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I am wondering how to go about starting on the path of Buddhism without offending or appropriating the culture. As a white male I am well aware that I am privileged with the ability to overlook the repercussions of my actions when adopting a new practice/lifestyle what have you.

I have spent nearly four years with a great interest in buddhism, reading books, texts, and listening to others talk about it - but I've always felt uneasy declaring myself buddhist. I don't want to be seen as "some white guy with an obsession with asian culture" and I also don't want to offend those who's cultures were shaped by it.

I guess what I'm asking is - how can I start myself on the path respectfully in a manner that shows my true reverence for the teachings of the Buddha? I have privately tried my best to follow the path for some time now, but I've realized I can never truly embrace it until I find the courage to be open about it.

Advice?

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    Just one note, in my tradition, we sometimes tell that we are not Buddhists, but we practice Budhism, this is to emphasize that Budhism is just not belonging to a group of people with common interests, but to stress the importance of the continous practice. Metta – Luis Aug 1 '16 at 1:45
  • what exactly is so humiliating about "some white guy with an obsession with asian culture" are whites superior? – Abel Tom Mar 28 '18 at 10:25
  • @AbelTom see e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_appropriation -- it's sometimes (or by some people) seen as insensitive, politically incorrect, offensive, to want to adopt elements of another culture. – ChrisW Mar 28 '18 at 10:56
  • @AbelTom can you explain your comment? not being bostile at all, just can't tell what angle you're coming from. it sounds like a hostile phrase, playing two races off against each other. then again obsessions -- with people you don't know -- can be viewed with suspicion – user2512 Oct 23 '19 at 22:16
  • i feel you must live in a particularly diddicult place. Around here, in Yorkshire, England, it is not uncommon for people to mention they're a Buddhist student or practitioner. Indeed. there seems to be something of an epidemic. – user14119 Oct 24 '19 at 13:03
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Well, I'm just going to give my two cents, based on not being raised a Buddhist or in a Buddhist etc. nation.

You can read about the effects of cultural appropriation, and decide if you want to call yourself a Buddhist, practice as one, etc.. I had never encountered this in scholarship, but it doesn't exist peculiar to Buddhism only. There'll be blogs discussing it, but who do you believe?

I think the question of religion, like philosophy and ethics, is not just cultural. So (and I wouldn't want to affect concern) if you feel Buddhism could be sound on these accounts, and / or you need it (to be?), then I would suggest retaining your interest, and concern.

I embraced reading about it because it felt right to. Terms like "Buddhist" don't seem as important, which may be offensive but also seems right. IME asking people "is this offensive" is offensive, and you have to ultimately have to make that judgement yourself, short of being ordained or something.

I hope that you get the answer you're looking for!


Incidentally, I asked this question of a philosopher who lectures on cultural appropriation, but is more concerned with e.g. white musicians playing the blues, over religion. Their answer -- in paraphrase -- was: most religions are keen for new adherents; with its reach and varieties it's unlikely to class as "cultural appropriation".

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    Thank you for your response! I suppose you're right and it doesn't necessarily matter if you take on the label. – anon Jul 28 '16 at 15:10
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As a white male I am well aware that I am privileged

That's as may be.

Nevertheless I think that "cultural appropriation" is a relatively modern obsession: that it has become fashionable for "holier-than-thou" people in college to fuss about it; but sfaik other people are less likely to think that way (to see or preconceive it as a concern).

I suppose if you've heard of Buddhism, maybe "Buddhism" has begun to be present "your culture" too.

Also your being born into a place and time where you're able to be interested in Buddhism (not only human, but able to hear and understand Buddhist teaching) might be seen as a good thing, a fruit of good kamma. I suspect that Buddhists might feel Mudita towards your good fortune, such as it is.

I've always felt uneasy declaring myself buddhist

Yes. Well there are other ways to phrase a declaration if the situation arises; for example:

  • I'm interested in Buddhism
  • As you said, "I have spent nearly four years with a great interest in buddhism, reading books, texts, and listening to others talk about it"
  • I find Buddhism helpful for X or Y reason
  • I study or practice with this or that group, or with such and such a teacher

Some people on this site (see these topics) don't like the -ism (Buddhism) word. Buddhist as an adjective is a bit more precise, maybe paired with a noun like (Buddhist) Dharma or (Buddhist) practice etc.

I too have "felt uneasy", by the way:

  • If said to someone, "I am Buddhist" or "I am a Buddhist", then would that misrepresent Buddhism ... am I a bad examplar, might I put other people off Buddhism?
  • Is it even true (is that a true statement about myself)?
  • Is it an view of self, a conceit, a misguided thing to say?
  • Would it make other people inclined to see me (and Buddhism) as alien?

Such unease could be egocentric nonsense, but anyway, with that kind of thing in mind I have preferred to make declarations that are more concrete, kind of objectively true, sensible (tangible), justifiable: for example "I have been interested in" etc. ("I verb a noun" rather than "I am an adjective").

In a slightly analogous way I'm content to be vegetarian (i.e. to eat vegetarian food) but I'm usually less comfortable with saying so to other people ... in case people think I'm weird (I've been doing it for so long that I think it's normal, it's normal for me) or that I'm judgmental i.e. that I think that they too ought to be vegetarian (it's common but not normal in my culture, some 10% of the total population).

I don't want to be seen as "some white guy with an obsession with asian culture"

I suppose we don't have total control over how other people see us. If someone sees you as a white guy, that's their privilege burden. :-)

Maybe how you see yourself (or attach to a view-of-self) that's more to the immediate point.

If having "an obsession with asian culture" is said to be wrong, my guess would be that's because "culture" is ephemeral and distant, and "obsession" might be harmful. Whereas instead, Dharma (as opposed to culture) is meant to be akalika (timeless or immediate) ... practical. And being harmless (causing no injury) is one of the Buddhist virtues.

I also don't want to offend those whose cultures were shaped by it

I don't see why you'd offend. To be inoffensive, don't claim to know more or to be better, "don't criticize what you can't understand", be a friend. Beware of the elements of Right Speech.

I don't remember anyone telling me I shouldn't be interested in Buddhism.

Normally if you share someone's interest they see that as a good thing.

Look at the "Dhamma gifts" available (i.e. people trying to share Dhamma), I think they're there because the donors want the gifts to be available to us.

how can I start myself on the path respectfully

One answer (or non-answer) is that there are many "dharma gates": i.e. it's up to you and your environment.

Some people choose to "Take the Triple Refuge".

You can practice with (and/or live with) a group of Buddhists, study with a teacher, study texts, find or make a good friend, do good, be generous.

I can never truly embrace it until I find the courage to be open about it

Ah yes. I don't know if that's true. :-)

If you look at, the 'fetters' which are abandoned at the first stage of enlightenment in the Theravada tradition, the question is maybe tangled up in two of these fetters: i.e. maybe "identity view" includes "I can never truly embrace it" and "declaring myself Buddhist"; and "making a declaration" might be mistaken for a "right and ritual".

And what you said about needing "courage" also isn't necessarily quite canonical: maybe what you want instead of "courage" is a "confidence" or a lack of doubt. Or maybe it's called faith and energy.

I'm not trying to say you're wrong about courage, but if you can't seem to summon enough of it maybe it's something else (e.g. confidence and so on, right view, etc.) you could develop instead.

Or I suspect that courage and so on might be part of a Buddhist training, but maybe a Mahayana training of a sort that requires a teacher or at least a group to practice with?

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  • I just want to thank you so much for your response. It really has given me a lot to think about and reflect on. I think you may be right that some of my concerns are egocentric, and any hesitance I have may be primarily based on fear of looking a certain way to others. I think finding a teacher would be beneficial to me. – anon Jul 29 '16 at 18:01
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I suggest that you do not overthink matters in relation to Buddhism. Remember that the Buddha was not a Buddhist. He practiced The Way and then showed others how to overcome suffering in their lives. This is basically it. Do Good-Avoid Evil and Purify your Mind. The value in The Buddha Way is not in intellectualism but rather within the intuitive practices. You can become your greatest teacher just find your Way.

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I think specifically when you are facing this problem you have specific people in mind who might judge you for being a Buddhist. Contemplate on who these people are and why might they object and what is the fear that is driving you to not say this out loud. For example being raised in a Hindu Brahmin household, my family hated the fact that I had turned to Buddhism as my spiritual path. I was often mocked , humiliated and insulted by my family often to the point where I started developing an irrational fear that they would take my Dhamma away from me. Due to the fact that I started developing such negative mind-states , I stopped commenting on people's questions about my spirituality. Also because when you announce this to everyone and as a human you have a failing , when you do something wrong , people often quip " so this is what your religion is teaching you". Its a very double edged sword.

In the Brahmajala Sutta (https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.01.0.bodh.html) Buddha said :

"If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should not give way to resentment, displeasure, or animosity against them in your heart. For if you were to become angry or upset in such a situation, you would only be creating an obstacle for yourselves. If you were to become angry or upset when others speak in dispraise of us, would you be able to recognize whether their statements are rightly or wrongly spoken?"

Hence , if you are afraid of censure from the outside world , it will work against your own spiritual development. As the whole practice of Buddhism is about looking inward. However if you find that speaking about it would generate negative mind-states , best not speak about it with people you know are going to react with censure or insults.

Cultivate a close relationship with a Sangha and interact with people who understand the jewel that the Dhamma is.

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Appropriate the culture of the Noble Ones, not the Asian culture.

Practicing the teachings one venerates the Buddha and nobody in the universe can rightly censure you for it.

The immeaditely visible Buddhist culture with temples, customs, teachings and traditions were mostly shaped during the last 300 years and are not necessarily based on Canonical texts which weren't then as easily accessible as they are nowadays.

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Yes. As an English speaking American white male, I am fully aware of the irony of my practicing the Buddha way. I know that certain Sutras would have never been translated into English, if the British Empire had not established a hostile colonial presence in India and China. My own exposure to Mahayana Buddhism came through the Sokka Gakkai sect, which was brought to America via Japanese war brides in the mid-twentieth century.

And most of my research into Buddhism came through the Internet, which was invented for military purposes and made public by for-profit companies.

So, how is it okay for me and us to be Buddhist?

You could try to justify it with a pro-white pride argument; Shakyamuni Buddha himself was literally a blue-eyed white male. (For goodness sake, don't seriously internalize that argument; it is not in accordance with the dharma.) You could make the contrast between Europe's empires and other imperial powers. British and American scholars translated Buddhist texts into English; by contrast, many texts in India were permanently lost during periods of Islamic rule. (This also does not lend itself easily to philosophical pacifism, or interfaith understanding.)

You should never claim permission to practice the Buddha dharma except by appealing to the dharma itself. The Buddha set in motion the wheel of the dharma; he came to liberate all living beings. He preached to all who would hear, even to cruel conquerors and war lords. The Buddha taught against the caste system; he therefore opposed all claims of spiritual hierarchy and exclusive legitimacy based upon tradition or lineage.

The Buddha came down from the Tucita heaven, took on the agonizing and rotting body of an ape, and an ape's limited brain and five senses. And he was born in the palace of a king and queen, and walked away from all his lawful worldly possessions, accepting for alms only the food he ate. He gave and taught the dharma to flawed and foolish mortals, in exchange for nothing. How dare anybody then say to me, "my ancestors lived in the country of the Buddha, and yours did not!" Or, "some of your ancestors killed some of mine, and stole their money!"

The dharma is, in itself, the solution to war; it is the solution to exploitation, greed, and inequality. It liberates all who hear. That is why nobody should be forbidden to hear or practice the dharma.

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Don't practice the culture or Buddhism.

Practice what the Buddha taught.

I bet Jesus said the same thing elsewhere but in another language, culture and interpretation.

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