Can Wisdom Traditions Be Colonized?

To whom does the dharma belong? asks Vaishali Mamgain, Ph.D, as she explores the ways colonization and white supremacy have appropriated the dharma and other wisdom traditions.

Vaishali Mamgain
30 October 2020
Buddha Offering Protection, late 6th–early 7th century India (probably Bihar). Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the current season of Indian Idol, there is a singing sensation — a young man who shines shoes for a living. He works outside of a bus station in a small town in Punjab, India. With no formal training, Sunny, a Hindu, sings Sufi songs made famous by the late legendary Sufi singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who also happened to be both Muslim and Pakistani. When he was eleven, Sunny visited a dargah (a Sufi shrine) and heard a qawwali (utterances of the Prophet sung in rapturous devotion.) Completely captivated, he began to imitate what he heard. He began his work as a shoeshine boy in the sixth grade when his father died and his mother started selling balloons. He’s had no singing lessons, and yet, when he sings, the judges, veteran singers and newbies of Indian Idol weep. His connection to spirit is palpable.

What distinguishes genuine engagement in a culture from appropriation?

Throughout the world, we are currently seeing protests against systemic racism and exclusion, sparked by the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25. There is an underlying story of looting and appropriation to these protests —  not the looting and burning down of storefronts in many cities, but the unacknowledged taking and profiting from the culture and wisdom of oppressed peoples. When I look at India, I am curious — what distinguishes genuine engagement in a culture from appropriation? In the case of Indian Idol, is Sunny appropriating Sufi traditions, or is he joining the wisdom lineage of Sufi singers?

Coming of Age in India

When I came of age in India, I had no interest in anything spiritual. I first picked up the Bhagvad Gita at the age of 15. Its emphasis on renouncing the ego seemed to smack of my parents’ propaganda, which I saw as highfalutin words trying to snuff out the rebellious teenager in me. Although my parents were Hindus, culturally I was steeped in many traditions. I loved visiting Sikh temples, preferring the simplicity, emphasis on equality, and excellent halwah to the chaos, hierarchy, and mixed quality of prasad in Hindu temples. My own name, Vaishali, is a place where the Buddha taught often. One of the most famous Buddhist scriptures, the Vimalakirti Sutra, played out here. My sister’s name, Vishakha, is famous in the buddhadharma as well. We were both named by my grandmother, who had never traveled to Bodhgaya, knew very little formal buddhadharma, and just happened to name us from the Buddhist canon. That’s what happens when you live in a culture where different spiritual traditions meet and permeate each other. You name someone, and it’s no big deal. No one questions whether it’s appropriation.

Appropriation or Devotion?

To whom does the dharma belong? The bar for “ownership” of the buddhadharma is set by the Buddha himself: those with compassion, wisdom, and a benefitting mind.

As quoted Thinley Norbu’s Magic Dance, the historical Buddha once said to his followers: “My fearless lion’s dharma throne does not have an owner. The one who has compassion, who has wisdom mind, who has a benefitting mind, this one is the holder of my lineage and can sit upon my throne.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines appropriation as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.” In the context of the United States, “dominant people” clearly refers to the white majority. So, I ask, are white sanghas engaging in appropriation or genuine engagement?

The Subtleties of Appropriation

While it may be easy to discern more obvious ways of appropriation, there are subtleties that may not show themselves because they are so embedded in the socioeconomic, political milieu we live in. I mention two:

The Crowding Out Effect

In India, it is terrifically difficult to get a spot in a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat. This is because, of the 1.2 billion people in India, anyone who is interested can apply, does apply, and vies for a spot with everyone else interested. A young friend of mine recently finished a retreat in Iggatpuri, India and upon her return said, “It wasn’t Eat, Pray, Love! Nobody was wearing yoga pants. There were people from all walks of life, all ages, all socioeconomic strata…” She was deeply moved and grateful for the equalizing experience – 300 people working with their minds!

Even in a retreat setting, BIPOC are often seen as not quite belonging.

Why are Buddhist retreats in the US so homogenous – white, and affluent? To understand this, I turn to writer Eula Bliss who explains how well-meaning white parents unwittingly help perpetuate racist practices in schools by pushing for their children to be in Advanced Placement (AP) classes. On the face of it, it seems simple – if my children are “gifted,” they deserve to be in AP classes. However, since seats in AP classes are limited, an equally talented nonwhite child might be excluded, because their parents aren’t heard in the school system. Bliss calls this “opportunity hoarding,” and a parallel exists to Buddhist retreats in the US. White people in the US have a tremendous advantage — in schools, hospitals, government, corporations — they are used to being heard and accommodated. This manifests as a confidence that they deserve the dharma. They are at ease signing up for retreats and asking for financial help if they need it. They are confident that, when they walk into a dharma center, almost all the people there will look like them.

I’ve heard white practitioners say “Well, BIPOC aren’t really interested, otherwise they would be here.” This is a double whammy. First, all of the spots are often taken by assertive, keen, white dharma practitioners. Second, we are living in an economic system that gives inordinate financial power to white folks in comparison to BIPOC. The majority of dharma programs are expensive, and require attendees to take time off of work or school. Even in such a setting, BIPOC are often seen as not quite belonging.

In India too, people have to leave work and other commitments to attend 10-day retreats, but there is a staggering diversity of folks who apply. This is because of an embodied understanding and experience that dharma is a resource that is accessible to everyone. Some dharma centers in the US are trying to address this by offering greater access and scholarships and amplify the voices of BIPOC teachers, but much work remains to be done to address the reality that access to these traditions is often for the few who have the money and time to attend.

Affirmative Action?

Another way in which appropriation manifests is the way in which POC are perceived within sanghas. Buddhist teachers of Black African descent tell stories of being invited to teach at a sangha and when they arrive, being met with perplexed looks because the white sangha is so unused to seeing a person of Black African descent in the role of a Buddhist teacher.

Personally, I’ve been very lucky. When I found the buddhadharma, it made sense to me and I had resources to pursue it. I dived in, and studied and practiced under the strict and caring tutelage of my teacher, a Tibetan Buddhist who has a deep respect for Indian wisdom traditions. A few years after joining the sangha, my teacher appointed me to lead our study and practice. I was one of four “study leaders” — the only woman and only POC. This was completely unexpected for me, having been a student for a mere four years, and for my sangha sisters and brothers, many of whom had been studying with our teacher for decades. A fellow student, and dear friend — white and male — came to me after the ceremony and said, “You know you are the Affirmative Action hire, don’t you?”

I was stunned into silence. I’m certain that if I was a white male appointed as a Study Leader after four years, my friend would have assumed that it was my brilliance that led to this appointment. But instead, my friend who worked assiduously to remove his personal obscurations resorted to a deeply racist trope.

I had no way of making sense of this encounter. What I did know, even then, was there was a sense of spaciousness I could draw on: I came from a tradition that had engendered in me a deep and instinctive faith and devotion to the dharma and my teachers. I was a college professor with a PhD in economics — I had been kicking white male ass my whole life. And yet, years later, I remember this comment. To me, it speaks to a lack of awareness of the groundwater that he, I, and all of us are swimming in: seeing POC being elevated to a leadership role as an Affirmative Action hire even when they might be the most qualified person for that role. This takes the ignominy of spiritual appropriation and gives it yet another twist — the conflation of white supremacy and the dharma. The dominant majority takes someone else’s traditions and practices, and then overlays it with an unexamined racist hierarchy which only sees white people as worthy leaders.

Yes, the dharma exhorts us to be wise and compassionate. However, if we keep working on only our own personal obscurations and don’t examine and redress the inequities of the systems in which we are embedded, dharma in the West will be an appropriation. An appropriation overlaid with patriarchy, racism, and various oppressions that rest in our alaya.

A Story of Colonization Told in Two Parts

Colonization: Part I

I heard this story in Bodhgaya: It’s the late 19th century, and the British colonial masters have heard there is a “Vajra Seat,” or Diamond Throne in Bodhgaya. They decide to excavate hoping to find a throne studded with diamonds. What they don’t know is that Buddhists refer to the place where the Buddha attained enlightenment as the “Vajra Seat,” because the truth of the dharma, like a diamond, can cut through every obscuration. When I heard this story, I imagined that the native Biharis1 at the dig were thoroughly tongue-in-cheek about what the colonial masters would find. There would be no diamond throne, but a profound philosophy which would be difficult for them to ship to England as they had other material treasures. But sadly, the Biharis didn’t have the last laugh.

Colonization: Part II

Colonization, one hundred and sixty years later, (circa 2020), looks different! The buddhadharma and other wisdom traditions have been secularized and turned into medical protocols by the primarily white Wellness Industrial Complex that can market yoga, ayahuasca, and LuluLemon with ease. Whether it happens through exoticization or secularization, what’s important is that these traditions are bowdlerized. When they’re completely stripped of their spiritual context and significance, the powerful liberatory potential of these practices is lost.

The Continuing Impact of Colonization

What impact does this second wave of colonization have on the communities who are the holders of these traditions?

Defensiveness and Duality

Given the many depredations colonized people have suffered, this “taking” of our wisdom traditions feels like a final cruel twist. Sometimes we respond with a knee-jerk defensiveness. What happens when we do this? From a neuroscience perspective, feeling under attack impedes relaxation and spaciousness. Defensiveness sharpens subject-object duality. This is the absolute opposite of what dharma can teach us – to realize the nonduality of self and other. Because of our defensive response, which is completely valid, we experience a resurgence of duality that alienates us from our own buddhanature and its inherent spaciousness and compassion. The Vimalakirti Sutra says “The Dharma is omnipresent, because it is like infinite space. It is without color, mark, or shape, because it is free of all process. It is without the concept of ‘mine,’ because it is free of the habitual notion of possession.”

The White Gaze

When we feel we have to defend our wisdom traditions, it can rip apart an “ordinary lived experience” and ascribe to it being “oh so precious” — a contrivance that is the antithesis to the everyday sacred quality of dharma practice. Dr. Toni Morrison talked about the “white gaze” — how, if we let it, our art, writing, music, and culture will be shaped by the editorializing of the dominant white group. The desire of the white majority to acquire spiritual tools and grace is a mirror that can distort lived traditions.

Helena Norberg-Hodge, in her book Ancient Futures, describes her first visit to Ladakh in India. These high mountains, home to Tibetan Buddhists for centuries, have a rich cultural and spiritual legacy, though the residents are materially quite poor. The area was isolated and not many foreigners found their way there. She remembers walking through villages, and children, who to an outsider might have seemed incredibly poor would, in great good cheer, run up and press gifts of dried apricots in her hands. Revisiting a couple of decades later, Ladakh was materially better than before, and increasingly frequented by Western tourists. Norberg-Hodge now saw the children begging from foreigners, their sense of contentment and abundance having been replaced in a short time by a sense of poverty they saw reflected in the eyes of tourists — the white gaze.

Distorting Hall of Mirrors

Recently, I was at a conference for neuroscientists and contemplatives. It was in a beautiful old building and, at the opening reception, the acoustics made it incredibly loud. As I was picking at a baby quiche here, a bunch of grapes there, another conference attendee asked whether I was originally from India. I could barely hear him. I smiled and agreed. “Oh,” he said, “there’s another doctor here from India and he said it’s very difficult to get his Indian patients to practice meditation as a healing modality – they don’t believe in it. They want Western medicine.” “Oh yes,” I said, “that’s what happens when the colonial masters tell you your stuff is shit. You start believing that your stuff is shit. The masters, of course, isolate it as a protocol and teach it to the rest of the world.”

The communities from which these traditions are drawn watch mostly from the outside as this colonization of our wisdom traditions leads to further riches for the colonizer.

Suddenly, the room was silent. The fellow researcher said in a pronounced British accent, “Oh that’s not what the Indian doctor said.” Later I was relaying this to an African American friend. “Gosh,” I said, “if I had heard his accent and known he was British, I wouldn’t have said it.” “Why?” asked my friend, “Because you’re protecting him from the truth of what his people did to your traditions?”

This encounter illustrated the distorting impact of colonial conduct upon wisdom traditions. When the British ruled India, yoga was outlawed and caricatured, and the “naked yogi” trope was widely mocked. If you were a practitioner in British India, you could be punished for your spiritual practice. One-hundred-and-fifty years later, those practices are part of medical protocols designed to promote wellness. Due to the ongoing unequal distribution of resources, it is primarily white researchers who do this research and publish in academic journals.

The communities from which these traditions are drawn watch mostly from the outside as this colonization of our wisdom traditions leads to further riches for the colonizer in the form of recognition and profits. Add to this what my response, “I would not have said those things had I known he was British,” shows: as the affected community, we also take care and assuage the colonizers’ guilt.

More importantly, when colonized populations are stripped of our faith, we lose the attendant blessings and healing our traditions confer. I once read a Tibetan saying: “Sickness comes from not knowing who we are.” When we lose respect and faith in our wisdom traditions, our spirit and material bodies fall gravely ill. And if we resort to defensiveness, we lose touch with the self-secret nature of wisdom. Effectively, we think wisdom is outside us, somewhere out there. This is the ultimate alienation.

Engagement vs. Appropriation

Anicca, or impermanence, is a fundamental teaching of the Buddha. Impermanence invites us to be aware of all phenomena on an ongoing basis. Is what I’m doing an engagement or is it an appropriation? Because things change! For instance, in December 2019, the government of India passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which denies Muslim immigrants the right to Indian citizenship. Protests erupted all over India — people spanning the socioeconomic and religious spectrum were in the streets protesting this violation of the “right to equal treatment regardless of religion.” The police crackdowns were severe – certainly more so in areas that are traditionally more Muslim. But the vast majority of folks protesting the CAA are Hindus. Western media characterizes India as a Hindu state, whereas our constitution and our lived experience is that of a secular state, not in the absence of religion, but an acknowledgment of all religions and faiths. Well, until the CAA.

Hindus were rushing out to protest the bill because we know that our very understanding of ourselves, our music, art, dance, and language, is informed by the grand confluence of all faiths and traditions that have influenced each other and retained their core. His Holiness the Dalai Lama was once asked about what it took to create a truly multicultural society. He said, “Look to India – they have been doing this for thousands of years.” (This is not intended to portray Indian society as ideal. There is a long history of oppression against the Dalits; Brahmanical traditions have likely appropriated animistic traditions from the Adivasis the First Peoples indigenous to India; There is much truth and reckoning to be done here, too.)

To me, what the months of protests in India, which were shut down because of the Covid-19 lockdown, highlighted was that there is no way to honor wisdom traditions if we are not standing as allies with the communities who are holders of those traditions. For these traditions to thrive, the community has to flourish. That responsibility rests on all who would harvest the wisdom of these traditions. Currently in India, when a Muslim singer praises Lord Krishna, or a Hindu sings to Maula the Divine Beloved, we take for granted the richness of our world. If we target and marginalize a community that has helped co-create this rich tapestry, then we will have to acknowledge in the future that when a Hindu sings the utterances of the prophet even if it is in rapture, it is appropriation, not devotion.

For those of us who are protectors of our wisdom lineages, I am reminded of the Buddha’s story of the raft: a traveler comes across a body of water and to get across, she makes a raft. When she gets to the other side, does she leave the raft or does she carry the raft with her? She leaves it behind. The Buddha taught this metaphor to warn us against the danger of reifying the teachings, the teacher, or the practice. Our role as protectors is to walk this knife edge. We must safeguard the transmission of our traditions without falling into the duality of defensiveness, and practice the dharma without reifying it.

And what of Sunny the shoeshine boy? How does he deepen his practice? “Nusrat Sahab comes to me in my dreams,” he says, “and in my dreams he guides my song.” I am pretty certain that Sunny has never read the Supreme Jewel Mound, where the Buddha said, “My form appeared like a dream to sentient beings who are like a dream. I taught them a dreamlike teaching to attain a dreamlike enlightenment.”


1Bihar is the state where Bodhgaya is situated. Residents of Bihar are known as Biharis.

Vaishali Mamgain

Vaishali Mamgain

Dr. Vaishali Mamgain received her PhD in Economics at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She is currently an Associate Professor of Economics and the Director of the Bertha Crosley Ball Center for Compassion at the University of Southern Maine. A pioneer in the field of contemplative education she facilitates Compassion Training workshops in the US and abroad. When COVID-19 forced an online transition, she was teaching Economics and Happiness – a contemplative class she had developed during a fellowship with the American Council of Learned Societies. Currently, she serves on the Board of Directors of The Center for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education and the Courage of Care Coalition. She practices in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition under the tutelage of Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche and from 2014-2017 she did a 3-year meditation retreat at Samten Ling Retreat Center in Crestone, Colorado.