The Dharma Is For Sharing, But Cultural Appropriation is Still A Problem

I begin every meditation session by taking refuge. I do it in a dharma way, and in a pagan way. These two ways are not different for me, as I walk a single path that is informed by extensive study and practice in both of these distinct ways.

NAMO GURU: I take refuge in the Inner Teacher
NAMO DHARMA: I take refuge in the wisdom of the ages.
NAMO SANGHA: I take refuge in the community of practitioners.

These refuge vows are very simple, yet there are complex implications inherent in each of them. Outsiders to the culture of origin of these vows do not always have access to understanding them naturally, and might need a guide from within the languages and cultures that embrace the dharma in order to understand their subtleties. Additionally, these vows, while having universal meanings, also have meanings that arise in the context of a culture, a given community, under a single teacher, or even at a unique moment in time. Such is the fluid nature of understanding. This fluidity is core to the dharma's survival in modern times. Yet, alongside that fluidity there must be respect for the culture of origin of this wisdom. These are not merely stand-alone concepts devoid of context. Respecting that goes hand in hand with respecting the vows themselves. Despite the beginningless and endless nature of the universe, these vows were born somewhere. Regardless of how far they have travelled, the womb which birthed them is still important.

The first vow suggests: I take refuge in the Teacher (and in the dharma pagan case, we reference the Inner Teacher as opposed to an external guru, because the external guru relationship in the west is most often tainted by commercialism, and can be particularly unsafe for women). There is no Buddha who is coming to save us. We must save ourselves and each other, if it is possible. We must not turn away from the suffering of others. We must become the Buddhas we wish would come help us all. 

The second vow suggests: There is no single dharma Bible; rather, there are innumerable valuable teachings found in the minds, on the lips, and from the pens of countless beings. Honoring those teachings and properly crediting them is only one part of our work. The other part is to apply them to our real daily actions, mindfully and respectfully of their source and culture of origin, as well as the culture in which we are practicing and the implications of our own presence in these cultures. We also must beware of treacherous teachings that masquerade as dharma, but are in reality products of egoic clinging or the words of gyalpos, demon kings who make authoritative and misleading statements and pronouncements as if from on high, seeking to impress others rather than serve the benefit of all beings.

The third vow implies: There is no human who is more or less deserving of enlightenment than any other. There are others who struggle, suffer, and practice in their own ways, just like we do. They deserve our compassion, universally. If we look beyond those who practice the dharma, do we not see multiple examples of others doing the same within their own religions? Are they any less deserving of universal compassion than a dharma practitioner? Of course not. And how about the suffering that happens in the cultures where dharma originated as a result of their contact with the greed, acquisitiveness, exoticism, and commercialism of the western world? Does that suffering not also deserve compassion? I know a few million Tibetans who might think that yes, it does.

One even more complex implication is found in this 3rd vow, "I take refuge in the sangha." One of the ways I was taught to express this vow is to not speak ill of anyone who also practices the actively seek to treat all other sangha members--those who have taken refuge or who walk the dharma path-- with respect, compassion, and bodhicitta, or "boundless friendliness."

Yet, how can I not speak up when a member of the sangha has caused harm and suffering to the sangha? I consider all dharma practitioners sangha, all pagans sangha, and indeed all beings sangha, as we are all part of one blood in the body of the Goddess. And recently, someone who claims to represent both the dharma and paganism has made some statements that are uninformed, hurtful, and that do not reflect a commitment to alleviating suffering. Rather, his statements are self-centered, self-referential, and egoic in content, reflecting a lack of exposure and sensitivity to the true suffering caused by cultural appropriation.

There is a member of the sangha who is not acting in accord with this third vow...who has positioned himself as an authority on the dharma among his peers and yet whose writing reveals a lack of experiential understanding of compassion...who has claimed the center as a white person of privilege even though the dharma originates within a culture of renunciate people of color, and does not have a center...who has stated that there is no such thing as cultural appropriation and that anyone who tries to raise the issue is basically a "self-appointed defender of political correctness." 

He has used snide words to try to make those who care about such things look stupid or naive, instead of acknowledging that there is dharma in unpacking the appropriative effects of colonialism and the legacies of ethnic and racial oppression that have shaped the many incarnations that each of us has endured, and the karma we still bear collectively of all the suffering created by war-mongering, greed, and dehumanization of people of color. He has quoted a known rapist as a wiseman, even though to do so is to create harm to women and to dismiss the harm caused to women by that rapist. He has suggested that he, a white man, knows better than people of color and the oppressed when it comes to the topic of cultural appropriation.

These are all expressions of something that is not dharma, at least not as I have been taught dharma. They more closely mirror the hubris of a gyalpo, and are not good. Yet the dharma truly works in mysterious ways. Perhaps his public hubris is the dharma's secret method of teaching us all how too much comfort and not enough compassion for the suffering of others can condition the mind inappropriately and lead to callousness. Perhaps we should be grateful for his example as it shows us how a twisted path can lead to confusion, so that we can avoid such a path. Perhaps his hubris is his greatest service, as it creates the conditions for so many to find greater compassion toward those who suffer from the effects of cultural appropriation.

I do not want to link to his article, nor use his name, nor give him more attention than I already have. I have compassion for him, even as I bring my ritual dagger to deflate his misuse of the dharma in defense of a harmful position. PHET!

If you have been following this discussion in the wider pagan sphere you know what I am talking about. And if you have not been following it, then I invite you not to investigate this, and instead to turn your attention to three Black women Zen/dharma practitioners whose words on the subject of race, identity, suffering and healing are incisive, compassionate, and beneficial dharma:

"What is the nature of suffering when you consider racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on? Is oppression a different kind of suffering than other kinds of suffering? More specifically, does the Buddha’s teachings on The Four Noble Truths address the lived experience of those who suffer from lack of access to the necessary resources to live fully and live well?"
-Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Soto Zen Priest

"Love and Justice are not two. Without inner change, there can be no outer change. Without collective change, no change matters."
-angel Kyodo Williams, Zen Sensei

"When our practice is based on fierce love of the truth, we’ve begun the journey, stretching the mind and heart to include tenderly all aspects of experience:  the “good,” the “bad” and the “ugly.”  When we see truthfully the work to be done, it may be difficult, but immeasurably rewarding and onward leading."
-Gina Sharpe, Dharma Teacher