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Dharma is Culture

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Towards a Multicultural Buddhist Practice

"Dharma" is the word used to encompass the Teachings of the Buddha and the lineages which developed from them. The Dharma has always been about Culture.

In the previous article of this series, the Buddha's words were shown to have a direct relationship with our cultural experience -- both in his time, and in our contemporary time. Historically, the movement of the Dharma from northeastern India through Central Asia, over the Silk Route, into China, Mongolia, Tibet, and Japan has verified these words of the Buddha words over and over again. The Dharma is expressed through one's own culture. The Dharma has always been about culture, cultural experience and difference.

From the time of the Buddha's passing from this life, differences arose within the interpretations of his teachings. While the teachings might have been agreed upon immediately after his death (albeit not without controversy that is documented in the scriptures), within 70 years there was another major disruption of the unified interpretation of the teachings.

In the Second Council at Vesali, there were 10 "points" in which one group of monastics accused another group of laxity and "committing offenses" (in the traditional scriptural language). These included: storing salt in a horn, eating after midday, eating once and going again on alms round, holding the Observance Days with monks dwelling locally, carrying out official acts with an incomplete assembly, following a practice because it was done by one's teacher, eating sour milk after the midday meal, consuming strong drink before it had been fermented, using a rug which was not the proper size, and using gold and silver.

While the content of the differences might seem irrelevant to our contemporary lives, the cultural background of this conflict was that the Dharma was expanding to western India where the broader culture was much more heterogeneous. In contact with other cultural perspectives, multiple interpretations of the Dharma arose both from those who remained in the Buddha's native regions and those who migrated outwards into the larger world. This is what is relevant to notice for our world today. The emergence of cultural complexities is one of the factors in the archetypal struggles between those who identify as valuing the purist and traditional teachings, versus those who are interested in adapting the teachings to make them relevant to the new worlds being encountered. This classic tension is not just about the content of scriptural interpretation, but about the dynamics between multiple cultural experiences. This is as true now, as it was true in all the time since the Buddha's death.

In the past two and a half millennia, the Dharma has moved through hundreds of cultures, and the tensions in creating a culture's own experience with the teachings of Freedom has occurred many times. One vibrant example is how the Buddha's Teachings filtered into the Chinese civilization. Some legends have the first contact of the Dharma with China being during King Asoka's time (250 BCE), with Buddhist iconography and statuary installed on the Silk Route in China around 120 BCE. Official emissaries came to the Chinese court in 67 CE, but it took until 500 CE when the Buddha's Teachings began to rival the indigenous traditions of Confucianism and Taoism. Therefore, it took 650-750 years for Buddhism to permeate into Chinese society. Today, we perceive that Buddhism as so integral to the Chinese culture and experience -- why did it take so long to become so?

It is because there were originally enormous cultural disparities when the Dharma first arrived in China and a tremendous cultural resistance arose. Not to reduce or over-simplify a complex cultural interaction, but indications of the dissonance included: (1) the Buddhist focus on individual enlightenment undermined Confucian values of family lineage and ancestor worship; (2) monastics were not viewed as "filial" or respectful of elders (a highly prized Confucian ideal) because they went into "homelessness" and renounced their families of origin; (3) monastics were perceived to contradict the value of productive contribution to society because they lived off of alms; (4) lastly and symbolically, it was discordant that monastics would not bow to the Emperor or any higher authority. Over the 600-700 years of contact, what gradually evolved and morphed over time were new traditions in which: (1) "merit" or the goodness of one's efforts could be transferred to family and ancestors, (2) novice monastics were trained to be "filial" to senior monastics, (3) monasteries developed commerce, trade, and became part of government administration, and (4) probably one of the most symbolic transformations was that the Emperor became the incarnation of the "living" Buddha, and thus, of course, the monastic community could bow to the Emperor.

From the perspective of culture, the development of different Buddhist lineages of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, is not only about scriptural developments and interpretations, but also about the Dharma's transformation through the cultures with which it came into contact. In a real sense, it is the aspect of culture that produced the lineages of the Dharma. What is fascinating about the malleability of the Dharma is that when the early European colonists arrived at their places of dominion in Asia, it took European cultures years, if not decades, to realize that they were not encountering different religions (for example, the differences between the spiritual practices in Sri Lanka and in Japan). They were seeing the same spiritual tradition across different cultures. It is historically documented that the Buddha's Teachings create profound influence and transformation on every culture it meets, and also has incredible resilience to adapt to local cultures and forms. This is also supported by contemporary analysis from experts in the ancient languages of the time after the Buddha's passing, that there was probably never a singular "Dharma" that was without the influence of multiple cultural contexts. The Dharma changes culture and is changed by that culture.

The Dharma has always been about Culture.

This phrase is not just about the artifact of historical facts. It is about how we can learn from how the Dharma has been lived, so that we can embody it even more fully for the multitude of cultures within our lifetime and into our future human condition. How will the Dharma change our cultures, and our relationship to them? How will our cultures transform the Dharma into the beautiful expressions of their creative humanity? The Dharma continues to be about Culture -- whether we are aware of that or not is a factor which will either lead us to create more freedom or less freedom for all of us.

The next segment of this series will be about how the Sangha (the practice of Community) is about Culture.