Last week I chose some photos that meant “culture” to me, and I got to thinking about a conversation, actually several conversations, I’ve had with friends about Buddhism and the way it bends and changes and adapts to the culture it finds itself in.
It seems natural to me.
One of my friends, however, said he had to express his “disparagement with the idea that Buddhism should be adapted to the culture it is working in. I can’t accept that because then I would be accepting the idea that it should be watered down for commercialization and packaged as a another self-help video in the New Age movement.” He then cited a Vietnamese monk he knows who was impressed by his insight, thus lending credence to his view.
So Buddhism hasn’t blended with Vietnamese culture? It’s come down undiluted from sometime around the 5th century BCE when Siddhartha Gautama first sat under a bodhi tree and became enlightened?
How can Buddhism possibly not have changed and blended with cultures?
From Tibet dakinis and mandalas are thrown into the mix. Dakinis also eased their way into Japanese culture and became known as Dakini-ten. Buddhism in Japan embraced taoism from China. In fact, the entire influx of Buddhism into Japan was the result of one of the greatest culture occurrences in history: The Silk Road, where Buddhism was brought from Nepal. The Buddha even looks different in different countries. Some of those Thai Buddhas bear a strong resemblance to the old kings of Siam. Some schools of Buddhism are Theravada. Others fall under the Mahayana heading.
Clearly Buddhism, and probably all major world religions, has done plenty of bending and adapting to culture, so why is it an issue now that it’s begun making its way into the West? Could it be my friend honestly believes it’s not been commercialized in Asia?
There is a tendency, for many, to idealize cultures outside our own. It’s called “Orientalism” when it’s dealing with Asia. Orientalism is a kind of reverse racism where the east is imbued with a spirituality that those in the developed west can never understand. It’s somehow purer, more innocent.
I don’t think it’s accurate.
I don’t know if globalization is good or bad but I do know it’s real. There are people in all countries seeking spiritual solace, just as there are many, many around the world looking to money as a means to happiness. And it’s every where.
At the gates of temples throughout Asia, Buddhism is just another commodity. You can buy bodhi leaves in plastic bags in Bodh Gaya, malas made out of wood and seeds, incense and, of course, Buddha statues of all sizes and prices.
Really, we have no monopoly on watering something down and packaging it as another self-help video in the New Age movement. It’s just different is all.
I remember a trip I took to a cave in Gansu Province, China. I was with some friends. It was raining and we hiked up stone steps carved out of the mountain to the cave at the top. A monk sat sedately by the entrance. One of my friends asked me if I had any questions, and I figured why not? So I asked him the path to happiness. He asked me for some money, which I gave him, and he told me, “Pay your taxes and always listen to your government.”