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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.

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new frontiers by studying ancient Buddhist practices in the laboratory, so too is Buddhism being forced to rethink old, outdated views in its encounter with modern science (like admitting, for starters, that the world is round, not flat — an admission that did not come easily to Tibetan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.

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    Comments

  1. avatar Rita Ashworth says:

    Yes the earth is round but some cosmologists are indicating that the universe itself is flat see

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=veU6hK3jMH4

    on utube where Lawrence Krauss goes into these matters. I dont totally understand what he is saying but perhaps he could dialogue with some Rinpoches about this.

    So in some respects I think Buddhist cosmology might be right about our universe -it needs more investigation from both scientific and religious sides.

    I also agree with you about the whole tradition morphing in the west but to some extent too those morphs have to be done in conjuction with discussing stuff in a reasonable and open manner with experienced practitioners.

    Best from the UK rita ashworth

  2. avatar Wm. Bainbridge says:

    The question is not just which cultural elements from which cultures to integrate into our practice and expression of Buddhism, but also what balance to strike in our practice between cultural/intellectual context on the one hand, and approaches that are not really that dependent on culture and thought on the other. The answers to this will vary as widely as those concerning the cultural context, but if we should feel empowered to create a more Western Buddhism, then we should also feel empowered to practice in a way more directly concerned with the essence of the Buddha’s realization. In that sense, Westerners practicing a Western Buddhism makes no more sense than them practicing an Eastern one; either one can be a distraction for which we have much less time than we usually like to imagine.

    • avatar Mike Munro says:

      I agree! I’m a Canadian, I pratice according to my teachers instructions as best I can. In terms of relative labels that makes me a Canadian Buddhist. Yet that label is meaningless and what really counts is realizing the true nature of mind and stabilizing that realization. It helps to accept your cultural heritage on the level of having a wholesome sense of pride in ones world and upbringing. We can meet the traditions of Buddhism that we are studying and practicing with a similar sense of respect. We can be suspicious too. Trust in the lineage and a suspicion of the limitations and deceptions of our own tendency to buy into the sleep offered by any set of cultural conventions.

  3. Try it out and see if it works for you, if it does, use it: if not, let it go.

    As I understand it, the Buddha asked his followers not to ‘believe’ anything he said or his followers said, but to investigate it in the laboratory of their own experience. It’s very pragmatic advice: if it works use it: if not, let it go.

    Western Buddhists have a wonderful opportunity to test out the teachings as they are presented though the cultural filters from many traditions. What concerns me is that many read and listen and are comfortable with that level of understanding. It is quite a superficial level really. The experiment needs to be more inclusive than that.

    Having been immersed in Thai Theravadan, Koean Zen (Mahayana) and Tibetan Kagyu traditions for almost 40 years, I have found so much of value from these different approaches to the BuddhaDhamma.
    Step beyond the cutural conventions and the deepest truth shines you through.

    Acharn Helen Jandamit (formerly Rev, Saddharma)

  4. While I am most concerned with the Zen teaching scene here in America since that is where I hang my hat the following reflections may also be applied to not only other Buddhist traditions but to any spiritual work where there is a mentor.In the USA we find an environment with a rich loam in which to grow both legitimate and illegitimate spiritual teachers and traditions. It is well understood that these influences may well include aspects of the teacher s own personality will or desires. A real teacher must not twist the teaching in such a way that the teacher the lineage or even the tradition itself is seen in a better light.

  5. While I am most concerned with the Zen teaching scene here in America since that is where I hang my hat the following reflections may also be applied to not only other Buddhist traditions but to any spiritual work where there is a mentor.In the USA we find an environment with a rich loam in which to grow both legitimate and illegitimate spiritual teachers and traditions. It is well understood that these influences may well include aspects of the teacher s own personality will or desires. A real teacher must not twist the teaching in such a way that the teacher the lineage or even the tradition itself is seen in a better light.

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