The wisdom of the dharma that is held within the embrace of the cultural forms and traditions of Asian Buddhism is not the same thing as those forms and traditions. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche compares this to distinguishing the tea from the teacup in which it is served. You might have an ornate porcelain cup from China or Tibet, or a wooden lacquer cup from Japan, or a paper Starbucks cup from America — it doesn’t really matter, as long as it can hold the tea.
And cultural forms and traditions, themselves, are not faultless or immutable. As Buddhism goes west, it is being asked to change in profound ways — and some of those changes are definitely for the better. The misogyny that has been enshrined in Asian Buddhist institutions for 2,500 years is being confronted by Western feminism, and the traditional subservient role of women in the dharma is increasingly recognized as unacceptable. Similarly, Buddhism’s traditional homophobia is being deconstructed as it encounters Western sexual mores. And just as Western science is exploring new frontiers by studying ancient Buddhist practices in the laboratory, so too is Buddhism being forced to rethink old, outdated views in its encounter with modern science (like admitting, for starters, that the world is round, not flat — an admission that did not come easily to Tibetan monks, even in the 20th century).
In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha taught that we should not accept anything simply because it is handed down in tradition, or because someone in authority said it is so, or because it is written in holy books. Rather, we should use our own prajna, our intelligence, our eye of wisdom, to analyze what we receive. If it accords with reason and leads to benefit — then, and only then, should we accept it.
As Buddhism takes root in the West, we are engaged in precisely this process of analyzing and testing the teachings we are receiving from the source cultures in Asia. Inevitably, some aspects of the Asian presentation of Buddhism will be rejected in the West, and new forms will evolve. This is only natural, and is no doubt what has happened in every other instance of Buddhism transmigrating to a new culture. The exchange of wisdom across cultures is a sword that cuts both ways. Yet some cry that the sky is falling when they see Westerners engaging with the dharma in a different way than their Asian forebears.
Many conditions are converging to make this a very unique moment in the history of Buddhism. In the West, we are not (as has happened in probably every other case throughout history) receiving just a single tradition of Buddhism, in a one-to-one cultural exchange. We are receiving *all* of the traditions of Buddhism in the West, all at once, and they are all mixing with all of the various cultures and languages in Europe and the Americas and Australasia. Urbanization and global travel and the Internet make it possible for people to study and practice more than one Buddhist tradition, and the degree of fertile cross-pollination that is occurring among Western Buddhist practitioners today is unprecedented. People reading this run the gamut from Tibetan Buddhists to Zen Buddhists to Theravadan Buddhists to non-Buddhists, and we are all sharing radically different perspectives on the dharma. No one can predict what the fruit of such cross-pollination will look like in a hundred years, or even twenty.
If our goal is to transform ourselves into little Tibetans or Japanese or whatever the case may be, then it’s fine to create a Western Buddhism that is a carbon copy of its Asian predecessors. But if we are to have an expression of the dharma that is more suited to our place and time, then we must apply our own discerning intelligence and work with the dharma in the context of our own cultural situation. Obviously, we are children at this, and we risk mistakes and misunderstandings. But those are nothing to fear; every child learns by making mistakes. What is to be feared is that we might never have a chance to grow up and find our own way because we’re too busy trying to be just like our new adoptive Buddhist parents.