You Can’t Steal What Was Freely Given — No Cultural Appropriation In Buddhism

John Pendall, a colleague of mine (I’m shamelessly elevating my status here) at The Tattooed Buddha wrote a wonderful article about American Buddhism and cultural appropriation.

Wonderful, but I disagree. Take a look at it here. In the article he states that we Western Buddhists are definitely guilty of cultural appropriation.

In my rebuttal I’m going to pretend that cultural appropriation is actually a thing; that’s hard for me to do. But today I won’t argue that it isn’t real, I’ll just let you know why Western Buddhism, and Eastern Buddhism for that matter, aren’t appropriating (stealing) anything. Is India culturally appropriating the automobile? “Of course not!” you say. Henry Ford was a businessman that wanted everyone in the world to have a car. So if he were alive today I’m sure he would be happy that there are cars in India, although I’m also sure he would wish there were more Fords and less Tatas.

If the Buddha were alive today would he care that we Westerners were practicing the religion/philosophy/self-help movement that he started? No, I don’t think so.

Although he supposedly had some hesitation about teaching after his enlightenment, he eventually did and accepted converts. And ultimately he sent people out to spread his word. So, just like Henry Ford, he was happy to have people use his product. Although in fairness to The Buddha, he probably charged less. But regardless, Buddhism was a proselytizing religion. It was meant to be incorporated into other cultures. And each of those cultures has changed it and made it their own.

Like John’s friend, I have a statue of Hotei. How can you not love Hotei? He’s so cute and has such a sunny disposition. And John was right in that it is often incorrectly called a “Buddha statue,” but what John doesn’t tell you is the reason why. Hotei is actually the Japanese name of the Chan monk, Budai. In China, Budai was a traveling monk who gave candy to children. Unfortunately in today’s world a hidden camera crew would set up a sting for him and have him arrested. But back then people weren’t as wary I guess. It wasn’t until his legend moved to Japan that he was melded into their pantheon of gods. So, using John’s logic, the Japanese appropriated Budai. But originally he was a revered Chan bodhisattva. Is there anything wrong with me honoring a bodhisattva? Especially since I repeat the Bodhisattva Vows every day after meditation? Or am I appropriating the vows too?

And that brings me to the language of Buddhism.

John admits that, “translating Pali and Sanskrit terms into English and then putting those terms into circulation is acculturation; using a faux Asian accent when you quote your Asian teacher is cultural appropriation.” Well, if you say it in a Charlie Chan accent, that’s mocking at best or racism at worst. But it’s not appropriation. In the 70s and 80s a lot of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn’s students started speaking in halted English like he did after studying with him for years. There is still a Zen Master in his lineage that does it, because I’ve seen him on YouTube. I’ve heard the same thing happened to Shunryu Suzuki’s students. I’ve somehow lessened my Western Kentucky accent and picked up a slightly Central Kentucky accent after living in Lexington for 20 years. None of that is appropriation; it’s just a natural thing that happens (however I will concede that Madonna’s British accent is fake and borders on appropriation).

 

John also talks about how gasshos and beads are okay for Asians, but bad for Americans. He thinks a firm handshake is more appropriate. Well, as a germaphobe I couldn’t disagree more, but bowing is a central practice of several Zen Buddhist lineages and the gassho is part of that. The gassho was taught to us by the Asian practitioners that brought it here. They wanted us to do that. And prayer beads are a part of every major religion. I don’t really know the history of them, but I know that they are also a part of the Hindu religion, so if cultural appropriation is real, then who appropriated from whom?

John makes the assumption that one reason that Asian masters aren’t transmitting their lineages to the West is because they see it doesn’t work here. But I know of only one Asian Zen Master who purposefully didn’t transmit his lineage to any American student—Susaki Roshi. And how would John explain Yasutani Roshi and Phillip Kapleau? The story goes that one of the main reasons Yasutani Roshi and Kapleau had a falling out was that Kapleau wanted to recite the Heart Sutra in English and Yasutani wanted it preserved in its “native” Japanese. For not culturally appropriating the Heart Sutra, Kapleau lost his teacher’s transmission.

By attempting to claim that these things and others are cultural appropriation, and trying to remove them from our Western Buddhism, I would argue that what you are actually guilty of is white-washing Buddhism. I’m not a liberal, so I’m not sure which is the worse crime on the Political Correctness Scale. But it seems to me that our Asian ancestors, both recent and long past, wanted us to—no, encouraged us to— take and use everything that we could.

Henry Ford famously only offered his product in one color. Luckily for us, Buddhism comes in many and we should feel free to use them all.

Zen and the Art of Movie Watching

I am a Star Wars fan—a HUGE Star Wars fan.

I’ve seen each of the movies dozens of times, yes, even the prequels. I have learned to accept Jar Jar Binks as part of canon. I was very excited to see J.J. Abrams’ new trilogy and what he would do with my beloved characters. He didn’t let me down with The Force Awakens. While basically ripping off the original Star Wars plot, he was still able to introduce a new group of characters to the Star Wars universe, while treating the old characters with the respect, and screen time, they deserved.

So, to say that I was excited to see The Last Jedi is an understatement. I was, as the kids say nowadays, amped. I purchased tickets for the first showing I could make it to and settled in to what I was sure was going to be another great Star Wars movie. I knew the movie would center around Luke and I also knew it would answer a lot of questions that had been left unanswered from TFA (that’s how we—the real fans—write The Force Awakens) such as who Rey’s parents were and who Snoke really was.

A little over two hours later I left the theater dejected. The movie was definitely not what I had wanted it to be. How dare the director, Rian Johnson, basically disregard all the movies that had come before and create this movie that was only superficially a Star Wars movie. Yeah, it had Stormtroopers and light sabers and Luke Skywalker, but they didn’t do or act how they should have. I know, because I’m a Star Wars fan. I was like Boba Fett falling down the Sarlacc Pit; I had found a new definition of pain and suffering, like being slowly digested over a thousand years.

I was pissed off. I even made a comment that Sunday at my Sangha. At the end of our meditation session we go around the group and say our names and give a high point and low point of the week. When it came around to me, I gave my name and my low point, “I’m Tyson and my low point was that the new Star Wars movie was shit.” Which actually went with the day’s theme because our teacher had just given a dharma talk on Yunmen’s dried shit on a stick koan.

A few days later, after I had read dozens of online reviews and realized that a lot of other people were as upset as I was I started to cool off. Misery loves company. I also read the “professional” reviews that said what a great movie it was. I didn’t understand how the pros’ and nerds’ viewpoints could be so different. So I decided to go see it again.

This time I went on a Wednesday night. It was much less crowded, there was less buzz and energy in the theater. To say I was not “amped” this time would be correct. The movie started, and a little over two hours later, I was…confused. I was confused because I actually enjoyed it. How could I enjoy a movie that just a few days ago I was calling shit during my sangha meeting?

Oh, wait…

The first time I saw it, I carried a lot of stuff into the movie with me (like Luke going into Dagobah’s Dark Side cave). I was a HUGE Star Wars fan. I knew how the movies should go. I expected the director and actors to please me because they owed it to me. I had pretty damn high expectations.

The second time I went to see it I had zero expectations. I went to see it as a neutral observer. I didn’t expect anything from the movie and wasn’t expecting anything from myself—no baggage and no labels. There was nothing to be let down about.

I went in empty.

I’m a terrible Zen student, but even I could figure this out. If I go into a movie with an identity (Star Wars Fan) and I have preconceived notions and expectations (how a Star Wars movie should be) then what else in my life do I do this with? What other areas of my life can I see this pattern happen? I do this with people and places all the time. I know how Joe from work is going to act because he’s this type of person. I know when I go to the grocery I’m not going to like it because there will be long lines and babies crying. Instead of being a clean sheet of paper, I’ve already written in permanent marker what these experiences will be like beforehand. Intellectually, I knew I was doing this before, but for some reason a Star Wars movie was an opening for me where I attained what was happening.

So today when I came to work I had a different relationship to Joe. He didn’t annoy me quite so much with his chipper, “isn’t it a wonderful morning” attitude. I’m not sure how long that will last, but hopefully longer than it took for Han to make the Kessel Run.

About That Christmas Feast…

Hello, my name is Hae Mun, and I’m a vegetarian. You may already be rolling your eyes and getting ready to skip over the rest of this. I don’t blame you. I hate to be preached at too. But, I’m not going to preach much, I promise. There are no videos attached to this that show baby calves getting tortured or seals getting clubbed over the head.  Although I will share an experience or two of my childhood growing up on the farm. So, if you’re still reading then here we go…

 

Yesterday a pretty well-respected Zen author and psychoanalyst, whose book I have read and enjoyed, posted this on his Facebook page:

 

“Meat eating acknowledges our animal nature, as a fellow animal and part of the food chain, as a link in a net of interdependence. It acknowledges that there is no such thing as purity, as standing apart from suffering and death, with which all forms of life are inevitably entangled. We are called to be mindful of the cost to others of our continued existence. “Seventy-two labors brought us this food, we should know how it comes to us.” Spirituality is already all too entangled with hatred of the physical, of the body, of sexuality, of physical and emotional needs. We cannot (and should not) transcend any of this. Eat meat, have sex, raise children, admit your need for love, remember you are mortal and this embodied life is the only life there is.”

 

Now as I alluded to before, I really try not to preach and lecture about not eating meat. But reading the above quote from a Zen teacher, I was a little flabbergasted. There are several arguments by Buddhists for eating meat. The only two that I agree with are if you have an actual physical ailment that causes you to have to eat animal protein or if like the Tibetans, you don’t have access to vegetables. Other than those, I don’t think you can viably argue that killing another animal for your consumption is ok. And if you think you can, I’ll be glad to rebut those arguments in the comment section. But back to the quote above—wow.

 

It’s really convenient that we humans are at the top of the food chain. Unless we are on an African safari or somehow surrounded by a lost tribe of cannibals, we don’t usually have to worry about being killed and eaten. I don’t think most humans realize how great that is. As I said, I grew up on a farm. We had all kinds of livestock at one time or another. You should hear chickens go crazy when a fox or coyote gets into their coop. You think YOU’RE stressed out when your parents-in-law are in town for the holidays and they are breathing down your neck all the time, imagine if you are a chicken with a coyote literally breathing down your neck with some drool coming out of its mouth. That’s stress. We also had cows. Not cows aren’t extremely smart. Not like pigs. Cows don’t really know to get out of the cold or rain. They will never be able to add 2 plus 2 with their hooves like that horse used to do on Johnny Carson’s show. But one thing they do know, when they are loaded into a trailer and get within a couple of miles of the slaughter house, they know they are about to die. They can literally smell the death. They go crazy. They don’t like that smell. They suffer.

 

So, imagine that aliens come to earth and decide THEY are now the top of the food chain. Let’s say they have an alien-looking knife at my Zen author’s throat. Would he be so arrogant and nonchalant about his circle of life and not standing apart from suffering and death then? I bet he would all of the sudden want to transcend that. What if they said an alien prayer to honor his sacrifice, would that make him feel better about being eaten? He is right, we are animals and we are a part of, not separate of interdependence. But unlike all other animals, we have the knowledge that we are causing suffering when we kill and we have the ability not to kill.

 

I don’t want to die. I do a lot of things every day to avoid death. I know animals don’t want to die because when you chase them, they run. So I don’t eat them. If you can help it, you shouldn’t either (sorry, that’s preachy.) Enjoy that Christmas Tofurky.

Love Letter To The Sangha

Reprinted from my post on The Tattooed Buddha 

So I have been meditating almost daily for 7 years. But I have a dirty little secret. Ok, I have several dirty little secrets, but only one that I am prepared to share with you readers. I don’t like to meditate. Yes, you read that right. I really don’t like to.  I have to talk myself into it most days and when I do finally force myself on the pillow I am ready to get up almost immediately.

This wasn’t always the case.  When I first started 7 years ago by going to a beginners’ Zen retreat I was a little scared, but excited. I had been an intellectual Zen student for over 15 years. I had read many wonderful books about Buddhism in general and Zen in particular. I knew it was right for me. But I only read and rarely sat my ass on a cushion. So I was excited to find out that there was a Zen group in my area. I couldn’t wait to do the actual practice. I learned very little at the retreat (by design—those damn enigmatic Zen teachers ya know). But they did put me on a zafu and zabuton and force me to sit still for 15-30 minutes at a time for half a day. It flew by. I’m an introvert, so what better way to spend time with people than having them sit next to me and not be allowed to say anything to me? Plus, it was startling to see the tangled mess that was my mind. I was hooked.

After fast and furious 6 months of meditating once or twice daily I started to notice results. Now in Zen, we aren’t supposed to have a goal with meditation and any benefits you see because of meditation shouldn’t be discussed. They are purely incidental to the BIG AWAKENING. And we definitely can’t talk about that! But dammit, I did have results. I actually noticed things going on around me. I was actually listening to people instead of just hearing them. I was able to see that I was causing suffering in others and was able to at least cut that down some.

All great right? Other things happened too over the first couple of years. And I enjoyed being on the cushion. But sometime, somehow, it started to change. After a few years it wasn’t so fun anymore. I started making excuses about why I couldn’t sit that day. All of the sudden I was too busy. Or didn’t feel good. Or my knee hurt too bad from trying to twist myself into the pretzel full lotus position. I had any number of excuses to not sit and my practice went first to almost daily to a couple of times a week to whenever I felt like it. And I didn’t feel like it most of the time.

But throughout this time I kept going to my weekly Sangha meetings. I started enjoying those more and more. I began to interact with the other members even though, for me, it was painful to do. If it hadn’t been for my Sangha, I am pretty sure I would have given up meditation. But being around other dedicated practitioners, my compassionate teacher, and new people who were just beginning on the path, got me back on the cushion “full time”. I am thankful for them.

Now back to my dirty little secret. Even though I’m meditating once or twice a day almost daily, I don’t enjoy it. It’s still a burden for me most days. But when I have those days where I really, really, REALLY don’t want to do it, I think about how I’m not as big an asshole because of it and how much better I can be if I continue to do it. And I think of my Sangha.  The great group of people that come help me sit on Sundays. Some I’ve known for years. Some I see one time and they never come back. But they all have courage and it forces me to be courageous each time I stare down at the cushion before I sit. My Sangha is my motivation. So if you see any of my Sangha members, thank them for helping me to not be as big an asshole as I used to be.

No Saints, Only Sinners

Each week after zazen has concluded we go around the group and say our names and are asked to share a high and low point of the week if we are so inclined. This was instituted a couple of years ago because one of the complaints we heard from newbies that came to our group was that it was a “cold atmosphere” and not very inviting. Well, I think that pretty much sums up Zen, but I digress. 

This week during the high/low point discussion, several people brought up that they came to Zen to escape from a strict Christian upbringing. This is a thread that comes up in our group fairly frequently, and it happened to me to a lesser extent. I was sent to a Southern Baptist Sunday school because they were the only church that sent a bus by our farmhouse. Our mother shipped my brother and me there every Sunday and I’m convinced she only used the church as an unpaid babysitter for a couple of hours.  She grew up Catholic and never went to church as an adult. She abruptly stopped sending us when I came home one day and told her that she was going to Hell because she smoked cigarettes. 

But it seems like many of the people that visit our Sangha have had a much more traumatic experience with The Church. During these stories you can feel the pain and anguish in their voices as they share this with complete or almost complete strangers. On the flip side we have two members that are still active in their respective churches and seem very content and ok with their Christian Sanghas. 

I often wonder if in China there are people that go to Christian churches and tell how they were scarred in childhood by their experiences at the local Buddhist temple. They think Christianity is the salve that will heal them like a lot of American converts believe Zen will do for them. I think a lot of the newbies that come to our Sangha are unaware that there are plenty of Americans across the country that have been emotionally scarred by Zen in general and some of the teachers of Zen in particular. Are there Imams, Rabbis, and Pujaris that have been embroiled in controversies that have hurt their congregants? Should we expect more from our religious leaders than we expect out of ourselves? After all, they are supposed to be closer to God(s). 

I got into Zen because I read about the saintly Zen patriarchs that were serene, emotionless bastions of limitless wisdom.  I wanted to be one of those. Luckily I met a teacher that was 100% human and my idea of infallibility was quickly dispelled. Those saintly beings don’t exist in any religion. Some are going to help us. Some are going to hurt us. Some are going to do a good deal of both.

Not Just Another Zen Blog

Welcome! This won’t be your run-of-the mill Zen blog. Ok, maybe it will. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be as good as some that are already out there. My personal favorites are Hardcore Zen, Monkey Mind and No Zen In The West. The problem with those blogs is that I don’t agree with a lot of what they say.

See, I think there’s a big problem with “American Zen”: Its loudest and most pervasive voices are always liberals. In my opinion, the San Francisco Zen types have taken over the whole movement. If your thoughts and politics don’t lean to the left, you get looked at kinda funny. Personally, I don’t think politics and Zen should mix, although I do realize I’m in the minority here.

So I created Don’t Know Zen. This will be a place where we can have civil discussions about Zen, and even politics if we have to. Also, civil discussions about whatever else pops up in my not-so-calm mind. But you, dear reader, will have to bear with me because I’m not a lot of things. And two of those things are Zen teacher and professional writer. I try to meditate every day and go on day-long retreats every now and then. I also try to avoid grammar and spelling mistakes and form cohesive sentences. But sometimes I fail at all that. So have compassion. Please. But most of all, comment, discuss, and be civil.