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Buddhadharma : Summer 2015
36 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly summer 2 0 1 5 the simile of a turning wheel more than a metaphor about stripping something of its layers is that it acknowledges that the center of the wheel cannot exist without the outside. Culture, language, and form are always changing, but they act as a neces- sary container; the inside and outside exist inter- dependently. Because the two cannot be perfectly separated, I wonder if it’s possible to practice “true dharma” without also engaging in cultural forms. Another problem with relating to Japanese Zen with suspicion to the external trappings is the prob- lem of a colonial attitude, a belief that the East has some special insight or enlightenment that we are entitled to own for ourselves on our own terms. As a white, educated American from an upper-middle- class background coming to study Zen in Japan, I brought with me a lot of unrealistic expectations and demands, and this was a cause of suffering both for myself and the people who (on good days) patiently tried to teach me about Japanese culture. Japan was a closed country for hundreds of years, and ever since Commodore Perry “opened up” trade with Japan by storming the Edo harbor in 1853, the West has had an obsession with penetrating and understanding this mysterious, exotic Other. The historian John Dower famously wrote that after the war, Japan was “locked in an almost sen- sual embrace with its American conquerors.” So if we are continuing to use this problematic, erotic metaphor of stripping Japanese Buddhism of its cul- tural clothing, then I would at least like to suggest that, as in relationships with people, the relation- ship between Asian Buddhism and the West would probably be healthier, or at least more enduring, if we didn’t rush to immediately take off any clothes. Instead of one side pushing to see the other naked, it’s probably a good idea to get to know each other first—to actually talk and then listen to what the other one is saying. There may be a time for taking off clothes. And there might not. But in either case, the relationship requires a foundation of mutual respect, and that demands a willingness to see the other honestly, not merely as a projection of who we want them to be. The most common piece of wisdom I receive from teachers in Japan is, not surprisingly, “It takes time.” Of course, it takes time to sort through the cultural differences and to learn the language, but more important, the practice itself takes time. I’m GeSSHIN GReeNwOOD ordained in the Soto Zen lineage when she was twenty-four years old. She lives in Japan, where she currently studies Japanese language full-time and authors the blog That’s So Zen. When I speak to Westerners about Japanese Zen, or to Japanese priests about American culture, I always find myself engaging in an awkward act of translation—I am fluent in neither cultural “lan- guage.” What I’ve noticed in my conversations with my family and other Buddhists in the West is that they seem interested in stripping Asian Buddhism of its “cultural trappings.” Westerners who come to Nisodo often remark that it is “very Japanese.” They see bowing, ancestor worship, incense burn- ing, sutra chanting in an incomprehensible lan- guage, and halls enshrined with statues of deities. They also encounter an extremely formal, hierarchi- cal, and structured mode of social interaction, gov- erned by attention to respect and decorum, all very different from how many Westerners behave in their home countries or dharma centers. All of this, in the minds of some, gets labeled as “just culture,” creating an imagined schism with “true Buddhism,” as though cultural practices are not dharmic. There is some belief that if we remove or strip the outside layers of Buddhism— the cos- tumes, the art, the rituals— this will reveal a uni- versal, timeless dharma practice inside. Why I like PHOTO | tony siciliano Gesshin Greenwood’s ordination ceremony at Toshoji Monastery, 2010