The recent interview of Chade-Meng Tan appearing in Religion Dispatches provides an opportunity to examine—oh yet again, sorry—the nature of what now seems appropriate to call “White Buddhism.” This purposely annoying phrase can serve as an alternative to the more academically respectable “Buddhist modernism,” which of course remains a useful category. But the phrase “White Buddhism” allows our attention to focus specifically on the cultural imperialism at work in White Buddhism’s representations. While it seems that Tan is quite aware of his status as the only mindfulness teacher who is not white, the rhetoric he deploys is that of “White Buddhism.”
The standard rhetoric of White Buddhism is one that holds aloft for admiration and praise the individualistic, psychologized meditation practice that Tan and others promote. Not only is it worthy of praise, but it is the only true, authentic, pure dharma teaching. Tan says, for example
When I started learning Vipassana, everything changed. I became a real Buddhist. The dharma you see in America is pure, as opposed to Asian Buddhism in which you go to a temple and there’s nothing else. I have credibility in saying that because I’ve seen both sides. Not that American Buddhism is free of problems, but it’s the purest Buddhism.
Here then in addition to the idea that what we’ve got here is real, true, authentic, pure Buddhism, we see the rhetorical flip side—condescension toward all other kinds of Buddhism.
At the same time that Tan claims a unique status among mindfulness teachers as the only one who is not white, he claims to be the only self-identified Buddhist. However, he gets to play both sides of this game by deploying the rhetoric of spiritual versus religious. Thus, while claiming to be a Buddhist, he disclaims any concern about Buddhism per se, in preference for the universal spiritual:
First, there’s a difference between spirituality and religion. I think spirituality is universal. Anybody can practice spirituality, with or without religious belief. I don’t really care about Buddhism, but I care tremendously about dharma, which is defined as universal law.
I care especially about the aspects of universal law relating to suffering and liberation from suffering. They’re everywhere. I’m not trying to promote Buddhism but dharma. If I’m careful about doing this, it has the potential to unite religions. It has the potential to unite everybody else, too.
This conception of a decontextualized, dehistoricized universal teaching is yet another example of Perennialism. The elitist condescension toward others is pervasive in Perennialist representations of both self and others. As I’ve written about elsewhere (here for example), the Perennialist disdains the grandmother in the temple throwing moon blocks to learn the future as someone at the bottom of the mountain of the one mountain up which all paths lead to the same mystical insight. She is someone deluded by the only apparent differences between religious teachings, which at their core are all the same. This rhetoric is effective because it provides a sense of superior insight into a higher reality, and this sense of self-importance because one has access to a higher truth is served by this disdain.
White Buddhism is not some pure spiritual core of the dharma, but rather a particular cultural formation. The promotion of it is a form of cultural imperialism, no different from nineteenth century missionaries who while bringing the Gospel to the colonies, also participated in the destruction—whether intentional or not—of local cultures.
And now the Skeptic’s teaching—if someone says that they have the pure, true, authentic, real dharma, one needs to ask Says who? and Who gains?
Note: the first paragraph has been corrected to more accurately express my intent to be discussing a rhetoric about Buddhism, and not claiming to identify a kind of Buddhism.