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.

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