Why do western Buddhists insist on colonizing, cloning or otherwise reproducing the Buddhist culture of the past? of historic or contemporary Asia? Western Buddhists have to create our own culture, if we’re going to get on with this project at all.
I learned this from being a queer. I’ve lived in places where being queer is cool and there’s lots of queer culture to participate in. But I’ve also lived in places were there was no queer culture. There were lots of gay people, but no gay culture. In those places, I got together with my friends to create our own culture. Instead of waiting to passively consume what other people produced, we decided to make our own queer subcultures, the kind of queer cultures we wanted to participate in.
It was a helluva lot of work. We organized writers groups, poetry readings, coffee houses, film and theatre productions, music concerts, dances and PRIDE celebrations. When it became apparent that few people knew about North American queer history, we ran a series of workshops on gay history. We organized workshops on legal and health issues affecting the gay community. We organized public forums for political candidates to present to gay audiences. We put out queer publications covering the local queer scene. And so on. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. We got to create and participate in the cultures we wanted. In the process of creating this culture, we knit together our community.
If we don’t have the kind of Buddhist culture we want, we have to create our own. I’m sorry, yeah, it’s a lot of work, but sometimes DIY is the only way it gets done. You can passively consume what’s currently available on the market, but you will probably hate it and it will not serve your needs—or you and your friends can create your own Buddhist subculture.
Ask yourself: why was Noah Levine so successful? I don’t think it was the training from Insight Meditation Society. Noah was successful because he created a Buddhist subculture that worked for him and others like him. He was a skateboard punk from LA and he created a Buddhist subculture that integrated with that subculture: the music, the clothes, the tattoos, adapting and translating the Buddhist idiom into a form of street culture that he could relate to.
Same thing happened with Buddhist Geeks. Vince Horn and Ryan Oelke were into online and virtual geek culture, so they created a Buddhist subculture that worked for them. Buddhist Geeks was a success because it tapped into a cultural zeitgeist that no one else had bothered to address. Similarly, Black Buddhists are creating a subculture that works within Black culture, identity, politics and history.
Culture? What’s that got to do with Buddhism? Culture is very powerful. Culture is how we communicate and form social bonds. Culture is how we create our collective life together. Culture is ‘practice’, it’s how we collectively ‘practice’ what we believe. We don’t have to acclimate ourselves to the meditation-industrial complex of the 60s and 70s (or 90s+). We don’t have to clone Tibetan folkways or act like hippie yogis or Zen Beats. We just need to decide what kind of culture we want and create it for ourselves.
At Tiger Lily Sangha, we’re creating a radical faerie Buddhist subculture that works for members of our queer collective. We’re artists and musicians and activists. Although we all meditate and study Buddhism as individuals, that’s not our main practice as a sangha, which is culture jamming. Looking back on a 30 year history of activism, I’ve seen that what ‘works’, i.e. what really changes the world, is creating alternative cultures. Creating alternative cultures requires communication more so than action; or action-as-communication. We have to ‘engage in the conversation’, and ‘change the conversation’ to change the culture. We have to challenge the cultures we consume, and stop replicating them. We have to decline the cultures we’re given and create our own.
I’d say we’re at an opportune moment in western Buddhism. It has gotten so horrifically bad that the whole superstructure of western Buddhism is cratering into a giant sinkhole. That’s good news for the Buddhist avant garde. It’s time to dance on their graves and throw a party for ourselves. Buddhist Spring May 2020 is all about generating new Buddhist subcultures that express our collective vision and practice.
Engage! is here to create the alternative Buddhist subculture that I want to participate in. I don’t know exactly where this is going; I’m just making it up as I go. For my 500 or so readers and subscribers, it seems to be working for them as well. Let a thousand flowers bloom.