This is a part two of a two part article. Part one is available here.
In the previous article, I explained that there is no institutional criterion in the house’s mission statement about how much BuHo residents have to try to learn (or not learn) Buddhist practices for understandable reasons in a residential setting at college. Nevertheless, some people were hurt, most likely because there are internal criteria in themselves to judge how much and how authentically BuHo residents should be trying Buddhist practices in order to call the house “Buddhist House,” and they were unsatisfied by the performance of BuHo residents. People formed this notion of “authenticity criteria” based on what they know about Buddhist practices and Buddhism. Generally speaking, there are two sources of authenticity—disciplines to follow and degree of commitment—which should constitute how real the performance of a certain cultural or religious practice is. However, there is actually a hidden, third source of authenticity that is very relevant to this issue.
The third component of authenticity is the cultural, social, and material context associated with a certain religion or culture. Because of this component, any practice of BuHo residents is almost doomed to appear inauthentic and thus can appear offensive to some people.
This is because the cultural, social, and material contexts that exist in the birth country of the Buddhist culture and religion do not exist at Wes. Imagine this hypothetical situation. There are two Buddhists who do exactly the same practice to the same degree. One is a Thai Buddhist who practices in Thailand and is surrounded by many other Thai Buddhists who also do similar practices. The other is a white Buddhist who lives in a very capitalist-looking skyscraper in Manhattan and practices while wearing suits and is surrounded by many white investment bankers. Which one looks or sounds more authentic? Do you find the same degree of authenticity between the two? I assume the latter looks much more “fake,” despite the fact that they do exactly the same practices with the same degree by definition. And what if I say that this white Buddhist has actually spent the previous 10 years learning Buddhism in Thailand? Doesn’t this information make hir Buddhist practices suddenly look much more authentic? (Maybe I should call one’s previous experience “the fourth component” of the authenticity, but that’s a separate issue that I won’t elaborate on here.) The only difference between the two Buddhists, however, is their race, and social and material environment, and what we know about their previous experience. And these are precisely what constitute the third component of authenticity.
The existence of the third element of authenticity means that the performativity (the combination of the authenticity components one and two, discipline and commitment) does not solely constitute how we feel about what’s “authentic.” That is, there is a bunch of “givens”— how the place in which the person practices things should look like, what kind of people the person should be surrounded by, how many of them should be sharing the same culture or religion with you, what race the person should be, what kind of clothing the person should be wearing, what kind of material environment the person should be in, and what sort of the previous experience should the person be living through—that people consciously or unconsciously consider as the preconditions for a certain practice of a certain culture or religion to appear “authentic.”
Looking at the white Buddhist in the skyscraper in Manhattan can lead someone to perceive that a certain piece of the culture or religion is being used in a completely different context. For example, there aren’t as many Buddhist temples or priests around you in Manhattan compared with Thailand. And the Buddhist is white and is surrounded by mostly white or non-Asian investment bankers in the skyscraper. The lack of such original context inevitably makes the person’s practice appear fundamentally different and “wrong,” and thus, gives an impression of the culture or religion being “misused.”
And it’s totally natural to feel that way, and there is nothing wrong with it. As one grows up, one’s system of perception is constructed and reinforced in such a way that makes the individual feel the attempts of most outsiders (such as those of white people) to be uncomfortable and/or offensive. However, because Wesleyan is already and inherently a foreign place to Buddhist culture or religion culturally, socially, and materially, it is unreasonable to expect the “cultural and religious context” component to be a part of BuHo. It’s just simply impossible to have that component at Wes.
To make the matter worse, this third component is somewhat essential to learn the first two components of authenticity (which together constitute the performativity of cultural practice) in many cases. Without the third component, it is significantly more difficult for the people to make their attempts at learning look authentic in the eyes of the people from the original culture. Most BuHo residents did not grow up learning or regularly practicing Buddhist culture or Buddhist tenets. Most of the past BuHo residents, including me, did not have a person who regularly took us to a Buddhist temple. Without such a cultural or social context, most of the BuHo residents grew up with almost no one to inform them about how they should be conducting certain Buddhist practices. The absence of proper educators/informers reinforces their ignorance. This is the case materially too—there aren’t enough material essentials to make the environment that creates an “authentic” atmosphere. Many Buddhist-like materials you find at BuHo—although many of them might look pretty fake to some of your eyes—are some attempts of the former BuHo residents to make the house look more oriented to the environment in which they can conduct Buddhist practices.
Thus, the appropriator is unavoidably and unintentionally unable to discern how much of their practices are on the right path and satisfy the criteria of the authenticity to make their practices “Buddhist enough.” Lack of those integrities—which was totally conditioned by their upbringings, education, and environment that are often outside of their control or choices—can lead to the “misuse” of a certain culture in the eyes of some members of the original culture.
Therefore, the appropriator is often or almost always unconscious about the “misuse” of such things. However, what the members of the original culture may dismiss is that those outsiders’ intention is often (as it is in the case of BuHo) purely to try out and learn some different cultural and religious practices. They have no active intention to offend anybody at all. While the offense may arise from the ignorance of the appropriator, this ignorance is almost inevitable. The root of the problem is deep, very much conditioned, and inconveniently unavoidable.
Are people who grew up outside of a certain culture really not allowed to try to practice or learn the other’s culture, unless they are doing it “right?” Can white people never be allowed to practice the other’s culture, because of their racist and colonialist history and cultural dominance? If so, shouldn’t Wesleyan make the “West African Music and Culture” class closed to white people, because one can’t deny the possibility that some of the students would fail to learn well about the culture and music? Is my co-worker Mark, the Usdan kosher chef, not allowed to cook the Chinese hot and sour soup that he learned from a YouTube video for Usdan lunch?
When I talked with a friend of mine about this issue, he told me, “it’s not you who decides whether things are appropriative or offensive.” In speaking about this issue over the past week, many have mentioned that my views are biased because I lived in BuHo myself. According to this logic, even though BuHo practice does not fulfill my three conditions of problematic cultural appropriation, BuHo residents should not be allowed to have any legitimate opposition to the critique at all. While I can understand where this theory comes from to some extent, I have to separate the issue of whether or not we should take the purely identity-based theory of problematic cultural appropriation in this article—since what I’m trying to achieve in this article is slightly different from examining the validity of their theory. I’m hoping that readers of this article can assess my views on the basis of the logic of its argument, and not on identity politics.
The whole assumption of my argument is that those who felt insulted may not have been seeing some of the things from the perspective of BuHo residents or thinking about the genealogy of debate about cultural appropriation. Given that it can be difficult to expand your focus when an issue is so multi-dimensional, I thought that recognizing or focusing on some different yet essential aspects of this issue may alter how members of our community feel about BuHo. I assumed that those who thought that BuHo is problematically appropriative of Buddhist culture may be missing some different aspects of the picture.
In writing all this, I’m in no way trying to devalue or neglect the discomfort or anger that was evoked in some members of our community. Nor am I trying to criticize the integrity of those who were offended by seeing a number of Wesleyan students who were trying (or not trying) to learn their own cultural/religious practices. I am, like all other Buddhist House residents I know, deeply sorry that some people were hurt by the existence of BuHo.
What I’m talking about in these two articles is why and how the emotional reaction to this was formed and what might have been unrecognized by both BuHo residents and those who were offended. As the author’s article shed light on a perspective of the appropriated culture, I tried, and hopefully succeeded a little bit, to complement her view with two more perspectives—that of the appropriators and of the more general observers. By recognizing the larger and more comprehensive dynamics of the issue, it becomes clearer that things are unavoidably inconvenient to such a significant extent that there may be no point to take just one side of the picture and get enraged toward the other side. At least, this is how I see any issue, and based on the way I feel about it, I purely thought that similar emotional change might happen to those who never thought about or focused their mind and perception system on the people on the other side.
Having said all that, I want to affirm that the voice of minority groups should be brought up to the spotlight more. Wesleyan activists, in my eyes, are very good at this: to voice their own perspective. However, it is always more helpful to pair such perspectives of your own with the story on the other side— that of the “oppressor”— and explore the mechanisms of how the issue arises on each side and what’s the ultimate form of the picture you are hoping to draw. If you refuse to care about the other side of picture on the grounds that you are offended and that whoever caused the offense should be always fully responsible to figure out why you are offended and fix the problem, things will probably never really change, unless some special miracle were to happen. At least one of the two sides needs to know the other side to find out how things can reasonably and realistically change. What Wesleyan’s activists need to do a bit more, if bringing a meaningful change is their ultimate objective, is explore more in depth about what’s up with the oppressor.
Lastly, in writing all this, I’m not personally trying to retain the name “Buddhist House” for 356 Washington Street. I have no problem with the name change, if the reason is that more people want to do things in the house other than Buddhist practices. However, if the reason they give is that too many white people are living in the space and doing things that are not “Buddhist enough,” and claiming the activities are completely legitimate Buddhist practice—which again, nobody in the house intends to do—I personally find this kind of criticism to lack an understanding of the full picture.
Uno is a member of the class of 2016.