Panda Express Buddhism

This was a term I recently came up with, after reading the amusing comments in this post by Arunlikhati on her blog Angry Asian Buddhist.

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.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

6 thoughts on “Panda Express Buddhism”

  1. As a big Alan Watts fan I would defend him personally because he was a serious lover and scholar of Asian culture. From when he was a child it was the thing he loved the most.
    In the case of that particular show (and that period of his life) I guess it was to attract the audience (people in search of “eastern wisdom”) and to get them in, so then he could hit them with his knowledge. Also, he was trying to make a living of being a popular philosopher so this was probably playing to the crowd.

    I generally agree with the sentiment here – but there is also an argument for studying Buddhism WITHOUT the cultural trappings. That is, not to ignore that cultural context of which Buddhism came (which is VERY different to the cultural surroundings in which it is currently practiced, in say, Japan), but to also recognise that you can look to find the heart of the teachings within the cultural surroundings.

    That said, knowledge and interaction with the culture is definitely important. But what is most important is sincere study and practice.


    1. Hi Ruairí and good to hear from you.

      To be honest, I’m not familiar with Alan Watts very much. I’ve never really read his books or seen many if his talks apart from this one. Taken on its own, I felt the production of the video was a bit cliched even if his message was sincere, but I feel you’ve made a good point as well: As a young, struggling philosopher maybe this was the only way to reach the audience. I watched it through though and thought his message was interesting in any case.

      Still, I thought the cigarette was funny. Ah, the 60’s. 🙂

      Anyhow, you raise a good question: can Buddhism be extracted from the culture it is practiced in?

      Honestly, I don’t think it can be done. My sense is that if one tries to do so, one simply gets a Buddhism that is filtered by one’s own cultural prejudices.

      I don’t doubt that the real Dharma is culturally neutral, but I think it can only be understood by thoroughly immersing oneself first before one can see it. Then again I have yet to actually accomplish that. :-p

      Anyhow, just my opinion. Thanks again for taking time to reply. 🙂


  2. In the mid-1960’s I began teaching in colleges for a brief time, and since the zeitgeist on American campuses had changed considerably since I was graduated in 1960, I thought I really needed to bone up on what was hip now. And that meant Zen and existentialism. So, I picked up a couple Watts’s books for the Zen half of my crash course. I had had a superbly taught course with an excellent textbook in college that covered Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto; thus, I was not completely unacquainted with the topic. There was a sometimes jejune quality to his writing that made me cringe now and then, but, in any event, I was soon able to locate and move on to books written by Buddhists.

    But Watts certainly could take a lot of credit for bringing an awareness of Buddhism, or Zen at least, into the American scene. And his autobiographies, and some of his books on Daoism, show the man in a more sympathetic light. Oddly enough I came across something I had written a few years ago with some condescending comments about Watts, and I realized having read more about his life overall that I had been a bit unfair about his work. Nevertheless, I have to say that sometimes – back then – he did seem relenlessly “hip.”


    1. Hi Jack,

      Yeah, I think both you and Ruairí make good points about Alan Watts. I feel bad for using this example because I wasn’t trying to criticize him so much as the particular video (preferably using an old example, so as not to criticize anyone actively trying to teach now), but I think it came out somewhat wrong.

      One thing to note though, as Arun would no doubt point out, is that Buddhism already had an established presence at least in the US. This was obscured by WWII, but there were a number of Buddhist institutions before then, and they weren’t restricted to immigrant communities only.

      So, Alan Watts, didnt’ necessarily bring Buddhism to West so much as popularize it more so. Still, he did it with a certain style that’s hard to beat.


  3. Don’t feel bad about your remarks. They were, in fact, appropriate to the film, I think. Watts’ reputation has developed callouses by now, I’m sure. Being a conspicuous popularizer in an era that still arouses contentious reactions among Americans, it isn’t surprising that it has taken quite a few years for a balanced view of the man and his works to even begin to emerge. While Watts didn’t bring Buddhism to the West, he did probably bring it to Time magazine!

    Feliz Ano Novo,


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