Recognize the South Asian roots of Buddhism

Vishnu Sridharan points out a blind spot in Western Buddhism: South Asia is exotic, while the origins of Buddhism in South Asian culture are ignored.

“Buddha, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, in meditation”, India, circa 1780. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London | Donated by Major RG Gayer-Anderson Pasha and Colonel TG Gayer-Anderson, CMG, DSO

Growing up, I perceived a close affinity between Hinduism, the religion of my ancestors, and Buddhism. Not only were both traditions deeply rooted in the soil of Southeast Asia, but I had always been taught that the Buddha was the ninth avatar of Vishnu, the traditional Hindu curator and protector of the universe (as well as my namesake ). Considering this, engaging with Buddhism seemed like a natural part of my spiritual journey. Once I started participating in Western Buddhist circles, however, I encountered a mixture of fetishization and hostility towards the South Asian roots of Buddhism that made me wonder if I was misunderstanding Buddhism. or if the Western Buddhists I practiced with misunderstood me.

One of the first things I noticed during my first forays into Western Buddhism, especially the Insight tradition, was that the sanghas were almost exclusively made up of white practitioners. I grew up in predominantly white rural areas so that didn’t bother me. It seemed strange, however, that in the Bay Area, home to one of the country’s largest South Asian diasporas, an assembly of people interested in practicing Buddhism included about one person of South Asian descent: me. This overwhelming whiteness of my communities of practice was more than just a point of curiosity; it had a huge impact on my practice experience. Rarely have I been through a silent retreat without at least one person, if not several, treating me like an exotic specimen. To this day, I am regularly confronted with such microaggressions – comments about the “beauty” and “power” of my name, for example, or the “aura” that I am supposed to emanate. Worse, however, is the extent to which even Dharma teachers fetishize South Asia. When a teacher at the front of the room thinks it is okay to try an offensive (and inaccurate) Indian accent while relaying the Dalai Lama’s teachings, to give an example, the transforming potential of the sangha into a safer space seems thin.

By failing to recognize the roots of Buddhism, Western Buddhist sanghas run the risk not only of alienating South Asians, but also of missing the depth of Buddhist practice itself.

Even though teachers and practitioners in the Insight tradition sometimes interact with me in ways that I find awkward, I take this burden as just another part of my practice. However, the challenges of being South Asian in a Western Sangha don’t end with the interpersonal dynamic. What I find most disturbing is the presentation of the teachings themselves. Given the common roots of Hinduism and Buddhism, I am shocked to see the time, place and dominant beliefs of the Buddha era so often stripped of dharma discussions. To hear many teachers say it, the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and created a religion. Ex nihilo.

While the extent of the overlap between Buddhism and other South Asian traditions is disputed, some facts remain undisputed. As Richard Gombrich, founder and president of the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies, strives to show in his essential work How Buddhism began, the teachings of the Buddha presuppose the worldview of the Upanishads. The Upanishads are Sanskrit texts which informed the Brahmanic traditions prevalent during the time of the Buddha, traditions which would later be classified as “Hindu”. In particular, the Buddha used the concepts of karma (the notion that our continual rebirth depends on the quality of our actions) and nirvana (that the ultimate goal is to be freed from this cycle of rebirth) found in the Upanishads. Moreover, as Gombrich’s work clearly shows, the Buddha’s teaching that life as we live it is impermanent, unsatisfying, and that “not the self” also takes the fundamental reasoning of the Upanishads for granted. Specifically, according to the Upanishads, in order to escape the cycle of rebirths we must come to know the truth about the nature of reality, that there is a fundamental gap between the changing and unsatisfying world of phenomena and the inherent happiness of being. simply.

The connection between the teachings of the Buddha and the spiritual traditions of South Asia is even clearer when you look at Jainism, which emerged at the same time as Buddhism, if not a little earlier. As Geoffrey Samuel, professor of religion at Cardiff University writes in his founding book The origins of yoga and tantra, the early Jain and Buddhist teachings and practices had much in common, including much of their terminology. In fact, the attitudes of the Buddha towards asceticism and its modes of meditation were largely built on Jain foundations. This is an argument that Johannes Bronkhorst, professor emeritus at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, advanced in his 1993 study. Two traditions of meditation in ancient India. Based on his extensive research, Bronkhorst concluded that the Buddha adopted the earliest Jain meditative practices focused on mindfulness and regulation of body and mind, complementing them with an emphasis on breathing.

What emerges from the scholarly literature on the roots of the Buddha’s teachings is that the distinctions that many wish to make between Buddhist, Jain and Brahmin teachings are not so straightforward. As Samuel points out, some basic teachings and stories appear in all of these traditions, pointing to a “shared ‘wisdom’ type literature” focusing on achieving rebirth liberation. In fact, instead of distinguishing the Buddhist, Jain and Brahmin followers from one another, the most historically accurate distinction might be between ascetic communities – which consisted of all three – and non-ascetic communities. As Samuel says, during this period in India there was “a structural opposition between the realm of happiness, prosperity, good fortune, and worldly life, on the one hand, and that of the renouncing ascetic. to the world ”on the other.

Of course, not all modern Hindus and Jains – or Buddhists, for that matter – participate in meditation or share these core beliefs, especially given the astonishing range of religious and cultural practices that bear these names. At the same time, as someone who has been exposed to Hindu teachings throughout my life, discussions of Buddhism that don’t even allude to its common roots with Indian religious traditions feel like a cultural erasure. It seems that in addition to ignoring the physical presence of South Asians, the tradition of Western Insight seems to want to ignore the cultural and philosophical presence of South Asia within Buddhism as well.

What I mean is not simply that many Western Buddhist circles are guilty of cultural or spiritual appropriation. Rather, by exploring Buddhism without recognizing its complex history, these groups are missing out on something important about Buddhism itself. In the words of Gombrich, “present the teachings of the Buddha without explaining his Indian origin [is] miss many of its main points. Gombrich illustrates this by discussing Buddha’s rejection of the existence of a “soul”. He points out that the soul that the Buddha rejected was not the soul of the Christian cultural tradition. Instead, what he denied was the Upanishadic theory of the soul, or atman, according to which (roughly) the soul is equated with the essence of the universe. If you think of the soul in Western terms, you will not understand the central point of the Buddha; once you place this teaching in the right context, however, it becomes clear that the Buddha’s argument was against a concept of the soul that, as Gombrich says, “very few Westerners ever believed and most have never heard of it “.

By failing to recognize the roots of Buddhism, Western Buddhist sanghas run the risk not only of alienating South Asians, but also of missing the depth of Buddhist practice itself. Perhaps more dangerously – as professors Shreena Gandhi and Lillie Wolff argued about yoga – the cultural appropriation of meditation may be “a continuation of white supremacy and colonialism, maintaining the model of whites consuming culture stuff that is convenient and portable. , ignoring the welfare and liberation of [South Asian] people. ”While teachers and practitioners in Western Buddhist circles undoubtedly have the best of intentions, the historical (and continuing) impact of this colonial consumption on people in the world’s majority – i.e. so called “colored people” – was just awful.

To give credit where credit is due, many Western Buddhist circles have made significant strides in being more inclusive of marginalized communities and in creating opportunities for individuals from different backgrounds to become leaders and teachers. Less obvious, however, are the intentional efforts to ensure that the South Asian roots of Buddhism are recognized, appreciated and honored. To be clear, I am by no means claiming that Buddhism is simply a sect of Hinduism, nor that Buddhist teachings are in any way a “corruption” of a “purer” historical tradition. As such, there are relatively simple steps Western sanghas could take to better honor and build on the South Asian roots of Buddhism. For example, ensuring that Dharma teachers have a basic knowledge of the roots of Buddhism in Indian spiritual traditions would go a long way in preventing cultural erasure. In addition, targeted outreach and exchanges with Hindu and Jain communities and greater attention to how Western Buddhist teachers and practitioners too often exotiate (rather than understand) culture, iconography and South Asian singing practices are basic changes that could have a real impact.

No matter how Western Buddhist circles develop and grow, I will continue to practice Buddhism. The human struggle for liberation is fraught with suffering, and mine is no exception. But my sincerest hope is that with more awareness and sensitivity, my Western Dharma family can join me on this historically rooted and culturally conditioned path to moksha / nirvana / oneness with the divine.