Cultural differences: Eastern and Western Perspectives

 It’s all of a piece. For hippies and bohemians as for business people and investors, extreme individualism has been triumphant. Selfishness won.
Kurt Anderson, The Downside of Liberty, NYT 7/3/2012

Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program.’
The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission

Heaven is where the police are British, the chefs Italian, the mechanics German, the lovers French and it is all organized by the Swiss.  Hell is where the police are German, the chefs British, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss, and it is all organized by the Italians.
Seen on a t-shirt

This is America; we don’t have Enlightenment here!  We have strip clubs, Las Vegas, and HBO.
Quotation from the movie The Bulletproof Monk

When Gandhi was asked what he thought about Western civilization, he replied, “I think it would be a good idea.”


Buddhism came into being some 2,500 years ago with the Buddha’s own Awakening, and since that time the teachings and practices have evolved in ways that would undoubtedly seem quite foreign to Shakyamuni himself. The original forms must have been extremely simple; who knows what he would have to say about prostrations before golden figures, struggling with koans or visualizing celestial realms, getting hit on the shoulders with a stick, ritualizing dharma debates, or the wearing of spectacular robes and at times, as my teacher did, the most unusual hats? It’s hard to fathom how this profusion of forms came into being, and yet here they are. Today, Buddhism is the most diverse religion in the world, manifesting itself through traditions that can be almost unrecognizable to each other. As Indian-born Buddhism migrated throughout Asia, it has transformed, and in turn has been transformed, by each new land – yet at the same time, managing to stay true to that center-point beyond form.

The historical roots of the Zen sect itself are traceable to the teachings of the Buddha himself, but its present day expression really began taking shape as it moved beyond Indian soil many centuries after his death. In China, where it was called Ch’an, its early style and spirit were greatly influenced by Taoism and Confucianism. Through real, and semi-mythic characters such as Bodhidharma, Ma-tsu, Yuan Wu, Huang Po, Hui Neng, Lin chi, and numerous others, a truly new style of practice came into being. In the seventh century Ch’an itself began splitting into the ‘gradual’ and ‘sudden’ schools – a shift of emphasis similar to that found between the Rinzai and Soto Zen sects today. As Ch’an moved into Japan during the 12th and 13th centuries, where it came to be known as Zen, the practice was further influenced by the rising Samurai culture, as well as the indigenous practices of Shintoism. Again, through the force of their character, great masters such as Dogen, Essai, Bassui, Hakuin, and Daiun Sogaku Harada further transformed the spirit of practice. Now, as Ch’an/Zen finds itself mid-air in this leap into the Judeo-Christian ethos of the West, who knows what will emerge?

Because the cultural and intrapsychic differences run so deep, even with today’s lightening technology, this transition may take some time.  (A Japanese monk visiting the Rochester Center many years ago dryly observed that “It’s always the first two hundred years that are the hardest.”)  To begin with, throughout much of its history core features of Buddhist practice have evolved out of the restraints of monastic life, a context that obviously bears little resemblance to the commercialized, computerized, pharmacologized, and over-sexualized culture of the West.  Our culture itself embodies unique forms of disconnection and emotional repression, and in ways perpetuates a pervasive, and almost privileged sense of alienation, victimhood, and unworthiness. Difficulties that grow out of dysfunctional family systems, and out of abuse and neglect are more prevalent, and the environmental and nuclear threats add yet another deeply unsettling reality.

In some ways certain other differences run still deeper, and can be far more elusive; they have to do with the markedly different ways Asians and Americans experience the world. I remember feeling the horror, but also the disbelief, at seeing images of the first Vietnamese monk to burn himself to death in protest of the Vietnam War, of trying to grasp what drove the kamikaze pilots of World War II, and later, trying to grasp the totally unWestern role of seppuku (an honored form of ritualized suicide) in Japanese history. Recently there have been the moving accounts of the selfless heroes of the recent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and the more than 50 Tibetans who have immolated themselves since 2009 in protest of the Chinese occupation.1 These are not Western phenomena.

There’s a fascinating collection of writings that describes the ways that Asia is an honor-bound, ‘shame-based’ society, one which contrasts strongly with the fragmented, ‘guilt-based’ culture of the West. Along with these writings, there are numerous studies that further reveal remarkable differences in the structures of language, family systems, legal and medical systems, the ways we experience our feelings, and our analytic, linear styles of thought which stands in such contrast with the holistic worldviews of Asia.  One recent study even raises the question whether the six main ‘universal’ expressions of emotion identified by Darwin actually fit within the Asian emotional system.2

In terms of Buddhist practice, it’s noteworthy that one contemporary Japanese Zen teacher, Koun Yamada, has written:

In comparing the spirit of the East with that of the West, one characteristic readily comes [to] mind, namely, the proclivity in the East to be able to see and understand readily that the world is one. As I have often said, the fact that the world is one cannot be grasped unless it is through the world of emptiness. For some reason, of which I am not sure, the Eastern peoples have an affinity for the world of emptiness and because of that they see the world is one… For this reason, when I say that there must be a change from Western thought, I think that the only possible substitute is the Eastern approach.3

Though we may not agree with his final conclusion, Yamada’s initial observation raises some intriguing questions.

For many, the Western imprint of guilt and unworthiness is pervasive, and perpetuates itself through a range of cultural and intrapsychic dynamics.  Whether we look at our medical model of mental health, our post-Freudian view of the Id and unconscious, our Judeo-Christian heritage, teachings of Original Sin, Calvinistic child rearing practices, our educational and legal systems, and much more, we can’t help but see the reflections of what appear to many to be a painfully isolating, and distorting view of what it means to be a human being. These cultural forms of intense repression, and our punitive unconscious dynamics, mutually reflect and reinforce each other. It’s no secret that for some, and probably most Dharma practitioners, these painful states arise with great force in the midst of practice.

Perhaps the greatest, and most elusive difference between Asians and Westerners has to do with the ways we experience our sense of self. Elegant research has shown that Asians grow up with an “interdependent” sense of self, one which contrasts strongly with the Western “independent” sense of self. An interdependent self grows out of relationship, and embodies a sense of the inseparability of all existence; here, not honoring relationships is what underlies the experience of shame. On the other hand, an independent self is one which sees itself as existing to a large extent outside of relationship. In the extreme, this kind of “self” defines itself through pathways of disconnection, and even opposition. Our independent work ethic translates as, “I should be able to do this by myself,” and, at least in the United States, our heroic ideal is often pictured as the lone rider heading off into the sunset.

All of this heightens the sense of the ‘me’ and the ‘mine’; it emphasizes the need to split experience into ‘self’ and ‘other.’ This fundamental disconnection can manifest itself through an existential angst, ideas about the meaninglessness of life, and all kinds of depressive states. As Heidegger said, “Anxiety is there. It is only sleeping. Its breath quivers perpetually through man’s being.”  At its worst, this way of being takes the heart out of the world, and opens the door to uncaring exploitation.

At the same time, it’s not hard to get the feeling that it’s not in spite of, but because of, all these differences, particularly these intense alienating forces of the West, that there’s such a thirst for Dharma practice in this country. As Camus wrote, “Our reason has driven all away. Alone at last, we end up ruling over a desert.” In this place and time we may be feeling all this aloneness, and with it the thirst for wholeness, more acutely than ever — Buddhism offers not only an antidote, but a means of profound transformation. As Einstein has written, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”  “Business as usual,” simply isn’t working very well these days.

Woody Allen once parodied:

More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads.  One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction.  Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. I speak, by the way, not with any sense of futility, but with a panicky conviction of the absolute meaninglessness of existence which could easily be mistaken as pessimism.  It is not.  It is merely a healthy concern for the predicament of modern man.

This was first published in 1979.

So far what’s been presented here is really just a brief vignette of Western thought, but it’s not at all meant as some kind of blanket condemnation of this culture, nor as some idealization of an Asian worldview. (The above mentioned suggestion of ‘substituting’ some Asian variation for Western thought seems to reveal more about Eastern thought itself, than anything else.) It’s really not a question of either/or, right or wrong, but rather, the more we’re in touch with the destructive currents running through the world and ourselves, forces that lead either to numbness or to pain and destruction, the more open we will be to discovering a different way of being.

Western culture, of course, has tremendous strengths: an independence of spirit; a drive for excellence; and a primal thirst for exploration, discovery and truth. It also offers an understanding of our conscious and unconscious dynamics unlike any other time in history – an unconscious that holds both creative and destructive forces. The crucible of self-destructive energies we find around us and within us, reflected in the most profound environmental, social, and political turmoils, offers up an urgent opportunity for a new, and deeper level of resolution – what in Buddhist terms might be called a new Turning of the Wheel.

  1. Tibetans Cry Out for Haven From China in Dozens of Self-Immolations, available at: []
  2. Jack, Rachael E., Oliver G. B. Garrod, Hui Yu, Roberto Caldara and Philippe G. Schyns, “Facial – Expressions of Emotion are not Culturally Universal,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, May 8, 2012. Available from []
  3. Quoted in R.H. Sharf’s article Sanbôkyôdan Zen and the Way of the New Religions avaialable at []