The Difference Between ‘Cultural’ and ‘Philosophical’ Buddhism

Yesterday, I got a Tweet out of the blue from a Tibetan woman, informing me she had a problem with my ‘identifying’ as a Tibetan Buddhist and suggesting I qualify it with the words ‘British’. At first, it struck me as bit odd that a complete stranger felt the need to inform me of this. However, the message itself was a good example of a self-righteous and narrow-minded ideology and mindset that appears to be gaining ground in those associated with the ‘post-colonial’ Left.

As a Buddhist Studies scholar and student for the last ten years, any suggestion that the fundamental tenets of Buddhism are somehow connected to one’s race, gender, age or culture are not only tragically ironic but also factually incorrect. Shakyamuni Buddha was a man who preached the exact opposite of ‘identity’ politics. His central message was that we need to let go of (spang, abandon) two sets of mental ‘obscurations’ ( sgrib-gnyisfrom our mental continuums in order to attain liberation and/or enlightenment. They obscure the ‘mind’’s deepest nature and thus obscure the ‘mind’’s automatically arising deep awareness (ye-shes lhan-skyes, innate wisdom). These are:

1) The emotional obscurations (nyon-sgrib) – disturbing emotions and attitudes, which prevent liberation and are often connected with clinging to identities developed by cultural and social conditioning ( such as religion, race and gender).  This includes letting go of the idea of an inherently existing Self (gang-zag-gi bdag-med, selflessness of persons).

2) The cognitive obscurations (shes-sgrib) – obscurations regarding all knowable phenomena and which prevent omniscience, such as letting go of the idea that phenomena inherently exist from their own side (chos-kyi bdag-med, selflessness of phenomena).

While the latter is much more difficult and ingrained, the former is within the ‘intellectual’ grasp of most people. It does not take genius to work out that such ‘identities’ are ‘man-made’ and have no inherent existence from their own side. And yet, some people who ‘identify’ themselves as Tibetan Buddhists apparently are not aware of (or wilfully ignore) this central tenet of Buddhist Philosophy and cling to the idea that Buddhism (as practised by Tibetans) is somehow ‘Tibetan’ or owned by ethnic Tibetans, merely by virtue of their parents’ racial and cultural heritage. This is even more ironic when one considers that Buddhism, which originated in India was ‘culturally appropriated’ and adopted by Tibetans (something that post-colonialists normally take issue with).

Of course, this is not unique to Buddhism. Groups such as Ex-Muslims and Indian Atheists also resist the ideology that one’s religion is equivalent to (or owned by) a particular ethnic group or culture. And yet this way of thinking appears to be popular among those on the ‘Regressive’ or ‘post-colonial’ Left as I have written about here and here and here.

Sadly this type of ideology also extends into the intellectual sphere where scholars and writers, including myself, have been ‘informed’ (often by non-Scholars) that they should not be speaking about a specific culture, race or religion because they are not the correct ethnicity. A recent example of this can be seen with the Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, Sheldon Pollock, and the attacks by Hindu nationalists in India, on his academic position and worthiness, based on his ethnicity and nationality.

The idea that one culture ‘owns’ a particular heritage is also having a profound impact on museums, as Tiffany Jenkins explains in Does One Ethnic Group Own Its Cultural Artefacts?:

We need to ask who speaks for the relevant indigenous community, and on what basis. Even who qualifies as indigenous is a vexed question, as is the fact that ‘the indigenous’ rarely speak with one voice. Ethnocentric policies therefore tend to vest authority in anointed chiefs and elders (local equivalents of the privileged white male), without asking how many and which tribal members need to subscribe to the traditional view for it to remain authoritative. What about those who disagree? And what about those who want to change it, or challenge it from within?……

But handing over the right to narrate history to those with the approved ethnicity is not the way that knowledge works. The pursuit of truth and the understanding of history must be open to everybody, regardless of class, ethnicity or gender. There must be universal access. That is how questions can be explored, and old forms of authority challenged.

Such issues demonstrate the need to make a crucial distinction between ‘religion as culture’ and ‘religion as philosophy’. The vast majority of self-identifying Tibetan Buddhists are still ethnic Tibetans who (since birth) have been brought up and identified as Buddhist by their parents and society. Similarly, the majority of Muslims and Hindus have adopted it (or been brainwashed into it) by birth. This ‘religion by birth’ is often (although not always) accompanied by a lack of genuine knowledge or interest in the actual philosophical practises and teachings contained within the doctrinal texts.

For example, many ethnic Tibetan Buddhists (living outside of high altitude Tibet) happily eat and consume meat without any consideration or recognition that such behaviour goes against one of the central tenets of Buddha’s teachings: see the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra Chapter 8 and Kyabje Chatral Rinpoche. Similarly, many Muslims drink alcohol, believe in gender equality and do not espouse violent jihad against non-believers. As Sam Harris and ex-Muslim Aryan Hirsi Ali have pointed out this makes such people Muslim by name but not by religious doctrine.

Prof. Robert Thurman with the 14th Dalai Lama

And here lies the crux of the matter. There is a vast difference between a person who identifies as a Buddhist (be that Zen, Hinayana, Mahayana, Tibetan etc.) for cultural or social reasons and someone who is following and studying Buddhism (or any religion) for spiritual or philosophical reasons (such as Prof. Robert Thurman pictured above).

The 14th Dalai Lama himself has stated on many occasions that ‘western’ followers of Tibetan Buddhism are often ‘better’ and more ‘diligent’ students than ethnic Tibetans, the majority of whom do not really understand the philosophical texts or teachings. A Tibetan friend of mine told me several years ago that the majority of Tibetans understand about 20 per cent of the Dalai Lama’s teachings in terms of the philosophical terms and meanings.

Of course, such distinctions are not mutually exclusive. For example, some ethnic Tibetans (who are ‘Buddhists by birth’) manage to be both spiritual and cultural practitioners, such as the 14th Dalai lama, the 17th Karmapa and other monastics or yogis. And of course, there are ‘Buddhists by choice’ who all too readily adopt the cultural and material aspects of the religion without really entering into the Philosophy in a deep or genuinely meaningful way. The great Tibetan Buddhist master, Chogyam Trungpa pinpointed this kind of follower in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and here the 17th Karmapa describes it:

Sometimes when we practice dharma we think that we need to show some sort of external or physical sign of it. We pay a lot of attention to the rituals and these actions of our body and speech. This is practicing dharma when we’re focusing outside. But instead what we need to do is turn our attention inwards. We need to see whether what we’re doing is functioning as an antidote to the afflictions or not. We need to see whether we are taming our mind or not. We need to see whether our mind is improving, getting kinder, or not. If we don’t look at it in this way then there’s no benefit to doing these actions – we think that we are trying to do the dharma, but actually we are just making a show with our body and speech. We are putting on appearances, and that’s all we really take an interest in. And the moment that happens, this becomes spiritual materialism.

Shakyamuni Buddha always emphasised the importance of study and practice and focusing more on what unites us as human beings (our desire to be happy and not to suffer), not on ‘secondary differences’. As the Dalai Lama stated recently at a talk given this year to Tibetans in Minnesota:

Children…….have no prejudices or preconceptions. They aren’t bothered by the secondary differences of colour, faith, nationality, wealth or education that seem to pre-occupy adults. We would be better to be like them and one remedy is to remember that we are all the same as human beings.

If someone wants to identify as Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and so on, one would hope they are free to do so without the ‘culture police’ telling them if it is appropriate or not. However, let’s be clear about what we mean if we do. Are you a cultural or a philosophical Buddhist or both? Because if you think that your ethnicity is important to your Buddhism then then you are clearly the former.

Group of Buddhist nuns with Tibetan Buddhist nun, Thubten Chodron

Those on the Regressive Left, like my Tibetan Tweeter, would no doubt seek to pressure people to ‘identify’ themselves with lengthy, awkward monikers such as ‘British, hetero, white, woman, following a form of Buddhism culturally appropriated from Indian Buddhism by Tibetans……’. Perhaps a more accurate ”label’ than ‘Tibetan Buddhist’ would be ‘Vajrayana Buddhist’ (as this includes both Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhist teachings).

However, if I am going to ‘identify’ as anything I will identify as a Philosophical Buddhist (or Buddhist by Choice and Learning) not a Cultural one (Buddhist by Birth and Socialised Habit). A far more meaningful identification in terms of what the Shakyamuni Buddha actually intended, which does not divide people on grounds of race, ethnicity and culture but on one’s personal knowledge, attitude and conduct.


7 thoughts on “The Difference Between ‘Cultural’ and ‘Philosophical’ Buddhism

  1. Amrit

    Perhaps, what the woman wanted to say was that she thought a British should call herself a British Tibetan Buddhist. Tibetan Buddhism is a form of vajrayana Buddhism that is particular to a specific region and culture. As Buddhism fully took hold in Tibet during the second dissemination it emancipated from Indian Buddhism, becoming something of its own. These days Tibetan Buddhism is spreading throughout the world. The teachers are mostly still Tibetans, however, we should ask ourselves if the mere term Tibetan Buddhism does invite ambiguity. How should we understand the “Tibetan” in Tibetan Buddhism? Perhaps we should call it Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibetan flavor.

    It all seems to be an issue of self-identification. Many Thereavada Buddhists regard the term Hinayana (“Lesser Vehicle”) as derogative. The term Hinayana was coined by Mahayana (“Great Vehicle”) Buddhist in retrospect. Perhaps it was not meant to be derogative but simply an act of identification, distinguishing the own group from another.


    1. PDXsays

      These divisions you suggest are not descriptive, as all Tibetan Buddhism requires that you come to vajrayana through the individual liberation (Hinayana), and wish to liberate others (Mahayana). You must have all to become that. These are not divisible one from the other. This is, in fact, a basic expression of the philosophical tennents nondual anatman vs atman that make Tinetan Buddhist practice what it is according to the Shakya Muni. He held that understanding of practice be accessible to each of us, that all may be assured enlightenment. These teachings are also called Turnings of the Wheel, which acknowledge that accessing your innate nature makes you Buddha. So bottom up equals top down, proving the nondual nature -equanimity – of all. 1) All want to be happy – there is suffering in life. 2) All want not to suffer – we seek knowing happiness . 3) All want happiness that does not end – happiness results in suffering when its cause is exhausted . There is a cause of suffering. Ergo 4) Equanimity, which inspires Compassion — this is the way to end suffering. These are the Four Noble Truths and the way it leads us to learn what to abandon, what to acquire. That is the Eight Fold Path. We begin where we are. No matter where you start, you are on the Path. Very inclusive this. Equaminity. All are loved.


  2. Nicely stated. 20 years ago as an aspiring Buddhist studies grad student, I felt the sustained pressure and judgement of the repressive left. As a practicing Buddhist, I was guilty of the crime of cultural appropriation, magnified by being white male, and therefore was not really capable of “proper” academic scholarship. It was the outcome of teachers’ and students’ reading of post-colonial theory. Ultimately I decided to leave academia, as I didn’t have the stomach to continually fight that battle.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s