Author Topic: Reconciling Cultural Difference from a North American and European Perspective  (Read 1155 times)

Offline Ben Yuan

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Dear all,

I have a bit of an issue. Sometimes I feel like Caucasians appear and feel a bit awkward in the situation of Tibetan Buddhism. I feel myself, as a Caucasian, that I am a bit awkward in the situation too. I feel comfortable in the temple from time to time, but occasionally I just feel very out of place as if every action is forced. Strangely, when I see others, it appears that many Caucasians feel the same way, and I have heard them speak about this before. Sometimes it may just be difficulty understanding or adapting to the customs of the temple which are of a different culture, or it may be the way in which they consider it entertainment.

Alexander Berzin puts it quite well in a talk he gave on the Daily Life and Practice of Western Buddhists:http://www.berzinarchives.com/web/en/archives/approaching_buddhism/introduction/daily_life_practice_western_budd/transcript.html
Quote
...in the beginning, many people are attracted to this superficial level and so they deal with externals. By externals I mean you have to have a red blessing string around your neck, or around your wrist, or both, and wear a mala...a rosary of beads...around the other wrist and, maybe when we are walking around or sitting, then you thumb the rosary and mumble something. And we have to have a good supply of incense and candles, and all the proper meditation cushions, and Tibetan paintings and pictures, and, if we really go far in this direction, we might even start to wear some sort of Tibetan clothing...

But, whether we are judgmental about it or not, just changing our clothing, wearing a rosary around our wrist, having many blessing cords, red strings around our neck, doesn't really change us very much, does it? Internally? So, I think that, particularly in the West, it's not such a great idea to go around with all of this because it brings about people making fun of us. If a woman is dressed in a very beautiful, elegant dress for an evening event and they have some dirty red strings around their neck, that doesn't quite look proper, does it? So, I always advise people that if they would like to keep these red blessing cords, keep it in their wallet, keep it in their pocket, keep it in their pocketbook, whatever. You don't have to actually display it. Displaying it doesn't bring more “blessings,” does it? And, if you want to say mantras, the same thing; you don’t have to bring out your rosary and make a whole big show out of it. You can say it silently in your mind, if you are in a crowd, or on a bus, or whatever. So, this is what I mean by a slightly changed circumstance that we have. If we are in a society in which such type of behavior, or such type of strings, would look pretty weird, then there's no need to have them – externally. And, if our practicing Buddhism is simply wearing these strings, then obviously that's not a very deep practice of Buddhism, and not very helpful.

Actually, if you look at the way that Tibetans deal with these strings, they only wear them for a short period of time. They don’t just wear them until they really get them dirty and horrible. They wear them for a very short period of time and then retire them; put them on their altar or something like that. So, I think the advice that we have in the seven points of attitude training, or mind training, lojong, is very helpful here. Which is, “Transform internally, but leave your external form consistent with what is ordinarily around.” So, it's best to keep our practice private. This is particularly true if we are lay practitioners living in a non-Buddhist society.

So far so good, for me I know that I can follow that lojong verse, and try to be less judgmental of these Caucasians who try to display holiness and grandeur in public, because it is obvious that teachers don't take much note of it or treat such people any better than those who are natural and keep practice private. And, I always feel more comfortable in a white shirt and tie, or something western, yet conservative (not politically of course) in order to be respectful, it always brings about more comfort, and less awkwardness on my part, and it appears so for others who do the same. Berzin also explains how Tibetans think nothing of Westerners who wear Tibetan clothes, as one Tibetan monk said "they must just like Tibetan clothing."

However, a problem may arise on my part, if I see a teacher who is Caucasian and something about them really ticks me off, and I keep feeling awkward about it. It is often something as small as the fact that they may feel awkward in their position or not be confident in their position, and then there are those who are over confident and just overacting the part of a 'teacher.' I think there are many great Caucasian teachers, do not get me wrong, but it seems there are too many who seem to think of themselves highly and it really shows, and removes my ability to take them seriously. Then there is the extreme example, when they may be perfectly fine, but they have something which really really ticks me off - I see it so often. It is when they say things like 'you know,' 'alright,' 'okay,' after every sentence or at the end of every breath, or use exotic vocal patterns. I have even come across one who would put on an exotic accent in temples and during teachings but would stop in public and non-Buddhist locations.

In the end, my question is, has anyone else felt the same way? And, do you think that this is a phenomena which will subside after a few more generations in the west, or will we always have to deal with it?

Best Wishes,
Ben Yuan
« Last Edit: March 11, 2010, 05:19:16 pm by Ben Yuan »

Offline Caz

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Those who place culture above the dharma will have to deal with difficulties, its best when dharma comes to the west that it is set into a western format to help ease people in.  :pray:
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Offline Ron-the-Elder

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(I) think your reasoning is solid, Caz.  (Nothing new!)

Folks need a bridge within sight of shore when making transitions from one sometimes life-long practice to another.  There must be some remnants familiar to some aspects of their culture.  True, these are just other forms of attachment.  But, once The Dhamma is discovered, understood, penetrated, realized, and inculcated into our personalities, our day to day lives, then old habits which made us happy for a time but eventually turned on us to bight us in the butts, were neutral, or even harmful habits can be readily abandoned for more beneficial practices as we become more courageous at letting-go. 

To stick with the original nautical analogy, without a cultural frame of reference there is no dock from which to push-off.





Those who place culture above the dharma will have to deal with difficulties, its best when dharma comes to the west that it is set into a western format to help ease people in.  :pray:
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Offline humanitas

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Considering how I felt the first time I stepped into a Baptist church, I can fully sympathize.  I felt like an alien in a strangeland.  I can't imagine how hard it would be to be culturally completely outside of Buddhist traditions and cultures and then embrace it and attempt to practice it like it's your own overnight.  It sure takes time to learn what is just cultural etiquette and what is Buddhist teaching.  The two are not necessarily the same and if you live in the US, you may not be surrounded by buddhist festivities, cultures, doing pujas all the time with your family and friends.  Of course it's much easier when it's culturally natural but it's also potentially more taken for granted. 

Something you should really take the time to invest in.  Talk to your teacher or sangha about how to better personalize the dharma.  Until you can make the teachings personal, they will feel alien as if from a different world/culture.  Finding the common grounds of the human heart is what matters in dharma.

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