Sunday, May 04, 2014

What's Mine Is Mine and What's Yours

Brad Warner:

My Twitter friend appears to believe that my sentiments represent those of an arrogant, over-privileged American telling people who have been steeped in Buddhism for thousands of years what their religion is really about. How dare I?

But does the mere fact of being an American Buddhist really make one less qualified to say what Buddhism is actually about? If we were to follow that line of thinking to its logical conclusion, then I, as a person who grew up in a Christian country, would be more qualified to speak about the true meaning of Jesus’ life than a Singhalese Catholic monk who spent thirty years studying and practicing Christianity.

Having lived a large portion of my life outside of the United States, as a child in Kenya and an adult in Japan, it seems to me that people all over the world are very much alike, often in surprising ways. The kinds of Buddhists who find tattoos of Buddha offensive or who attack their neighbors for being of the wrong religion are pretty much the equivalent of American Christians who think Jesus had blond hair and blue eyes and hated homosexuals. They don’t know any more about Buddhism than our homegrown reactionary, racist “Christians” know what Jesus’ message was about.

...I think those of us in the West who are deeply interested in Buddhism also tend to understand Buddhist philosophy better than the average Asian who tends to assume they know all about Buddhism because they’ve grown up around it. It’s a bit like how some of our most hardcore Christians in the US don’t know much about what’s actually in the Bible.

A Pew Forum survey showed that agnostics and atheists in American tend to know more about the Bible than those who call themselves Christians. That’s because atheists and agnostics don’t just assume they know. They go look the stuff up! It’s the same with Western Buddhists. We don’t have any reason to assume we know what the Buddha said just because we’ve been raised around a miasma of mixed up misquotations and folk sayings wrongly attributed to the Buddha — the same as American Christians often think that things from Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare are part of the Bible.

This fetishizing of origins from racial/cultural/religious separatists only makes me wonder where they each draw the line marking off the pure, original race/culture/religion from all the lamentable appropriation that followed. If we can pin each of them down on a definitive time and place (which will naturally all be different), then we can pit them against each other and watch them fight it out for our amusement.