What About Cultural Appropriation?

Cultural Appropriation: "The adoption or co-opting, usually without acknowledgment, of cultural identity markers associated with or originating in minority communities by people or communities with a relatively privileged status."

What About Cultural Appropriation?
I welcome this important question whenever I share the tools of mindfulness and meditation. Secular mindfulness, as founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1980’s, has its origins in Buddhism. This is a fact, and it is not a secret. Jon Kabat-Zinn studied quite deeply with a number of Buddhist teachers. Many of these teachers immigrated to the United States and shared the practice generously. Kabat-Zinn no longer identifies as a Buddhist, but sees the sharing of dharma (truth, wisdom) as something larger and more universal than any affiliation.

"If I was actually identifying myself as a Buddhist; it inevitably would have been seen as Jon Kabat-Zinn trying to put his Buddhist trip over on other people. I wanted to offer instead a kind of translation of a universal understanding or approach that was never really about Buddhism. The Buddha himself wasn’t a Buddhist, and the term Buddhism is an invention of Europeans. And, of course, Buddhists could really care less because it’s all about non-duality."
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Wherever Buddhism lands, it takes on the flavors of the country and culture around it. Buddhism started in India, and has been influenced, shaped, and carried forward by generations of People of Color from the continent of Asia. Asian immigrants to the United States brought, practiced, and continue to carry forward these teachings. It’s important to recognize that Buddhism has been here in the United States since the 19th Century.

In the 1960’s United States, many white baby boomers encountered Buddhist teachers overseas, or through teachers who came here. Many of these teachers generously shared and intentionally welcomed their western students into a long lineage of practitioners. This created a wave of “convert-Buddhists” who are adding to the “western” expression of Buddhism — its form is in the process of becoming right now!

Can something be stolen or appropriated if it has been freely given?
As Buddhism takes root in the United States, it should not be surprising that in addition to the various religious sects that retain many of the characteristics of their parent lineages, mindfulness has emerged with a distinctly western / American flavor. It is secular, medicalized, science and research-driven, and reflects the cultural difficulties of access due to class and race.

There is no way a few paragraphs or pages can adequately speak to the issue of cultural appropriation. I am always open to discuss this important and emerging topic. A helpful resource is Ann Glieg’s brilliant work, American Dharma.


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