East vs. West and "cultural appropriation"

Edit: This is a repost of a blog entry I did a month ago. It was lost when I transferred the blog so I am re-posting it. 🙂

When I first got to Canada, I was surprised to learn that what were normal realities for me- spirituality, spirits, the existence of the soul- were treated as phantasms of the imagination by many people I met (I think I can thank my school for that). Having grown up in a culture where religion was very much alive and breathing around me through rituals that were very tactile, I thought it was weird that people could just ignore a reality as if it did not exist to them. Was this a type of blindness I was not aware of? How could you just say that something that was real for me was non-existent objectively?

I realize that this is a product of moving from a very communally-based society to an individualistic society where objectivity prevails, for better or worse. Elements of my life in Singapore- ancestor worship, for one- are seen as quaint and cute, but something that existed Elsewhere and not Here. However, spirituality was OK within certain boundaries. It was normal to say “I am Buddhist” (often as a counter-reaction against the “I am Christian” declaration).  In fact, the declaration “I am…” is in itself a very Western idea- that the self is the center, and all other exists to define the “I”‘s identity. However, the people who I met who self-identified as Buddhist often were completely ignorant to the ritualistic aspect of Buddhism I had grown up around.

Ritual and Ideology (I’m going to define that here as systems of belief, often accessible through sacred texts) are elements of spirituality that go hand-in-hand for me. Ritual is a grounding force in which the spiritual can manifest in one’s life. It is a powerful tool to practice what you read, in other words. To just acknowledge ideology (“We are all One”, “Everything is nothingness”; In Christian texts, “We only see but through a glass darkly”) while neglecting ritual screams of disrespect to me, and a failure to understand the nuances of the long historical tradition of a religion. This, for me, is the main bone I have to pick with those who identify as Buddhist because they adhere to certain Buddhist ideas.

Religion in the East and the West work very differently. Whereas the West is very ideological and mind-centric, the East- in my experience- is more focussed on the physicality of things. Christianity, for example, is a lot based on a main atemporal ‘source text’- the Bible- and the individual’s salvation. In contrast, Eastern religions like Buddhism are largely focussed on rites, passages, and the individual’s integration into larger society. Buddhist funerals, for example, are elaborate affairs in which there is a certain order in which things are done, and this order is always respected in order for the soul to successfully transition to the afterlife. Whereas in the West, the funeral exists mostly as a placeholder for people to mourn together individually their loss. It is much more self-centric, in other words. As such, I understand why it’s easy to ‘adopt’ a religion like it is a political belief without realizing the difference in cultural roots.

This is what annoys me, I think, about Western adoption of Eastern ideas. People put Shiva and Buddha next to each other in yoga studios as if all Eastern Ideas are the same. I feel strongly that if you are interested in Eastern religions and practices, that’s really great! You should definitely read all the traditional texts and attempt to practice it in your daily life. But, to adopt it as your main belief system (if you even choose to do so! It is perfectly acceptable to borrow elements of religions to use in your own spiritual practice), to identify as X or Y is a commitment. It is not something you consume passively or a fashionable badge you wear. It’s not a product to be consumed.

Ritual, meditation, yoga: these are all things that have a powerful effect in being able to cure trauma of all forms. I think it’s perfectly okay to use ritual as a way to heal yourself without knowing the long tradition of a religion. However, it is very different to identify as a “Zen Buddhist” or “Hindu” just because you believe that x or y deity exists. These systems don’t work like Christianity, in which just accepting Jesus in your heart is sufficient for you to be in a religion. That is because each belief system has different cultural roots that it is important to acknowledge. Zazen is part of the larger tree of Zen Buddhism; mindfulness, although it has many benefits, is very often re-packaged as a tool to aid productivity. More often than not (and I’m not saying this is the rule), it is used to support Western consumerist capitalism. Atheism, as my friend Heather says, is not the opposite of Christianity, just as Buddhism is not the opposite of Christianity either! That is still a Western mentality in which the West is the center, and everything is Other.

That being said, learning about the long tradition of a religion can also help to deepen your understanding of what you practice. In yoga, this is called svadhyaya or self-study. It’s also as important as asana, the physical practice. I’m not saying that one or the other is better, but rather that an over-emphasis on ritual over ideology or ideology over ritual creates imbalance. That is why there are many limbs of yoga. That is why people spend years in isolation to become Buddhist monks. The process is much more important than the product, in this case, which is something that is easily forgotten in a culture where religion is a product you can adopt like a new pet.

I, for one, am a fan of creating your own belief system. Nobody ever said that you had to belong to a group in order to be whole, real, or a Person. I feel like religion can also easily disintegrate into dogma in Western traditions, and it can degenerate into pure Ritual without meaning in Eastern traditions. (I’m making broad generalizations here, but you get the idea.) That is why I am fond of just feeling what works for me and putting it in action. My main interest right now is acting from the heart and that, in itself, is my main spiritual ‘project’ at the moment. In the end, we are the universe manifesting itself through us. In order to be truly on this planet, I think that we just need to acknowledge ourselves as elements of a larger whole. That, after all, is the goal of all religion.

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