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Stripping Buddhism of Cultural Baggage

Cultural Baggage is a term that comes up a lot in Western Buddhism.  Generally, it's used in reference to any part of the practice that can be traced to a specific geographic region in the world.

The implication is that there is a pure Buddhism lying underneath all of the traditions and philosophies that flavor Buddhism as it's practiced in different areas.

Some things that are commonly referred to as cultural baggage include bowing, chanting, wearing robes, making offerings, and building an altar.  

Of course, if we go far enough down this rabbit hole, all of Buddhism falls under the cultural baggage umbrella as the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path have their roots in the Vedic traditions of India.  Be that as it may, the term is usually used in a pejorative way, suggesting that there is a true Buddhism that westerners can access if we remove all of that other stuff.  

We have purebred dogs, purebred horses, and now we want purebred Buddhism.  

Of course, purebred animals are prone to a host of health problems.  And the teaching of emptiness makes it clear that nothing in the world is pure, we are all aggregates, formed by the coming together of an endless number of things.  Buddhism is no exception, but that doesn't stop us from trying.

So far, the attempt to make a pure, Western Buddhism has manifested in the practice becoming very head-focused.  Reading and discussion are acceptable.  Silent meditation is okay.  But anything dealing with the body (e.g. bowing, chanting, giving offerings, etc.) is suspect.

This is understandable.  Most of us didn't grow up sitting on the floor and leaving food at the foot of an altar.  So, there is some discomfort in the experience.  But what if instead of running away from that discomfort we leaned into it.

After all, if people have been doing something for the better part of 2,600 years, there is probably a good reason for it.  And we're the ones who miss out if we don't discover that reason.

Part of the problem is backward thinking around how spirituality works.  In the west, we think that if we understand something intellectually, then we'll be able to put it into practice.  But this is incorrect.  It's like saying if we sit at home and read about the mechanics of running, we don't actually need to go out and run.

Reading is fundamental, but it won't make our legs move faster.  If we want the benefits that go along with running a program, we have to lace up our sneakers and hit the pavement!

Similarly, if we want to live peaceful, more compassionate lives, it's not enough to simply talk about Buddhist theory.  We need to get up and do it with our bodies.  That's why practices like chanting, bowing, making offerings, etc. are important.  They teach us how to embody Buddhism so that it manifests in our daily lives.

For example, every morning I do three full prostrations in front of my altar and light candles as an offering.  The act of prostrating (starting from a standing position and ending with our forehead touching the floor) teaches humility.  I can literally feel my ego and self-centeredness shrink each time I do it.  And the act of lighting candles teaches generosity as I give a small gift to Buddha each day.

After embodying these ideals within the container of my home, I carry them with me in the world.  I speak with my coworkers from a place of mutual respect.  I give generously of my time to friends.  And I'm happier as a result.

But what if I hadn't been taught these practices?  What if instead of forcing me out of my comfort zone, my teachers had removed the "cultural baggage" from my training?  Would I be able to embody the teachings, or would they just be intellectual ideas?  I don't know, and I'm glad I never have to find out.

Perhaps westerners should take less of a "fix-it" attitude towards Buddhist training.  Perhaps we should approach it with curiosity, working to learn why things are done a certain way instead of dictating how they're supposed to be.

Over time, Buddhism will naturally adapt to our society.  But if we try to force the issue, removing parts of the training without understanding why they exist, we may not like the result.

Namu Amida Butsu

If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!

Stripping Buddhism of Cultural Baggage


  1. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful article. I'm Asian but I was born in the West. As a matter of fact, because of the (post-)colonial background of my (grand)parents, I even grew up without all the "cultural baggage" of my Chinese-Indonesian ethnicity. Yet I felt strongly drawn to Buddhism when I was young and I read several books by the Dalai Lama but I didn't pursue my studies and I certainly had no interest in any kind of rituals, which I felt were just superstitious at the time. It's only very recently that I began to feel the need to balance my political activism with my spiritual practice. Somehow, quite naturally, I found my way back to Buddhism again after twenty years. But quite quickly I ran into Western Buddhism. As a Westerner, I could understand why Westerners didn't relate to the traditional rituals inherent to Asian Buddhism. However, even to such a very Westernized Asian like me, Western Buddhism seemed to be lacking 'something', as if they had hollowed out the heart of Buddhism and replaced it with something I could not relate to. Surprised, I realized Western Buddhism was not suitable for me at all, which left me no other option but to fall back on Asian tradition which unfortunately I myself had nothing left of. So I had to look for other Asian resources on which to base my spiritual practice. I came across Lay Buddhist Practice by Bhikkhu Khantipalo and, despite his guidelines being based on traditional Thai Buddhism, they felt quite right to me. Khantipalo also offered very useful tips for adapting his guidelines to my individual circumstances. So I'm currently in the process of doing that. As simple and basic as his guidelines may be, I feel they are essential to my own practice. Also, especially as some of his recommended practices are Indian in origin, I also wish to honor their background. As a Chinese-Indonesian, I hold Indian culture in very high respect because it is also part of my own cultural legacy through both my Chinese and Indonesian ancestors. Like my parents before me, I grew up with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana just as much as I did with Journey to the West. Perhaps these stories left a greater imprint on me than I realized and maybe that's the reason why I feel more at home with Eastern Buddhism.


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