In Australia, and in much of the West, Buddhism is cool. It’s considered edgy, spiritual, interesting and is often portrayed as a polar opposite of Christianity – a religion that garners frustration and inspires negative opinions from a public weary and disillusioned by the Christian society they were raised in. Buddhism is a vast and complicated religion, comprising many different beliefs, schools of thought and practices. There are hundreds of religious texts and sutras (recordings of the Buddha’s teachings). For the two major schools of Buddhism, the texts comprise enough books to fill a small library, not even starting on the commentaries. But this comparison, between the ‘edgy’ Buddhism and ‘stuffy’ Christianity, can only be drawn from a dumbed-down and misinterpreted version of Buddhism. One which can be easily consumed in neat four-word quotes, from inspirational memes and coffee-table Dalai Lama books.
Westerners thinking they understand Buddhism from an inspirational quote is about as ridiculous as trying to write a thesis on the history and differences between Catholic, Protestant, Russian Orthodox and Moran beliefs using the quote ‘Love thy neighbour’, as your only source.
I was raised by my white mother with predominantly agnostic beliefs combined with new-age paganism and the natural suspicion of organised religion which inevitably comes from a parent who has rebelled against their Catholic upbringing. I was far more aware of the preachings of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens at a young age than those of any formal religious figure. I began engaging in Buddhism in little ways throughout the later years of high school and more seriously after graduating. What originally attracted me to Buddhism was its difference from what we stereotype as ‘religion’. Blind belief and dogmatic teachings with no room for flexibility weren’t in the books that I read. Instead I read the Buddha Gotama tell his followers not to believe what he said simply out of respect for him but to find the truth themselves. For me it was refreshing and it was ‘safe’, in the sense that I wasn’t being asked to change anything I fundamentally believed in or was unsure about to begin learning. However, as you get further and further into the teachings, there are points when faith and belief arise in the face of areas of uncertainty.
So while it was through the superficial and western-friendly framing of Buddhism that I became engaged with the teachings, the more I read and the more I practiced the more I became aware that I was only scratching the surface.
I often make the conscious choice not to mention my beliefs in social situations when the topic of religion arises. This is because amongst white audiences it generally elicits one of two responses, both of which are endlessly frustrating in different ways.
The first I’ll call ‘unnecessary social approval of my religion’. This often involves a surprised face and then an ‘Oh wow, that’s awesome’, or ‘That’s really interesting’ or other comments along those lines. In this scenario, Buddhism is perceived as a novelty and therefore it is orientalised and fetishised by white people. Having an Asian appearance and saying I’m Buddhist seems to fit into a lot of those fascination trends. As well as being told that my beliefs are ‘fantastic’ such statements are often accompanied by obscurely broad statements about it explaining why I seem so relaxed.
Buddhism has been around for longer than Christianity and far longer than new-age trends in the West. It’s interesting to think about how this reaction to religion would be different for other religions that are not as pacified and romanticised in the western psyche. It’s hard to imagine the same superficial approval would be given to a Muslim in the same situation.
The second response comes from people writer Waleed Aly aptly calls ‘atheist missionaries’ for the dogmatic and fundamentalist way they approach fighting religion. They often respond with confusion at the mention of Buddhism, either recycling Christianity-relevant arguments or wanting to know whether your religion stems from western ideas of logic or the all-evil word ‘faith’. This question is telling of conditional acceptance. While I could talk about Buddhism in a way that would acceptable, at the same time I could talk about my faith in relation to the teachings, chanting and bowing to a statue in a way that wouldn’t. It is in the asking someone to qualify his or her beliefs that I find offence.
I have found that this is one of the central themes as to why Buddhism is so pacified and acknowledged as ‘legitimate’ by atheists in the West – this notion that Buddhism is a religion of logic and not of faith. It is always surprising to see the acceptance of Buddhism by people who are so staunchly anti-religious, but in many ways it comes from seeing Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a religion. The Buddha’s teachings do make clear the need for individual understanding and are wary of blind faith. But all religions are based on philosophies and while there are certainly teachings of the Buddha that can be analysed as freestanding philosophies they always remain in the context of a religion.
The godless nature of Buddhism also often adds to this anti-religion acceptance. But using the fact that Buddhism doesn’t have gods as the logic behind why it isn’t a religion is only seeing religion through monotheistic eyes. While the Buddha warned his followers against idol worship, throughout his life he outlined teachings that are studied and followed to this day. While hairs could be split for hours over whether Buddhism is truly a ‘religion’ or not, at the end of the day it has all the hallmarks of what we call religion.
There is a concerted push by figures such as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama to encourage western engagement in Buddhism by highlighting the elements of the teachings (Dhamma) that can be understood within European systems of philosophy. However, in the Dalai Lama books that I have read where western philosophy is discussed, he doesn’t attempt to say that the two are interchangeable. Instead he uses western thinking as a way to encourage engagement with Buddhism among a western audience. Throughout Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni’s (commonly known as ‘the Buddha’) life there are numerous stories of him explaining the same teaching of Dhamma in different ways. Talking to educated nobles he used more academic thought. Talking to the illiterate peasants of India at the time he often used clear and simple similes to highlight aspects of the teachings. He spoke in the language his audience would understand and the teachings of the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist teachers in the West can be understood in the same way.
Something overlooked by western audiences is that the Dalai Lama is only the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, which developed from the Mahayana (or Great Vehicle) school of thought and is now often considered its own third major school of Buddhism.
While the Dalai Lama is an almost universally appreciated Buddhist teacher, he is not the Pope of all Buddhism. He only represents a small number of Buddhist followers in the scope of all Buddhism. It is also worth noting that he is the political leader of a nation in exile.
Portraying Buddhism solely through the lens of western philosophy is a misrepresentation. It might work for 16-year-old me, and it might work for a meme, but it is superficial. And portraying Buddhism as a teaching without faith is also certainly a misrepresentation.
A white person misrepresenting Buddhism, or sim-plifying and romanticising it, also cannot be separated from the context of orientalism. In Melbourne, Asian Beer Cafe is a bar run by white people, serving up Asian beers in Buddha-themed rooms. At food stalls you often see the word ‘Buddha’ added to a meal as a prefix to denote ‘healthy’. Buddhist outdoor garden statues are on sale at Bunnings Warehouse, paintings of the Buddha are at Big W and Tibetan prayer flags fly from the houses of people who don’t know what they mean.
Buddhism is in the mainstream, and these objects aren’t primarily for Buddhist audiences. Instead they are for white people who, with no understanding of or interest in learning about Buddhism, think that it’s fascinating to collect things from the ‘Orient’.
I’m not trying to argue that any of these things should be exclusive to those who label themselves ‘Buddhist’ but instead that people should take a genuine interest in learning about what Buddhism is and buy statues out of reverence. Otherwise it’s just white people collecting religious things from the nations they historically colonised.
If you take the example of Islam again, which isn’t romanticised in western psyche, if a white person with no interest in Islam was to buy a Koran and put up framed passages of the sacred text and pictures of Mecca around the house they would surely get strange looks from friends who came over. But with Buddhism people wouldn’t bat an eyelid.
The concept of Karma is another example of widespread religious appropriation. Karma plays a prominent role both in Hindu and Buddhist teachings and personally I only know well the teachings of Karma from a Theravada Buddhist perspective. My understanding of Karma comes more on the level of understanding the impacts of an action and the external and internal results that are inherited from it. Externally those around you will reflect back to you the behaviour you exert and internally your mind will never be calm when hatred continues to arise.
Like many aspects of Buddhism that involve what we call the ‘supernatural’, belief in those aspects are not the foundation of the teaching and the teachings can be understood with or without it. In Australia Karma is dumbed down to a joke about being wary of some kind of instant divine retribution, like John Lennon’s ‘Instant Karma’. Or it is used as some kind of catchcry for general health and wellbeing. Cereal packets and muesli bars tell you to get good Karma by eating nutritious food, while the clothing and furniture shop Ishka offers you ‘Karma cards’ for buying their Asian products.
Karma isn’t some instant ‘if I hit you then a tree branch will fall on me’ concept and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with a low-carb diet.
Karma is one of the many examples of how the religious beliefs of Asian people are commodified by westerners. It is done on so many levels and has been so subconsciously ingrained in western culture that most people wouldn’t stop to think about it.
Mindfulness in May is a new organisation set up as a kind of ‘40 Hour Famine’ for meditation. They encourage people to sign up and meditate for ten minutes a day during May as well as donating money to ‘give clean water to Africa’ (the colonial white-saviour complex is an issue for another day).
They quote recent western scientific evidence that meditation helps to relieve stress, and the promotion for the campaign features cartooned people receiving Buddhist halos (like the way in which Gautama is often depicted after Enlightenment) when they put their phones away and sit down to meditate.
This ‘pause-for-a-cause’ campaign is quite telling of social attitudes towards Buddhist meditation. Meditation is heading down the track of yoga, which has been so far removed from its religious roots in Hinduism that many practitioners in Australia probably wouldn’t even know it was originally a religious thing.
Firstly it’s important to note that there are many different types of meditation within Buddhism, as well as different types used by different schools. Basic Anapana and Vipassana meditation are the most commonly practised by non-religious institutions and they are often called ‘breathing’ and ‘mindfulness’ meditation respectively.
The campaign pushes this devaluing of religion further while failing to acknowledge meditation’s religious roots. It also makes jest of Gautama’s struggle to reach Enlightenment.
Ajahn Brahmavamso, a well-known Theravada monk based in Perth, has spoken on the issue of mindfulness needing to be followed with the right intention and Sila (morality). He compared it to a cat: with mindfulness and concentration a cat stalks its prey, but it is using this mindfulness for the purpose of killing.
Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are just two steps on the Buddhist Eightfold Noble Path. They are also last steps. Right Concentration to steal from others is of no benefit and the development of Mindfulness is just an aspect of the teachings in which it is entrenched. The ‘mindfulness’ that has moved its way into corporate team building can do more harm
Psychologists often advise patients to learn Anapana meditation as a way to calm themselves. While I’m not trying to argue that meditation isn’t something that should be practised by people without the religious element, it is important to acknowledge and think about its origins. Even the changing of the name from Vipassana to Mindfulness is part of an active campaign to siphon the religion out of the practice to make it more safe and friendly for a western audience.
The organisers of Mindfulness in May weren’t interested in engaging Buddhist practitioners to teach meditation or expound the benefits of the practice. Instead they got white non-Buddhist celebrities to endorse the campaign and medical professionals to validate meditation as ‘real’.
Meditation is helpful for many people, Buddhist and non-Buddhist alike. However, there needs to be recognition and acknowledgement of its origins or else it simply falls onto the shelf of orientalism and becomes one of the many things stolen by white people and then rebranded as their own (see ‘tea and England’).
In no way am I trying to devalue the thousands of sincere white Buddhist followers in the West. The Dhamma is a teaching that people may benefit from anywhere, of any race, and as Buddhism spreads and grows in the West it will collect white monks and lay followers alike. These people, however, continue to follow the teachings of the Buddha sincerely, not appropriating or removing the religion from it, nor claiming it as their own, but acknowledging where it comes from. And in framing the religion for a western audience they do so without seeking to change or misrepresent what the Buddha taught.
On many occasions I have met young white people who loudly proclaim they are Buddhist, in a way that seems intended to score social points or to appear ‘interesting’. Often they just ‘casually’ start talking about how much meditation they do.
On several occasions I’ve asked these people what stream of Buddhism they follow and have often got confused looks, stuttered responses and answers like ‘The one they do in Vietnam’. The second question I ask is ‘What are the Four Nobel Truths?’ This is probably the most rudimentary teaching of the Buddha you could ask about, but so few people find an answer to this question or an explanation.
But not everyone is like this. One of my friends practises meditation daily. He reads books on the Dhamma, watches Dhamma talks on YouTube and has come to visit a monastery with me out of interest. He doesn’t identify as Buddhist and he doesn’t go around trying to score cultural capital from his interest in the religion. It’s not about flying prayer flags or bowing to a statue – it’s about genuinely and sincerely wanting to learn and engage.
It is a positive thing that more and more people in the West find the Buddha’s teachings relevant and helpful to their lives. The more faith, solace and comfort people can find in their own beliefs without being harmful to others, the better, whatever those beliefs are.
While the totems and the symbols of Buddhism are not the most important aspects of the religion, the way the symbols are appropriated is telling of broader attitudes about the way the ideas that stand behind those symbols are perceived.
Collecting Mandalas and hanging prayer flags aside, Buddhism needs to not be devalued or invalidated in the West. White people taking a religious tradition that is more than 2500 years old from a land they once colonised and pretending that it’s some fad or fashion, something they discovered last weekend, merely a supplement to their own philosophy, or a joke, is truly saddening and disrespectful. And that’s something everyone should be mindful of.