Buddhism and Cultural Appropriation

5 years ago

i admit i'm perhaps hyper-sensitive to cultural appropriation. it started when i was a nanny for a family who adopted a little girl from China. i watched as this single mother began wearing traditional Chinese clothing and ordered a LOT if Chinese food. though i could appreciate her excitement and respect her willingness to learn more about her daughter's culture, something about it didn't feel right - to me. years later, my ex-wife and i adopted two black children. again, i would find myself becoming hugely annoyed when a white (dominant) culture would, in a sense, attempt to own something that was unique to my kids' culture. things like hair braiding, for instance. i am often torn, or rather, feel there is a fine line, between celebrating another culture and an attempt to "take on" that culture. i never think it's ok to adopt an attitude of a culture in jest.

so, for years, i kept my spiritual beliefs mostly hidden. i didn't want to be a target for my ex as she is very book learned in the ways of culture/society/and oppression. i also had an undeniable ounce of shame around being a white, western Buddhist. not to mention, i felt called to Buddhism by way of a spiritual guru, Meher Baba, whom i still very much follow. being a Baba Lover, to me, is something very specific and wrapped up in my past and with people who have made a huge impact on my emotional growth while Buddhism is a way to live and learn in the world. Meher Baba, though he dropped his physical body on January 31, 1969 (now a yearly gathering in India called Amartithi), is more of a god to me whereas Buddhism is a path - to god, enlightenment, or sometimes just out of my own ego-ness.

i do not own any Buddha statues or even mala beads (though i'd like some now as my practice becomes more intense). i guess i honor my beliefs in different ways. i do meditate daily and i do pray. but owning that i am a western Buddhist has been a huge step for me.

i was reading an article on a blog posted by Kyle Lovett that included his thoughts on the Voice of America article about the Dalai Lama's visit to the US. this paragraph stuck with me :

While I disagree with the theme of the article that there is an ‘American Buddhism’, I find it refreshing that true cultural diversity or our melting pot of numerous cultures, which is one of our greatest strengths, hasn’t been totally forgotten in this discussion. Obviously we don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to the historic roots of Buddhism, but we can certainly keep our tradition of slowly working towards a Western Buddhism that is unique and fits the needs of our society in much more equitable manner. And while we still have a long ways to go, as the racial and cultural divide of Buddhist practitioners is still vast, we shouldn’t be sidetracked of our tradition of an inclusive, rather than an exclusive society.

the notion of not "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" is something that i agree with on so many levels. for me, personally, it's the idea that i would rather not be in ANY box. adopting elements of things but not subscribing to an affiliated homogenous group is something i am ok with for many things. for instance, i MOSTLY don't eat meat or animal products. but i don't call myself a vegan because sometimes i do. and i'm ok with that. i strive to not harm animals -strive being the best i can do - for me. for now. i also prefer to view myself as rather androgynous. however, i don't subscribe to any hard and fast rules about what that means, as i believe it just creates another label. but when picking and choosing elements of a perhaps marginalized culture that become incorporated in a person's daily life i think it's very important to be culturally responsible. i often refer to it as "culturally humbled."

my responsibility is to learn about the culture as close to the source as possible. i should never consider myself an expert on that culture, only (maybe someday) of my experience learning about it. i recognize that i am choosing this path - i was not born into Buddhism nor was i born in Tibet - choice is active and choice comes with certain freedoms that many Buddhists did not and still do not have. my responsibility is to appropriately display images and prayer beads. and most importantly, my responsibility is to honor the path that brought me here and to express gratitude.

equability is the line, for me, i suppose. if i am not acting with a questioning mind and heart then i call it appropriation. but when i am acting in good faith with a humbled attitude, i find i am able to carve out my place in today' Western Buddhism.

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