What does cultural appropriation mean in a Buddhist context? According to Chenxing Han and Trent Walker, the answer is not as simple as we might like it to be.
Museum-quality Cambodian Buddhist antiquities decorating a New York penthouse. A Chinese man in a monk costume begging for alms on the streets of Phnom Penh. Garden-variety Buddha statues sitting on the floor of a California yoga studio. Canadian college students cavorting in monastic garb at a Halloween party in Ontario.
What do these four situationally and geographically disparate phenomena have in common?
All of them might be censured as examples of cultural appropriation, a term that was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in March 2018 and defined as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.” The OED traces the first citation to a 1945 essay by Arthur E. Christy that discusses “European cultural appropriation from the Orient.”
There’s a temptation to reduce cultural appropriation to reassuring lists — here’s how to spot it, here’s how to stop it — as if we were dealing with halitosis or athlete’s foot, embarrassing but eliminable with a simple remedy.
The term began to enter widespread usage in the 1980s. Through the myopic lens of Google search, this might come as a surprise. Enter “cultural appropriation” into Google Trends and you’ll see a spike in queries beginning in 2015, as if the term was tracking with the rising pitch of American culture wars around issues of race, representation, and identity. Since then, hardly a month has passed without the two of us—a writer trained in Buddhist chaplaincy (Chenxing) and a scholar of Southeast Asian Buddhism (Trent)—discussing a fresh controversy about cultural appropriation in the news. We’re surely not the only couple who has spent many an evening debating the ins and outs of these headlines, though the time might have been more enjoyably (and age-appropriately) spent binge-watching Netflix (we are, after all, millennials).
And yet we find ourselves drawn back, again and again, to these labyrinthine conversations, even if they feel more like going down a rabbit hole than getting out of the woods. Conflicts over cultural appropriation erupt on social media and college campuses with geyser-like regularity, in realms as varied as fashion, food, film, literature, sports, and politics. Disagreement is practically assured, as Jia Tolentino observes in the acerbic opening to her 2016 New Yorker essay “Lionel Shriver Puts on a Sombrero”: “No matter your opinion on cultural appropriation, you can be certain that many people think you are wrong.”
Our role, obviously, is not to be a final arbiter in these debates. As nonsectarian lay Buddhists who have lived most of our lives in America (with stints in East and Southeast Asia), and as a Chinese American and a white American, respectively, we do not inhabit three of the racial/ethnic identities that frequently come up in the literature on cultural appropriation—Indigenous, Black, and Latinx—though we are more connected to a fourth: Asian. In this article, we focus on Buddhist examples of cultural appropriation, though this still feels impossibly broad. We won’t attempt to be comprehensive, though we do hope to facilitate nuanced dialogue on a topic that too easily devolves into shouting matches.
There’s a temptation to reduce cultural appropriation to reassuring lists—here’s how to spot it, here’s how to stop it—as if we were dealing with halitosis or athlete’s foot, embarrassing but eliminable with a simple remedy. This article is neither mouthwash nor antifungal. We offer no cures, no recipes for success, no insurance against failure. If anything, we seek your companionship, dear readers, in traversing cultural appropriation’s rugged terrain and apprehending its convoluted contours. In the span of this short piece, it’s impossible to map every rock and river, building and boundary. But our peregrinations can hopefully yield some insight into the complexities of this landscape, inviting us into relationships of responsible stewardship rather than rapacious conquest.
Cultural appropriation goes by many guises: Appreciation. Recognition. Adaptation. Translation.
Or, less rosily: Theft. Fraud. Disrespect. Bad taste.
We have structured this article on the latter set, which map onto the four examples at the beginning of this piece. We offer these four categories not because they are mutually exclusive (they are not) and not for the sake of being dour (we like to think that we’re not), but because they have helped us understand, on a more granular level, the outrage that often surrounds instances of cultural appropriation.
From 2016 to 2018, we lived a short walk away from the National Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The open-air galleries brim with beauty: wood, bronze, and stone Buddha images from all periods of Cambodian history, some more than 1,500 years old. Yet many of the most exquisite examples of Khmer Buddhist art remain abroad, appropriated during the colonial era or looted from Cambodian temples during the chaos and violence of the 1970s.
Thanks to longstanding efforts by Southeast Asian governments, international experts, museum professionals, and American prosecutors, dozens of illicitly trafficked Khmer art objects in the US have been returned to their country of origin in recent years. This past June, the federal government, led by efforts from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, repatriated twenty-seven smuggled antiquities to Cambodia. The statues, including magnificent bronze images of the Buddha sheltered by the naga Mucalinda and an imposing stone icon of the “Mother of All Buddhas,” Prajnaparamita, had been stolen from Cambodia and sold by two high-end galleries on the Upper East Side.
The repatriated pieces are embodiments of Cambodian genius and Buddhist devotion. Why were they sold to customers in New York? The simple answer is that wealthy collectors are willing to pay vast sums to display prized Buddhist antiquities in their homes. Buyers wouldn’t necessarily have known they were purchasing stolen heirlooms. But the illicit trade in Buddha images across Asia is profoundly destructive: icons cut from foundations, heads hacked off cliffsides, local traditions interrupted, their continuity sundered.
The trade in Buddhist manuscripts is no less damaging. Between our Phnom Penh apartment and the National Museum, several shops catering to tourists sold folding fans, greeting cards, and other tchotchkes made from cut-up palm-leaf manuscripts. Over 95 percent of Khmer and Pali manuscripts in Cambodia were lost between 1970 and 1990. The desecration of the few that remain would be easier to prevent if there wasn’t such a strong demand for these items.
Such cases of outright theft may go beyond what we normally consider cultural appropriation. After all, the culprits in these examples are stealing or destroying Buddhist icons and sacred texts, not merely using them in an unacknowledged or inappropriate way. But perhaps the core motivation is the same: taking something that doesn’t belong to us and using it for our own purposes.
On the same street that was home to the tourist shops and the National Museum in Phnom Penh, we’d occasionally come across Chinese nationals dressed in monastic garb, selling small amulets. These men and women were part of a global racket that involved wearing the robes of monks and nuns during the day, using high-pressure tactics to sell their wares, and returning to lay life at night. Despite drawing the ire of local Cambodians, who immediately recognized these wandering vendors as fraudulent, they were a relatively peaceful presence on a busy street. The fake bhikshus and bhikshunis had appropriated a status that wasn’t properly theirs. But were they hurting other people?
Swindling others, especially through claiming false status as a Buddhist monastic, is thought to incur grave karmic consequences. The damage to the reputation of Buddhism is significant, not to mention the way such appropriation of religious garb can cause people to lose trust in the dharma. At the same time, we wondered: what causes and conditions led these people to leave rural China and come to Cambodia to make a living in this way? From our position of privilege, it’s hard to condemn such a choice, heartless not to consider the penury behind it.
It’s hard to admit that, more often than not, what lies beneath ethical judgment is a cruder, more subjective sense: that cringe factor we feel upon encountering something that seems to be garish, tacky, or just plain bad taste.
It can feel harder to sympathize with cases of fraud driven by motivations beyond economic hardship. This may explain the outcry over white American poet Michael Hudson’s decision to appropriate the name of a Chinese American female high school classmate, Yi-Fen Chou, as “a strategy for ‘placing’ poems” (Hudson’s tactic succeeded; “Yi-Fen Chou’s” poem was included in The Best American Poetry 2015). To Tolentino’s point, Hudson’s decision was vehemently pilloried in some circles and vociferously defended in others—though Chou’s family made it clear that they considered his actions to be fraudulent and unethical. This literary controversy was invoked earlier this year when another one erupted, this time in the usually peaceable realm of “the Buddhist Anglosphere,” to borrow a phrase from An Tran’s LitHub article on the topic.
Detailing the intricacies of the debate over Matty Weingast’s The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns is beyond the scope of this article, though it bears noting that the collection has been reissued with a new subtitle: “Original Poems Inspired by the Early Buddhist Nuns.” The title change addresses the concerns of those who consider it spurious to claim The First Free Women as a translation—rather than, say, a reimagination—of the Therigatha.
In our labyrinthine conversations on these two literary controversies—and we must confess there were many, leaving our Netflix account woefully underused—two things in particular stuck out.
One was around the delicacy of translating religious texts. Though the line between religious and secular is not always easy to draw, a haphazard translation of Pride and Prejudice might be dismissed as pabulum, while an English version of the Quran that is heavy on embellishment and elision would likely be decried as sacrilege. Yet we also recognize that debates over what counts as translation and what counts as adaptation are long-standing and intractable, both within and beyond the Buddhist sphere.
The second was around intentionality. From a Buddhist perspective, the karmic weight of our actions is driven by intention. Hudson’s deception was fully deliberate; evidence of willful duplicity in the case of Weingast’s book is far less clear-cut. We say this not to condemn one and exonerate the other, but to point out how difficult it is to draw full equivalences between cultural appropriation’s many instantiations.
Intractable as these debates can be, for Buddhists of all stripes, duplicity doesn’t sit well. Though one might feel compassion for the desperations or desires that drive the act of fraud, such behavior rankles for members of a religion that holds truth in the highest esteem.
In the years that we lived in Berkeley while attending grad school, I (Chenxing) developed a habit of buying new student specials as a way to take yoga classes without breaking the bank. Eventually—yes, even in Berkeley—I exhausted my options, so when a studio opened near campus, I jumped at the opportunity. Alas, I never used up that three-class pass. The reason surprised me. In the studio, a perfectly innocuous Buddha statue rested on the wood floor. A decade prior, when I first started doing yoga, I would hardly have noticed this icon. But having subsequently witnessed the reverence with which Cambodian and Thai Buddhists honored such statues in their home countries as well as in diaspora, it felt mortifying (for me anyway) to spend the hour pointing our bare feet and sticking our scantily clad butts at the Buddha.
I was reminded of this yoga studio a few years later when staying with my family at an Airbnb in the UK. At the front entrance, a sign requested that we remove our shoes. Next to the shoe rack was a Buddha head that was just a tad taller than my ankle boots.
I doubt the yoga studio or Airbnb owners meant any disrespect; they may well have intended the opposite. I could choose to tell these two stories as allegories of white people who, callous in their privilege, appropriate from a less dominant Asian culture. But privilege is multifaceted, dominance always relative. I can imagine our Khmer and Thai Buddhist neighbors in Phnom Penh and later Bangkok (where we lived from 2018 to 2020), members of the ethnic and religious majority of their countries, gladly educating the hapless folks who don’t know how Buddha statues should be venerated—and glad to see the iconography of their religion gaining a foothold in the West.
A friend recently sent a photo of a Buddha-themed box of chocolates with the text, “What flavor is Buddha’s head?” I peered at the chocolates and wondered why Jesus and Muhammad’s heads weren’t inside the box too. How do we respond when Buddhist images are appropriated in disrespectful ways? When Buddha images are used as ornamentation for toilet brush holders, bikinis and lingerie, shot glasses and hookah bars, do we berate the offenders? Petition them to change their behavior? Stay silent and let the laws of karma have the final say? Or do we accuse those who are offended of being “too sensitive” and insufficiently tolerant?
This is where we would be expected to lay out definitive answers to the questions above. But we’re afraid the only thing we can say for sure is: according to one chocolatier, tamarind mango.
We say this not to be flippant, but as a reminder of how often our indignation has given way to humbler feelings. We’ll grumble, “What’s with these hardware-store Buddhas that people are just plopping in backyards like garden gnomes?!” And then we’ll think of the hardware-store Buddha statue planted on a street corner in 2011 by a nonreligious man to discourage vandalism and littering. Devout Buddhists were quick to elevate the statue from its lowly perch—Vietnamese Americans began to pray and make offerings at the site. Before long, it had become a shrine called Pháp Duyên Tu (Dharma Affinity Temple).
Sometimes a person dressed as a Buddhist monk at a costume party is just someone dressed up as a Buddhist monk at a costume party—and not a racist jerk.
–Gary Mason, in a November 24, 2016, Globe and Mail op-ed
A very shockingly racist party thrown by Queen’s students happened and the photos make me sick to my stomach. The costumes are indisputably and unequivocally offensive, tasteless, and should not be tolerated. Context and intentions have no bearing.
–Celeste Yim, quoted in a November 23, 2016 Toronto Star article
The Toronto Star article includes a sampling of photos from the “Countries of the World”–themed flip cup tournament that sparked Mason and Yim’s polarized opinions: a group of young men sporting thick shades, white shirts, and black headbands to which they’ve affixed checkered scarves, in an imitation of Arab fashion. Another lot in conical nón lá hats clutching toy Kalashnikovs, in a mockery of Vietnamese soldiers. Another cluster of partygoers crowned by sombreros. And a quartet of women in beige skullcaps, draped in burgundy imitations of Tibetan monastic robes, beer cups between their hands and teeth. All of the students appear to be white.
Maybe you feel Mason’s exasperation on this one. Maybe you share Yim’s wrath. We’ll be honest: our knee-jerk reaction was closer to Yim’s. It’s easy to look down on the subjects of these images with a smug sense of moral superiority. It’s harder to admit that, more often than not, what lies beneath ethical judgment is a cruder, more subjective sense: that cringe factor we feel upon encountering something that seems to be garish, tacky, or just plain bad taste.
Aesthetic judgments are a significant factor in how we read certain situations as cultural appropriation and others as respectful borrowing. Acknowledging our gut instincts is one thing; imposing them on others has more sinister implications. Aesthetic normativity no doubt fuels homophobia and transphobia. When people’s tastes vary, who should be the reigning taste-makers?
When Yim writes that “context and intention have no bearing,” it comes across as an expression of disgust: under no circumstances are such displays acceptable. Might we be able to imagine a context where similar costumes would be tolerable? Productions of Puccini’s Turandot, like the one I (Trent) performed in for the San Francisco Opera in sixth grade, often feature non-Asian children dressed up as Chinese monks. Or is this also an offensive form of cultural appropriation, given a pass only because it’s considered highbrow instead of lowbrow?
We have to respectfully disagree with one part of Yim’s tweet: context and intention do matter. We’ve touched on intention in the section on fraud, so permit us a few words on context here. Decontextualized responses to cultural appropriation often take the form of blanket statements: anyone can dress in whatever way they want. Asian people wear Western dress—why can’t these college kids wear Buddhist robes?
Yet it is precisely because context matters that we strenuously disagree with Mason. When white people dress up as Tibetan monks for a beer-chugging contest, there are real-world consequences. We can call it racism, impudence, or pure bad taste, but the bottom line is that both the context (a raucous drinking game) and the intention (to represent world cultures through blatant stereotypes) are hurtful to many.
Power and privilege matter too. If Vietnamese Canadian students dressed up as Vietcong infantry, how would the war survivors in their families feel? Can we imagine young Tibetans in the West playacting as monastics for a party? Not easily, because they are tied in webs of relationships and cultural norms—which the white revelers in Kingston, Ontario, gave no second thought to. Off-color jokes, tactless costumes, and other such inconsiderate displays are all the more insulting when perpetuated by people whose privilege insulates them from the worst repercussions of their own actions.
We have to be careful with aesthetic judgments. When we see something that makes us cringe, what is the basis for our reaction? As Buddhists, we are reminded that our minds are perniciously inclined to see ourselves as better than others. On the other hand, our sense of taste can help us discern complex dynamics of power and privilege. Acts of cultural appropriation leave an acrid taste in our mouths when they are disrespectful to the very people who face the corrosive effects of religious and ethnic stereotypes on a daily basis.
From Permission to Responsibility
Some non-Asian Buddhists express concern about taking on dharma names, wearing Buddhist robes, and chanting in Asian languages. Are these problematic acts of cultural appropriation? Is permission necessary from Asian and Asian American Buddhist communities before engaging in such traditions? How should the religion’s deep-rooted Asian heritage inform how we act, dress, and practice as Buddhists?
History shows us a path forward. Throughout the centuries, Buddhists have charted a course between the universal and the culturally specific dimensions of the faith. Buddhist practice is intended for all beings. Yet it is grounded in a complex lineage of transmission and innovation across many Asian cultures and languages. The riddle of cultural appropriation must answer to both realities.
For all its reputation as a nonevangelizing faith, Buddhism spread through missionary efforts as much as trade and cultural exchange. The foundations of Buddhism are predicated on the claim that the dharma is true for all beings, regardless of their cultural or religious background. Almost all Buddhist sects see themselves as universal traditions: applicable to all and open to all. From this perspective, non-Asian Buddhists need not ask permission to participate—Buddhism, like Christianity and Islam, does not belong to any race, culture, or country.
Until the nineteenth century, however, the dharma was largely transmitted within the continent of Asia. Buddhist texts, teachings, rituals, and practices have been shaped by the cultures that have cherished and developed Buddhism over the past 2,500 years. Fidelity to lineage and ancestors fosters a natural respect for the ways Asian and Asian diaspora communities have and continue to transmit and creatively interpret the Buddha’s teachings. Buddhists of all backgrounds have a responsibility to safeguard this rich and diverse heritage.
Theft, fraud, disrespect, and bad taste: avoiding these is a first step, but hardly the whole picture. As the scriptures remind us, it’s a rare privilege to be born a human being, and an even rarer privilege to encounter the dharma. With this privilege comes a profound responsibility: to honor the traditions bequeathed to us, to recognize those who paved our path, and to learn together as Buddhists so that all sentient beings may benefit.