Authentic American Buddhism

Authentic American Buddhism May 8, 2010
Elk mount with traditional Tibetan scarf, or khata, from a recent retreat in Wyoming. Very Western (in more ways than one) and very Buddhist.

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.

Next, Amod Lele over at Love of All Wisdom has several intriguing posts around this topic (here, here, and here). His attention is more focused on academics and the way that textual study of religion has been criticized in recent years in favor of archeological and anthropological explorations. He cites Gregory Schopen as one such critic (see video below). I commented on his blog, so I’ll just say read the posts, you won’t regret it. The first two made me seriously reconsider calling myself a student of “Buddhism” – read them and the comments and you’ll see why.
Finally, Kyle brought to my attention an interesting review concerning Buddhism in Canada at his blog, the Reformed Buddhist. In the article, the reviewer chastises the contributors of the book for perhaps being over sensitive to Asian Buddhists in Canada and unduly critical to Converts. Some excerpts: 

[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.

We’ll have to read the book to find out how true these allegations are, but they do raise the question of authenticity in Western Buddhist practice. How do we accurately describe various and often contradicting Buddhist practices and beliefs without a) dragging in our own prejudices and presuppositions and/or b) inevitably offending someone?
Oh wait, there’s one more! Jayarava over at Jayarava’s Raves gives us his thoughtful take on “What is Buddhism?” Very much worth a read. His conclusion, like my last post on the Perfections, returns us to the teachings of the Buddha for some of the basic tools of awakening:

‘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.

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