It seems to me, in general, that a lot of Buddhists in the West carry some kind of self-deprecating, anti-Western sentiment inside. We hold up our Asian teachers and their cultures as the embodiments of wisdom — and, of course, in many ways they are. But while we are holding them up with one hand, we are often putting down our own culture and denigrating our capacity for wisdom with the other hand.
Speaking from personal observation, I suspect this tendency may be particularly acute in the Vajrayana tradition, where most of the high-level teachers are still ethnically and culturally Tibetan (or Nepalese or Bhutanese). The reasons for this are complex and beyond the scope of this commentary. What concerns me is the disempowering effect this has upon Western students, who may — consciously or not — come to regard wisdom and genuine realization as something culturally foreign and therefore relatively unattainable.
Because the power differential between teachers and students in the Vajrayana tradition falls more consistently along cultural and ethnic lines, Westerners may feel they are not capable of holding the lineage or manifesting the same degree of wisdom as their Tibetan teachers. Wisdom is out there somewhere, separate from us, embodied in representatives from another culture, and the best we can hope for is to model ourselves after that culture and hope that some of the wisdom rubs off on us.
I call this view “cultural theism,” and it can be especially prevalent in sanghas where all the practice liturgies are in Tibetan and embedded with intensely foreign cultural references and iconography. In some quarters, one finds Western students dressing like Tibetans and studying the Tibetan language and following Tibetan customs and eating Tibetan food, all in the belief that growing in the wisdom of the dharma somehow requires one to become more like a Tibetan.
It is beautiful and proper to recognize wisdom in those who hold it, and to express devotion and respect for the lineages they represent — lineages that have been holding that wisdom for two-and-a-half millennia. But everything in the light also has its shadow side. When we idolize the way Asian cultures have practiced the dharma and try to imitate them unquestioningly, we risk losing sight of the wisdom that is already in our own back yard. Even worse, when we put on rose-colored glasses and see only the bright and shiny side of those “exotic” cultures and traditions, we are not seeing the whole picture.