May 29, 2013

Eastern Self/Western Self Revisited

Linda Heuman

My previous blog post reflecting on Gish Jen’s new book Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Independent Self, generated quite a bit of discussion. Some respondents dismissed as mere “personal observation” the claim that people from Western and Eastern cultures tend toward different types of self-construal. Others considered such generalizations as an Eastern “collectivist self” vs. a Western “individualist self” stereotypical, unhelpful, or completely irrelevant. One reader, while acknowledging that cultural differences of self-construal were “well known and not new,” stated flatly that such differences are “not important as far as awakening is concerned,” while another worried that they were so important the dharma transmission to the West must be doomed—since the dharma is so deeply rooted in Asian contexts, how could it possibly exist elsewhere?

So I wanted to address these concerns.

BuddhaFirst I want to set facts straight. It is well accepted among many scholars across academic fields that self-identity is construed differently across cultures and over time. While Gish Jen speaks for the most part from her own experience, she also cites several empirical studies by cross-cultural psychologists. The points she makes about differences between Western “individualism” and Asian “collectivism” are also affirmed by a large body of anthropological and historical research. Western Buddhists are largely unaware of this scholarship and we have yet to explore its implications for the transmission of the dharma to the West.

For those interested in reading some of the research on this topic, a good starting place is the anthology Culture and Self, edited by Anthony J. Marella, George Devos, and Francis L.K. Hsu, which includes essays by a range of anthropologists who explore various ways subjectivity is constituted in specific cultural contexts. For insight into how the Western self-construal has changed over time, read Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self—The Making of the Modern Identity. For more on why these types of differences matter to Western Buddhists, see my Tricycle article “What’s at Stake as the Dharma Goes Modern?” from the Fall 2012 issue.

Second, there is an important difference between acknowledging valid cultural differences and stereotyping. Acknowledgments of cultural difference admittedly are too often appropriated by prejudice, but they need not be. Gish Jen put this point quite well:

Before I begin, I’d like to say that with this, as with all discussions involving cultural difference, I am aware of the danger of stereotyping. “Simplistic and overexaggerated beliefs about a group, generally acquired second-hand and resistant to change,” as sociologist Martin M. Marger put it, are obviously to be roundly condemned and absolutely avoided. I am also aware, though, that fear of stereotyping has sometimes led to a discomfort with any assertion of cultural difference, no matter how thoroughly accepted by psychologists or how firmly grounded in research.

To be unaware of (or outright deny) what is factually true is a kind of blindness. Perhaps in the case of the blog post respondents the blindness is well-meaning—a kind of “don’t-want-to-go-there” resistance to walking down a road known to be perilously vulnerable to sabotage by prejudice, power, and hatred. But when we don’t pay conscious attention to differences, we tend to see others through our own filters, construct them in our image, and believe—falsely—that we see them accurately.

Gish Jen again:

In his 1932 classic, Remembering, psychologist Frederic C. Bartlett describes an experiment in which British test subjects were asked to repeatedly retell a Native American ghost tale after intervals that ranged from a matter of minutes to a matter of months. The results were revealing: with each new round, the subjects misremembered yet more, unconsciously editing and reshaping the tale—changing seal hunting to “fishing,” for example, and removing and altering what seemed to them weird story elements—until it had become something no longer Native American at all—until it had become, in fact, pretty bloody British.

You might think that’s just what does and should happen. The dharma as seal-hunting-in-Alaska comes to the West as fishing-on-the-Thames. But what if there are important elements of seal hunting that gave that ghost tale its meaning—such as the danger involved, the taking of risk, or the need for courage—that are utterly left out of a fishing picnic on the river? Would that be “translating” the dharma or would that be “reimagining” it?

The reader who wrote that differences in self construal between Asians and Westerners “are not important as far as awakening is concerned” was in one particular sense correct: the dharma teaches that what ultimately binds us in samsara is clinging to any self as truly existent—hungry ghost, animal, human-interdependent, human-independent—the type of self isn’t the problem, our clinging to it is. From this perspective, there is nothing exceptional about Westerners vis-à-vis Asians; we’re equally bound, and we can equally become free. But these differences are critically important to our awakening in quite another sense.

Although all societies construct delusions in deep and hidden and stubborn ways, cultures have specific delusions that are particularly recalcitrant. The dharma in this sense is not one-size-fits-all. It must be interpreted and applied to its specific context. The real potential trouble spots in translating dharma teachings and practices to the West occur at those cross points where our culture is not only different from Asian culture, but different in an exactly-upside-down-and-backwards sort of way. Consider the following from the well-known sociologist of religion Robert Bellah. (For his complete interview with Tricycle’s Andrew Cooper, see “The Future of Religion”.)

Zen Buddhism began in Japan at a time when strong social structures hemmed in individuals on every side. The family you were born to determined most of your life-chances. Buddhism was a way to step outside these constricting structures. Becoming a monk was called shukke, literally, “leaving the family.” We live in an almost completely opposite kind of society, where all institutions are weak and the family is in shambles. You don’t need Buddhism to “leave the family.” To emphasize primarily the individualistic side of Buddhism (especially Zen) in America is only to contribute to our pathology, not ameliorate it.

Liberation requires going against the grain of our pattern of clinging, no matter what that pattern is. If our self-construct is highly individualistic, then against the grain would be toward interdependence and mutual support; if the sense is highly enmeshed in social roles, then against the grain would be toward autonomy. But if the prevailing construct is individualistic and the teachings we employ focus on autonomy, then they don’t push against the grain at all; they in fact reinforce the very problem Buddhism seeks to help us find a way out of. 

Westerners can and need to make the dharma authentically our own. That is precisely the point of looking closely at cultural difference—to understand what the teachings mean in the culture we are taking them from so that we can translate that meaning accurately into a different context. The better we understand what differences are at play, the more skill we will have in navigating them. But if we simply adopt Buddhist teachings and practices without paying attention to the cultural contexts that have framed them for millennia, we risk understanding those teachings in a manner diametrically opposed to their intent. Our meditation might then reinforce the scaffolding of our suffering rather than destroy it. In what sense could we then consider our practice Buddhist?

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


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.

Photograph by Alison Wright, originally printed in Tricycle's Winter 2011 "Living Buddhism," by Dharmavidya David Brazier. Read it here.

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birda's picture

Very interesting book, occupies a high position in my home library instalacje elektryczne na terenie miasta opole

ruthgeorge's picture

I like the concept of hindrances as vehicles to greater insight and understanding. I see an opportunity to use the early teaching of Gautama to develop a secular Buddhist practice for our time.Meet and greet parking Luton

marginal person's picture

If Gautama's supposed assertion is true then Buddhism, like every other thing in this world, is devoid of any intrinsic nature or reality. Hence no problem in assmilating it into "western" culture
I like the concept of hindrances as vehicles to greater insight and understanding. I see an opportunity to use the early teaching of Gautama (the 4 noble truths and the 8 fold path} to develop a secular Buddhist practice for our time. Secular in the sense of being devoid of religious and metaphysical trappings that are incidental to dharma practice
Buddhism has adapted itself to all the diverse cultures it has encountered on its journey west There are no cultural hindrances to awakening, only individual ones.
My question to the author would be , "Did Tibetans understand Indian metaphysics when they assimilated the dharma into their culture? The same question can be asked of Japanese, Chinese and any other culture that has adopted the teaching of the Buddha into their cultures.

safwan's picture

I think marginal person hit a correct tone saying that there are no cultural hindrances to awakening, just individual ones.

I have been practicing Buddhism in Australia for 30 years. Originally I am from the Middle East, Syria. If the ultimate goal of Buddhism is revealing one's Buddhanature (common to all human beings) then the uniting connection becomes Humanity, above cultural/ethnic or even individual levels of identity.

When the practice is 'heart-related' rather than 'intellect-related' - differences dissolve. 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 of humanism (rather than on mind-boggling abstarctions) - will reflect on atmosphere of simplicity, devoid of metaphysical or religious burdens.

This is what one may observe in Soka groups, the most diverse Buddhist Sangha. Humanism is an actualization for the concept of interconnectedness – with all barriers (whether inward or towards others) will vanish. This 2 min song explains it all:

marginal person's picture

Gautama is credited with saying (I preface any quotes with this statement because who really knows what Buddha said? His words come to us from a translation of a text, written down 500 years after his death, in a language he didn't speak) that his teaching was like an open hand, nothing was hidden. He taught about suffering and the end of suffering.
For me, this is the irreducible dharma.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Thanks for sharing your perspective, safwan. This was also the case when I began practicing in San Francisco in 1973. Buddhism lives and breaths as the personal experiences of those who practice it.

safwan's picture

Personal experiences - another name for the Actual Proof. Such a life of wonder and true value.

Richard Fidler's picture

I agree that there is a collision between Eastern and Western values as Buddhism enters new territory. I know traditional Asian families and I can see how important the family and the community are to them. At the same time I can see how isolated Americans are from family and community, each person struggling separately to make lives for himself. In general, those from Asia I have known revere parents and teachers, sometimes to the extreme--beyond whatever merit they demonstrate--while Westerners simply break away from family to pursue goals that often involve the accumulation of wealth.

The collision between Western and Eastern values plays itself out in the attitude towards which students regard the teacher. In your article you essentially asked the question, "Since we have a thoroughly realized teacher, why spend time justifying our practice through scientific study or any other means?" Your view is quintessentially Eastern. For you the teacher is to be revered, obeyed, listened to in all matters. He sees what you don't and he illuminates the pathway to Truth.

For me, as a person from the West, I see the teacher-student relationship differently. I see Socrates as a model for the teacher, someone who is in earnest pursuit of the Truth, ever ready to listen to objections from students and change his mind if necessary. In asking questions, students are not putting themselves forward to receive personal acclaim, but, instead, are in pursuit of the Truth. It is wrong to imagine the Western way is less suitable than that of the East for those in pursuit of spiritual understanding. It is only a different pathway. That said, I feel uncomfortable questioning the statements of teachers of Tricycle retreats. Particularly with Eastern teachers I get the feeling that they do not know exactly how to respond to a student's probing question, correction, or addition. Hopefully, both teacher and student can feel the tension as such situations work themselves out with both sides eventually relaxing into a new teacher-student relationship.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The collision is a result of dualism. Once people overcome this obstacle Buddhism will regain traction wherever it is taught.

mards's picture

While I agree that cultural constructs are relevant to the understanding of groups and the notion of self, it seems to me a gross generalization to just divide the "west" and the "east"
Within our own culture - The West - we have ethnic/cultural/racial groups that hold a collectivist view of the world rather than an individual one.
The United States or Europe are not an uniform society.
Perhaps the conversation should include ethnic-cultural differences within the West and detach ourselves from the tendency of an European-descent view that fails to see the diversity of our "west"....

Dominic Gomez's picture

Buddhism originated in a time and place where notions of Easterness and Westerness were non-existent. Of greater concern was non-dualism vis-a-vis dualism, the latter the more common way of perceiving self and other (or self and environment) among people regardless of culture. And today, increasing globalization is gradually erasing distinctions of "Eastern" and "Western".

Kevin K.'s picture

Thank you very much for this follow-up post Ms. Heuman. I think your "What's at Stake as the Dharma Goes Modern?" is the best article I've read in Tricycle in several years, and your follow-up blog posts are no less valuable.