Backpacking East to West

How important is it to get free of the Asian baggage we may have picked up along with our meditation practice? How can we tell if we’re clinging to the familiar for its own sake, or if we’re revering the truth? How do we evolve a Buddhism that works for Westerners without creating new obstacles for ourselves?

The idea isn’t just to get rid of one form of cultural garbage and introduce another. When it comes to our own life and spiritual path, our own happiness and suffering, we need to get to the heart of the matter.

It seems that Western Buddhists today are pretty much aware that we need to get rid of the Asian backpack we are carrying around—with its heavy load of cultural forms and all the stuff we use to dress up the dharma. If we want to discover “what works” for us today, we have to look into this backpack, and see what’s essential and what’s for show.

At the same time, we need to look at our own culture. Are we creating a “made in the USA” backpack (or “made in Canada” or whatever Western stomping ground we’re from) and filling it with our version of the same rules and rituals?  We may have problems with Asian cultural forms but have no problem with the cultural forms we’re taking on in the West, whether they’re helping us understand the real point of the dharma or not.

The idea isn’t just to get rid of one form of cultural garbage and introduce another. When it comes to our own life and spiritual path, our own happiness and suffering, we need to get to the heart of the matter. We really need to find out for ourselves what the wisdom is at the core of any tradition we practice and be able to distinguish it from the cultural trappings that deliver it. It’s up to Westerners to translate the Buddha’s teachings, to develop Western cultural forms that will help us become learned and realized beings, and at the same time, to be aware of our own cultural traps.

Mitra Khenpo Karl Brunnholzl is the prolific author and translator of several volumes on Indian and Tibetan Buddhism. A physician extensively trained in Buddhist study and practice, he teaches frequently in North America and Europe.

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