Why Buddhism wouldn’t exist today without cultural appropriation

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nam_June_Paikrce image
Nam June Paik: ‘TV Buddha’ 1974

Most of us will have seen that person with a Buddha tattoo on her arm or a colourful t-shirt with the Buddha’s face on it. Perhaps even, as we are trying to hold ourselves in the downward dog position, caught the eye of the plastic Buddha statue residing in the corner of some yoga studio. But this is not a rant about the evils of ‘cultural appropriation’, much the opposite, this article will explain that without the cultural appropriation of Buddhism during the many long years since Shakyamuni’s parinirvana, the practice as we know it would not exist today. In fact it might not exist at all. As we shall see, the practice and the outward appearance of that practice are very different things.

Cultural appropriation is exactly how culture works

Perhaps a more realistic view of cultural appropriation is that cultural appropriation is exactly how culture works. Cultures could not evolve and ‘reproduce’ as it were without this drive. Ironically it is sometimes those of us on the left of the political spectrum that complain about cultural appropriation, by confusing notions of reserved as opposed to preserved, they create a space for some strange kind of cultural separatism or reservationism which we would usually expect from the political right. Especially strange when it is argued on behalf of others by the very same people who make the argument for multiculturalism. Of course sometimes the argument is made against a perceived mockery or commodification of one’s own or another’s culture. But in the case of commodification this is happening to all cultures, including the indigenous and dominant cultures of all nations. In a capitalist society every culture is commodified. In terms of mockery it is not always so clear whether there is actual intent to mock, or merely a lack of understanding, and the latter type of person needs latitude to make mistakes as we all do. Outright condemnation is not a teaching aid, as a teacher I know it creates resentment and further barriers in the classroom, so much more so outside of the classroom.

We have become the ‘tools of our tools.’

Under the surface of this seemingly modern phenomena is a very ancient process. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in his book The Selfish Gene, in order to describe the similarity between the way cultural concepts reproduce, and genes. Culture spreads almost like a virus, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it just means that cultures have no life of their own without a host, in this case the people who live out those cultures and give them life, and the human mind itself which is the real stage and theatre of culture. Then much like a virus it would seem their chief purpose is to replicate their own information, being subject to a kind of natural selection as they go about this process. Bearing in mind that memes can be good or bad, useful in one situation and useless or downright harmful in another, and because we are mainly unaware of these forces as we go about or lives there is the potential, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, for us to become ‘the tools of our tools’. This goes for culture, ideology and even technology, since we both shape these things in our image and are shaped by them in turn, through a kind of symbiotic reciprocity. 

Susan Blackmore has posited the term temes to describe technological memes specifically, and if we think of technological concepts as memes we could consider that if it were not for appropriation, other countries would not develop technologically (although some may make the argument of relativity here, in terms of what constitutes technologically developed, yet it would be rather spurious in this context), because specific technologies can be highly cultural specific, think of British engineering and the industrial revolution. Think of aqueducts and roads built and spread around Europe by the Romans, ideas and valuable infrastructure that didn’t completely disappear when the empire receded and eventually collapsed under its own weight. Think of technologies invented by one civilisation and perfected by another. I also feel it would be a sad world if I couldn’t enjoy artwork and food from other cultures because I didn’t originally come from that culture, nor would I be able to play the blues on my guitar to express that sadness. Even sadder if a child from Mexico couldn’t get an organ transplant because the technology required to carry it out is deemed to be culturally protected within the country or nation in which it was first developed. It would then seem to me that an important question arises regarding the development and ownership of medicines within the multinational pharmaceutical industry, but that is a question for another article.

Now coming back to the rather highly memetic images of the Buddha, we have to remember they are just that, images, they are not meant to be commodities, although for many this is all they are, nor are they meant to be pretty ornaments, but as we all know intentions can go astray. For Buddhists, they are there to represent respect and as devices to aid memory and practice. Unfortunately, even for those who practice Buddhism, the spectre of commodity can creep in unnoticed, for when we don’t bear this in mind, it is then that images gain a life of their own. Commodity is a very powerful meme indeed. In this respect I’m thinking of French philosopher Baudrillard and his anecdote regarding the ‘Iconoclasts’ in his book ‘Simulation and Simulacra’. The Iconoclasts were the supporters of the 8th and 9th century movement in the Catholic Orthodox church that forbade and destroyed iconic images of holy figures. Although I don’t believe in the extremity of such practices, their actions remind us that images of whatever form are not the real thing, in fact they can get in the way, cover up, subvert or hide. Today, more than the 8th century ever had to deal with, we are literally blasted with images every day, images of images, upon images, to the point where we forget what is a representation and what is not. Now as Baudrillard wrote of the ‘Iconolators’ who created and venerated idols, we don’t have to destroy all our images to remember that, but we can live with the reminder of their false and double nature, we can remember that they are an expression of shunyata

There’s the famous story of a Buddhist monk who, cold and weary from wandering for such a long time, upon arriving at a monastery, used a wooden statue of the Buddha as kindling to warm himself. A resident monk caught him warming himself by its fire and horrified by the sight, shouts at the itinerant monk: ‘you’ve burnt the Buddha!’. Digging in the ashes with a stick the itinerant monk replies, ‘I didn’t find him in here, maybe we should burn the other one,’ as he pointed to an even bigger statue in one corner of the sala. The story reminds us that statues like these are not idols to be worshiped in themselves, neither are they a conduit to transmit prayers like a church to a higher being, since the Buddha is no longer anywhere to be prayed to, since parinirvana is not a place.

Despite this, non-Buddhists can do what they like with Buddha images they own or make since these images are only images and commodities, they never were anything else, they were manufactured for this purpose. It’s up to Buddhists ourselves to respect our images and understand what they represent for us, and although some would disagree, I don’t believe you can disrespect something that’s just an empty image, a reflection of emptiness. Remember the Heart Sutra:

Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form. The same is true for Feelings, Perceptions, Volitions and Consciousness

Now that’s all well and good but I’m also aware that having a tattoo of a Buddha on your arm is one thing, and going into a Buddhist Temple and grabbing a Buddha statue in order to break it into pieces is another thing. There’s a certain level of responsibility that one should bare which would help if you are a non-Buddhist, to gauge the situation and whether you will deeply offend someone or not. The ethics of Buddhism are a situational ethics, that is, the situation and the people involved define what response is appropriate and not a pre-approved dogma to fall back on, in Buddhism actions that bare this in mind are deemed ‘skilful means’. Although, even Buddhism for some has unknowingly become a dogmatic practice, but that is not within the scope of this article. Thus there can be no tribalist left or right politics, we’d have to ask from a perspective once removed from this political false dichotomy and see what tools from both sides would bee appropriate in the present moment, which is why some people mistake Buddhism for being leftist and sometimes even on the right- it is neither. When reading the sutras, you will see again and again in the Buddha’s interactions with mendicants, merchants, housewives and Kings, that the Buddha ways up each interaction and response based on clear awareness of the situation with skillful means. I think therefore understanding should be given to those that misunderstand Buddhist traditions, especially for those that wish to become Dharma practitioners themselves but perhaps weren’t born in a country with those traditions.

Guests eating dinner in the Tao nightclub.

It’s hard to cut through the images fired at us everyday in modern life, like layers of rotten bark and find, in the parlance of Ajahn Chah ‘heartwood’

In contrast, I was recently made aware of the ‘Tao’ nightclub and bistro in Las Vegas, a city not famous for its subtlety. The Asian-themed bistro has scantily-dressed dancers performing in aerial displays, when they aren’t otherwise lounging in glass baths of rose petals. ‘It’s really sacrilegious to put Buddha statues in a dance lounge,‘ Gina Masequesmay, chair of the Cal State Asian American Studies department, said. The bar is surrounded by a large display of carved wooden Buddhist monks in stepped-rows much like you would see in a Buddhist temple, as well as very large Buddhist statues set within stereotypically Asian decor. To get the full idea of the place you could watch one of the many slick promotional videos on YouTube and elsewhere online. While being on the extreme end of insensitive cultural appropriation, which makes me feel embarrassed and not a little queasy, I also feel there is even a little Dhamma here, a teachable moment. In this hyper-real environment we are reminded that the truth and the teaching does not reside in the objects and the images themselves. How could they, if even placed in this environment with its nightly revellers, bouncers and scantily dressed ladies they have no effect, only as some hyper-real exotica to re-enforce the customers’ sense of being exotic and special themselves. We realise that the practice at core, is invisible, that it can’t be bought or sold like a commodity, only the image can be sold, and frankly, if that is all you want from life then you can keep it. The real sadness of it all is that most people aren’t even aware of this dynamic and chase after phantoms all their life when their hearts are hungry for something more substantial to fill and sustain them. I should know, I was once one of them, perhaps I still am in many respects, it’s hard to cut through the images fired at us everyday in modern life, like layers of rotten bark and find in the parlance of Ajahn Chah ‘heartwood’. 

Even today there are people who erroneously state that Westerners can’t be real Buddhists

As a Buddhist I feel the development and spread of Buddhism highlights the positive aspect of what some people term cultural appropriation. Although Buddhism originated in an area now known as Northern India and the Buddha himself was born in Lumbini, a region in modern day Nepal, the practice of Buddhism has spread all over the world. But first it had to travel to Tibet, Sri Lanka, China, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam before making its way to Europe and America (although it can be said it had influenced ancient Greece much sooner). As Buddhism slowly trekked around the world, spread by word of mouth along the Silk route, and carried within manuscripts on the backs of travelling monks and scholars it picked up some of the cultural nuances, superstitions and beliefs that originated in its host countries along the way, for example the shamanic Bon tradition of Tibet, and Shinto in Japan. This is also why we still have Theravada Buddhism which aims to follow the early and original teachings of Buddhism which were protected by the Sri Lankans and Thais to this very day. Mahayana Buddhism came about a little later and is split into Vajrayana (the esoteric tantric version of the Mahayana) which is practiced in Nepal and Tibet, Chan Buddhism in China which most people know as Zen Buddhism in Japan which focuses on meditation and direct experience.   

The Buddha never said that his Dharma should be reserved for Indians and Nepalese only

Yet despite this precedent, even today there are people who erroneously state that Westerners aren’t or can’t be real Buddhists because it’s not part of their culture, or that they just can’t understand Buddhism, based on simply nothing more than their ethnic origin. Usually in discussions of this kind the differences in mindset between Westerners and Asians are sited. Personally I think it’s a worn out trope now that Asians are automatically predisposed to group identities as opposed to Western individuality, or that Asians are somehow more spiritual based on nothing more than stereotypes culled from novels and movies as well as the fetishism of Asian culture in the middle of the twentieth century, which even continues to a great extent today, much like the aforementioned Tao restaurant ‘experience’. The Buddha never said that his Dharma should be reserved for Indians and Nepalese only, far from it, he wanted his followers to learn the Dharma inside-out and to protect it for future generations, spreading it around the world. In fact the Buddha himself existed in a cultural melting pot where Jainism and the many forms of proto-Hinduism co-existed. Today many Hindus even worship the Buddha as an Avatar of Vishnu, (another level of appropriation itself) although Buddhists themselves do not believe this and the Buddha himself would have denied the claim to be anything other than human, which is part of what makes Buddhism special and accessible to the many people of the world. Despite this, appropriation of Buddhism into Hinduism is not necessarily a bad thing, it brings the teachings of the Buddha to a wider audience, and if that audience wish to dig a little deeper into the differences between these religions they are free to do so. And yet historically Brahmanistic beliefs have crept into the Buddhist sutras in return which can be seen through the contradicting statements between certain sutras. So this is a point at which there can be some debate over the positives and negatives of cultural appropriation

There are many schools and practices which I haven’t mentioned in their entirety, that could be considered products of cultural appropriation, especially since many of these schools teach a culturally specific form of Buddhism integrating beliefs that were already practiced within those countries, practices not necessarily present in the original teachings. In fact by the time Buddhism traveled to Japan it had gone through the filter of Nepal, Tibet, China, and thus created a particular way of interpreting Buddhism. In fact the Zen patriarch Dogen traveled to China to study Buddhism when he felt that Japan had lost the true spirit of Buddhism, feeling that he could trace the thread back there to retrieve its vitality from an earlier source.

Buddhism all but disappeared in the land where it was born around the mid 1200’s during islamic rule, even though it had already been declining by the twelfth century. And without the earlier appropriation of Buddhism by Sri Lanka and Thailand, Buddhism would not be as well known as it is today, and it could be possible that there would be no real trace of it today apart from a few early artifacts. Originally the teachings were kept alive after the passing of the Buddha through an oral tradition, with a very rigorous method that was cross examined by thousands of monks to check for errors, before being written down much later in the language that had been developed specifically for it, facilitating the communication of its concepts. Thai monks kept their version of the Pali canon and made it a point of pride to visit Sri Lanka to test for errors and differences in each copy of their Tipitaka or ‘Pali Canon’ : the collected teachings in Theravada Buddhism, known as the Tipitaka in Mahayana, translated as the ‘Three Baskets.’ Let me point out that the Tipitaka is huge and would fill a large room in its entirety, much as the whole of the unabridged Bible and gospels addendums and appendices fill libraries within the Vatican, so this is no easy task. Even the official version can fill a large cabinet.

Finally coming back to the present, I am thankful for those countries’ appropriation of Buddhism, just as some might be thankful for the appropriation of systems theory or permaculture in the future. Currently It seems that there is a growing secularisation and aligning of Buddhism with modern psychology and the sciences. And I believe that this could be the early days of a new school of secular and nonsectarian Buddhism which will sit next to the Mahayana and Theravada in future encyclopedias of Buddhism, becoming yet another example of cultural appropriation and mimetic evolution -and I certainly won’t be condemning that.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s