Dennis Hunter publishes a popular website on Buddhism and spirituality, One Human Journey, and writes the weekly feature "21st-Century Buddhism" on the Interdependence Project blog. A long-time resident of New York City, he is currently living as a temporary monk at a Buddhist monastery in Canada.

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.

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  1. avatar Philip says:

    I can relate to Dennis’ experience somewhat.  As a young  teenage hippy growing up in the 1960s, I wanted to. believe in the “smoewhere-else-ness” of spirituality.  Of course, growing up in a predominantly theist country this may be understandable; the conditioning of believing that the greatest moral power is above and else where.

    In this sense, what Chogyam Trungpa referred to as “Spiritual Materialism”, I believe is synonymous with what Dennis refers to as cultural theism.  It is epidemic in western society because it is -endemic- to theistic western religion and thought.  It is embedded in the western design of hierarchical organizational theory, democractic and demogogic political wrangling (that is always filled with chaos or violence), and the reliance upon social status and caste truncation world wide.  The belief that “our way is correct; yours is flawed”, is what not only keeps spirituality materialistic and cultures theistic, but mankind stuck at a stage in evolution that is cyclic and completely defined by what buddhists often refer to as “samsara”.

    Here, I think evolution is key.  In the east the idea of what is linguistically referred to as “enlightenment”, has recently been bridged by another reference, “realization of mind”. Such a statement gives us the leeway to -not- materialize such a goal as “enlightment”.  It also informs us as to what enlightenment really is and, to some extent, takes religiosity out of the mystical equation.  

    Possibly, a true rebel buddha’s idea of ” renunciation” is deconstructing the whole idea of mysticism by contemplating what is, versus what we -desire- to be what is.  This may be the further deconstruction of the mystical and material component of western Buddhism is just practicing upon what is, without getting caught up in all the trappings of a particular culture.  Malas and monks robes can be fun and different.  But, as a “temporary monk”, I’m sure Dennis will concur that it ain’t all peace love and joy in cold and stark monasteries.  

    Nor is it applicable to the real world.  To refer to the Tibetan reference, “TGS”,  which is a western anagram for, “Thamal Gye Shepa” or Ordinary Mind, might help.  Perhaps we could just drop the Tibetan, while acknowledging that dharma has “come to the land of Red Man”, and understand that it is just being who we are without attempting alteration, and practice from there.

  2. avatar Gal says:

    The question at hand, to my humble opinion, misses the point. Vajrayana talks about ULTIMATE TRUTH which is above concepts, and here – instead of aiming for achieving that – we discuss what to wear, how to speak, East versus West and all that. I never heard of any Tibetan Master that puts it as a necessity to behave and dress like a Tibetan in order to attain Enlightenment – on the contrary: u have the best example with RINPOCHE who has made the effort to travel to the West, study the ways of the West and find a viable way to explain THE BUDDHA’S TEACHINGS in a way that any Westerner can relate to – so what is the big problem here?

    What’s more, BUDDHISM is about MIND TRAINING, and for that matter, it does not matter whether u r dressed in robes, chupa or skinny jeans. Those Westerners who seek the external signs of how to dress, what language to use, and what colour of mala to hold are, in my opinion, just continuing to avoid the REAL JOB at hand – change the inside.

    And by the way, The Tibetan MASTERS of the past who went to India and brought back BUDDHISM to Tibet did not fuss about the great differences between Indian and Tibetan culture – differences nearly as wide as East-West. The practical and honest Masters found THE TRUTH in India, and that is what they cared about. Sure, they found a way to assimilate it in Tibet – nothing wrong in that – but they did so with the aid of Their Indian MASTERS who held the LINEAGE and did not want it to be contaminated by “local ego”.
    So now, we are blessed by Tibetan MASTERS coming to the West, to do the same thing there. Lets count our blessings, fall on our knees with gratitute for the personal sacrifice they are willing to do for us, and do the only thing that remains to be done – transform our mind in a way that can be helpful to this suffering planet

  3. avatar Paul says:

    I’ve heard the way the vinaya teachings were gathered was that the Buddha simply observed the actions of his students and through wisdom spoke spontaneously about what he saw, and in this way the teachings on discipline were gathered. His students were struck by how he could simply observe the goings on in the people and places around him.

    Just as then, there are teachers today of the oral tradition who are relating the dharma to us directly through observing how we express our confusion, All we need is the recognition of what they’re pointing out to us, whether it is our confusion or the nature of our mind, Through our personal practice and reflection, we begin to find personal experience of the teachings and increasingly appreciate the teacher’s clarity. In this way understanding begins to dawn directly through listening, reflection and meditation on the teachings. When there is clarity, pure and direct, culture itself is not an issue. Wisdom will cut right through directly to the students understanding. In this way there is no power differential between the student and the teacher, but on the contrary a closeness and appreciation to clarity of the teachings begins to dawn.

    This clarity, directness and closeness is essential to the transmission of the dharma. Otherwise, we’re left to our concepts that have come from our conditioning, and we could go on that way without the teacher, the teaching or the student ever really meeting.

  4. avatar Will says:

    While I fully appreciate this topic, I often wonder how much it has to do with the fact that most western dharma teachers are still converts to Buddhism, who didn’t begin their Buddhist training in the same manner that some Tibetan (or Bhutanese or Nepali or whatever) masters do, having had the Dharma ingrained in them since being children. Perhaps there will be a greater chance of Western masters rising to the highest ranks among the second or third generation of Buddhists in the US? Not to say that there’s anything particularly enlightened about butter tea or chubas, just never see this aspect of the issue raised.

  5. Good comments.

    Will, due to the length of articles here I couldn’t go into those kinds of issues. But I wrote a longer piece touching on some of these here here, if you’re interested: http://www.theidproject.org/blog/dennishunter/2010/08/24/21st-century-buddhism-001-western-gurus

    Gal, I think you hit the nail on the head. Ponlop Rinpoche is a skillful teacher who is finding new ways to relate to Western students and teach the Dharma in their own “language” (and by language here I mean something much bigger than just teaching in English). Seeing what he and certain other progressive teachers are doing gives me hope that the teachings of Buddhism that come from Tibet might really be able to take root and flourish in this culture in a way that is authentic for us, rather than a carbon copy of what came before.

    - Dennis Hunter

  6. avatar davenycity says:

    great blog thank you

  7. avatar Karma Yeshe Gyaltsen says:

    There is a tendancy among both Westerners and Tibetans to regard the lineage and the various practices therein as “objects”, even as sacred, rather than recognizing their function as a “set of tools”. Tools worth preserving of course, for in the right hands they are invaluable!

    In the hands of an awakened being, such tools can be used to assist the student in his/her own awakening. When they don’t work, I would question not only the sincerity of the student, but also the attainment of the teacher.

    A skillful surgeon can save a life while lost at sea on a small boat, using found objects, because he is not bound by needing a complete operating theater. To the degree he is not bound by convention (“liberated”), is not afraid of being sued if he fails (“fearless”), and he actually has insight into surgery (“wisdom”), he is enabled to “translate” the found objects available into “medical tools” which can be effective, even if the context widely differs from that in which he was taught.

    A previous poster has already noted how successful transmission of awakening has happened before between people of widely different cultures.

    I propose that the ability to use skillfull means, and not be bound by tradition, is a good measure of the level of attainment of any teacher. Of course the measure of whether means are skillfull or not can be seen in the results thereof.

    Let’s see in 20 years or so how this unfolds!

    Wishing the best for all.


    • avatar Linda says:

      With centuries of co-operation and commitment (and perhaps a little bit of luck), the Tibetans preserved, practiced and passed on important skillful means that were no longer available in India. Even if American Buddhism is in its beginning phase, co-operation amongst us all would help keep the teachings alive and the practices working effectively.

      Tibetan-style Buddhism is American Buddhism:
      “Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she with silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
      Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
      The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
      Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
      I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

      Tibetan teachers rebel against the destruction of Tibetan Buddhism. They lift their lamps for us western students, and the least we can do is open wide the golden door.

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