This is part one of a two part article. Part two is available here.
Last week’s article on BuHo was a very thought-provoking and interesting read. The author beautifully expressed her perspective in depth as a Thai Buddhist student on campus, and I deeply appreciate this perspective. In response to her article, I, a BuHo alumnus, am hoping to bring the perspective of a Buddhist House resident to the table. I’m also trying to bridge two different views by explaining how each of them have been formed. Due to the length of my op-ed, I’m publishing it in two parts, this week and the next week.
The BuHo article makes two points. One is that BuHo members have not been attempting to practice any Buddhist traditions, so it is inappropriate to call it “Buddhist House.” Having lived there for the past two years, I can attest to the decline of Buddhism-related activities hosted in the house.
When I was a sophomore, the house had monthly events where we invited a Buddhist priest who has his own temple in New York and professors who have taught Buddhism classes at Wes to teach tenets of Buddhism. There was a time when we were fortunate enough to have a Buddhist priest all the way from Tibet give us a talk about being suppressed by the Chinese government. One of my housemates ran a student forum on Buddhist philosophy, too. We also had the weekly meditation session led by housemates, where we rotated the shifts. This definitely occurred every week two years ago, but not as much last year. Although the number of such activities dropped significantly last year, we still had meditation sessions once in a while. On some occasions, we also read a Buddhist text with the housemates and invited a professor of Buddhism to come to the house. Since we obviously could have done a better job on this, especially in the last year, I accept and appreciate the article’s criticism.
However, the second and main point of the article is this: Having the name of Buddhist House is the manifestation of problematic cultural appropriation by white people. It is so, the author writes, because it delivers an “inaccurate depiction of Buddhism.” Too many white people who do not know much about Buddhism yet fetishize it, live there and do things that a “real Buddhist” would never do. While a large part of the article attempts to draw an analogy between white tourists’ appropriation of Thai culture and Buddhist House, it does not speak much about how the residents appropriate Buddhist practices. Nevertheless, the second point of the article is fundamentally different from the critique of the “absence” of Buddhist practices. It is about “who (what race) is doing it” and “how.”
While I agree that Buddhist House exhibits a form of cultural appropriation, I’d like to disagree with the author’s second point, because the author’s depiction of BuHo is not accurate, and yet this point is what her argument hinges upon. My point goes beyond this specific case: It speaks to the nature of some activism at Wesleyan. That is to say, many activists at Wesleyan do not seem to focus their energy on understanding the other side to the extent that might be helpful. I, as a person of color, want to clarify that this type of activist critique is not as effective as it can be. By writing this article, I’m hoping to suggest what I think is a better and more “helpful” way to think about cultural appropriation, activism, and beyond.
Let me start by anatomizing the problem of cultural appropriation. The definition of cultural appropriation, according to Wikipedia, is “the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.” And according to this definition, interestingly, the act of cultural appropriation is not always a problem.
When Japanese people wear Western suits to go to work, they, by definition, appropriate a cultural product of the Western world every day. While the majority of Japanese people are atheist, they still celebrate Christmas. They do so by spending time with their friends or significant others, which is, of course, not an authentic way to celebrate Christian Christmas. Yet people don’t see it as a problem. When Chinese or Korean-American people open a Japanese restaurant on Main Street without having been trained in any “real” Japanese restaurant or having had any permission to cook Japanese food from any Japanese cook, Wesleyan students do not rage against it. I have no issue with that, either. Similarly, though many take issue with the name of Asian Restaurant on Broad Street, nobody has protested against it. Usdan and Pi Café sell “sushi,” but I have not heard of any Japanese students or other students taking issue with it, while everyone likely understands that this sushi is very different from Japanese, “authentic” sushi (though this did arise as a controversy at Oberlin). Weshop sells Mirin bottles that are made by an American company. When white students or students of any color use Japanese chopsticks to eat their meals and hold them incorrectly— by the way, I usually advise them to use a fork and a spoon—people don’t see any problem.
At Woodrow Wilson High School, there is a Judo club called Blue Dragon, where many white and black students practice Judo under a white instructor who is a former silver medalist of a women’s Judo tournament in the U.S. The instructor teaches Judo in a very different way from the way I learned Judo in Japan for 10 years, which I initially had some problems with. However, I don’t consider it insulting to the concept of Judo, because I know that the instructor recognizes the difference of teaching styles in Japan and the U.S., yet still chose to teach in the way she does, because it fits better in the context of the U.S. Is a taiko drummer from the U.S. appropriating Japanese culture? Do Wes people find Flying Lotus’s Zodiac Shit offensive?
If so, then why are they not a problem? What makes “cultural appropriation” problematic?
As far as I can see, cultural appropriation becomes a problem if it fulfills any of the following three conditions: When the appropriator of the culture 1) claims the other culture as their own; 2) insists on the authenticity of their practice of the culture of others; or 3) intentionally insults the other culture.
1) and 2) are problematic, because they actively and wrongly claim things that are not their own creation (almost like plagiarism) and misrepresent/promote the culture to which the appropriator does not have enough knowledge about or does not do it right/well. They are just purely wrong and actively distorting the original culture. 3) is problematic for its consciously aggressive nature. Each of these three conditions leads to the “loss or distortion of the original meaning of these cultural elements.” The issue of cultural appropriation, therefore, does not come from the majority/minority status, the state of a cultural dominance, or specific identities (i.e. whiteness) of the appropriators of the other’s culture.
For those people who are concerned with white cultural dominance, here is a different kind of example. As far as I know, most (or all) of the student yoga instructors at Wes are white. They teach yoga classes every week. By definition, they are all white people appropriating a culture and practice of a less dominant racial/ethnic community. Yet I don’t often witness complaints of any ethical issue associated with it. Why? Because these instructors have all attended a yoga teacher’s school and learned the basics of yoga enough to the extent that they are officially licensed to teach us “authentic” enough yoga instruction. Thus, they are allowed to teach, even if they are not of Indian descent.
It was my perception that in the past two years, none of my housemates actively thought that what we were doing was the “right” or “legitimately authentic” Buddhist practice. All we did was to try to assimilate our practices to some of the Buddhist practices that we learned in classes, heard from some priests or professors, and read in books. In doing this, nobody who sessions asserted that whatever they were teaching was a form of a real Buddhist practice. In the same way, no attendants actually thought that they were. We were just sharing our limited knowledge, trying to learn it without claiming its authenticity or to rewrite the authorship of such practice. And of course, the housemates were in no way intending to insult the religion or practices. There was truly deep respect for Buddhism. Thus, the people I lived with at BuHo never fulfilled any of the three conditions that I believe make cultural appropriation problematic—none of us intended to depict, fully represent, or insult Buddhist practices or Buddhism.
Next, let’s see if there is any fundamental issue with the house mission statement. According to the current statement, it is a place for students who are interested in, or want to practice, “various forms of Buddhist meditation, study and lifestyle,” while students are not required to have prior experience in meditation or “commitment to Buddhism to live in Buddhist House.” Basically, anybody can live there, as long as you are interested in learning Buddhist practices and/or some tenets of Buddhism. There is no limit or requirement to how much the residents have to do or how “authentic” it has to be. It does not specify what Buddhist practices the residents have to do.
Having no such criteria or requirements can be, I think, good and bad. But it’s certainly reasonable in a college setting where students are individually pretty busy in their own ways during the school year. Accordingly, the house itself does not need to commit itself to Buddhist practice 24/7. This allows the residents, without violating any house statement, to use their time and the house for other kinds of activities and purposes, such as music concerts and just a place to hang out with your friends in whatever way you want. Indeed, the house is currently one of the few houses on campus that can host concerts, especially in the wake of the banning of Greek organization residences. There is no racial or gender criteria to be a Buddhist House resident, either.
The reason the house is not called “Buddhism House” is that the house’s focus is more on some specific forms of individual Buddhist practices (namely meditations) than Buddhism as a religion that encompasses a number of different branches. This by no means indicates that we are not interested in the concept or philosophy of Buddhism. However, what we can do at most on campus as college students who have many other obligations is to conduct a limited number of specific Buddhist practices to the extent that we can and with the capacity of our own. We can also study specific Buddhism concepts by hosting talks by Buddhist priests and professors, taking classes, or reading books and articles. The mission is to have a place to attempt to learn Buddhist practices and some Buddhist tenets, not to master the entirety or some specific form of it, nor to claim or insist that what we do at the house reflects the real Buddhist practice. It only reflects our attempts—however inauthentic they may appear—to learn them. And I don’t find any of these institutional criteria particularly ethically problematic, given the context of being college students and having many commitments.
In arguing this, my bottom line is this: I don’t believe that a person should have to belong to any specific race, ethnicity, or have a certain prior experience/background to be allowed to attempt to learn about other cultures. The culture and religion that we are talking about here are things that people practice mentally and/or physically, and doing so does not require any of the elements described above. If being a specific race is an essential component to fulfill some kind of culture or religion, such culture or religion manifests a kind of elitism, because of its categorical exclusivity. If we allow this to be the case, what happens to white people who grow up in Japan their entire life surrounded by Japanese people? What happens to a half-black, half-white American from San Francisco who has never lived in Japan nor spoken Japanese but is trying to learn and practice Japanese culture? Are they not allowed to practice any of Japanese culture, only because they are not Japanese, or because they didn’t grow up with “authentic” Japanese culture? If these aren’t a problem, is the existence of white BuHo residents—who are just interested in learning about Buddhist practices and tenets, and have no desire to claim the authenticity or ownership of the culture—unethical?
However, regardless of BuHo residents’ intention, there were people who were hurt by what the residents of BuHo were doing. Why do some of the attempts to access Buddhist practices by BuHo residents appear so offensive to some people? Why does just seeing them attempt to do Buddhist practices invoke so much discomfort and anger?
My short answer is that there is a clear expectation on BuHo residents to which you, consciously or unconsciously, are ascribing the degree of “authenticity.” This expectation forms the notion that the residents have to be performing some minimum level of “authenticity” in relation with what you know about Buddhist practice or Buddhism. After all, cultural or religious practices are a matter of direction (what principles to follow) and degree (how much you commit to such disciplines), and authenticity comes from the combination of both (while discipline should come first). Those who are offended most likely find that their “authenticity criteria” are unfulfilled by the BuHo residents.
Actually, there is a “hidden,” third component to the authenticity that is deeply related to the issue people are having here, which I will talk about next week.
There is going to be an open discussion on the future of Buddhist House at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 4th in PAC 001. Please join us for the discussion. We are interested in hearing inputs from the community.
Uno is a member of the Class of 2016.