Buddhist Culture in Modern Times

One of my Students asked:

1 – Is it possible to do any kind of Dharma without any culture attached to it? We have difficulty with the Tibetan Stuff, but it’s the best we’ve come across so far, except maybe Shamanism (from which much of Buddhism sprang)

2 – Can we ever escape our cultural conditionings? – Ought we to?

Here is my answer:

I think that I need to answer the second question first and that will add weight to the answer to the first question.

Culture is defined as the language, religion, art, music, philosophy, Cooking, celebrations, Social & Behavioural rules of a particular society. Especially now-a-days, because we are becoming one society, we have the main societal rules and then we have many sub-cultures, which have their own set of rules and rituals, language etc. Gradually over time, one main set of rules develops and most of the sub-cultures diminish and their language, rules, rituals etc become at least partially assimilated into the main culture.

That is where the second question comes into play. We are born into a society and then are enculturated into it – we learn the rules and are exposed to the language(s) and other aspects of the culture. There are portions of the culture which allow for choices (as in choice of religion at the moment, even though to a large degree this is predetermined through our parents) and there are other areas of the culture where not following the cultural rules is difficult or impossible or leads to very bad consequences.

From a personal point of view, we are born with certain tendencies of behaviour and viewpoint. We are also born with tendencies to be attracted to certain things, repulsed by others, and indifferent to yet other things. When we combine this with the things that are offered to us by our parents and relatives (at first) as representatives of the society we are born into, we end up, very quickly, adopting large parts of the society’s culture and and only rejecting some of them. So we are definitely creatures of our culture.

One thing that is often forgotten or is not taught is that culture is evolutionary. It is not a static thing at all. Even language use changes over time. Latin used to be the common language of “Western” societies. Then it was German, then French, and now it is English. Even the English language of today is not at all the way it was 200 years ago. Social mores of today are very different as well from what they were even 100 years ago. The rules change and adjust, especially when new societies are encounteRed. Each generation makes adjustments to the rules as they try to work with their new reality in combination with older societal norms.

So we are creatures (notice that the root of “creatures” is the same as the root of the word “creation”) of our society’s culture. So our culture is the ingredients that we have been handed by our society and we need to make our own soup out of it (our parents try to get us to use their recipe all the time – and we’ll show our favourite recipe to our own children). If enough people like your particular recipe, it can become a part of the main society’s cook book. Often though, others, while trying to show us the value of their choices, try to force us to use their recipe – which is really not necessary. If people remembered that culture is an evolutionary process when they are teaching it to their children or relating it to others, then we would have fewer conflicts.

From here we can move on to the First Question

Question 1 – Is it possible to do any kind of Dharma without any culture attached to it? We have difficulty with the Tibetan Stuff, but it’s the best we’ve come across so far, except maybe Shamanism (from which much of Buddhism sprang).
So, from the answer to the second question, you can see that we can’t escape the influence of the culture we are born into, but, with each of our own choices, we are contributing to the creation of the culture we will share with our children. Culture involves our rules of behaviour, our language, our values, our art and our music, our celebrations, our food, and our work. Religion plays a role in determining what these are.

In entering any country, Buddhism has changed in rituals and in emphasis based on the culture of the country that it became a part of. The Shamanistic aspects of Tibetan Buddhism come from the mixture of Indian Tantric Buddhism with the Bon religion of the time. For a brief description of what happened to Buddhism when it entered Tibet,

Our role as Buddhists in this modern western society and the role of the immediate future generations is to merge Buddhist and Tibetan Buddhist culture with our Western Culture. Because we are at the beginning of this process, this will often leave us for a time in a no-mans-land without much culture, or with us transmitting an uncertain or mixed up culture to our children. Merging Buddhism with Western culture will mean adapting some of the rituals and practices and adjusting some of the expressions of the philosophy. You will notice that I said “expressions of the philosophy”. If our desire is to preserve ourselves as Buddhists, then we can’t change the philosophy and still call ourselves Buddhist. It may be that, one day, a single philosophy could emerge that would satisfy everyone, in which case, the need to identify ourselves as Buddhist would disappear. In the meantime, we can change the things that we emphasize and how we express the Buddhist philosophy – and we should be doing it, in order to make them more relevant and meaningful in our modern circumstances and context.

The danger is not to throw the baby out with the bath-water. An example is the following. There is a movement in certain Western Buddhist circles to eliminate the ideas of Reincarnation and Karma beyond this lifetime. People want to eliminate the descriptions of Heaven and Hell and other Realms. Some people are under the impression that these are cultural trappings of Buddhism. However, I am convinced that they are not, and Tibetan teachers are adamant that they remain. Just like a medical operation, just because you didn’t see the surgeon remove your appendix, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. You still have the scars and the side-effects even though you weren’t awake when it was removed (maybe you never had one). In terms of reincarnation and other realms, we have to learn to recognize the scars and the side-effects but it doesn’t mean that because we don’t recognize the side-effects, these realms don’t exist. Also, chances are, if we have the scars and side-effects, then they really do exist (hence my conviction).

Another example is the practice of prostrations. Prostrations are an expression of opening ourselves to the teachings, an expression of humility in the face of all of reality, and an expression of devotion to the goal of Buddhahood, to the teachers and their advice and to the Path. Doing prostrations without this openness, humility, and devotion would be very difficult. What happens in the west is, rather than develop the openness, humility, and devotion required to accept the idea of prostrations, people tend to want to eliminate doing prostrations as a practice. The question then becomes, how do you express, in thought, speech, and action this openness, humility, and devotion. Prostration and its accompanying prayers provides an easy, simple way to do this. It also has the energy of generations of practitioners performing the same prayers and actions for the same purpose. This energy can actually be felt when you practice prostrations for a while with the appropriate feelings. If we are going to replace prostrations, we would need to come up with a more modern, acceptable equivalent that would have the same desired impact on our minds. These aspects of Buddhist practice would be difficult, if not impossible, to adequately replace. It may be though that many westerners will not be able to accept this practice and it may disappear.

An example of a cultural issue that can readily be adjusted is in the examples that are used to express certain ideas. Most examples used in Tibetan Buddhist texts refer to kings and princes, to agriculture and farm animals. Instead of talking about loading bags of rice onto a yak, or going to the market place we need to change those examples to things like travelling by airplane or going to the shopping mall.

The choice of words in prayers is another area where we can make many adjustments. We need to choose more modern ways of expressing Buddhist ideas and choose modes of expression that have a strong impact in the desired direction. As an example, to evoke devotion to the Buddha by expressing the Buddha’s qualities using metaphors of a warrior may not have as much impact on modern audiences as expressing the Buddha’s qualities in terms of Compassion, Understanding of the mind, Social involvement etc.

The music that accompanies prayers will probably also change, although right now this seems to be a lower priority. Many of the Buddhist rituals have been dropped outside of attending religious functions in a Tibetan context. Eventually music with Buddhist ideas will become prevalent – and its already happening (the song “Dust in the Wind” for example). This type of music may become part of modern western Buddhist religious ceremony.

We can also, and probably will, adjust the art around religious activity. The difficulty comes in creating images where the meaning is universal. We tend, in western society, to want to make things realistic and our abstract art is very abstract. A picture of a wrathful deity such as Yamantaka definitely provokes some of the desired emotions. Finding a modern equivalent may be difficult. In some of my own teachings, I abandon the descriptions of beings or human or semi-human emanations relating to a particular quality and focus on the qualities or the energies themselves. This may be part of the solution for teaching in our modern context, but it eliminates art as a religious expression.

The biggest problem in modern society is that we have tended to secularize most of these things. We may have gone too far. Our tendency is to separate out the philosophy and psychology of a religion from the rest of our lives. Most religions would argue that we should be doing the opposite. Religion should be a part of our art, music, dance, eating, sleeping, working, and playing. Or at the very least we can use all of these activities as part of our religious expressions. As Western, Modern Buddhists, we need to begin to create art, music, dance, play, food, and activity as part of our celebrations for the purposes of Western, Modern, Buddhist, religious expression. In the process, for now, we are borrowing these from older, eastern cultures until we have created our own.


About larryreside

Technical Administrator for the Westport Lions Club Website and Instructor @ the Peaceful Garden Meditation Group - A Group that studies and practices Buddhist Psychology and Meditation in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
This entry was posted in Answers to Questions, Morality. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Buddhist Culture in Modern Times

  1. Pingback: Reflections on Love, Heroism, and Meaning in Society on Maundy Thursday. | The Vortex

  2. Kaya Erbil says:

    Thank you for this wonderful commentary. I have linked this commentary at the end of my meditation in language for today (http://kayaerbil.org/2011/04/22/1404/). I hope you have a wonderful day.


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