I'm reading a couple of books that, in very different ways, discuss an issue relevant to those involved in traditions that come from other cultures. One is a memoir about living among modern Sufis in Afghanistan: Embattled Saints: My year with the Sufis of Afghanistan, by Kenneth P. Lizzio. The other is a novel about a shy Japanese priest sent to New York to help build a temple for his sect: Buddhaland Brooklyn, by Richard C. Morais.* The problems these two men face are the mirror opposite of each other.
The American who goes to Afghanistan hoping to gain Sufi mystical wisdom is dismayed when told how important shari'a law is. Over and over again, he is admonished that shari'a is part and parcel of the mystical path, not something only for fundamentalist Muslims but for all Muslims. He resents having to grow his beard to a certain length and shape, and he believes the sexual segregation is plain wrong, to name only two of his many issues with Muslim law. But he wants what the Sufis have, so he goes along.
The Japanese priest has the reverse of this problem. Having lived in a mountain temple since he was a boy, he believes that everything that he was taught to do in reverence to Buddha is a step on the path to enlightenment, and that none of it can be omitted. So, for example, when his New York believers complain that it is hard for them to kneel on the floor, he says, in effect, "Tough shit." When they want lectures more relevant to their daily lives, he explains that, in order to attain enlightenment, devotees must understand the sacred texts in all of their subtly . He believes the New Yorkers aren't taking Buddhism seriously because they don't want to do it the received way.
When I was young, I practiced two kinds of Buddhism in Japan. My unexamined assumption was that I could only get enlightened if I became like a Japanese. And the problem was, the Japanese believed this as well! I went home after a year, a total failure.
The trick is to separate the essential teachings from the cultural context. Not easy. On the one hand, we have (hopefully) an enlightened teacher who has taken a certain path to his or her wisdom. On the other hand, we have aspirants who are not enlightened and do not share the teacher's cultural assumptions. In such a situation, who is going to decide what is necessary to the deepest spiritual realization and what is just a cultural accretion?
Sometimes it takes more than a generation to work this out. When Philip Kapleau found what he'd been looking for in Japan, he brought it back to America virtually wholesale, and it was not until his senior student, Toni Packer, said, "Wait, much of this doesn't really work for a lot of Westerners," and went off to found her own meditation center, that the deepest realization in Zen could be found, without the cultural accretions. My own teacher, Adyashanti, was a third generation Zen student -- someone who had never been to Japan and whose own teachers had also never been there. There was enough distance to have lost the cultural accretions and yet the wisdom of the lineage was intact. How grateful for this I am! This is what we all hope can happen. It doesn't always.
*Note: My review of Buddhaland Brooklyn appears on the Buddhist Fiction Blog.
My review of Embattled Saints is at http://www.bookslut.com/nonfiction/2014_07_020733.php