Distinguishing Buddhism from Asian Culture

As Buddhism flourishes in the West, it becomes important to examine the teachings in light of the cultural context from which they originated. What is essential to the practice of Buddhism, and what is just culturally specific tradition? When the various superficial cultural trappings that have become established around Buddhist practice are removed, the core of the Dharma is revealed.

The Necessity for a Cultural Context

Buddhism arose in the context of Asian culture, specifically ancient Indian culture. As it spread to other civilizations it was adopted to other Asian cultures, including Tibetan. But how do we distinguish Buddhism from Asian or Tibetan culture? This is a very important question to ask, particularly if we are working to benefit others. For instance, we ourselves might be fascinated with Tibetan culture or we may like Asian culture in general, but if we want to help others and teach them about the Buddhist teachings, the Dharma, will it be helpful for them? I think that’s really the question.

Just as we may or may not like aspects of Tibetan culture, similarly, there are going to be others that we try to help that may or may not like it as well. We need to be flexible in terms of working with and helping others. Do we encourage them to light butter lamps and string up prayer flags, or is that something that would cause them to turn away from Buddhism? There are two considerations here: our own purposes and benefits, and the purposes and aims of others.

One has to ask a very fundamental question: can you have Buddhist teachings without a cultural context? In other words, can the teachings exist by themselves out of a context? Similarly, can anything exist outside of a context? If we want to use the terminology that we find in the voidness (emptiness) teachings, then we ask, “Can we establish something as a Buddhist teaching just from its own side, or is it established dependently on a context?”

Of course, from the analysis of voidness we find in Buddhism, we can’t establish a Buddhist teaching outside of a context. That fits in with the general principle that we know Buddha taught with skillful methods. He taught various people, students, and disciples in terms of what they could understand. Others live in a society with a culture and basic ideas. People don't generally live independently of a society and its culture.

If we look just in terms of the historical Buddha, he taught to an Indian audience. If we think in the vaster Mahayana way, Buddha taught countless beings in countless universes, but in each of these universes and Buddha-fields there was a culture.

The Fundamental Indian Context

When we look at the Buddhist teachings that have been written down and are available to us today, we find general themes that are found in practically all Indian systems of philosophy and thought. There is karma and repeated rebirth under the influence of karma that’s built up on the basis of ignorance or unawareness. There is the path of listening to teachings from a spiritual teacher, and then thinking about and meditating on them in order to gain liberation from this ignorance and samsaric rebirth. In other words, liberation comes from understanding reality and purifying karma. We find that in common in so many different Indian systems, along with teachings on love and compassion and all the methods for attaining concentration. Even the teachings on how to attain shamatha and vipashyana, which sometimes we think are specifically Buddhist, are not. Other Indian systems as well teach methods for attaining a stilled and settled state of mind of shamatha, and an exceptionally perceptive state of mind of vipashyana.

Buddha modeled his monastic community on the Jain community that was there already. Having the bi-monthly meeting of the monks and the concept of refuge came before Buddhism, from Jainism. Making offerings and the acceptance of different beings in different realms: hell creatures and ghosts and gods, are certainly found in all the Indian systems, along with Mount Meru and the four continents. If we took all of that away, saying that we can do without the Indian cultural context, what would we have left?

Differentiating Cultural Aspects of Buddhist Practice from What Is Essential to Buddhism

Buddhism was clearly taught in the context of Indian culture. When we look at how it went to other Asian cultures, we find all these aspects that we mentioned - like ethical discipline - were retained. Tibetans kept them, the Chinese kept them, the Japanese kept them, and Southeast Asians kept them. Of course, in each of these countries they added a little bit to these basic elements that helped to make the Buddhist teachings a little bit more comfortable in their culture.

Many of the elements that these other Asian cultures added were quite superficial. For instance, the Tibetans added prayer flags, which basically came from the earlier Bon tradition. We could argue that it’s not so essential to follow such things in so-called “Western Buddhism.” Thus, we need to differentiate these culturally specific aspects that other cultures added to Buddhism from the more fundamental Indian features. Then we need to see if you took away even the Indian aspects, is there something left that characterizes the teachings as being Buddhist?

Superficial, Culturally Specific Aspects

Many culturally specific features that other cultures added to Buddhism were added out of practical reasons of necessity. The Tibetans, for example, weren’t able to follow some of the Indian customs because they didn't have available in Tibet what was available in India. I’m thinking in terms of offerings here. Tibetans didn’t have a whole assortment of flowers to use as offerings, so they use a dry, white, paper-thin leaf-like thing that you find inside a pod that grows on some trees in Tibet and call it a flower. Do we have to use those? Obviously not. Tibetans light butter lamps, like they do in India. But do we have to use them? Probably not. Can we offer light bulbs and turn the electricity on instead? Why not? It’s light. Some Tibetans in India do that, and they also offer plastic flowers because they last longer. Tibetans are very practical!

What about the thangka paintings? The Tibetans sew Chinese brocade around them and make them into scroll paintings. Do we need to do that? Not necessarily, unless we like that style. But it's quite superficial. We can mount the Buddhist paintings in picture frames.

What about music? Tibetans had different musical instruments than in India. They composed their own musical accompaniments to things. Do we have to play the Tibetan musical instruments, or could we play a trombone or saxophone for an offering? Would that be acceptable? In theory, why not? The point of making these offerings is to develop and practice generosity. From their side, the Buddhas certainly don’t care if they’re hearing an Indian sitar, a Tibetan long horn or a Western saxophone. What difference does it make to them? Certainly no difference. The important thing is that it be respectable and not sound like some silly popular tune.

What others things can we think of that change from culture to culture? How about the monastic robes? The Tibetan ones certainly have a different color and shape from the robes they wear in Southeast Asia. The Chinese robes are different from both of these, and the Mongolians have yet another type of robes. But they all have robes, that’s the point.

We could ask about the monks’ and nuns’ vows. One or another of the various versions of the vows that developed in India were kept in all the different countries in Asia that Buddhism went to. Do the Tibetans, for example, follow all the vows of the version of them that they uphold? You’d have to say that some vows seem to be quite irrelevant. Tibetans don’t go around barefoot in the village with a begging bowl, and so even if the Tibetan monks have the various vows concerning how you beg: that you keep your eyes down, and so on, they certainly don’t keep them.

Of course that becomes a very difficult and delicate question. If you have the vows concerning begging for food, does that mean that you actually have to go around and beg? In Tibet, the monks and nuns got their food in the monasteries from offerings that people brought them. They didn’t go out to collect the offerings. So is that staying within the monastic rules? That’s hard to say. The Chinese, for instance, did away completely with monks and nuns begging for food. The monks and nuns had to produce their own food; they had to be farmers. Obviously, there’s been some cultural adaptation here.

If we look at the monastic institution, is begging something that is just cultural? No. Obviously the whole set-up of the monastic institution was one in which it would be supported by society. So how do you adjust that to a Western society when you still have the vows about begging? These questions are very difficult to answer. Should we send all the monks and nuns out here in Germany on the U-Bahn subway begging with a little bowl or selling little magazine books in order to get their food every day? That would be a little bit strange, wouldn’t it? But, it would be begging. If a society doesn’t support the monastic community, then how does the monastic community survive? This is quite a difficult question in the West. Is having a monastic tradition just cultural? You have a monastic tradition in Western Christianity, for example. There’s a tradition of giving donations which will support them, but some of these monastics in the West make wine. That wouldn’t go over in a Buddhist context. Do we adjust? What can you adjust? How much can you adjust?

A very good example of other things that were added into Buddhism is that in Chinese Buddhism, they added filial piety as one of the constructive types of conduct, which means that children should take care of their parents. The Chinese emphasize that very much. They even make offerings to their ancestors in the Buddhist temples. From a Buddhist point of view, that’s quite strange because deceased parents have taken rebirth!

The Tibetans have a custom of some men taking more than one wife and traditionally in China this frequently occurred. Some Tibetan women take more than one husband. How does that fit in with the teachings about inappropriate sexual activity? So, the Tibetans and Chinese fit their customs into the Indian teachings on the subject. Do we need to take these practices of polygamy and polyandry over in our cultures? No. But what about other points concerning sexual behavior that many people in the West consider normal, while the traditional Buddhist texts listed them as inappropriate?

What about language? A lot of the Tibetan lamas emphasize that we should do our practices in Tibetan. In a recent lecture that Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche gave here in Berlin, he raised a very interesting question concerning that point. He said that if the Tibetans had to recite all their prayers and practices in German, written phonetically in Tibetan letters, without understanding anything of what they’re saying, then he wondered how many Tibetans would actually do that. Obviously, although some lamas do emphasize doing our practices in Tibetan, we could really question whether or not that is helpful. Tibetans certainly don’t do their practices in Sanskrit. They don’t visualize mantras in the Sanskrit alphabet either. They use the Tibetan alphabet, and they don’t even pronounce the mantras the way that they would be pronounced in Sanskrit. Vajra in Sanskrit, they pronounce “benza.” When it goes from Tibet to Mongolia, Mongolians pronounce it “ochir.” So which one is correct? When it goes to Chinese you wouldn’t even recognize the words, and the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters becomes even more removed.

One of the reasons that one great Tibetan lama gave for insisting that people do the practices in Tibetan was that he had students from all over the world, and if everybody was reciting their practices in Tibetan, like the Chenrezig puja, then they could all practice together. If everybody were doing it in their own language, they wouldn’t be able to practice together. As a precedent for this reasoning, we see that no matter what country Theravada monks come from, they all recite their Buddhist texts in Pali. But by that same logic, the Tibetans and Chinese should have done everything in Sanskrit, and they didn’t. So there are arguments, pro and con.

When you start to think about it, there are a lot of things that one could question as being just culturally specific. How about the way that people sit in meditation? The Indians sit cross-legged. Tibetans follow that. Japanese Buddhists sit basically on their knees with their legs behind them. Thais sit with their legs both going to one side. Could we Westerners not accustomed to sitting on the floor sit on chairs? For certain practices in tantra involving working with the subtle energy systems, maybe not. For ordinary practice though, why not? Even the way that prostration is done differs in the different Asian countries. One has to think in these cases about the principle, and the principle behind it is to show respect, such as in prostration, and sitting with some discipline for meditating instead of sitting just any old way.

In these examples, there are certain principles that are followed in different cultural ways in these different countries. We could have our own cultural way. The monastics wear special robes. Do they have to be exactly like the Tibetan or Chinese robes? Maybe not, but they should be special. They should be different from ordinary people’s clothes and everybody should wear the same robes so you’re not concerned with how pretty you look. What’s the principle behind begging? The principle behind that is that you’re not involved in commerce, in trying to make money, trying to make a profit. You live on what others give you and whatever is given is accepted. You’re satisfied with that. Is there some way to be able to bring that about in our societies? Do we need all this elaborate decoration for a Buddhist center that is done in Tibetan style with a Tibetan altar and has curtains up by the ceiling and special colors? Do we really need that? Is that cultural? I would say yes, that is cultural. We certainly don’t find this in a Japanese Buddhist temple. But some people like that decoration and if they like that, why not? Some people might not like it and find it very strange.

One thing I should add: what about all the offerings the Tibetans make to spirits? You find that in India as well. You have a whole array of gandharvas and yakshas and rakshasas. They call them “demons,” “cannibal spirits,” and so on, and make offerings to them. “Protect us! Don’t harm us!” Tibetans actually didn’t make that up. But although you had that in India, the Tibetans added many more local spirits. Then the Mongolians kept everything the Tibetans had and added even more. Do we need that? It’s even more complicated an issue, because these yakshas and rakshasas and all of these spirits are found in general Indian culture, not just Buddhist. Now you can propose that in Western Buddhism we could make offerings to elves, goblins, hobbits and all these other kinds of beings you find in Tolkien’s book because they're the counterpart of our culture. If we did that, would we be keeping the same principle as what you have in Buddhism? In fact, there are even some Western translators who translate dakinis as "angels" and "fairies." So should we have angels and fairies as well in our Buddhism?

One has to think: is there any deeper meaning to all of this? Are we really talking here about harmful forces? I think in the West we’re more comfortable with the word “forces” rather than “spirits.” It becomes a difficult question because then you start talking about “evil.” Is there evil in the world and do we have to combat that evil? Then that gets into a whole question of the devil and stuff like that. Do we really want Buddhism to go in that direction? Would that fit in with our society, with our culture? It’s a difficult question. Most of us would probably feel more comfortable not having that. If Buddhism came into medieval Europe, it probably would have all this stuff to chase away the Devil, wouldn’t it?

One other thing that is very Tibetan that probably we can put in this category of superficial, culturally specific things that if you like, okay, and if you don’t like, you can do without, would be tormas. These are cones made out from barley flour mixed with butter and decorated with designs made from sculpted butter. My own teacher, Serkong Rinpoche, used to say you can just have a box of cookies instead – you don’t need to have all these elaborate torma offerings.

General Indian Cultural Features

Let’s turn to now to the general Indian cultural features like karma, rebirth, liberation, and enlightenment. Can we have Buddhism without them? I think that would be too much. What would be left? Meditation is something we find throughout Indian culture. Do we throw it out just because it’s culturally Indian? Things like the posture we use when meditating may differ from culture to culture, but the method itself is something that is obviously a very integral part of the path.

The Tibetan Buddhist teachings of lam-rim, the graded path, delineate clearly the boundary between what is and is not Dharma practice. Whether or not you are aiming for benefiting future lives and beyond sets the boundary. If your practice is just for benefiting this lifetime, it’s not Dharma. That’s very clear in the teachings. Then there are the three levels of aim or motivation according to lam-rim: gaining better future rebirths, gaining liberation from rebirth, and gaining enlightenment so you can help everybody else become free from rebirth. Can you do without rebirth in Buddhism? I would argue no. But as for gaining a better future life and rebirth, that’s certainly not unique to Buddhism, let alone to Indian systems. Biblical religions have that as well in a modified form with striving to go to heaven after this earthly life. That’s rebirth, isn’t it, and a better one at that! Nevertheless, since merely improving future rebirths is not an ultimate aim in Buddhism, but just enables us to have the circumstances most conducive for continuing on the path, it can comfortably be included in Buddhism.

With one exception, all Indian philosophical systems assert beginningless rebirth driven by ignorance of reality and karma. They also all aim for liberation from endless rebirth through correct understanding. So it’s clear that just aiming for liberation from rebirth and karma through understanding reality, in itself, is also not uniquely Buddhist. But, addressing these other Indian systems, Buddha proclaimed that the liberation they asserted was not actual liberation, because their understanding of reality was incorrect. He then explained that liberation came from understanding that the types of soul, atman, that they asserted did not correspond to anything real. Non-conceptually realizing the total lack or voidness of their impossible souls is what brings liberation from beginningless rebirth under the force of karma and ignorance. Obviously, the others said the same thing about Buddhism: what Buddha taught was incorrect and only their system was right. Later Indian Buddhist masters argued Buddha’s position with logic in debates held with these other masters and argued very convincingly.

This whole issue of rebirth is crucial for making sense of the teachings of karma, because the results of our behavior don’t necessarily ripen in this lifetime. In fact, most of them don’t. This becomes a very difficult point. “Why should I follow the Buddha’s ethics? I could cheat and get away with it.” You need to understand rebirth in order to really deal with karma and gain liberation from it, and to understand that, you need to understand all the principles of behavioral cause and effect.

I distinguish between the “Real Thing Dharma” and “Dharma-Lite,” like “Real Thing Coca-Cola” and “Coca-Cola Lite.” The “lite” version is the version without rebirth: just be kind and helpful to improve the quality of this life. In this context, you can follow all the Buddhist teachings concerning methods for overcoming disturbing emotions without bringing in rebirth and liberation from rebirth. But that’s not the “real thing.” The question becomes, “If we reduce Buddhism to another form of psychology, is it still Buddhism?” Then again, if you call it “Dharma-Lite” and if that’s what suits you, since in fact it is extremely helpful, then fine, no problem. Just don’t confuse it with the Real Thing Dharma, which comes with karma, rebirth, liberation and enlightenment, all of which are elements of Indian culture. But you need to acknowledge that ethical self-discipline becomes a little bit difficult when you follow Dharma-Lite, because in many cases you don’t experience the results of your destructive behavior in this lifetime. For example, there are criminals who get away with their crime and never get caught.

A very interesting question comes up. Instead of working to improve our own future lives, could we substitute thinking beyond this lifetime in terms of the effect of our behavior on future generations? Would that be okay to add into Buddhism as a substitute for future lives? It would certainly fit more comfortably into our Western way of thinking, at least our secular Western way of thinking. I don’t think adding it would be contradictory to anything in Buddhism, just as the Chinese addition of filial piety and serving your parents did not contradict any Buddhist principle. But could it substitute for rebirth, or just be something that’s added?

One of the main principles of karma that Buddha taught with respect to karma is that the only thing certain about our behavior is that we will experience the result of it. It’s not certain what the effect of behavior will be on anyone else, and that would include future generations. You can serve somebody a wonderful delicious meal and then they choke on it and die. Even if we include as part of Western Buddhism the guideline of trying to avoid causing harm to future generations, I think we still need to honor this general Buddhist principle that the only thing certain is that we ourselves will experience the effect of our behavior.

Buddha did not intend his teachings for merely an Indian audience. His message was universal, but it included the Indian cultural elements of karma, rebirth and liberation from rebirth. Therefore we need to seriously consider what really is the aim of the Buddhist path? Is it just to improve things in this lifetime? That’s the aim of Dharma-Lite. Or a little bit better to improve the world for future generations, like environmental concerns, global warming concerns, etc.? Even if we add Dharma-Lite to our Western presentation of Buddhism, I think we still need to acknowledge that Buddha intended the Real Thing Dharma goals of better rebirth, liberation and enlightenment for everyone, including we who have currently taken rebirth as humans in the West. This is the case despite the fact that other Indian systems also speak of these goals, although their understanding of how to attain them is different.

The Unique, Indispensable Characteristic Features of Buddhism (The 4 Seals of the Dharma)

Are there any unique characteristic features of Buddhism that aren’t shared with other systems and which need to be included regardless of culture? In fact, there are. They’re called the “four hallmarks” or “four seals of the Dharma.” The full term for them is the “four sealing points for labeling an outlook as based on enlightening words.” If a system of teachings contain these four points, that guarantees that it came from what Buddha taught. So, what is it that marks a teaching as uniquely Buddhist? It’s not love and compassion that make it specifically Buddhist, nor is it meditation, a monastic community, or an ethical system not to cause harm. It all boils down to the view of reality that makes a teaching specifically Buddhist. But that doesn’t mean that we can do away with all these other features and just have the view. So we have these four points.

All Conditioned Phenomena Are Impermanent

The first sealing point is that all conditioned phenomena, or affected phenomena, are impermanent, in other words non-static. That means that everything that is affected by causes and conditions will continuously change. Most, but not all of them, will come to an end. A few will go on forever, like our mental continuum, and some even have no beginning, like rebirth; but non-static here means that all of them change from moment to moment as various things affect them.

The principle of impermanence is not uniquely Buddhist, despite the fact that most people don’t even realize that everything changes. They feel that things are permanent, that they’re going to last forever and are never going to change. They apply this even to themselves. But when Buddha taught this, he emphasized that impermanence applies to the self as well. We need to realize that I’m affected by causes and conditions and therefore I’m changing from moment to moment. The other Indian systems taught that the self, atman, is permanent and static. It’s not affected by anything. “My body gets affected by causes and conditions and so it changes, but not me. I might experience many different things in life, but that doesn't change me.” Since Buddha applied his assertion of all affected phenomena being subject to change to the self as well, in this respect this hallmark of his teachings is unique.

Some affected phenomena, like the body, not only change from moment to moment, but they also degenerate from moment to moment and eventually come to an end. Buddha taught that although the self is affected by causes and conditions and therefore also changes from moment to moment, it doesn't degenerate over time. Like the mental continuum, which also is an affected non-static phenomenon, each self has no beginning and no end. It goes on changing forever. One could go quite deep exploring this point.

All Tainted Phenomena Are Problematic

The second hallmark is that all tainted phenomena are problematic; they all entail suffering. “Tainted” means that they arise dependently on disturbing emotions and karma, which brings us back to rebirth. Buddha explained this point fully in his teaching on the 12 links of dependent arising. He taught that all of our experience, everything that happens to us, arises dependently on our ignorance, specifically our unawareness of how we and others exist. This unawareness leads to disturbing emotions, which motivate compulsive karmic behavior, which is the cause for our experience of uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara, and the unhappiness and ordinary, unsatisfying happiness experienced in each lifetime. This explanation of the mechanism for how samsaric rebirth works is uniquely Buddhist, and Buddha taught that it’s all problematic, it's all suffering.

All Phenomena Are Devoid and Lack an Impossible “Me”

The third hallmark is that all phenomena are devoid and lack an impossible “me” or an impossible soul. The type of soul or atman that other Indian systems taught couldn’t possibly exist. Here we get all the Buddhist teachings on voidness (emptiness), whether we’re speaking in terms of the voidness of the self or person, or the voidness of all phenomena. Although different Buddhist tenet systems arose, giving different levels of understanding what Buddha taught was an impossible way of existing, but the assertion of voidness is totally essential for the Buddhist view.

Voidness means a total absence of impossible ways of existing. Things appear to exist in impossible ways, but they don't correspond to anything real. They’re impossible. Some other Indian systems said that everything is an illusion and you need to see that it’s all an illusion to gain liberation. But what they asserted as reality, Buddha taught was also an illusion – for instance that the self, when liberated, exists independently of everything or exists as one with the universe or one with Brahma.

Nirvana Is Peace

The fourth hallmark is that nirvana, referring to release from samsaric rebirth, is a pacification. This point basically refers to the third noble truth, that nirvana, attained through understanding the first three hallmarks, is the true stopping forever of all causes of suffering – unawareness, the disturbing emotions, karma, and suffering itself, so uncontrollably recurring rebirth. Such a nirvana, or liberation, is something constructive and brings happiness. This implies that liberation is possible.

We can see that the four noble truths is another way of presenting these four seals or hallmarks of the Dharma. Although we could think in terms of these four points just in terms of this lifetime, is that really Buddhism? That all things that are affected by causes and conditions change, anything that comes from confusion is going to give you problems, there is no solid “me,” and if I could become free of all my problems it could be great. That would be, I believe, the Dharma-Lite version. That’s not really going deeply enough in terms of cause and effect and what we really want to get rid of.

There’s the problem with positing all of this in the context of just this lifetime – the whole issue of cause and effect. If we think just in terms of this lifetime, then in terms of cause and effect, how do we account for the first moment of the mind and “me”? Did they arise from no cause or from an irrelevant one, like the sperm and egg of the parents that somehow changes into a mind and a “me”? At the moment of death, do the mind and the self, which produced effects all our life, stop producing any further effects? There are serious logical difficulties concerning the mind and the self in terms of the principles of causality if we don't posit beginningless rebirth, beginningless and endless mind, and beginningless and endless “me.” But here we’re not talking about a beginningless and endless impossible “me,” but the conventional “me” that actually does exist and function.

Summary

Buddhism has certain characteristic features: the four noble truths, the four sealing points, and refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha the way that Buddha defined them. So Buddhism does have defining characteristics. Is the existence of Buddhism established by the power of these characteristics all by themselves, independently of anything else? No, you couldn’t say that. That’s impossible, according to the teachings on voidness. The existence of the Buddhist Dharma can only be established within a context.

Some contexts are universal, not culturally specific. For example, the general Indian cultural elements of karma, rebirth, and liberation constitute are a universal context needed to establish the Real Thing Dharma, and not simply because the audience Buddha taught was Indian. Other points, such as love, compassion, patience, concentration and so on constitute essential elements of the universal context that are not just Indian.

Then there’s another level of context that is more culturally specific. They might have a shared general principle behind them, but the forms they take vary in different cultures. For example, the ways to make offerings and show respect can be in different forms. How the monastic community supports itself can be done in various ways. What type of robe the monastics wear that will distinguish them from lay people and not bring about attachment could be culturally dependent, and certainly the language would be culturally dependent.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said that things like Mount Meru and the four continents, if disproved by science and contradicted by valid perception, can be dropped from Buddhism. So when you offer the universe in Buddhist practice, it can be in the form of the solar system or the planet Earth. The point is that you’re offering everything. You’re offering the universe and you’re thinking of more beings than just humans, with some that have more suffering and some that have less suffering. In Buddhist perception theory concerning how the mind works, there’s never a mention of the brain, but that can be brought in. There’s no contradiction.

In short, when we ask the question, “Can we distinguish the Buddhism from its Asian context?” we see that this is actually quite a complex question. We need to analyze in terms of what is essential, what is general, what comes from a culture like Indian culture, and what is superficial and can be changed according to culture, but that follows principle and has to be honored.