Dhamma and Culture


[Photo Copyright by Wonderlane via Flickr under Creative Commons Licence]

Back in the day, I had an ongoing discussion with my partner, that went on for years. She travelled a lot in Southeast Asia and knew the cultures there quite well. Her criticism went along the lines of: How can you be a Buddhist, have you seen how they treat women in those countries?

Which is entirely correct. They way women are treated in traditional Buddhist countries, even in monastic circles is often abominable. However, for all those years I failed at getting one crucial point across: There is a difference between the teachings of the Buddha (the Dhamma) and the culture/country in which the tradition got established.

The identity of the culture comes first, then later the teaching arrives. After learning about a new spiritual path, humans will always adapt the teachings to their home culture. What you end up with is a mixture of both, and sometimes the arising mixtures will even contradict each other.

I give you a simple example:
Say you are small businessman and you want to sell Buddha statues on a market in Sri Lanka. If you put a Buddha statue down on the ground and stick a price tag on it, people very soon will get very upset with you.
A Buddha statue cannot sit on the ground, it has to be elevated. If you build a shrine with an altar, you cannot even put the photo of your teacher next to the Buddha statue. The Buddha even has to be elevated above all the other teachers. This is why altars in Thailand and Sri Lanka often are constructed with steps, like a pyramid. They take the respect for the Buddha very seriously. You can end up in prison if you put a Buddha image on a poster to promote a party in a bar.

If you then travel to a Japanese Zen-Monastery to inquire about their Buddha statue needs, you will not only find that the Buddha in Japan has suspiciously East Asian looking facial features, but sitting down on the toilet, you might even find a Buddha statue staring at you while you do your business. It is supposed to remind you that whatever you do in there, you are still in a monastery. They also take their respect for the Buddha very seriously. You better bow down, when you enter the meditation hall. It just has a completely different emphasis.

Every culture handles its path to enlightenment differently and according to the unique personality of that culture. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, it is blessing and a curse at the same time.

The advantage is that you can find a cultural setting that fits well with your personality traits. For example: If you are the straightforward-no-bullshit-martial-art-type, than the Buddhism of Japan will suit you much more than the more colorful and esoteric version in Tibet.
The curse starts to hit, when people confuse the culture with the Dhamma.

Treating women badly is not Dhamma, it is culture (And a bad one).

Extremely strict hierarchy in monastic circles is Thailand – it is not the Dhamma (Ironically that was copied from Catholicism – true story).

Suffering through mountains of pain silently with a straight face without burdening the people around you, to the point where you just drop dead – that is Japan, it is not the Dhamma.

Using meditation to make you feel better about yourself and accept you for who you are so you can function better in your social environment – that is American Wellness Vipassana – it is not the Dhamma.

Yes, to tell the culture and the Dhamma apart is sometimes very, very complicated.
We have to be careful and we have to study a lot (which we can easily, thanks to the internet). Only if we know the difference, we can use it to our advantage. Especially for us, who live in a country that does not have centuries filled with established cultural Buddhism whatsoever, we have to learn the difference between the culture and the teachings of the Buddha very well, so we do not get misconstrued.

Picking apart stuff like this, analyzing the details and overthinking it is very German btw. Buddhists in South-East-Asia are much more trustful in their Buddhism than I am.

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