Is a Buddhism without exoticism possible?

- through Francois Leclercq

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Millennial and mysterious, rich in shimmering colors and distant sounds, Buddhism does not escape the sirens of exoticism, which however constitute its own limit. From hijacked Zen to cool which is not, how to prevent this elsewhere from leading nowhere?

As the word itself says, what comes from, has been produced or originated abroad is exotic. To push the meaning even further, we could say: what is natively foreign and, therefore, originally strange! This, moreover, is what makes the interest of exoticism - this part which is addressed to us while refusing the intelligibility or the usual sensitivity, by then offering the gaze the opportunity to a change of scenery. Exoticism is thus this strange phenomenon, and even this phenomenon of the strange, which consists in welcoming into our country what disorients, bringing to us and even to us something which resists assimilation by remaining irremediably at home. . The chiasmus of the familiar and the strange in the same experience; this is not without charm!

But this charm obviously acts on us when it comes to Buddhism. Charm multiplied in a way since the latter is not only Indian, but Chinese, Burmese, Tibetan, Japanese, Mongolian… Asian, we would say, but that is almost saying nothing, because under the unity of this indication geographical area hides considerable cultural diversities which are declined both in space and in time. This also makes us notice in passing that everywhere, except in India, Buddhism was exotic, at least at one point in its history. And exoticism characterizes it today in part in India itself, since having disappeared from the subcontinent between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, Buddhism returned there, adorned however with the forms and colors partially foreign to Tibet and the cultures Southeast Asia (Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma).

The fascination of exoticism

However, what makes the attraction of exoticism also constitutes its limit. For the charm to work, the strangeness must be present in an obvious way. It must be obvious, first and foremost. Consequently, it necessarily tends to screen, to interpose itself between us and the intimate content of the thing coming from elsewhere, and which the exotic effect therefore makes us consider almost exclusively as coming from elsewhere. But isn't this thing richer in characteristics than this simple fact of being foreign? Only here, to be able to realize it, to be able to appreciate it to its full extent, it is necessary to manage to make it ours in a way, to tame it, in short to make it lose its exotic character. Now, isn't it precisely because of its exoticism that this thing first caught our eyes and even captured our hearts? By doing away with exoticism, shouldn't we also give up what had hitherto made it attractive? Because the spell is powerful and the value it gives to what it is cast on is indisputable. Sentimental, personal, aesthetic value of course, but also economic and social value.

Let's go to an auction room to see the price of the exotic works on offer. Take away this dimension of attractive strangeness and focus on their artistic aspects alone, you will find them very quickly overvalued and you will see that a large number are fakes. This is often noticed by a certain number of signs which underline too much the exotic character of the work. Counterfeiters folklorize, that is to say caricature the strangeness to make it too omnipresent. And this is precisely the second negative effect of exoticism: the folklorization that leads to kitsch. It is undoubtedly an inevitable slope of exoticism since this distance constituted by strangeness is necessarily led to reduce as we become familiar with these things that have come from elsewhere, but which have been with us for long enough to make gradually part of the landscape. The exotic character, if it is inevitable during the first times, inclines inevitably and naturally to disappear in proportion to acclimatization.

Spiritual exoticism, a masquerade of Buddhism.

On the other hand, exoticism, in order to maintain itself such, must in some way force the distance by maintaining it in an artificial way, by mimicking it in caricatured, even false forms, because they are often not found as they are in the native country. The most striking and available example is undoubtedly the case of French “Chinese” restaurants, which adopt cooking methods and decorations that mimic a Chineseness that is not found anywhere in China. They play elsewhere and therefore make it a kind of nowhere! Arrived at this point, exoticism becomes a pure and simple denaturation, a masquerade which confuses charm and illusion and which, to maintain its power of attraction, has completely emptied the substance of the things it disguises. It is nothing more than a gaudy display masking what is nothing more than junk.

Zen attitude, watch out for the slippery slope!

However, we know that exoticism does not only affect objects and cuisines, but also social, political, economic, technological… and finally spiritual practices. Buddhism is thus still one of the exotic elements in our cultural landscape. But, since this is the question that concerns us here, is a Buddhism without exoticism possible? In the light of what we have been able to observe, a Buddhism without exoticism seems, if not possible, at least desirable. Otherwise, it would be condemning it to folklorization, to the kitsch that invades interior decoration shops. But this is, let's face it, already partly the case. Zen, this very radical and severe form of Japanese Buddhism, now sounds to us like a vague and distanced, therefore exotic, way of being “cool”. The ample presence that is revealed in the great simplicity of shapes and colors has changed into a kind of emptiness, of a minimalist “not much” that makes it possible to sell overpriced furniture at a low production cost! Zen is already the patent victim of exoticism.

We could argue, however, that these are only superficial borrowings that gravitate around true Zen, which remains vibrant for the sincere practitioner. And this is indeed how exoticism acts: it offsets by concentrating on the periphery, and makes satellite anecdotes pass for the gravitational heart of the phenomenon. However, the division is not so easy to make between what is essential and what is anecdotal, because the thing is inextricably mixed. It's the same problem, classic this one, that arises when we separate content from form. Intellectually, this distinction is not without interest, but do not confuse distinction with separation; because who has ever seen a background without a form, a content without a container? They always go together!

For the case that concerns us, namely Zen and more generally Buddhism, what is folklore, and what is essential? What should we get rid of and what should we maintain and preserve? The pruning could very well be radical, if we consider all cultural determination as a borrowing and therefore an artifice. Thus, there would have been the end of monks' robes, special diets, ceremonies in foreign languages ​​deployed in other rhythms and music, but also of certain ways of meditating that one finds only in certain countries and not in others. Only the Japanese indeed meditate facing a wall, taking care to adopt a very strict position under the supervision of a witness who occasionally strikes the trapezes of the meditator with the help of a stick provided for this purpose, to stimulate both body and mind. The Tibetans, much less formal, insist more on the relaxation of the postures, inviting to practice on any occasion. The Thais, on the other hand, focus on solitude and the forest setting in which meditation must take place...

Buddhism without disguise

The whole problem is that the heart of the buddhist message does not exist outside of the forms it has taken to be transmitted. However, it must be recognized that the properly Western forms of transmission of the “Dharma” do not yet exist, or not enough to constitute on their own a coherent and complete way. Consequently, it still seems necessary to resort to those which prevail in other cultural areas, on the condition of not allowing oneself to be fascinated, of not fetishizing, that is to say of not falling into the trap of exoticism which maintains the distance irreducibly and thus prevents any movement of real appropriation.

It is not because we swap the orange robe for the beret that we are a better monk!

The exotic character of Buddhism is still a fact which however tends, more and more, to belong to the past. Many Western practitioners have begun to enter into the heart of the teachings and are working intensely to communicate our culture and their experience as Buddhists, in order to find a way of saying, of symbolizing, of practicing, of living which is inseparably ours and dharmic. But such considerable work requires much more than talent and goodwill. It must be entrusted, as one entrusts the growth of a tree to nature, at a rhythm which far exceeds individual efforts, but which belongs to what is called History and which follows an insensitive path. to each other's wishes. Knowing this can warn us against an opposite excess which would consist in forcibly tearing away all exotic references from Buddhism, and in applying to it what is already familiar and habitual to us. We must never reduce the unknown to the already known. The Dharma points to an unthought of the West and responds in a surprising way to a void left by our time. It is therefore advisable not to put a damper on his voice by disguising it with our accents. It is not because we swap the orange robe for the beret that we are a better monk! It's also contrived – another form of folklore, that of forced assimilation. At least here exoticism, by its distancing, can still warn us of such a pitfall.

But then is a Buddhism without exoticism possible? Yes, without a doubt. However, this Buddhism refuses all disguise, both that of the Other and that of the Same. It is born from the work of a people – work that is much more akin to working the land or that of the wood and the vines than to contemporary “enterprises” which are far too adventurous to lay claim to authentic roots. Western forms of Buddhism do not yet exist. They are neither elsewhere nor here. They do not pre-exist and therefore cannot be borrowed. They will be the unpredictable creations of our culture, if it works in that direction – which only history will judge. As for us, who are not really the authors of this Western Buddhism, but the simple participants of a movement that goes beyond us and understands us, we are asked to experience the Dharma sincerely, each in our own way. , and to try to transmit it, each in our own way and without naivety. As for the rest? Patience ! Patience in the azure, each atom of silence is the chance of a ripe fruit!

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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