. He believed that any human being could become just as enlightened as he had become. So he made every effort to spread what he had learned as widely as possible.

After he died, the people he had taught his understanding to went even further in spreading the practice and philosophy. There were Buddhist missionaries teaching “white people” in Europe about Buddhism well before Christian missionaries got there. They didn’t have a lot of success, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church even designated Buddha a saint when they were trying to incorporate a small cult of “white Buddhists” in Eastern Europe.

Every culture who appropriated Buddhism has changed it in significant ways. When British researchers first tried to understand the religions of India and Asia, they initially did not realize that certain of the religions of India, Nepal, Tibet and China were actually variations of the same religion.

In fact, the very word “Buddhism” is a British invention. Before the British started calling all of these religions forms of “Buddhism” nobody had ever really called them that. One of my favorite books about this subject is The British Discovery of Buddhism by Philip C. Almond. Another good one about the wide variety of different Buddhisms is Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction by Richard H. Robinson, Willard L. Johnson and Thinassaro Bhikku (Geoffrey DeGraff).

I think one of the best things to happen to Buddhism in recent years is that it has been studied and practiced by “white people,” and “black people” and “native people” and “Middle Eastern people” and “Asian people” who were raised outside of Asia, etc. This has transformed Buddhism in the West from something exotic and “Other” into something much more real and practical. This is precisely what the historical Buddha and his original followers clearly wanted. If you want to read more about this, I’d recommend The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David L. McMahan.

I lived in Japan for eleven years. For most of the time I lived there I had no intention of ever returning to the USA. As an immigrant and a racial minority, I made every effort to be part of the culture I was living in. They say that in Japan, you’ll always be an outsider. That may be true. But I was probably as “inside” as anyone not born there could be. Japanese culture has seeped so deeply into my psyche that I experienced real culture shock when I came back to “my” culture, which I scarcely even recognized. Spending much of my childhood in Africa probably also had an effect there too.

When I was in Japan I studied Buddhism with a teacher whose fondest wish was to make Buddhism accessible to Americans. He believed that Buddhism had reached a dead end in Japan. Japanese people no longer cared to learn the deeper philosophy of Buddha or even of Japanese teachers like Dogen. They didn’t meditate. He used to say that much of Japanese Buddhism was a “guild of funeral directors” since the main function of Japanese Buddhist priests is presiding over funerals.

I don’t believe that cultural appropriation exists. But even if it did, you can’t really accuse someone of appropriating a cultural product that someone of that culture has actively encouraged them to take up. I am far from being the only “white person” who was encouraged by an “Asian person” to make Buddhism their own, and to express it in a way that was appropriate to the culture they were born into.

“White Buddhism” is a latecomer to the Buddhist party. But if any Buddhism can be called “cultural appropriation” then all of what we now call Buddhism can be called “cultural appropriation.” In which case calling it “cultural appropriation” is completely meaningless.

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