Insulting Buddhism

Several months ago I gave brief mention of a situation in Burma (Myanmar) where a bar manager from New Zealand and two Burmese nationals were facing four years in prison for “insulting Buddhism” with a promotional ad they posted on the bar’s Facebook page showing the Buddha wearing headphones. (See the offending image here.)

Last week, a Burmese court sentenced bar manager Phil Blackwood, the bar’s Burmese owner Tun Thurein, and another manager Htut Ko Ko Lwina to 2½ years in prison with hard labor. When you consider all the stuff that gets posted on Facebook, an image of the Buddha wearing headphones seems pretty tame, and the sentence extreme. Indeed, putting those guys on trial in the first place strikes me as a travesty.

The case is part of a larger controversy over religious images that came to a dreadful head when Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper in France, was attacked by terrorists because of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad it published. I will not rehash the issues surrounding the controversy in this post, except to remind readers that teachings based upon the Quran forbid the creation of visual images of Muhammad and even moderate Muslims find depictions of the Prophet offensive.

That is relevant because at one time, there was a ban on images of Buddha. The Buddha supposedly asked his followers not to collect or venerate his relics and not depict his image. His followers almost completely ignored his instructions regarding his relics, but for nearly 600 years, the only images used to represent the Buddha were a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, or a Bodhi leaf.

Seated Buddha from Gandhara , one of the earliest images of Buddha, created between 100-300 C.E. (© British Museum)
Seated Buddha from Gandhara , one of the earliest images of Buddha, created between 100-300 C.E. (© British Museum)

In the first century, the first images of the Buddha started to appear, and they typically showed Gautama standing or seated in a lotus position, and holding a begging bowl or making the gesture (mudra) of fearlessness. One of the areas where these representations began to emerge was Gandhara, and sculpture from that period displays a definite Greek influence.

Since then folks have been going crazy making Buddha images, and today it is a very big business.

If Buddha were around now, I think he would be inclined to take stuff like a Buddha with headphones in stride, perhaps even find it amusing.  I feel sure he would be outraged at the idea of imprisoning anyone for making such an image.  I also think he would have concerns about the commercialization of his image, and he would certainly be uncomfortable with the idea of worshiping his image. Of course, this is just conjecture on my part. What the historical Gautama thought, felt, actually taught, and what his life truly was, we shall never know,  because his time is so remote and his life story buried in myth, and as far as how he would think and act as a modern person, that is impossible to know.

Nonetheless, I doubt he ever held himself out as anything other than a common, mortal human being.  We say he was an extraordinary human being; he would simply say that he was “awake.” And while many Buddhist will deny that Buddha is worshiped, all objective observers know that worship of Buddha is a reality in some forms of Buddhism, especially among rank and file devotees.  Rather early on, the myth-making process that has shrouded his true story, elevated the Buddha from a mortal man to a being who was supermundane, “perfect,” and the line between human and god became extremely thin.

The Kathavathu, one of the seven books of the Pali Canon’s Abdidhamma, compiled during the reign of King Ashoka, and evidently produced in order to correct “various errors which had developed with regard to the Buddha,” discusses various views of the Buddhist schools existing at the time that promoted supernatural notions about the Buddha. Prof. Trevor Ling, in his book The Buddha, writes,

Among the points dealt with in the Kathavathu was the idea that the Buddha had not really lived in the world of men, but in the ‘heaven of bliss’, appearing to men on earth in a specially created, temporary form to preach the Dhamma. Together with this virtual deification of the Buddha there went also a tendency to deny him normal human characteristics, and on the other hand to attribute to him unlimited magical power.”*

This elevation and immortalization of Buddha was carried over into the Mahayana canon, but today, I think many people tend to have an earthly, prosaic view that is much more realistic and proper. Ultimately, as Thich Nhat Hanh says,

Concepts like ‘nirvana,’ ‘Buddha,’ ‘Pure Land,’ ‘Kingdom of God,’ and ‘Jesus,’ are just concepts; we have to be very careful. We should not start a war and destroy people for our concepts.” **

Now, if the government of Burma is so concerned about people insulting Buddhism then they would do something about those Buddhist extremists in their country who go around preaching hate and inciting violence against the Muslim minority there. Wouldn’t they?

– – – – – – – – – –

* Trevor Ling, The Buddha, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 170

** Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, Penguin, 2000, 82


The Curse of the Mummy in the Lotus

Helen Grosvenor: “Save me from that mummy! It’s dead!”
– Universal Pictures’ The Mummy (1932)

mummy1b2Shades of Karloff! The mummified remains of a man, estimated to be at least 200 years old, have been found in Mongolia. Since the man appears to be sitting in the lotus position, it has been suggested that he was a Buddhist monk and that he was meditating. It has not been revealed how the mummified remains was discovered, but evidently it was covered in cattle skin and found at an undisclosed location in the Songinokhairkhan province of Mongolia. It has since been taken to the Ulaanbataar National Center of Forensic Expertise for further study.

It’s also been suggested that the man was a teacher of the famous Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov whose body is well preserved, and also seated in the lotus position, since his death in 1927.

Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov before he was a mummy.
Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov before he was a mummy.

Itigilov was a lama in the Buryat sect (the Mongolian branch of the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition), who in 1911 became the 12th Pandido Khambo Lama, the head of Russian Buddhism at that time. Buddhism did not fare too well in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, and in 1926 at the height of persecution Lama Itigilov advised his fellow Buddhist monks to leave Russia because “the red teaching was coming to land.” A year later, at age 75, he announced that he was about to die and requested lamas to begin meditation ceremonies and funeral rites. However, since he was still alive the other lamas were reluctant to perform these rites. Itigilov was forced to meditate alone until the others eventually joined him, and soon thereafter he passed away.

Itigilov left instructions that he should be buried just the way he was when he died, sitting in the lotus position. His body was placed into a pine box per his wishes and interred at a bum-khan (graveyard for lamas). Itigilov also requested that his body should be exhumed by other lamas within several years.

Itigelov_preservedItigilov’s body was examined in 1955 and in 1973, but still under the iron heel of the Soviets, the lamas kept their findings to themselves. In 2002 the body was exhumed in the presence of the leaders of the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia. A picture being worth a thousand words, the photo on the left tells you how they found Lama Itigilov.

Now, just how and why the people involved in this most recent discovery make a link between it and Itigilov is not explained in any of the reports I saw. They are also connecting this with Sokushinbutsu, “a practice of Buddhist monks observing austerity to the point of death and mummification.” I must confess, I’ve not heard of this until now. I am very familiar with sokushin jobutsu or “Buddhahood in this very lifetime” (read my post about that concept here). From what I have read, this self-mummification practice was limited to Japan, so it seems a bit of a stretch to me.

Say, what about the curse? you ask. The curse of the mummy in the lotus? Sorry, folks, no curse, just a good mummy movie kind of post title.

Finally, I ask you to always remember what Imhotep (Boris Karloff) said to Helen Grosvenor, dressed as his beloved Princess Anck-es-en-Amon:

1932mummy2It was not only this body I loved, it was thy soul. I destroy this lifeless thing! Thou shall take its place but for a few moments and then… RISE again, even as I have risen!”


What’s all the hubub, bub?

Bugs Bunny, munching on a carrot, says to Elmer Fudd: “Eh, what’s all the hubub, bub?”

It’s interesting how the recent story about the new discovery at Lumbini in India has been inflated into a sort of Goodyear blimp of news. As I wrote last week, it’s really a great deal of wishful thinking on the part of these scientists. This headline from The Guardian, a UK newspaper, demonstrates how out of proportion it’s getting: “Archaeologists’ discovery puts Buddha’s birth 300 years earlier.” Even the National Geographic has jumped on the bandwagon with “Oldest Buddhist Shrine Uncovered In Nepal May Push Back the Buddha’s Birth Date.”

This team of archaeologists  claim they’ve discovered “a tree shrine that predates all known Buddhist sites by at least 300 years.” Yet, they really don’t if the shine is Buddhist or not. Let’s say it is, and that it does date from the sixth century BCE.  That would make it the oldest Buddhist shrine discovered by 300 years all right, but that’s about it (not to say that is insignificant). The traditional Buddhist calculation puts the Buddha’s birth at around 623 BCE, while some modern scholars lean toward 500 BCE. The sixth century BCE ended on the last day of 501 BCE, so assuming the shrine is Buddhist, it doesn’t change much in regard to the Buddha’s dates.

Some Buddhists believe the Buddha lived 3000 years ago. But not any reputable historians. Here’s how that got started: When Buddhism was first introduced to China, the Taoists felt threatened by it. So they went around saying, well this Buddha guy is just an emanation of our founder Lao Tzu (604-531? BCE). Some Buddhists got together and decided to push the Buddha’s date back so far that he couldn’t possibly be the emanation of anyone. 1000 BCE sounded good, and indeed, that fixed the Taoist’s wagon. The date was set in stone, so to speak, until modern scholarship came along and rendered it highly unlikely.

So how do historians determine the date for the Buddha? Actually, nothing has  been determined because it’s all guesswork, and it all depends on the dates for King Ashoka, who lived 304 to 232 BCE. Maybe. Last time I checked no one was positive about that either. Solid evidence of Ashoka’s historicity did not emerge until the 19th century.

According to a Harvard University paper, there are three issues considered:

“The question of the dates of Emperor Ashoka (especially the date of his “anointment” or “coronation”),

The differences among various sources and traditions on the question of how many years separated the Buddha’s death from Ashoka’s ascension to the throne,

The various lists of kings and Vinaya Masters (i.e., monks recognized by the tradition as authorities on the code of monastic discipline) who were said to have lived during the years between the Buddha’s death and Ashoka’s coronation.”

The team of archaeologists who made this latest discovery also claim to have definitively established Lumbini as the Buddha’s birthplace, but this is old news that must be considered speculative. It’s based on the presence of a stone pillar King Ashoka erected proclaiming Lumbini Gardens as the Buddha’s birthplace. The marker was discovered over a hundred years ago. We have no idea of what evidence Ashoka had. It’s possible he might have simply relied on the traditional tale of the Buddha’s life, which may be a bunch for hooey for all anyone knows.

Ashoka ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent. He was sort of an Indian version of Constantine. Both were very bad guys until they found religion and saw the light. The story goes that following his bloodthirsty conquest of the state of Kalinga, Ashoka repented and adopted Buddhism, after which he practiced non-violence. Thereafter, he also ruled in a more humane manner, gave state support to Buddhism, and dispatched monks all over India, and even to foreign countries, to spread the dharma (dhamma).

And he issued “rock edicts.” These were proclamations on various subjects he had inscribed on stone pillars erected throughout the land. They were mostly moral exhortations to his subjects and many of them promoted Buddha-dharma. In the edicts, Ashoka often refers to himself as King Piyadasi. Here are some excerpts:

“In the past, for many hundreds of years, killing or harming living beings and improper behavior towards relatives, and improper behavior towards Brahmans and ascetics has increased. But now due to Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi’s Dhamma practice, the sound of the drum has been replaced by the sound of the Dhamma. The sighting of heavenly cars, auspicious elephants, bodies of fire and other divine sightings has not happened for many hundreds of years. But now because Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi promotes restraint in the killing and harming of living beings, proper behavior towards relatives, Brahmans and ascetics, and respect for mother, father and elders, such sightings have increased.

These and many other kinds of Dhamma practice have been encouraged by Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, and he will continue to promote Dhamma practice. And the sons, grandsons and great-grandsons of Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, too will continue to promote Dhamma practice until the end of time; living by Dhamma and virtue, they will instruct in Dhamma. Truly, this is the highest work, to instruct in Dhamma. But practicing the Dhamma cannot be done by one who is devoid of virtue and therefore its promotion and growth is commendable.

This edict has been written so that it may please my successors to devote themselves to promoting these things and not allow them to decline. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, has had this written twelve years after his coronation.”

– First rock inscription at Girnar

“Piyadasi, King of Magadha, saluting the Sangha and wishing them good health and happiness, speaks thus: You know, reverend sirs, how great my faith in the Buddha, the Dhamma and Sangha is. Whatever, reverend sirs, has been spoken by Lord Buddha, all that is well-spoken. I consider it proper, reverend sirs, to advise on how the good Dhamma should last long.

These Dhamma texts — Extracts from the Discipline, the Noble Way of Life, the Fears to Come, the Poem on the Silent Sage, the Discourse on the Pure Life, Upatisa’s Questions, and the Advice to Rahula which was spoken by the Buddha concerning false speech — these Dhamma texts, reverend sirs, I desire that all the monks and nuns may constantly listen to and remember. Likewise the laymen and laywomen. I have had this written that you may know my intentions.”

– Third Minor Rock Edict

“Twenty years after his coronation, Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, visited this place and worshipped because here the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans, was born. He had a stone figure and a pillar set up and because the Lord was born here, the village of Lumbini was exempted from tax and required to pay only one eighth of the produce.”

– First Minor Pillar Edict

This last edict is the one at Lumbini. It is believed that the pillar was erected during the 3rd century BCE, but it was buried from the 15th to the 19th century when a group of archaeologists unearthed it in 1896.

And now, back to our show . . .

Elmer Fudd, replying to Bugs: “Shhh. Be vewy vewy quiet, I am digging for an ancient wabbit swine.”
Bugs: “Wabbit swine? Some sort of crossbreed, Doc?”
Elmer: “No, a swine was were the ancient wabbits worshiped.”
Bugs: “Oh, you mean a rabbit shrine.”
Elmer: “That’s what I said, a wabbit swine.”
Bugs: “Gee, what a maroon.”


Buddha’s Birthplace Found?

I ran across a number of articles on the Internet about a claim that scientists have confirmed the Buddha’s birthplace and discovered the earliest Buddhist shrine. This research, published in Antiquity Journal (accessible by subscription or pay per view only) may be significant. However the headlines are a bit misleading.

It is widely held that Lumbini in Nepal is the birthplace of the Buddha, and where he lived until the age of 29. There are a couple of reasons why many believe this. First, according to Buddhist tradition, his mother Maya gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree in a garden at Lumbini. Secondly, there is a marker dating from the time of King Ashoka (304–232? BCE) proclaiming Lumbini as the Buddha’s birthplace. Up until now, almost all so-called hard evidence we have about the Buddha’s life dates from the Ashoka period. However, as in the case of the birthplace marker, none of it is conclusive. It only tells us that this what people who lived some 2 or 3 hundred years after the Buddha believed.

Today, Lumbini is a pilgrimage site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Recently, a team of archeologists uncovered the remains of a previously unknown timber structure in the Maya Devi Temple. Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K., who co-led the investigation, said in a press conference Monday, “What’s interesting is we identified a roof tile … all around the edges of the temple and not in the center. This indicated something that was very special about the center of the temple. When we started excavating we found another early temple below.”

Within this new temple, they found ancient tree roots, evidence, they say, of a “tree shrine.” Coningham links this to the story about the Buddha’s mother holding the tree branch, which seems like quite a leap of faith for a scientist to make. Not to mention that it is possible that this inner structure has nothing to do with the Buddha. However, if all this is correct, and it is at least the earliest the earliest Buddhist shrine, if not the actual birthplace, it could push the Buddha’s birth back 100 or so years to 623 BCE. It might have significant implications for historians, although that’s not something to go into today.

If you are an Antiquity Journal subscriber or have some extra $ to spend, here is a link to the report. And, if not, you can read this article from


Racial Problems In Buddhism Cannot Be Solved With Bunk History

Hovering in the atmosphere of Buddhism in the West is a certain amount of tension between “white convert” Buddhists and Asian/Asian-American Buddhists, some of whom may also be converts. It seems that this is not unique to Buddhism, it is a problem that Islam is also addressing. Unfortunately in discussing these tensions, there is a great deal of revisionist history that distorts the past bandied about.

It starts with the sloppy research of religious scholars, the unsupportable theories of literary theoreticians, and theologians straying into unfamiliar territory, and then is picked-up by journalists, bloggers, and others with notions they believe are politically correct, or perhaps with some axe to grind, and it just muddies the waters for those who are sincerely searching for answers, or naive enough to believe that if something is in print, it must be true.

Case in point: Michael Muhammad Knight, an American novelist, essayist, and journalist, who recently posted an article on, “The Problem with White Coverts.” Knight begins his piece with this:

You’d think that two white American guys embracing Buddhism and Islam in the age of colonialism could have become awesome champions of antiracism and solidarity with oppressed peoples. But no. Unfortunately, they treated their new religious affiliations like other white men of their time treated entire nations: they marched in and immediately claimed to own them.”

H.S. Olcott
H.S. Olcott

The two men Knight refers to are Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907), regarded as America’s first convert to Buddhism and Alexander Russell Webb (1846–1916) who was an early American convert to Islam. Both were associated with Theosophy, a society founded in 1875 to promote spirituality. They are therefore tainted by this association. Theosophy in recent years has been branded with the racist tag. This stems in large part, I feel, from the fact that the latter half of the 19th Century gave birth to a number of convoluted religious and social theories that are misconstrued to some extent by a lack of familiarity of the idioms of that era, along with a tendency to judge according to today’s standards. By today’s standards, some of the comments of Abraham Lincoln’s comments would qualify him as a racist.

I don’t know anything about Alexander Russell Webb, but I am familiar with Olcott. Knight says,

Olcott thus took part in a Euro-American reinvention of the Buddha as a modern empiricist philosopher and argued that the Buddha’s teachings were based on science, rather than supernatural claims, and that Buddhism opposed rituals, ceremonies, idolatry, and belief in miracles. This was not a Buddhism based on Olcott’s encounters with Buddhist tradition as people actually lived it in the world, but only the ‘true Buddhism’ that he found in the Buddha’s original message.”

It is generally accepted that the many of the supernatural elements, rituals and so on, were not taught by the Buddha. So, in substance, Olcott was correct. Historically, there have always been two Buddhisms, one for the literate, upper classes, and one for the illiterate lower classes. One is based on intellectualism and the other to a large part on superstition. Recognizing this fact does not make one racist or a colonialist.

Knight is actually kinder to Olcott than some others. Another Olcott critic is Joseph Cheah, an Asian-American and a Catholic priest who sits on the faculty at St. Joseph College in Connecticut, and who is author of Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation (Oxford University Press, 2011). In his book, Cheah argues that “Asian meditative practices have been rearticulated into specific but deliberately chosen forms that helps preserve the prevailing system of racial hegemony.” Pardon me for being blunt, but Cheah is full of hot air.

Frankly, I can’t understand how Cheah’s book got published. It’s full of inaccuracies. The first section of the book is little more than a presentation of the dubious theories by other scholars and researchers.

The publisher says “Cheah offers a complex view of how the Burmese American community must negotiate not only the religious and racial terrains of the United States but also the transnational reach of the Burmese junta.” If that were actually the case, the book would be better titled “Race and Religion in Burmese Buddhism in Burma and the United States.” And with that part of the book, I have no great problem with, although, I wonder what makes Cheah, who family is from Malaysia, as an expert on the Burmese Buddhist experience, and being a Catholic priest, what his qualifications as a Buddhist historian might be. Unfortunately, he does not share that information.

But it seems that Cheah has a big fish to fry, using the lens of Burmese Buddhism to indict all of Western Buddhism for the sin of white supremacy. His chief argument is that for well over a century “white supremacy has fundamentally shaped Buddhist religious practices.” I just don’t believe white supremacy has been deliberate in the growth of “Western Buddhism” as Cheah contends. From the 19th Century on, Western Buddhists have been unsparing in their praise of Eastern wisdom and culture. Moreover, I am sure that competent research would reveal that people with white supremacist notions do not, and never have, made up the bulk of those attracted to Buddhism.

There is an element of truth in the statement Cheah quotes from bell hooks’ “Waking Up to Racism” that some white liberals “are so attached to the image of themselves as nonracists that they refuse to see their own racism,” but I also believe that the problem with Western Buddhism’s lack of diversity is a complex problem that cannot be reduced to the single mantra of white supremacy.

Cheah lays the blame for Buddhist white supremacy at the feet of the “Orientialists” like Olcott. An Orientalist is defined as a scholar of Oriental studies. Here the author is referring to those Western scholars in the mid to late 19th century who first studied and wrote about Buddhism and translated Buddhist writings into European languages. Cheah bases his argument on Orientalism, a book written by Edward Said in 1978 that “redefined the term ‘Orientalism” to mean a constellation of false assumptions underlying Western attitudes toward the Middle East” (Wikipedia). Said’s book caused quite a stir when it was first published. Since then, it has been roundly criticized as an extremely flawed work. For more on that, you might want to check out this article from 2006 in Salon.

Cheah writes,

Edward Said’s notion of “positional superiority” is a useful concept for understanding how knowledge about Asian Buddhism was discovered, retrieved, “stolen”, appropriated, and represented by European colonizers as a way of justifying the West’s superiority over the East in all matters.”

Now we are getting to what I think is the heart of the matter: the notion that somehow Westerners have stolen and appropriated Buddhism. As if the teachings of the Buddha were the exclusive property of Asia. I have never had anyone say that to me, but throughout my long Buddhist practice I have noticed a somewhat superior attitude on the part of some Asian teachers. They feel that Westerners should stick to their own religion. If you haven’t noticed, the Dalai Lama begins nearly every teaching session he gives with basically the same words: “I feel that for the majority of the American people, it is better, and also, in fact, more suited to their temperament and inclinations to follow the teachings of your own traditional religion.”* This Asian prejudice is the dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about, perhaps because it would be perceived as “politically incorrect.”

Many Asian teachers, as well as regular Asian practitioners, feel that Westerners cannot and will not ever understand Buddha-dharma. They’re right, to the extent that we will not understand it in the same way they do. That is the way it should be. Just as the Japanese did not appreciate Buddhism in the same way as the Chinese.

I should also mention that Said’s theory is based on his study of Western colonial powers in the Middle East and North Africa during the Victorian Era, and therefore, I am not so sure his conclusions even if they are valid could apply to Buddhist Asia. Cheah, by the way, gets his ages mixed up a bit in this section. At one point, he places the Age of Enlightenment in the middle and late 19th century (the Victorian era), when in fact that “age” occurred nearly a hundred years before.

Cheah also says,

By extracting, translating, and appropriating Asian Buddhism, Western Orientialists assumed the values, beliefs, ideals, and practices of Euro-American culture were the norm according to which Eastern realities were to be evaluated.”

This is just nonsense. Cheah borrows this bit from Philip Almond’s theories about the Orientalists. He quotes Almond,

The essence of Buddhism came to be seen as expressed not ‘out there’ in the Orient, but in the West through the control of Buddhism’s own textual past.”

Here the implication is that by translating ancient Buddhist works, the Orientalists took control, took possession of them. They stole them. And that this theft continues. The truth is there was nothing to steal. Buddha-dharma is for everyone, regardless of race or nationality. Furthermore, as the book points out “cultural rearticulation is an ordinary means of taking Asian religious practices and rerepresent them in terms that are recognizable and meaningful for Americans in the mainstream culture.” So, how is that a sin? It is consistent with the principle of zuiho bini or “adapting the teachings to different cultures” which is said to have been taught by the Buddha himself.

As I mentioned, one of Cheah’s targets is Henry Steel Olcott:

Olcotts representation of Buddhism illustrates the assumption that Euro-American values and frameworks were vastly superior to those of Asian Buddhists.”

This is just not the case. In Sri Lanka, Olcott is praised for initiating the Sinhalese Buddhist Revival. According to, a Sri Lankan prime minister once proclaimed Olcott as “one of the heroes in the struggle for our independence and a pioneer of the present religious, national, and cultural revival.” Olcott went to Sri Lanka in the late 19th century because he wanted to learn more about the Eastern religions that had inspired him. He found that Buddhism was on the decline in British Sri Lanka, and almost single handedly, he set off a renaissance that swept throughout the entire Buddhist world. Just last month, on the 106th anniversary of his death, Sri Lanka’s national newspaper, Daily News, wrote, “There were a numerous sacrifices that Colonel Olcott made to protect Buddhism in Ceylon and give Buddhist Children an English education in a Buddhist environment to keep them away from Christian influence. It was in appreciation of his tireless services in Ceylon that he was honoured with the title National Hero of Ceylon.”

Anagarika Dharmapala (3rd from right) at the Parliament of World Religions
Anagarika Dharmapala (3rd from right) at the Parliament of World Religions

Cheah also sets his sights on Anagarika Dharmapala and the meeting of the World Parliament of Religion in 1893, stating that Dharmapala offered a “repackaged Orientialized form of Buddhism to his American audience.” This is rather slanted way of saying that Dharmapala tried to explain Buddhism in terms that his audience could understand. On September 18, 1893 Dharmapala read his paper “The World’s Debt to Buddha”, and in his first sentence he implies that Buddhist philosophy is “the greatest the world has ever seen.” He provides a brief overview of Buddhist dharma that seems reasonable to me, a few comments about Western Buddhist scholarship, mentioning that “a systematic study of Buddha’s doctrine has not yet been made by the Western scholars.”

Dharmapala is also considered a hero by many Asians for his contribution to the Buddhist revival in India and Sri Lanka. Indeed, when he first arrived in the East, he could not find a single Buddhist in either India or Sri Lanka who could teach him how to meditate. It had become a “lost” discipline. Read about it in How the Swans Came to the Lake by Rick Fields. If fostering a revival of meditation is “appropriation” or theft, then that conclusion is reached with logic I cannot fathom.

Anagarika Dharmapala is judged a racist simply because he called on the Sinhalese to resist the British sponsored Tamil-Muslim rule. This does not sound like someone who promoted European colonialism. In 1909, Okawa Shumei, editor of the journal Michi (“The way”), published an article written by Dharmapala, who was visiting Tokyo at the time. According to Cemil Aydin (The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought, Columbia University Press, 2007) the article was critical of racism and colonialism and “devoted to a critique of the ‘white supremacist’ ideology, affirming the equality of colored races with the white race.”

Yet another Western Orientalist singled out by Cheah and Almond is Eugene Burnouf (1801-1852), a French scholar whose expertise was deciphering Old Persian cuneiform, but who also translated the Lotus Sutra. Cheah and Almond both accuse Burnouf of having a “demeaning attitude toward Asian Buddhists” with absolutely no proof offered to support this accusation, only opinion. Apparently, Burnouf felt that Western culture was so superior to Asian culture that Buddhism could only be viewed through a Western perspective.

Some people disagree. For instance, in Katia Buffetrille’s introduction to Burnouf’s Introduction to the History of Indian Buddhism, she writes that Burnouf set about to demonstrate “that the life of the Buddha and the tradition he founded can only be fully understood as a product of Indian culture, and expressed in an Indian language.” That would seem to belie the argument put forth by Cheah and Almond.

According to Cheah and Said, the Orientalist interest in Buddhism was nothing more than a “Oriental racial project.”

Elsewhere, Cheah discusses the “rearticulation” of Vipassana Meditation by convert Buddhists and sympathizers to “the Western context.” This is the bulk of his first three chapters and it seems to have little to do with his stated subject, Burmese Buddhism in the West. I don’t believe it is reasonable to suggest that Insight meditation teachers such as Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Sharon Salzburg, “stole” or “appropriated” anything. Again, there is nothing to steal. Misguided or not, Westerners have as much right to transform Buddha-dharma as the Japanese and Chinese did. And, as I recall, most of these Insight Meditation teachers were welcomed, encouraged, and empowered by Asian teachers. In another work of his, Cheah argues that “some of the adaptations of vipassana meditation practices to the American context have been racially rearticulated by many white Buddhists and sympathizers in specific but deliberately chosen forms that help preserve the racial ideology of white supremacy.”

Some of these individuals may have been motivated by a desire to make a name for themselves, become big gurus and make lots of money, however, I cannot accept that they were deliberate promoters of white supremacy.

Because the first half of Cheah’s book is so utterly flawed, it casts a shadow of doubt on the remainder. However, I cannot really speak to that as the Burmese Buddhist experience is far beyond my own experience and understanding.

The point I wish to make, having gone round the mulberry tree several times, is about the trend in current Buddhist scholarship and discussion toward revisionist history as negationism. Western Buddhism does face significant challenges, but to slant the historical record, blame the problems on “stupid white men” of a century ago, or beatniks and hippies, and to continually whine about it, does little to address the issues. I sense that much of this sentiment arises from the lack of racial diversity in many American Buddhist sanghas.

Why Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan sanghas do not have as much diversity as the Soka Gakkai International-USA, which is incredibly diverse, or say, Buddhist Geeks, is something that should be investigated by the more traditional sanghas. They might learn how to create a presentation of Buddhism that resonates with more people.

There’s also the problem of two Buddhisms in America, and by that I am referring to the curious phenomena of having two Buddhist congregations under the same roof. In Los Angeles, there are a number of places where Asian Buddhists and “American” Buddhists practice somewhat different forms of dharma separately at the same location. Since these temples and centers are operated by Asian Buddhists, I don’t how it qualifies as another example of white supremacy. I can say from my own experience that Asian Buddhists can be suspicious and unreceptive to interest by non-Asians. At the same time, non-Asian Buddhists, particularly whites, can be self-centered and dismissive of non-whites. In other words, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Engaging in a fanciful rewriting of history, however, serves no purpose. It does not bring us closer together but only drives us further apart.

Today, I saw a headline on CNN that read: A New Pope Gives the World New Hope. I have my doubts that it will translate into any real change. Evidently, after he was elected, the New Pope told the cardinals, “May God forgive you.” At least he has a sense of humor. My hope is that you will forgive me for such a long post.

Now, what do you think about these issues? Your responses, pro or con, are welcome. You can leave them by clicking on the “Responses” link below.

* Dalai Lama teachings on The Precious Garland (“Ratnavalli”) of Nagarjuna, UCLA June 5-8, 1997