Can Westerners respectfully engage with Buddhism?

Western Buddhists have been criticised for distorting centuries old traditions and doctrines. Is there a way that they could engage more respectfully?

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A collection of Buddhist sculptures in the British Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
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A fresco in Alchi Monastery in Ladakh, India. The paintings contain influences from Turkey, Kashmir and Tibet. Photo: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia Commons.

“[h]e knew all the details of Tibetan, Chinese, Mahayana, Hinayana, Japanese and even Burmese Buddhism but I warned him at once I didn’t give a goddamn about the mythology and all the names and national flavors of Buddhism, but was just interested in the first of Sakyamuni’s four noble truths, All life is suffering. And to an extent interested in the third, The suppression of suffering can be achieved…”

Here we can see the tendency of Westerners to brashly reject any element of Buddhism they do not deem ‘essential’, and one has to question whether Kerouac was conscious of this process. At the time battling with depression, alcoholism, drugs and a loss of existential meaning, he certainly didn’t come to Buddhism free of biases. What he sought in Buddhism was a cure for his suffering, and perhaps a salve for his lost Catholic faith. This heavily coloured his interpretation of Buddhism, and reduced it to an instrument to solve a specific problem. And so, for the Kerouac of 1955, vast swathes of Buddhism were deemed irrelevant.

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A temple in Bagan, Myanmar. Credit: Adam Jones via Wikimedia Commons.

Lachlan is Sydney-based musician, writer and meditator. Buddhism / philosophy / literature. https://www.facebook.com/lachlanrdale

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