Posted inOther Teachings

Buddhism in the West, by Maria Reis Habito, Part 5

August 29, 2016

The Buddhist notion of “No-Self” (Anatta) is deeply connected to the teaching of interconnectedness, which fits well with this concept of a person as a nexus of relationships. It is however far from clear that Buddhist teaching can be made to fit with the Western enlightenment view that the person is an autonomous being.


Click to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of Buddhism in the West.

Dharma, Diversity and Race

The split between white convert Buddhists and ethnic Buddhists, who came from Asia bringing along their own temple traditions, goes back to the beginnings and has not much changed today.  And even though the history of Buddhism in Europe is different from that in the US, the split along ethnic lines exists in European countries as well. While the great majority of the early Chinese and Japanese immigrants to the US were followers of the Pure Land School (Jap. Jodo Shinshu), Western students felt attracted by the rigors of Zen-meditation, which promised a quicker path to enlightenment than the chanting of Sutras or the invocation of Buddha Amitabha.

In the sixties, the wide-spread use of psychedelic drugs gave many Zen-practitioners a taste of what enlightenment may be like, and they strove to deepen this experience through the practice of meditation.  If, by comparison, they walked into a service held by the Jodo Shinshu Sect, they were too much reminded of what they had left behind in their own Jewish or Christian upbringing – the formal services to be attended in ones best clothes, the sermons by the Rabbi or priest on a text of the bible, the singing of hymns and repeating of prayers.  Incidentally, immigrant Jodo Shinshu leaders, wanting to adapt to Western cultures, took on forms of religious services from Protestant patterns.  In contrast, Zen in the West divested itself of most these community aspects and emphasized instead the individual path to enlightenment.

The sentiments of Asian and Black Americans towards white Buddhists are very complex.  Many Asians resent the way in which white Americans have taken “control” or “ownership” of their religion in a way that excludes them from full participation. Black Americans who are engaged in Buddhist practice also express frustration over the fact that they do not have much visibility or voice in American Buddhist culture. They are questioned more than others about the reasons why they have become Buddhists, as if the connection between Buddhism and white practitioners were more normal than their own connection to Buddhism as people of color.  At the same time, Asian and black Americans resent the fact that white people are “so attached to their image of themselves as non-racists that they refuse to see their own racism or the way in which Buddhist communities may reflect social hierarchies.  This is made more problematic where the emphasis in the predominantly white communities is on letting go of the self.”

Black Americans have increasingly been attracted to the Japanese lay movements like Soka Gakkai or Rissho Koseikai, which are very community oriented and integrate each member in the so-called “Dharma Discussion Circles,” in which they share personal difficulties or struggles with others and receive advice based on Buddhist teaching.  In these lay movements as well as in the more traditional settings of the Pure Land School, being fully part of and involved in a community is considered the most important aspect of Buddhist identity and practice.

It is partly for these reasons that the more individualistic approach of White Western Buddhists, which reflects individualistic cultural norms, draws so much criticism from the others. Victor Sogen Hori, a Japanese Rinzai Zen-practitioner who spent 13 years in full monastic practice in Japan and teaches East Asian Religions at Mc Gill University in Montreal, describes his experiences of participating in a week-long Chinese Ch`an (Zen) retreat, which was attended by both white American and ethnic Chinese.  He reports that, when the master asked each participant at the end of the retreat about which benefits he or she had gained from the long hours of sitting in meditation, Westerners uniformly spoke about how it helped them to “get in touch with themselves, given them strength and sanity to cope with the pressures of society, and assisted them in the process of self-realization.”

The Chinese statements were very different.  Chinese participants spoke about how the retreat made them realize their selfishness, their neglect of family and community, and expressed shame and repentance about their shortcomings.  When the Master asked the American participants if they had also experienced feelings of repentance, one person replied with a touch of impatience: “You always ask me that and the answer is always no.” Hori concludes that, even though they had spent one week together meditating under the same master, the two groups had experienced the same retreat in very different ways.  While the white Americans felt it had strengthened their self-understanding and deepened the process of self-realization, Chinese participants experienced it as moral self-examination.

These differing attitudes arise from culturally different notions of the person: the person as an individual, and the person as a nexus of social relationship.  In most societies outside the influence of European enlightenment, the individual is not considered an autonomous being independent of social roles and relations.  As the traditional five hierarchical relationships in Chinese culture clearly show, a person has identity only because of his or her particular place in this web of social and family relationships.

The Buddhist notion of “No-Self” (Anatta) is deeply connected to the teaching of interconnectedness, which fits well with this concept of a person as a nexus of relationships.  It is however far from clear that Buddhist teaching can be made to fit with the Western enlightenment view that the person is an autonomous being.

As Hori puts it, “a Buddhist practitioner who has grown up in the West must eventually come to a point of conflict: Do I continue to assert the fundamental autonomy of the self? Or do I accept the Buddhist teaching that the self is created out of interrelatedness? And here is a Buddhist question: are these alternatives mutually exclusive?”

The different approaches to practice follow from this: while all practitioners have the same need to come to terms with the possessiveness of ego, ethnic Buddhists have a different starting point.  They are culturally conditioned to see themselves as part of the whole, as created out of social conditions. The teaching of karma, as well as the traditional respect of hierarchy in family and society, the practices of filial behavior, repentance rituals and ancestral rites; all these are grounded in and at the same time reinforce the assumption that a person is not an autonomous being, but created by social relationships.  By comparison, Westerners, even though they feel strongly attracted to the teaching of “No-Self” and interconnectedness, are conditioned to see the person as fundamentally autonomous and individual.  Hori`s conclusion about the difference in practice may not be entirely free of stereotyping to make a point, but the challenging observation it contains can not be dismissed easily:

For those who see the person as fundamentally autonomous and individual, Buddhist practice is conceived as freeing the self from incessant social conditioning and releasing its own pure nature; meditation is social deconditioning designed ultimately to affirm and realize the self.  But for those who assume that personal identity is created out of social relationship, Buddhist practice is conceived as breaking habits of selfishness in order to become open, responsible, and compassionate with others; meditation is personal reconditioning, designed ultimately to dissolve attachment and de-realize the self.

From this context it becomes clear that practice taken in the sense of “social deconditioning designed to affirm the self” may not lead to self-criticism or transformation, but on the contrary, that it may well serve to maintain patterns of selfishness, superiority and unacknowledged racism.  These are some of the criticisms levelled at white practitioners by angry Asian and African Americans.

It may not entirely be the fault of the some Western students that they claim that genuine Zen-practice can only be found in their own particular center, but that it is degenerate in Japan, where monks mainly perform funeral and other services for money.  Certain Japanese Zen-masters have been telling this to their Western students, who repeat it uncritically and with conviction.  However, to people coming from a non-Western perspective, such claims about Westerners as being the only true practitioners of Zen are taken as a sign of ethnocentrism and self-indulgence, and not of true realization.

While some Buddhist experts, including Hori, warn that the projection of  fundamental Western attitudes about self, society and consciousness onto Buddhism ultimately makes it incapable of criticizing Western society, the opposite warning is issued from the philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek, who claims that it is precisely the abandoning of these fundamental Western attitudes which makes Western Buddhists wholly incapable of criticizing the capitalist market system and resisting its temptations

Click for part 6 of Buddhism in the West.

Maria Reis Habito is a Zen teacher at the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas Texas. This article was published on their website as Buddhism in the West: Self Realization or Self Indulgence.

Image: Diversity, JoshuaDavisPhotography, CC by-SA 2.0, from

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