May 08, 2013

Eastern Self/Western Self

Linda Heuman

We in the West are quite concerned these days with how to make the dharma authentically Western. But caution please, folks. Before we start inventing a new flavor of Buddhism to suit Western palettes, it is important to look closely at the implicit assumptions we are bringing to this project.

To start, we might examine more closely our underlying picture about the nature of cultural difference. It looks something like this: Westerners tend to think of Asians as people basically like us who just have different customs—they hold different beliefs and have different ways of doing things. We tend to assume that Asians experience self-identity in the same way we do—that they are the same equation, if you will, just with different values for the variables. But what if in fact Asians aren’t basically like us at all?  What if the structure of the self—or call it the ego or the personality—is essentially different across cultures? Wouldn’t this give us pause?

And if we are fundamentally different in this sense, how could we even know?

Gish JenOne way would be to take into account firsthand reports from people who straddle both worlds. So I was intrigued to come across Wesley Yang’s review of novelist Gish Jen’s new book Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, which explores narrative style differences between Asian and Western literary traditions. (You can hear her discuss the main themes of her book in a three-minute video here.) She traces the source of these differences to deeper differences in the fundamental structures of Asian and Western self-identity.

Jen is a second generation Chinese-American who speaks from her experiences navigating two distinct kinds of selves—an Asian identity shaped at home by her immigrant parents and a Western identity acquired outside the home growing up in Scarsdale, New York. At home, she learned an outward-looking sense of self, one acutely aware of her role in society, her duties, her obligations—she calls it “interdependent.” But outside the home, the self-identity she was encouraged to develop was inward-looking and “independent.” Her task as an American youth was to discover what it was she really wanted and to articulate what made her unique. As it turns out, those were two truly different projects.

Because she is a novelist, Jen is particularly attuned to the ways that the structure, meaning, and purpose of narrative show up differently against the backdrop of the two kinds of selves. As reviewer Yang reports, Jen was struck when she read her father’s memoir:

The account…offered few details of his own grandfather’s “appearance or personality or tastes—the sorts of things we in the West might include as a way of conveying both his uniqueness and his importance as a figure in the narrative.” It instead described at great length the number of doors in the house where her father grew up and whether they were open or shut—concentrating not on his individual self, but on the context within which that self was situated, and by which it was constrained. The world he describes is not, as Jen puts it, “a modern, linear world of conflict and rising action, but rather one of harmony and eternal, cyclical action, in which order, ritual and peace are beauty, and events spell, not excitement or progress, but disruption.”

…Jen’s father had been born into a culture whose parenting style explicitly intends the humbling of the individual self in favor of the needs of the broader collective. (Parents engage in short, selective conversation with their children, emphasizing “proper behavior, self-restraint and attunement to others.”) What this “low elaborative” parenting style aims at instead is the creation of an “interdependent self,” defined not by its sense of inner autonomy, but by its sensitivity to the social roles it must play depending on the context in which it finds itself.

The scholars of cross-cultural cognition, who reject the universality of Western models of the mind, maintain that this emphasis on social context translates into a measurable divergence in how Easterners and Westerners literally see the physical world. Jen cites an experiment in which a group of old Singaporean men were shown images of a changing figure on an unchanging background. The men were so fixated on the background at the expense of the figure that fMRI readings failed to register any change in perception when the figure changed from a bucket to a guitar to a vacuum cleaner to a house plant.

Decontextualizing and isolating are Western values; they are axiomatic in scientific practice and foundational in Western individualism. As such, they shape our mode of being and our self-identity. Indeed—in just the manner of the Singaporean men in the fMRI experiment—these values translate into how we literally see the physical world. As a consequence, when we turn to our task of making the dharma authentically our own, we are perhaps too quick to pull it out of its Asian context.

We have been largely insensitive to how intimately interwoven the dharma is with the kind of Asian psychic space in which it developed. Andrew Cooper discussed this point with American Buddhist teacher Lewis Richmond in “The Authentic Life” three years ago in Tricycle:

Cooper: There is a subfield of anthropology, often called psychological anthropology, that examines the specific ways the ego, the personality, the sense of being a subject, are constructed in different cultural settings. When one reads some of the literature, what is fascinating is seeing the degree to which the very sense of subjectivity is culturally formed. It could be a long time before we grasp the implications of this for translating Buddhism across cultures. 

Richmond: I think it may well be that many practices developed in Asia might not be psychologically beneficial for Westerners for just that reason. When I left Zen Center, I felt like I had a bad case of spiritual indigestion, as though I had taken in something that I couldn’t fully break down. This idea of the ego structure being significantly conditioned by culture probably has a lot to do with this. It might also speak to a common experience among many longtime practitioners I know, including myself: the discrepancy between what the tradition says should happen as a result of practice and the reality of what actually happens.

If, as Jen maintains, narratives read so differently against the backdrop of Asian and Western minds, so too could meditation practices read differently. The way Westerners interpret meditation in terms of inner experiences and psychology, for instance, might be simply the result of how we as Westerners are constructed—as interior-oriented and individualistic. But maybe what we need from Buddhism is not simply those elements that confirm the interior self but those that go against the grain of how we view the world.

Ironically, the very Buddhist teachings we are so concerned with transmitting to the West emphasize interdependence as the true nature of things. Seeing ourselves or the objects of our world as isolated or independent is considered ignorance according to the very teachings we are busily removing from their context and liberally putting into the service of Western individualism. I suggest we all take a deep breath, pause, and then go read Gish Jen’s book.


—Linda Heuman, Contributing Editor

With support from the John Templeton Foundation, Tricycle’s Buddhism and Modernity project is initiating a conversation between Buddhists and leading thinkers across the humanities and social sciences. Tricycle is exploring how perspectives drawn from critical theory about the nature of religion, culture, science, and secularism can shed light on unexamined assumptions shaping the transmission of Buddhism to modernity. This project offers Western Buddhists new ways of thinking about their spiritual experiences by demonstrating how reason can be used as a tool to open up—rather than shut down—access to traditional faith.

Linda Heuman is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.

Image: Novelist Gish Jen, photographed by Feng Xu. From The New York Times.

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John Bush's picture

In my longtime observations of Buddhism both in Asia and the West - one significant difference seems to be the devotional aspect so fundamental to Asian practice. Oftentimes looked upon by Western practitioners as non-rational folk religion or exotica, I would suggest that this is precisely its value.

Bookstore Buddhism or an entire reliance on sitting practice is finally limited in its approach. One cannot think one's self into enlightenment or sit their way to non-attachment. It is also the opening to and reverencing of the Mystery of the Dharma and physical gestures of devotion to the Buddha that may help dissolve the ego and truly complement rational discourse and psycho-spiritual approaches to meditation. These intuitive and heart-opening practices also strengthen the lay person's approach and free it from the strictures of monasticism.

Asian devotional practices and rituals are portrayed abundantly in my film trilogy "Journey Into Buddhism" (PBS) and is a reason I made these films. In adapting Asian devotional elements yet
retaining their genuineness, Western Buddhism may deepen its arrival, increase its ability to flourish through the generations and satisfy an inherent human longing.

safwan's picture

Regarding the 'devotional aspect' of Asian practice, Josh, I'd like to present my experience: I have been practicing Buddhism in Australia for 30 years. Originally I am from the Middle East, Syria. Nichiren Buddhism is based on chanting the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra which starts with the word "Namu" - Devotion (to the wonderful Law of Life). If the teachings are based on the essence of Devotion, or wholeheartedness, then the influence of "origin" of practitioner - western or eastern - is dissolved.

The element of devotion is more 'heart-related' than 'intellect-related'. I noticed that in many cases, east or west, Buddhism is turned into intellectual study and even on mind-games, abstraction etc... Nichiren on the other hand emphasised that "It is the heart that is important", and consequently a practice based on the heart rather than on mind-boggling abstarctions - will reflect on practitioner's attitude.

This is what one may observe in Soka groups, the most diverse Buddhist Sangha. I think that if the focus of the teaching is on "Humanity" of others – an actualization for the concept of heart-felt interconnectedness –, then all barriers will dissolve (whether inwardly or towards others). This 2 min song explains it all:

marginal person's picture

The author suggest we all pause and take a deep breath, I suggest she follow her own advice, pause , take a breath and reflect on her writing.
Her premise seems to be that Asians have a different ego structure or sense of self, then Westerners (I imagine she means Caucasians) This difference should give Westerners pause in attempting to embrace the dharma. We remove Buddhism from it"s cultural container at our own peril.
There are several problems with her reasoning. The possibility of racial stereotyping is one problem. ( which I`m sure was unintentional.) The fact is it`s a small step from characterizing Asians as possessing an interdependent personality type to labeling them as conformist, robotic individuals with less regard for human life then Westerners.
But my main objection to her essay is the implication that Asian Buddhism is this orthodox religion practiced uniformly throughout Asia, where people are less troubled by egoism and recognize the interdependence of all life
She makes no attempt to differentiate between the various cultures which have assimilated the dharma and given it their own unique "flavor" (author's term). These include Chins, Japan and Tibet, among others.
The moment Gautama put his experience of awakening into words , it became open to interpretation and mutation. As the dharma was introduced into different civilizations it was reinterpreted and modified to meet the needs of the people. This process continues to the present day.
The genius of the Buddha was the universality and timelessness of his message
To suggest that due to a different ego structure Westerners cannot understand the nature and origin of anguish, to realize the cessation of anguish and to cultivate the eight fold path is a fundamental misreading of the dharma.

zenwoman47's picture

Thank you!

celticpassage's picture

I think the author has a valid point, but probably not enough space to explicate it well.

As an example, Bruce Lee developed Jeet Kune Do which is a combination of a number of styles of martial arts. But he was able to do this 'properly' only after he had mastered the traditional forms upon which Jeet Kune Do was based.

I believe it's the same with everything of any value. To become a great artist one must first master art; to do 'impossible' carpentry one must first be a master carpenter; to break the rules of grammar and prose effectively, one must first be a master of grammar and prose. Otherwise, you end up with self-styled messes which are ineffective in every way.

I agree that Buddhism will and should be modified in the West, but first it must be mastered. That is, change will come but it needs to come from a base of real understanding, and that will typically require westerners to delve into traditional forms of Buddhism whole-heartedly. The fact that they are by nature westerners will engender the necessary changes. Of course this may take a while.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Linda Heuman does paint with broad strokes. Keep in mind these are her personal observations of someone's personal observations (reviewer Wesley Yang) of someone else's personal observations (novelist Gish Jen) of someone else's personal observations (Jen's father) of someone else's personal observations (Jen's father's grandfather).
That said, my personal observation has been that people who've been raised as Theists (of any stripe) are already spiritually challenged when they encounter the teachings of Buddhism. A belief that absolute (as opposed to relative) happiness is above and beyond the innate means of the average citizen is a more pressing issue than wondering what "self" means.

celticpassage's picture

I'm not sure what your comment "spiritually challenged" means, but I don't think that theists who truly seek god put happiness 'out there'. Indeed, most of these kinds of seekers I think realize and experience great happiness and joy now and in daily life whatever that daily life is.

I would suggest the path to god is also the path to enlightenment; its primary effect being the elimination of the self in service to god. And in that process there are innumerable accounts of living in great joy and a view of the world that is indistinguishable from one of 'enlightenment'.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Spiritually challenged is the retention of certain notions from non-Buddhist belief systems, e.g. dualism, the belief that a buddha is a god, etc.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Conventionalism says 'The Truth is out there.' Buddhism points to the heart and says 'The Truth that seems out there is exactly the same as in here.' (with a tip o' the hat to The X-Files)
And if, as Linda Heuman suggests, "the result of how we as Westerners are constructed—(is) interior-oriented and individualistic", is she saying God created them that way?

marginal person's picture

Regarding the father's memoirs, they could have easily been written by my grandfather and he was from Europe. His culture favored self sacrifice for the greater good and it's parenting practices praised conformity at the expense of individuality
Did Papou view the world differently then i do? You bet he did.
A more interesting question involves the author"s sense of self and how it differs from her father`s view.
I'd wager that having been raised in Scarsdale (a pricey NY suburb) the author`s ego structure is quite different then her contemporaries in the south Bronx.
Witness the recent Zen teacher scandals to see the downside of self-abnegation, visit any Walmart to view the downside of freedom without restraint.
Perhaps the convergergence of the dharma with the individual freedom enjoyed by this society will lead to a culture of awakening.

Danny's picture

Excellent points being made here. Thank you for posting.

celticpassage's picture

The difference between the Asian collective-interdependent self identity and the Western individualistic self identity is well known and not new. However, these differences are not important as far as awakening is concerned.

It may seem that the Asian interdependent self is closer to awakening or easier to awaken from. However, it doesn't really matter which 'self' you start with, it's still a self, and the point of awakening is to be rid of a self's controlling influence. With an eye to awakening then, the Asian collective self is just as difficult to awaken from as the Western individualistic self.

davidhare's picture

I do not think we are 'fundamentally different' and as a Nichiren Buddhist one of my goals when I chant is to deeply feel in my heart the truth of these words: “Each of us is born as a precious entity of life. Our mothers didn’t give birth to us thinking, “I’m giving birth to a Japanese” or “I’m giving birth to an Arab.” Their only thought was “May this new life be healthy and grow.” (Daisaku Ikeda). A sentiment echoed (in a more scientific context) by Professor Brian Cox: “Every piece of you and me was forged in the furnaces of space, every atom in my body was once part of something else.” Culturally we are visibly very separate from each other, emotionally we feel strongly connected to some people and not others, but at the deepest spiritual level we are all connected - the struggle is to lose our ego and perceive this.

Ikeda also redefines the concept of ‘home’: “Your home is where your loved ones live. Your home is the place where you work together with your fellow human beings to build a paradise, a realm of peace and prosperity for all. When we are asked where our home is, we can answer: “My home is the world. Everywhere in the world where my fellow human beings live, all of it, is my home.”

Incidentally, a new novel by Richard C Morais called 'Buddhaland Brooklyn' tells an enchanting tale of a Japanese monk parachuted into a New York Buddhist temple - loads of warmly amusing incidents as he grapples with cultural differences and with his own prejudices.
D x

mralexander99's picture

This "organic" process of "awakening" that began 30 generations ago when a man sat down and refused to get up until he saw into the unfolding of dukkha and it's cessation is still reverberating through time. As the Dharma moves through history and culture we get to see and experience the diversity of life, so whether you call it Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Tibetan, Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai, Cambodian, Eastern, Western, Asian --- for me --- the richness and beauty of the Buddha-Dharma is because of those influences.

The time and place that Mr. Gotama was in and how he used those modes of understanding to shape his message i.e. Jainism and Brahmanism's influence is crucial to putting his discovery in context. I think a Joseph Campbell appreciation (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) would be useful in dismantling this notion that in order for a westerner to "grok" what The Buddha is saying is for the "eastern" cultural (ego development and conditioning) be filtered out is unnecessary -- because it is already morphing into American, English, Austrailian, New Zealand, Mexican, Canadian, Swedish, Danish, Russian, French, German, Italian...Buddha-Dharma.

All those "differences of consciousness" such as western individualism or the distinctions of how someone from Asia --see and relate to objects is fascinating, we can also throw the male and female conundrums into the pot, but those things have their place and the Buddha-Dharma is embraced and practiced so that they are known and included in our Path.

So whatever you call it and however it appears -- even in this climate of 21st century speed and marketing with western psychology jumping in and making it's claims -- The REAL Dharma has but one taste -- the taste of freedom and the "sure" hearts release!

mahakala's picture

I am wondering if the author of this article is aware of the vast and sprawling history of the traditions from which buddhism itself was birthed, most particularly the Jains, from whom the very classifications such as "dharma" and "karma" and "nirvana" have derived. Context is indeed important in understanding the world, and not necessarily as a tool to complete a certain personal agenda. Seeing things as they are requires a certain willingness to go beyond your own personal boundaries of comfort and expectation.

In the ancient world of the East, the Near-East was not that far off and as such, the Greeks were far from unknown. The very phenomena of the "silk road" itself was arguably the greatest factor in the spread of buddhism - as well as many other things, for a very long period of time. In regards to shared knowledge, it may serve us well to look to the connectivity between religious concepts such as Indra and Zeus... or Heracles and Vajrapani... or Daeva and Deva... Ahura and Asura and Aesir... and so on.

The ancient world from which these traditions have come to us was quite a bit smaller in terms of cultural differences. Perhaps the greater discrepancy to investigate would be how we as modern people differ so much from people of antiquity - and also, WHY we feel it is necessary to assert and reinforce man-made differentials within an increasingly connected and global human experience. There are obvious implications, of course - but only if we are willing to acknowledge them.

The basic gist of this article, summed up by a quote within it "What if the structure of the self—or call it the ego or the personality—is essentially different across cultures?" seems to be itself a refutation of the buddhadharma in its own context - which is something the article is purporting to rally against. If buddhist teachings themselves do not recognize the impact of various cultures to this "essentially different" extent, how is it even possible to practice buddhism outside of the culture which it came from without applying drastic changes? And how would such drastic changes even be "buddhist" at all, since they have derived from an "essentially different" culture?

The most pressing question IMHO, which I would pose to the author "What if your understanding of buddhism is essentially wrong?" Why not ask this of yourself before trying to shoe-horn an ancient cross-cultural spiritual tradition with countless offshoots into your personal thoughts of how it should be? I suggest that you take a deep breath, and contemplate this on your own.. in silence.

mpoliver's picture

From where I sit Asia is west and the UK is east, does that make China western and England eastern? I've always found the separation of "eastern" and western" kind of annoying, after all aren't we all sharing the same planet, do we not share a common ancestory that came out of Africa?

Emma Varvaloucas's picture

I feel like this critique is missing the point some. It's not about labeling what is "east" and what is "west"; rather, it's about acknowledging and dealing with the fact that the religion we follow came out of a cultural container (or rather, many cultural containers) that is much different than ours here in the "west." What issues that brings up deserves a careful look.

marginal person's picture

If we compare the Pali discourses , Zen koans and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, we see the universality and adaptibility of the dharma.
These diverse cultures all had different customs, practices and views of self. yet all were able to assimilate the vision of Gautama and create unique Buddhist cultures.
There are no cultural hindrances to awakening, only individual ones.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Good point, Emma. It may be time to re-evaluate archaic code words as we become more globalized.

Dominic Gomez's picture

There seems to be an inverse phenomenon in (so-called) "Eastern/Western" attitudes towards the environment. As the West is becoming "greener" and more conscious of the negative impact of mass consumption and materialism on the environment, the East (especially China) has been blatantly poisoning their air with burning coal and further threatening populations of already endangered species, apparently the result of a lack of consciousness of their role on Earth. Granted they may simply be aping the West's long and sorry history of such exploitation in order to catch up. But it may be too simplistic to just place "East" and "West" labels on our respective ways of perceiving self and environment (or other), internal and external, subjective and objective, etc.