Several folks recently have brought up the question of authenticity in Western or American Buddhist practice. First, a friend of mine in the UK, Dr. Dave Webster, sent me a prezi he made on Western Buddhism and Authenticity. (If you’re unfamiliar with prezi, click on the ‘more’ tab on the lower right and then click ‘autoplay’) Unfortunately, without audio or text, we just get a sort of framework for discussion and critique of the Western (Buddhist) obsession with – or quest for – authenticity.
We’re introduced to some of the marketing of ‘Buddhism’ – on t-shirts and in bars, a financial firm called ‘zendough’, and so on. The we careen into neo-Marxist critique by way of the great Slavoj Žižek. Žižek criticizes Western Buddhism as a fetish that allows its adherents to “fully participate in the frantic pace of the capitalistic game, while sustaining the perception that you are not really in it… [focusing instead on] the inner Self to which you know you can always return.”
To my mind this completely mis-characterizes Western Buddhism (reminiscent of similar colonialist accounts of Buddhism in Asia) as pathetically inactive and subservient. You’ll have to see the prezi and some of Žižek’s works for a fuller analysis, but even if he is way off the mark in general, there is some truth in his critique that deserves attention. While I doubt many people live up to Žižek’s standards of fighting the “frantic pace of the capitalistic game,” everyone would do well to re-evaluate his/her participation in oppressive systems – be they economic, racial, gender based or otherwise.
[T]here is a streak of political correctness running through Wild Geese, which tends to paint Canadian “Westerners” as haughty colonialists and Asian immigrants as virtuous victims of European-rooted bigotry.
[O]ne quibble with Wild Geese is that it contributes to that “overly positive stereotype” by acting as if Asian forms of Buddhism are generally beyond criticism, while lobbing shots at Westerners and their proclivity toward cultural imperialism…
My minor beef is that while Wild Geese’s writers validly suggest that Western converts to Buddhism are often blithely dismissive of the religion’s Asian manifestations, the authors themselves seem blind to the possibility the charge of being disrespectful could be made in reverse.
Terrified by the possibility they could be accused of being unfair to immigrants, the book’s contributors seem unwilling to contemplate that some ethnic Asian Buddhists could be just as adept at creating an “us” against “them” mentality as any Westerner.
‘Buddhism’ is anything that genuinely leads to positive results as defined by the Buddha, i.e. anything that leads to: dispassion, detachment, divestment, satisfaction, contentment, solitude, invigoration, helpfulness. Of course we don’t really need a text to tell us this, or to justify our practice to others if we feel we are genuinely practising, but I find it useful to show that even the conservative Theravādins preserved a tradition of openness and innovation.
I think all of this points to a general Buddhist (not just Western, Buddhists have been arguing about authenticity from the start), and perhaps human, fascination with Authenticity. We want the ‘true’ teachings, the ‘true’ practices, real food (not edible food-like substances), and so on. The obvious question is: Why? One answer is: because it works. Authentic food is better for you/the environment in the long run and authentic teachings and practices really work. But I think there is a better answer. And that is that Authentic items put us in touch with the Dharma, and authentic activities ‘partake’ in the Dharma in a way that inauthentic items and activities cannot.
Inauthentic activities are those rooted in ego (delusion); such as those based on the belief that one has a Self to withdraw to – to return to Žižek’s criticism. This notion of roots and a return to our own mental states as Jayarava points out, suggests a more inwardly directed – though outwardly manifested – rationale for seeking authenticity. And authenticity is not simply one good amongst many for Buddhists, but it is the ultimate consequence sought. For complete authenticity would entail a life in full harmony with the Dharma, that is, an awakened life.
And so, good Buddhists, and the not so good ones, will surely continue to debate authenticity.