Thanks for the post.
There is a genuine issue being raised here. But we can’t get at the issue until we’re able to make meaningful distinctions about different kinds of practice and understandings of the Dhamma. To treat “Asian Buddhism” as culturally monolithic and detached from western Buddhism is reductive and anti-historical. For a start, all forms of Asian Buddhism practiced today have been massively influenced, for better or for worse, by Western culture, and they have been for a century or more.
In any Asian country you will frequently hear intelligent, sincere, native Buddhists complain about the superstitions, corruption, and misunderstandings of Buddhism as generally understood and practiced in their own country. For a serious American practitioner of Zen to say, as quoted in the article, that they understand Zen better than most Japanese is neither hubristic or ignorant, it’s simply stating a plain and obvious fact. In the same way, a dedicated Christian from Kenya or Singapore would understand Christianity better than most Australians. So what? Of course, I understand that the article is trying to get at more pervasive attitudes, of which this is just an example. Point is, find a better example.
Western Buddhists often ignore such complexities, and casually treat “Asian Buddhism” as if it were nothing more than a mass of meaningless rites and superstitions. It’s interesting that the article speaks only of “American” Buddhism in this regard. American discourse only really cares about America. But you can’t divide what happens in America from what happens in other Western countries, or from what happens in traditional Buddhist countries, where teachers like Jack Kornfield are widely read by middle-class Buddhists.
To the extent that traditional Buddhist is unthinkingly dismissed, the article is quite right in calling it out. Much of the basis for this dismissal is ignorance of the richness and complexity of traditional forms of Buddhism, while much too is common or garden variety laziness: giving up attachments is hard.
Like all forms of discrimination, this is a problem that bounces back on its exponents. Having divested traditional Buddhist of all its unnecessary cultural baggage, Western Buddhists end up with an impoverished teaching and practice, which is then filled in with psychology, New Age, or whatever else; i.e. Western cultural baggage.
But that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as meaningless and even harmful superstitions and doctrines. Black magic, corruption, sexism—and, it must be said, racism—are endemic in many forms of traditional Buddhism. And what of the cruel interpretation of karma that says that the disabled, disaster victims, victims of sexual slavery, the poor, and other disadvantaged people cannot be helped, or that helping them is of little karmic benefit, since they are just reaping the fruits of their karma? Are we just to accept this as a perfectly valid cultural belief?
Such things are against the letter and the spirit of what the Buddha—an Asian—taught. They are also things that countless traditional Buddhists struggle with. They see the harm that these things do, and are trying to change things for the better.
I have seen this in the case of women’s ordination. Buddhist practitioners who sincerely wish to devote themselves to the Dhamma are unable to do so if they are women in traditional Theravada countries, because of the obstacles placed in their path by some monks. The reasons for this are complex, but they are supported by the belief that women are born in a female body because of bad karma, and that female bodies, especially due to menstruation, are taboo. In response to such religiously sanctioned sexism, Asian women like Kumari Jayawardhana have developed their own theories of non-Western feminism.
Such practitioners would appreciate support from the West, where they hope that sexism is not tolerated. I was once asked by a very senior Thai monk whether we could send any bhikkhunis back to Thailand to help establish the order there.
But it’s not that simple. In the west, as in Asia, there’s a lot of sexism. When we try to give what help we can, we’re accused of imposing western values on Asian countries. Suddenly, monks who had graciously accommodated western cultural impositions like air-conditioners, mobile phones, or credit cards, find themselves drawing a line in the sand when it comes to treating women as equals.
So bear this in mind when Ajahn Amaro recasts “cultural baggage” as “skillful means”. Ajahn Amaro is fortunate to practice within a tradition that had already divested itself of many forms of cultural baggage, thanks to the decades-long efforts of Ajahn Chah and other leaders of the forest tradition. They constantly had to battle with superstition and nonsense of all kinds, some merely time-wasting, others dangerous and harmful. The reasons they struggled are complex, but partly they were grounded on the reform movement started by King Mongkut in the 19th century under the influence of Western ideas of text-critical study.
As a result, the “Thai” Buddhism encountered by western students in north-east Thailand already had much in common with so-called “Western” Buddhism, which is, of course, why they were drawn there. Nevertheless, the Western monks had to face much bitter prejudice from some local monks, who for a long time tried to turn the local villagers against them. Now, of course, the Buddhism practiced by Western monks is regarded as a valuable and influential dimension of modern Thai Buddhism.
Still, the nature of such things is that they are never black and white. Ajahn Amaro, while presenting himself as a practitioner within a tradition that straddles the divide between Western and Asian Buddhism, is one of the leaders of an order that has actively undermined women’s right to pursue their religious path free of discrimination.
What’s needed is not a blithe dismissal of traditional beliefs and practices, nor an equally blithe acceptance of them, but a grounded understanding of Dhamma. Then we will have the wisdom to know for ourselves what is good and what isn’t; what is skillful and what isn’t; and what should be developed, and what should be given up.