“…The Asian Buddhist traditions have all been corrupted on one level or another. Perhaps we can do better, sticking to the core teaching of the Buddha and leaving behind the other cultural traditions that come to be associated with Buddhism.”
The statement above is exemplary of a growing opinion among a largely white, American society regarding the the authenticity of Buddhist teachings. The sentiment seems to include doing away with the “cultural baggage” that comes with culturally specific lineages. But this invalidation of traditional Buddhism comes with several problems.
Firstly, it invalidates the experiences of Buddhists who hail from these parts of the world. Despite its origins in the Indian subcontinent and deep-rooted history in the vast majority of Asia, Buddhism in the West seems to be undergoing a sort of “purification” as envisioned by a group of people disenfranchised by the dominant religious model of this hemisphere, namely, Christianity. Many of us who grew up Christian have come to recognize a sort of moral hypocrisy among many self-proclaimed “Christians.” All too often, our experiences result in various forms of manipulation, bullying, and abuse by church members, who seem unable to empathize with people who have inclinations different than their own. While the separation of church and state would in theory give our society the impetus to accept citizens of all religious affiliations, the idea seems to have devolved in such a way as to render most non-European cultural identities as spiritually-inspired fabrications and therefore, invalid. This may be due to our tendency to expect religious thought to be interpreted literally, rather than metaphorically. If a tradition as powerful and widespread as Christianity fails to be logical, one would presume all other traditions to be just as, if not more, illogical.
This leads to my second point. The tendency of the Western world to secularize the Buddhist tradition is an attempt, perhaps unintended, to make Buddhism accessible to an elite few. Human beings find security in myth. Storytelling is the foundation to which we can relate experiences and develop community. I find it remarkable that secular and atheist thinkers have taken the initiative to “purify” Buddhism from recognizably religious motifs while labeling them “superstition”, when the very body of literature that has developed over the centuries are rife with stories that appeal to a religious audience. These prejudices against folklore make it difficult for other traditions to find a place in Western society. Stories of the gods and spirits passed down by tribes of virtually every background are categorized as “uncivilized,” despite their contributions to the moral and cultural fabric of the respective group. It’s a shame that so many forms of Euro-centric Paganism tend to be built on visions of white supremacy. Otherwise, I think Pagans could do well to address the issue of racism in our religious communities. Perhaps they could offer some insight into the myths of Buddhist tradition as well.
It’s become very apparent that people of color are beginning to respond. In recent years, Buddhist publishers such as Lion’s Roar and the Buddhist Channel have begun to host stories addressing race relations among Buddhists. From Japanese internment to the problems black people face in white sanghas, there seem to be a lot of discrepancies within a spiritual tradition that has a reputation for promoting world peace. And it’s been this way for decades. White people seem to be struggling to leave the comfort of their meditation cushions and admit that in a society that is becoming increasingly more ignorant, hateful, and greedy, black lives actually matter.
It seems appropriate that my patron deity should be dark-skinned. While researching the history of Buddhist art, I came across an image that bore a striking resemblance to the vision I experienced during meditation in Japan. Among several of his incarnations across Asia, Vajrapani has often been depicted with dark skin. The Ajanta cave paintings clearly shows a figure with brown skin, thick black hair, and other features that would bring to mind a person whose origins are certainly not European. Tibetan depictions of the deity, in both peaceful and wrathful form are often shown with deep blue skin.
This is actually quite relevant in the South Asian artistic traditions. Take for example, the Hindu god Krishna, whose name derives from the Sanskrit word for “dark” or “black.” The color blue has often been used to exemplify the darker complexions of Indian religious figures. The goddess Kali, whose name is the feminine form of the word “black” is also usually featured in a certain shade of blue. In countries such as Sri Lanka, Maudgalyayana, foremost of the Buddha’s disciples in psychic abilities, is painted with a bright blue skin color. As opposed to the other chief disciple, Shariputra, Maudgalyayana has traditionally been known as hailing from South India, where skin pigment is notably darker than other parts of the country.
I mention these examples because there seems to be a tendency among all societies to re-appropriate religious figures so that they are more accessible to the local audience. Christianity is a prime example of this phenomenon. Many circles depict Jesus Christ as a white man with blue eyes and blonde hair. Historically speaking, this was probably not the case. It’s ironic that so many Christians would be fearful or hateful of our Muslim neighbors on the basis of race, considering the ethnic and cultural correspondences between Christian and Muslim world views. Buddhism too, is a tradition that seems obsessed with its own culture of origin, and rightfully so, given the complexity of ethics, social values, and mythologies that are clearly inherited by circumstance. It’s only appropriate that an Indian spirit should be recognized, in fact, as Indian.
Lest we forget, the Buddha was also a person of color. The Shakya tribe, where the Buddha hailed from, were the rulers of a small kingdom around the border of India and Nepal. The Lakkhana Sutta describes some physical characteristics of the Buddha. Most notable are a golden skin complexion and deep blue eyes. While blue eyes are very rare among South Asian people, it is not unheard of. One point of interest I would like to mention is the prabashvara, or the Buddha’s aura. According to legend, the Buddha’s halo consisted of a spectrum of five different colors, namely “nila” (sapphire blue), “pita” (golden yellow), “lohita” (crimson), “odata” (white), and “manjesta” (scarlet). These colors eventually became part of the international Buddhist flag, which was designed in 1885 by a Sinhalese man by the name of Carolis Pujitha Gunawardena in 1885. “Prabhashvara” refers to the combination of these colors, which is depicted on the flag as an inverted, vertical row of the previously mentioned colors. However, if we truly combine these colors based on their hex triplet, we get the value #cf7450. I’ve taken the liberty to make an image combining these colors.
Use this as a tool for contemplation. Some of us will say that we are “color blind” and that race does not matter in the long run, because we are all human. But this claim is more often than not, a cop-out. Yes, we are all subject to the laws of karma, and as humans we are all capable of achieving that ultimate state of peace the Buddha taught. But the white Buddhist community needs to wake up to the fact that racism is a deeply rooted problem in our civilization. People are losing jobs, homes, and their very lives because of these factors that a white society takes for granted. Achievement is not limited to color, but to character. The Buddha made it very clear that this is the defining factor that makes one truly noble. Call it a myth, if you like, but the idea is nevertheless true at its core. The Buddha is a prime example of a person whose outstanding character highlights the magnitude of the contribution people of color have made to humanity’s spiritual evolution. But that was then. We are approaching a new era. It is an age of approaching corruption, division, and class warfare. So when will we wake up, stand up, and protect those who need protection?
The answer: When we come to grips with reality.