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Thread: On Zen and Cultural Appropriation

  1. #1

    On Zen and Cultural Appropriation

    Recently, I have seen quite a few questions on whether westerners practicing Zen, or Buddhism in general, is an example of cultural appropriation.

    Without exception, there are always replies which are dismissive of cultural appropriation as even being a thing, based on the notions that cultures have always mixed and taken ideas from each other.

    So, what to think?

    The crux, for me, rests on the second Buddhist training precept:

    Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
    I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given

    Given that cultural appropriation is defined as the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture (Cambridge English Dictionary) there is an obvious connection here.

    Some things are common within most human cultures, but others are cultural signifiers which are held as important in terms of a society self-defining itself. Each culture should have ownership of those things and taking them and using them without either respect for their meaning, or permission from the culture of origin, would seem to be an act of theft and potential cause of offence and harm.

    Developed western nations have had a bit of a history of exploiting other cultures and are often rather more interested in defending their liberties than upholding their responsibilities. Is it right for a western designer to use traditional fabric designs from another culture in order to earn millions of dollars in clothing sales with no benefit to the culture that has produced it? (especially when at the same time, that designers own work will be protected by sophisticated copyright law) Is it okay for western festival goers to stick bindis (the Hindu/Jain red dot painted between the eyes signifying both the opening of the third eye and the origin of the entire universe) on their face without any connection with either religion and regardless of how people of those faiths see it? Is our ‘fun’ and profit more important than consideration of others?

    How would we feel if rakusus were turned into a fashion item? How about rakusus with guns on them or dollar signs? What about other countries using our war medals as fashion accessories? Respect is a two-way street but often one of the roads has considerably more power to stop traffic.

    For me, why would I want to cause harm or take things from another culture against their wishes? This in no way prevents people from sharing ideas and learning from traditional craftspeople and others inside a culture, and growing knowledge with respect and consideration. It merely warns against the exploitation of one culture by another.

    So, what about Zen and Buddhism? Are we engaging in cultural appropriation by practicing these religions from other countries (assuming you are not from a majority Buddhist country yourself)?

    My answer is no (although with provisos!)

    Why is that? For me, it is because both Buddhism and Zen have been passed on willingly, by teachers from inside the culture who then authorised outsiders as teachers to pass on those teachings. Gudo Nishijima was a Japanese man and Zen teacher who willingly taught westerners such as Jundo and Brad Warner, asking them in turn to teach others whether Japanese or western.

    However, even with that permission, it is still necessary to practice Zen and dharma with respect and learn it properly rather than propagating some second-hand imitation of what we have received. We also need to learn how to respect the symbols and ideas of the tradition (travellers to Thailand quickly learn what the locals think about Buddha tattoos!). Buddhism has changed with each culture it has met on its travels, yet there are still elements of it that hold true to its original transmission.

    In a nutshell my view is that cultural appropriation is a matter of respecting where things have come from, and the people they are important to, rather than seeing ourselves as free to take and do what we like without responsibilities or consequences.

    In the end, a culture and its people own their cultural signifiers and ideas and it is up to them whether we get to use them or not. Anything else is clearly taking the not given and, as Buddhists, we need to be mindful of that. What is a cultural signifier may be a matter of argument but if your use of something is causing offence to a culture, it is probably a good sign you are want to consider what you are doing and maybe speak to someone from that culture to see if you are on the right path.

    In Zen we say we are not one and not two but although we may all be connected on this planet and beyond, rising out of numerous interactions and causes, some of us are born into circumstances in which we have a great more cultural and economic power than others. It is our responsibility to use that wisely.

    Gassho
    Kokuu
    -sattoday/lah-
    Last edited by Kokuu; 07-16-2019 at 09:43 AM.
    ------------------------------------
    Feel free to message me if you wish to talk about issues around practicing with physical limitations. This is something I have been sitting with for a fair while and am happy to help with suggestions or just offer a listening ear.

  2. #2
    Thoughtfully written, Kokuu; thank you. Yes, I have been training in Shunryu Suzuki lineage. He not only indicated that we should do what my son smilingly calls "Japanese cosplay" but said something to the effect that "Americans are too stiff-necked for three bows so we are going to do nine bows." _()_

    gassho
    doyu sattoday
    特別な人ではない

  3. #3
    Very good post!

    This has always been a topic that has frequented any forum, Facebook group, or subreddit, etc I've followed, and one that has always pushed itself to the forefront of my thoughts. It's been something I've struggled with in the past in a couple of places where I ended up feeling unwelcome and uncomfortable (like I was doing something very wrong for having interest in and practicing). It has made a few sporadic instances of me taking a "break" for a while over the years after having some instances of people telling me I'm "not allowed to be a Buddhist" because I was born in a Christian place and should "stick to my own culture and be a Christian".

    What I finally (or currently) came to believe on this issue is that it, like much everything else, comes down to the intent behind it. I really feel that if someone has the right intentions with their practice or interest in learning about Buddhism (or any other religion) then that wouldn't be appropriation. Although it is using something from another culture to "their benefit" but that benefit is one that will help others as well. I feel if we are too guarded with how we (as humans) treat this issue that it could discourage people from finding teachings that benefit them - even if someone initially has their interest in something sparked by a shallow intent such as it seeming "cool" then genuine interest can still grow from that. As far as the negative forms of this, that would truly be harmful overall, I feel it's more of an "I'll know it when I see it" type of thing. Much of this, like the examples mentioned about making a profit off styles and designs of religious dress for capitalist purposes, are very clearly appropriation. Someone wearing a Halloween costume could be a very gray area and would likely depend on the motivation behind choosing it. However, I think we have to be careful about making those distinctions and especially careful with making accusations of others since we do not truly know their intent without them explaining it (and even then they may not be able to accurately explain or understand their own intent).

    I've seen this get out of hand in conversations/articles online before with extremes to both directions - both "no such thing" camp, and the hardcore "stick to your own culture" camp. I strongly disagree with both extremes. From the examples before it's clear that it exists in those forms. For the latter camp, I have multiple points of disagreement.

    1. Define cultural boundary. Throughout the entire history of humankind, we have always mixed cultures. Humans spread throughout the planet as our populations grew - (as far as we know) we didn't just spring up in separate cultures around the world. To think that humans sprung up in their own locations and cultures separate from each other would be also to say that we somehow are independent physically from each other, and that just isn't what our DNA/genetics show in our origins. This "stick to your own" culture argument is inevitably dragging the issue/concept of race into the mix. If someone believes that cultures grew independently without influence from each other then one would have to believe that the location mattered, and if location was independent that would mean that group of humans in that culture somehow grew separate from other groups of humans - meaning you'd have to believe that humans are truly of different origins and that 'race' would be almost defined like species rather than defined by common characteristics that developed among a group intermingling for so long - and science shows up that we are definitely the same species and that the concept of "race" is purely a social construct. We are the human race, depending on our genetic mix our appearances are determined but we are all the same thing.

    2. Cultures mixing is what has driven human progression. The sharing of ideas, practices, and scientific discoveries have historically been what has allowed us to develop into what we are today. It has benefited humans since our beginnings, and now we are more mixed culturally than EVER in our existence. There is no going back and no way to selectively divide anyone off again at this point. With the exception of a few tribes in the world, humans are not isolated from one another.

    3. Cultural appropriation usually only goes one direction. At least in English speaking environments online I've only seen it used against someone of western origins. Perhaps it's also used against people of eastern origins who take on western culture but I haven't seen it before or heard of it yet. I've never seen someone from the Eastern world being told by someone from the Western world claiming they are culturally appropriating Western culture by doing something like wearing Western brands or styles of clothing, practicing/converting to Christianity (as an example, Middle Eastern in real origin but still), mirroring American TV/Hollywood, wearing Cowboy Hats/Boots, etc. Yes, western culture has had a domineering history and I understand the fear of it absorbing smaller cultures or westernizing nations but "western culture" is not an entity. Eastern culture has been adopting Western culture on its own for the same reasons Western culture is adopting elements of Eastern culture - its mutual benefit. So if the enforcement of cultural appropriation was to be equally applied both directions it would be very apparent how limiting/restrictive that would truly be. To see how this is problematic or show this is usually one-sided imagine the difference between the scenario of (1) someone of Asian-born decent telling someone of European-American-born decent saying they "shouldn't be Buddhist" and to "stick to their own" V.S. (2) someone of European-American-born decent telling someone of Asian-born decent that they "shouldn't be Christian" and to "stick to their own" - the latter example would very clearly be labeled as racist (and rightfully so). Scenario 1 is usually socially acceptable, Scenario 2 is very clearly unacceptable socially - I believe both scenarios 1 and 2 to be unacceptable under the condition that the claim of appropriation is being made base on a simple "where you are born" or "what you look like".

    4. Where you are born doesn't (and shouldn't) determine what you believe. If I were to stick to the norms of where I was born I would be participating in beliefs (many very socially harmful) and concepts I don't agree with and are not morally comfortable with. The high prevalence of racism/racial superiority, extreme nationalism, and belief in Christianity are not things I feel "obligated" to "stick to", and I think that someone simply choosing their beliefs and ideas about the world simply based on blending in with their society without analytical thought behind their choices is very harmful and also doing themselves a great disservice to their own development and happiness. Every culture has both helpful and harmful aspects to it - and that should be evaluated in thought, it should be something we can bring up in conversations and have a debate about. We should be able to choose to honor beneficial things from our cultures while discarding practices that are ingrained in our culture that cause harm. Concepts like slavery, taking children as wives, treating women like property and lower elements of society were all once the NORM because they had been passed down generation after generation until people started to question it and break the 'tradition'. So.. just because a majority of people are doing something shouldn't obligate me (or anyone) to blend in a be a copy of that type of person.

    In getting back to Zen and Buddhism... anyone putting up a boundary in any way limiting who is "allowed" to practice would be nullifying much of the teachings. Claiming there are boundaries between people, and that certain groups of humans are somehow unique entities in which the dharma doesn't work for is antithetical to Buddhist teachings. Again, going back to the intent of the practice: practice for reasons that have good intentions, and do everything one can to practice while remaining respectful of others/cultures within practical, sensible reason.

    I could be wrong of course. I could be a terrible human being right now. It certainly isn't my intent though to be causing harm to anyone by my practice though.

    Gassho /\
    Kendrick
    Sat
    Last edited by Kendrick; 07-16-2019 at 03:06 PM. Reason: typos

  4. #4
    Thank you for this teaching Kokuu. I'm reminded of a neighbour's reaction to the Japanese accents to my garden shortly after returning to Canada from an extended stay in Japan. She could not see the purpose of putting foreign stuff in my garden. When I explained we had just returned from Living in Japan for seven years and these accents gave us a feeling of home, she tamed down a little but was still adamant that it didn't belong in her country.
    In keeping with cultural appropriation, my temple just acquired a Han: Han small.png I had it crafted by a woodworking friend. It is made of Oak and has a beautiful Tone. I do no feel I am stealing this. It is deeply ingrained in my heart from the first time I heard one in a Japanese temple.

    gassho, Shokai
    仁道 生開 - Jindo Shokai "Open to life in a benevolent way"
    May we all grow together in our knowledge of the Dharma

  5. #5
    Member Hoseki's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kokuu View Post
    Recently, I have seen quite a few questions on whether westerners practicing Zen, or Buddhism in general, is an example of cultural appropriation.

    Without exception, there are always replies which are dismissive of cultural appropriation as even being a thing, based on the notions that cultures have always mixed and taken ideas from each other.

    So, what to think?

    The crux, for me, rests on the second Buddhist training precept:

    Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
    I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given

    Given that cultural appropriation is defined as the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture (Cambridge English Dictionary) there is an obvious connection here.

    Some things are common within most human cultures, but others are cultural signifiers which are held as important in terms of a society self-defining itself. Each culture should have ownership of those things and taking them and using them without either respect for their meaning, or permission from the culture of origin, would seem to be an act of theft and potential cause of offence and harm.

    Developed western nations have had a bit of a history of exploiting other cultures and are often rather more interested in defending their liberties than upholding their responsibilities. Is it right for a western designer to use traditional fabric designs from another culture in order to earn millions of dollars in clothing sales with no benefit to the culture that has produced it? (especially when at the same time, that designers own work will be protected by sophisticated copyright law) Is it okay for western festival goers to stick bindis (the Hindu/Jain red dot painted between the eyes signifying both the opening of the third eye and the origin of the entire universe) on their face without any connection with either religion and regardless of how people of those faiths see it? Is our ‘fun’ and profit more important than consideration of others?

    How would we feel if rakusus were turned into a fashion item? How about rakusus with guns on them or dollar signs? What about other countries using our war medals as fashion accessories? Respect is a two-way street but often one of the roads has considerably more power to stop traffic.

    For me, why would I want to cause harm or take things from another culture against their wishes? This in no way prevents people from sharing ideas and learning from traditional craftspeople and others inside a culture, and growing knowledge with respect and consideration. It merely warns against the exploitation of one culture by another.

    So, what about Zen and Buddhism? Are we engaging in cultural appropriation by practicing these religions from other countries (assuming you are not from a majority Buddhist country yourself)?

    My answer is no (although with provisos!)

    Why is that? For me, it is because both Buddhism and Zen have been passed on willingly, by teachers from inside the culture who then authorised outsiders as teachers to pass on those teachings. Gudo Nishijima was a Japanese man and Zen teacher who willingly taught westerners such as Jundo and Brad Warner, asking them in turn to teach others whether Japanese or western.

    However, even with that permission, it is still necessary to practice Zen and dharma with respect and learn it properly rather than propagating some second-hand imitation of what we have received. We also need to learn how to respect the symbols and ideas of the tradition (travellers to Thailand quickly learn what the locals think about Buddha tattoos!). Buddhism has changed with each culture it has met on its travels, yet there are still elements of it that hold true to its original transmission.

    In a nutshell my view is that cultural appropriation is a matter of respecting where things have come from, and the people they are important to, rather than seeing ourselves as free to take and do what we like without responsibilities or consequences.

    In the end, a culture and its people own their cultural signifiers and ideas and it is up to them whether we get to use them or not. Anything else is clearly taking the not given and, as Buddhists, we need to be mindful of that. What is a cultural signifier may be a matter of argument but if your use of something is causing offence to a culture, it is probably a good sign you are want to consider what you are doing and maybe speak to someone from that culture to see if you are on the right path.

    In Zen we say we are not one and not two but although we may all be connected on this planet and beyond, rising out of numerous interactions and causes, some of us are born into circumstances in which we have a great more cultural and economic power than others. It is our responsibility to use that wisely.

    Gassho
    Kokuu
    -sattoday/lah-
    Hi Kokuu,

    I respectfully disagree, but I suspect that disagreement doesn't amount to much practically. I think when we speak about Cultural Appropriation we are thinking of it in terms of property. For something to belong to one culture but not another implies ownership or a sort doesn't it? I'm thinking Private Property in the sense that the owner has (legal) control over what happens to said property. But who has the authority over a culture? Is it contested? I also think there is the bigger problem of thinking of culture as a kind of stable thing. With the emphasis on thing. We can talk about who owns a fork because its an object and we have pre-established norms and laws around personal property. But culture isn't a thing. Its includes practices such as which side of the road to drive on to who can marry whom, artifacts which range from religious garb to little sticks used for eating, ideas about the world and our place in it and I'm sure there are other ways to break it down. I think its actually a bunch of different things. It reminds of me the jewels in Indra's net. So basically, I think we make a categorical mistake regarding culture (what kind of thing it is) and then we compound it by thinking of said object in terms of property. I understand that intellectual property is also abstract but there are a couple of other things going on there.

    In the example you provided about Zen I'm sure there would have been Buddhists in Japan who thought it was inappropriate to teach to Westerns. So what do we do with that conflict? Culture can't speak for itself and the people who embody it disagree about sharing aspects. How do we move forward? I grew up in a predominately Catholic environment but Christianity didn't really resonate very well with me. I find Zen to be a much better fit. I have the same problems Shakyamuni outlined all those years ago (anger, greed and ignorance.) But if the head of Sotoshu decided that westerns shouldn't practice anymore. Should I quit? I won't stop sitting because of that.

    Personally, I think we can pretty much lay a claim to anything done by other humans. But we do risk upsetting people so we try to be sensitive to the differences between groups of people is a good idea. Were less likely to cause unnecessary conflict by being a little thoughtful with things that are important to others. I also think we should give other people the same respect.

    For me I think cultural appropriation as a concept creates a wall between people that need not be there. That said, abusing an image or practice that's very important to people will also create a wall (and quickly.) So we need to tread carefully and not be too quick to call people out on this kind of stuff. I also think we just have to let some things go. Sort of like "question begging" which used to mean circular reasoning has become a phrase (begs the question) that indicates an obvious follow up question to a statement. Practices come and go things change and at times its unpleasant. I would probably cringe if I saw a Rakusu encrusted with diamonds but what could I say?

    At least that's what I think.


    Gassho

    Sattoday
    Hoseki

  6. #6
    Thanks for posting this Kokuu.

    Definitely agree with the argument presented by Kendrick who elaborates on the social-constructionist view, and Hoseki's point that he wouldn't stop sitting if Sotoshu decided that Westerners should no longer practice zazen. I wanted to add the old idea of syncretism to the mix. Catholicism, for example, has been around for a long time and it has spread across the world gradually. Would you say that in all the different places where Catholics come together they practice original Catholicism (if there even is such a thing)? Many groups of people who adopted Catholicism one way or another added indigenous elements to their version of Catholicism. I think that if I attended a church service in Italy, one in a remote island, one in Southern Vietnam, or in Japan, all would have different local flavors that makes them unique, and yet they share certain core teachings. It seems like, as with books and their interpretations, that they develop into unique flavors of Catholicism. Once such new flavors are firmly established in the respective societies or local groups, I think that the idea of cultural appropriation becomes less relevant, especially in today's day and age. Kokuu's post also reminds me of postmodernism, in which, cultural elements are stripped of their cultural and historical contexts and being given new meanings totally unrelated to the the original context. I guess this is just the dynamics of life and cultures in general in which everything is under constant change albeit slow in some cases. I do believe it is important to remain aware of the historical roots. I mean there are many people out there offering "meditation" courses for example.

    Gassho,
    Jack
    Sattoday/lah
    Last edited by Kakedashi; 07-16-2019 at 05:15 PM.

  7. #7
    It's perhaps tempting to think of this issue as a predominantly modern one where we see the boundaries of communication, and long distances breaking down. However, much of what has been questioned above could even have applied to Dogen visiting China, or Bodhidharma visiting China. Where exactly does a culture begin and end? In my travels to Japan I was surprised by the existence of country western bars there.
    When I first started sitting here and learning about Zen, I recall having many questions about why we were doing this that and the other thing. Taigu's response was something to the effect of "because that's just what we do". Pardon the pun, but that answer didn't sit well with me. Just going through the motions of garb, gear and tradition does seem like cultural appropriation to me. However, we shouldn't be too quick to just write off these practices as merely cultural. There is a time tested method going on and much of what we do, DOES have a reason. I don't think I have given up myself to become Chinese in studying Kung Fu, but there is a time tested method to many of our traditions there as well. At the end of the day I think it really comes down to intent. Why are you doing what you are doing? Are you endeavoring to practice Zen, or are you playing at being a Japanese monk. Personally, I think we are living in a very unique time where we can practice Zen honoring the traditions as established, but also maintaining motorcycles.

    Gassho, Ishin

    Sat Today, lah
    Grateful for your practice

  8. #8
    Cultural Appropriation
    Do you guys really want to go there? This becomes more complex for this forum since members of our sangha come from all parts of our little blue marble. We develop regional cultural charismatics based on the practices of the historical occupants of the specific region.
    I think the only time this should be an issue would be in those cases where the appropriation or adaptation of cultural practices prevent the original cultural from carrying out their practices. As an example of this taking would be the popular practice of “new age” practitioners taking cremains to kiva sights in the southwest and poring them into the Sipapu. The sipapu symbolizes the portal through which the Hopi ancient ancestors first emerged to enter the present world. In other words a vessel of life. The misuse of the kiva and the sipapu through misguided cultural appropriation is clearly wrong since it disrespects the site and the traditional practices of the original culture associated with the site. On the other hand, if non-Hopi were to be invited to participate in traditional practices at a kiva by a cultural practitioner of the Hopi tribe it would seem to be not taking but rather sharing of cultural practices.
    I usually avoid this subject of discussion simply because I am an mixture of the many cultures I have been exposed to or lived with.
    My family and I practice many Mexican traditional practices since my wife was born in Mexico City and raised in Jalapa Vr.Mexico. But what is “Mexican” only a regional mixture of European and ingenious cultures?
    We use many phrases and practices picked up from years of living in rural Hawaii. Again a mixture of Native Hawaiian, Philipino, Japanese, etc cultures that added to that cultural mixture. It is here that I started my Buddhist practice. I have never felt I took that practice but rather simply absorbed if from the ambient culture I lived in.
    So my feelings are that “cultural appropriation” is not a bad thing unless it takes from or deprives in some way the original culture that developed the practice. Lose the guilt trips and enjoy your practice whatever it is.

    SAT TODAY
    Shozan

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