Recently I have twice explicitly encountered a rhetoric that claims that it does not make sense to think about the “Westernization” of Buddhism, since it is being globalized anyway. The effect of this rhetoric, however, is to naturalize Euro-American culture—its values and preconceptions—as unproblematically universal.
One instance is in the introduction to the forum on mindfulness published on Lion’s Roar in which we find the rhetoric employed parenthetically, as if it is so obvious that it does not require consideration:
We are still in the very early phase of the establishment of a “Western” Buddhism—if the term even has any meaning in this age of globalization—
Jon Kabat-Zinn made almost exactly the same claim in the course of his interview on the Mindfulness Summit, when he appeared on the Summit’s final day.
I’m sure that there are a lot of other examples of this rhetoric being deployed, such the changes being effected upon Buddhism in Euro-American societies are made invisible, obscuring the profound role of culture by taking Euro-American culture to be the baseline, the norm, or in semiotic terms, the unmarked category.
While I do not believe that this is consciously manipulative, it does promote a distorted perception of the mindfulness movement as universal, implicitly reinforcing claims that the mindfulness-technology is simply a universal aspect of the human mind, and not therefore constrained by its Buddhist roots.
This brought to mind the dialogue concerning whiteness and mindfulness between Edwin Ng and Ron Purser to be found on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship website. The invisibility of whiteness is highlighted in the Ng/Purser dialogue, as when Angela Davis calls Jon Kabat-Zinn’s attention to his universalizing use of the pronoun “we.” Whiteness has the same dynamics of being the invisible baseline as does the rhetoric of globalization when it is employed to make the concept of a Westernized Buddhism irrelevant, and likewise making concerns about the changes being effected upon Buddhism passé.
Which in turn brings to mind an experience of some years ago. One of the major news magazines (coulda been Newsweek, I don’t recall now) produced what was for them a major article on Buddhism in America. I know because my colleague Rev. Dr. Matsumoto and I were interviewed for the story, photographed—the whole nine yards. It was with some anticipation, as you might well imagine, that I awaited the arrival of the issue (at that time I was still self-deluded enough to imagine that I might become a “famous Buddhist”). Setting aside the disappointment of what constituted only a very minor mention of the Institute of Buddhist Studies, I noticed a very revealing characteristic of the article. It consistently highlighted white converts to Buddhism, while giving no substantive mention of the immigrant Buddhist communities. It was as if the editors believed, perhaps rightly, that readers would only really be interested in people like themselves. After all, you know how those people like to be with their own kind.