Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Buddhism, Martial Arts, 書道/書法 and Cultural Appropriation

I could have sworn I'd written about this already but recent stuff I've been reading on social media leads me to believe that Certain Things Need to Be Written Down.  I know I commented on this elsewhere because there was a spate of "cultural appropriation in yoga" stuff a while back.  What motivates me today is not yoga critics but  recent critiques of cultural appropriation such as this.  Now the originator of that Twitter bit often has content worth one's attention, and is often rather witty.  But Certain Things Need to Be Written Down.

And with that a few words about "yoga appropriation" ought to be said first. I thought yoga appropriation as cultural appropriation rather absurd, as yoga as New Agey Thing has been a thing for a lot longer than the last decade and a half or so when it really took off.  And I thought if people didn't get peeved at New Agey yoga appropriation, what's the deal with cultural appropration?

And the trajectory by which the yoga meme (the Dawkins meaning,  folks) went from Indian thing to New Agey Thing to commercial thing to appropriated thing to alleged intellectual property is interesting because in some ways it mirrors the martial arts memes (without the New Agey step more or less), and in my view, despite the capitalist appropriation of yoga and martial arts, really damns the view of cultural appropriation of these disciplines i.e., the outcome of colonization and oppression of people of color by dominant white culture. NB: my examples here do not mean there is no such thing as cultural appropriation. Of course there is.  Yeah, Elvis Presley, white idiots who dress up like Native Americans and so forth.  But my point is not all instances of white people - or any other people - taking up a discipline "outside" their culture is stealing, is cultural appropriation or is wrong. And these "not all instances" are not "corner cases" - isolated instances which prove the general rule. They are, in my view vital for the survival of humanity in fact, at least when it comes to Buddhism.  They can be vital to the survival of the disciplines, too!

In a nut, the processes by which white people were introduced to yoga and martial arts  wasn't cultural appropriation at all.  It was cultural dissemination.  Yes, that's what it was. The same is even more true (and more important) for Buddhism, as I'll show. And it's also true for 書道/書法. I will readily and quickly grant that there is capitalist appropriation of yoga and martial arts just as there is capitalist appropriation of mindfulness.   But it was cultural dissemination to be sure.

Somewhere in my house I have this book. This lady trained for many years with B.K.S. Iyengar.  She didn't take it from him; he willingly taught it to her.  So it was with the Catholic nun who wrote the first book on yoga I ever read 46 or so years ago (though there were bits in there about being careful when you meditate, because Satan or something, if I recall correctly.) Point is, they learned it from those willing to teach it, and those willing to teach it thought it important to teach it to white people.

So it is with martial arts.  My Sifu, at his age (75 or thereabouts) wants me (60) to learn Wing Chun well enough so that I can teach others, and also so his lineage doesn't die out! Now, thankfully for Sifu, there's students in the class much younger and better than I! On the other hand, there's Tae Kwon Do, which is in several ways cultural appropriation of kung fu albeit as a  white and Korean cultural appropriation, but that's a whole other tangent. Here I should make the obligatory point that it is said that at least some of Ip Man's students had some resistance to Bruce Lee's studying of Wing Chun because of his mixed race background.  But I think I just made my point again.  I will make the point again shortly!

The difference between appropriation and dissemination is an order of magnitude more salient when it comes to Buddhism, especially in the Zen school.  Now I have heard some advocates for people of color make some ridiculously ignorant complaints about Western Convert Buddhists, which is used often as a signifier for white Western Convert Buddhists.  (NB: Read Arunlikhati's Angry Asian Buddhist blog for legitimate critiques of white Western Convert Buddhists.  Arunlikhati is a saint in my book.)   These ignorant complaints about white Western Buddhists often, but not always, come from Asian Americans with a Christian background.   So let me dispel a few myths that I've seen straightaway:

  • YES, we know it's "awakening" and "understanding" and seeing into one's nature and not "enlightenment."  And some of us, unlike some of you, can read Chinese and Japanese.
  • YES, we know it's asinine to go to places like Thailand sporting Buddha tattoos.  At least most of us do.
  • YES, we know there are mistranslations of some texts.
  • Many Buddhist texts were written in an Indo-European language before they were written in Sino-Tibetan languages.
  • No, we don't all revere the Dalai Lama.
  • YES there are quite a few frauds and hucksters and degenerates (white and Asian) in the White Western Buddhist Convert area, and YES, we've worked hard to try to deal with that issue. And YES, similar stuff goes on in Asia.
  • NO, we're not all vegan/vegetarian.
  • We're not all liberals. Heck, I'm not a liberal.

Anybody who's read about Bodhidharma knows that Zen was transmitted by cultural dissemination; this is emphasized in  the Platform Sutra.  And anyone who's read the Lotus Sutra knows that Buddhism is supposed to be universal.

But more importantly, one practices Buddhism to try to grok suffering, disillusionment, dukkha. This is about freakin' living one's life to deal with the fundamental human condition, and to help others to do so! If someone's going to call me out for "cultural appropriation," so be it!  But I would hope that such a person develops enough skill to be able to be a better practitioner than me.

Ditto for martial arts, at least in so far as they are taught to develop authentic 功夫.  I would wish that everyone be disciplined and accomplished.  This strictly speaking can't even be culturally appropriated for the same reason that Kierkegaard railed against the notion of "Christian nations." 功夫 happens at the individual level.

I could write a book on this. Perhaps I should.  One point I should make before I close is the same is true for 書道/書法; the author of the Twitter stream I referenced earlier took umbrage at a font.  I imagine he may not be happy at my practice of 書道/書法, but that may be again, like Asian Americans with a Christian background complaining about white Western Buddhists, due to a lack of familiarity with what 書道/書法 even is.  I hope not, but suffice it to say, 書道/書法, like 功夫 happens at the individual level.  When you see a work of  書道/書法, you are in fact seeing someone's mind.  How could anyone culturally appropriate that?


Ed Rowe said...

Love it.

Anonymous said...

About the martial arts, I have a friend who for some reason thinks Asian instructors are who you should go to. I grew up idolizing Bruce Lee like the next guy, but let’s be perfectly frank, the best martial artists and the best schools, while they may have some vague link to Asia, have very little to do with Asian culture these days except that people habitually cling to an idea spawned by a movie star and proliferate it as the alpha and omega of martial arts.

I agree with you about taekwondo borrowing from earlier non-Korean styles, as did the Okinawans to some degree in developing their styles, but I think even Shaolin today (supposedly the “first” martial art) has incorporated Western teachers at high levels and there are even a couple of legit Shaolin masters with chops from the temple itself who are white. One of them as far as I know has a lot of principles from contemporary MMA in his school so clearly that’s an influence from Brazil and Vale Tudo from the 80’s. So what exactly has been appropriated by this “fighting whitey”? He learned and transmits mental discipline and fighting skills, not how to be a proper Asian.

In the same vein, Brazilian jiu-jitsu started with the Japanese art and updated it with moves that actually work in practical scenarios. Not to disparage Wing Chun, which I respect for its ability to confer useful skills pretty quickly, but go ahead and try your sticky hands against a triangle choke or naked choke and see if it holds up because it is more authentically “Asian”. Maybe it will hold up against a surprised assailant who doesn’t expect a reaction, but if you ask me, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is better for more scenarios. And maybe only western wrestling or boxing can beat it. So is it appropriation?

For me, I see the Brazilian style as the logical evolution of old school Japanese arts that failed to update themselves. I think a lot of the Budo bullshit in the martial arts world needs to be confronted for the stupidity that it is. For 99% of the people talking about Bushido as a practical component of today’s martial arts, well, try holding your guts in while staggering over the battlefield and let me know how that works out for you. Bushido is a wrong-headed, antiquated notion that deserves to be appropriated and die out.

This is not to say there is no value in preserving the many wonderful “cultural” components of martial arts but I view these as but part of the dimensions of being a martial artist, the others being athletic and defensive. The poomsae/katas, etiquette, costumes or whatever that still remain from Asia, even entirely interesting meditative arts like iaido or aikido, are virtually useless for practical purposes as far as I can see. And that is why when looking at martial arts you also can approach study like you would any sport – look at taekwondo for example, now an Olympic sport which relies on speed and light kicks to gain points and rarely if ever teaches many of its devastating strikes to the average student. Are we to blame the West for “appropriating” it when the entire world competes in TKD as a sport even though it was designed for other purposes?

But people will still insist that Asian styles and teachers are the “real” martial arts. At the end of the day outward appearances are just that, outward appearances and forms, given names by habit of consciousness and discriminated by the ignorant. To kill the Buddha is to abandon images about what Buddhism is all about, including the notion that it belongs to Asia, and if that pisses off some Asian folk, well I am sorry. But tough shit.