The Influence of Orientalism on US Buddhism
“The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void.” —Gary Snyder, 1961
In contemplating Gary Snyder’s essay “Buddhist Anarchism” for my previous post on Turning Wheel Media, I came across the above phrase, which stuck out to me like a sore thumb. As an Asian American cultural critic and Buddhist practitioner, I have a finely tuned radar for phrases like “East-West,” “East meets West,” and other pithy phrases that set up a dichotomy between these two directions as if they were completely different, even complete opposites. To me, this is lazy thinking, though very much consistent with centuries of orientalist discourse.
Having roamed in US Buddhist circles in California for many years, it’s certainly not uncommon to hear such a phrase accompanied by other dichotomies like “feminine-masculine” or “intuitive-logical.” Many readily accept such binaries as somehow fundamental to the functioning of the universe rather than culturally constructed ideas. It forms a “cloud” of simplistic views easily called upon to replace the work of examining a complex world that doesn’t all fit into two categories. (Though all the causes and conditions that create a human being are what I might at times include as one of the Four Imponderables.) Gender doesn’t fit into two categories, so why should spiritual practice?
With regard to the supposed East-West dichotomy, there is a long history (centuries, really) of “Western” discourse that has posed the West as active, intellectual, modern, rational, and the East as passive, emotional, traditional (or primitive), and irrational (or intuitive). As Edward Said has written in Orientalism, this has a strong connection with European expansion into the Middle East and Asia, forming out of a soup of pseudo-scholarly thought that informed economic, military, scientific policy, institutionalizing a general stance towards “the East.” There are variations on this, for example during certain periods in the US the scenario has been flipped so that Asian men are posed as menaces, though mostly to (passive) white women.
Far from being simply an intellectual exercise, this “feminization” of “the Orient” had and still has on-the-ground reality because it is backed by power. It readily pops up in US media and policy decisions about Middle Eastern societies, stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans, and, to bring it back to Buddhism, essentialist discussions about what “the East” has to offer “the West” and vice versa. These all eventually impact the material reality of human beings. Is the East actually mysterious, impenetrable, feminine, and passive, or is that centuries of racism, sexism, homophobia, colonialism, and imperialism talking? What is the East? Where does it start? Where does it end?
As for Snyder’s statement about the mercy of the West and that of the East, it’s not as if social revolution and insight into the void are exclusive innovations of the places Snyder attribute them to. There are mystic traditions in the West, and social revolutionary traditions in the East. Fortunately, the mercy of critical thinking is that everyone can practice it.