Somehow this reminded me of my youth. When I was 16, I really started getting interested in Japanese culture and Buddhism, especially Zen. I worked a part-time job and earned a little money each week. On the weekends, I would take the bus to Bellevue Mall (a nice mall east of Seattle) and hang out at a Asian buffet called Panda Express. To me, this was “Asian food” and my only real taste of Asian culture at the time.1
Things are very different now, but when I was 16 I didn’t know better. I wanted the “trappings” of Asian culture because it made me feel more progressive, hip and to impress my friends. Honest. I remember a religions course in high-school and I was the only self-proclaimed “Zen Buddhist” and I know I did it in part to impress people.
I feel this happens a lot with people who want to explore Buddhism from the comforts of Western culture, but don’t want to make the effort to interact with Asian people, learn the languages, or appreciate Buddhism as it is practiced there (faults and all). Take a look at this old video from the 1960’s where Alan Watts talks about Buddhism:
Why is does the setting look “Japanese”? Is this necessary? Why are there ink drawings of Hiragana in the background (お on the right)? Why is there Japanese traditional music playing? Why does Alan Watts have a cigarette in his hand? Who were they trying to impress?
Anyone who has lived in Japan for a while might find this a little silly (regardless of Alan Watt’s actual message). But it’s not just Westerners who play this game. In my last visit to Japan, I remember watching this commercial on Japanese TV about a chain of wedding chapels. In it, a certain half-Japanese celebrity (I won’t say her name, but you can probably guess) was in a wedding dress singing in front of choir of foreigners. It looked like a church choir you might see in a Baptist church in Georgia, full of white and black people, but the commercial was for wedding chapels.
If you’ve never seen one, they’re small buildings where a person can host a wedding. It looks like a Christian church, people dress up in Western-style wedding clothes, and have a wedding ceremony performed by a real foreigner. Sometimes those foreigners are ordained Christian priests, but oftentimes, they’re paid to pretend to be a priest.
Here again, people want the “trappings” of a Western/Christian style wedding, because it’s hip and modern (and often cheaper than traditional Shinto weddings anyway), but without committing to Christianity or a Christian community.2
But nothing worthwhile in life comes easy. It’s a fact of life. In Robert Heinlein’s book, Starship Troopers (fantastic book, terrible movie), one of the characters uses an example of an Olympic Gold Medal. If someone just gave it to you, you would not appreciate it very much. But if you worked hard, trained for years, and fought your way to victory, you might appreciate it a lot more.
In the same way, I admire people who really make a genuine effort to learn other cultures, religions and languages. Some readers here live in Asia, and being a foreigner is both a difficult and rewarding experience. Some readers are learning English, and make a sincere effort to understand and communicate on this blog (or write English-language blogs of their own!). Sometimes, it’s humiliating or difficult, but the rewards are worth it.
In the same way, I encourage people to avoid “Panda Express” Buddhism or anything that provides the “trappings” of Asian culture without any of the challenges or substance. It requires time, investment and most important: humility. But the real thing is always much more satisfying than the fake stuff, even if it’s not perfect. 🙂
Namu Shaka Nyorai
P.S. No disrespect to Alan Watts either. I just found this particular video a little cliched.
P.P.S. A double-post today. This is also the last real post for 2012. 🙂
1 No disrespect intended to Panda Express or its hard-working staff of course. “Ethnic” restaurants in any county always struggle to find a balance between authenticity and accessibility. If it’s too authentic, some people won’t come. If it’s too “watered-down” some people will be offended.
2 No disrespect intended to Japanese couples who go to such chapels. If it makes them happy, I am happy too. But it’s important to realize that this is just a business providing Western-style weddings. It is not a real church. I hear that real Japanese Christian ministers sometimes get offended by them.