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Permission to be Wrong

June 8, 2016

Wrong Direction by Micagoto via

For anyone born before 1990 or so, the original Star Wars movie released in 1977 is the Star Wars movie. We have watched and re-watched, loved and quoted it since childhood. So in 1997, when George Lucas released a remastered version of the beloved classic, we were simultaneously excited and horrified. The picture and sound quality were immeasurably better, but in addition to restoring the film, Lucas also re-edited it, changing certain scenes in very small ways, sometimes by as little as one word of dialogue or one second of screen time.

I had watched the original versions hundreds of times by then. The remastered 1997 version was just wrong. Objectively, the content, characters, and overall tone of the movie remained intact, but it just felt wrong in ways I never overcame. As I result, I clung to my cherished VHS tape of the 1977 version of the movie for decades after the release of the remastered film, long after VHS players stopped being sold in stores and despite the fact that my version wasn’t even widescreen; it had been chopped down to fit on the square televisions of its day. But it was my Star Wars and it just felt right.

I think this is how we sometimes feel as Buddhists in America. Whenever I visit a Buddhist center or temple, I always have the vague impression that I’m doing it wrong. I’m not bowing quite correctly, in the right place at the right time. I’m not pronouncing the Chinese or Japanese, etc., greeting right. I don’t know just how to hold the incense and make the offering. This sangha does it differently from that sangha. This temple has done it a certain way for a thousand years and that one has decided to innovate. I never really know what is expected.

This is not entirely an internal anxiety. I had to be gently prodded through my own ordination ceremony by two kind Chinese nuns. Bow now, their hands said. No, keep your head down, keep bowing, a gentle tap on the skull reminded me. Now stand up, little pinches at the folds of my robe told me.  When I visited Fo Guang Shan main temple in Taiwan, we were given a short presentation on some of the aspects of monastic training, including how monks and nuns are trained to bow, eat, walk, stand, sit, and lay down to sleep. There’s a proper way to lay down to sleep!

Convert sanghas are not very different in this respect. I attended a small service at a local Zen center last year mostly including American-born Buddhist converts. They were being visited by another small group from the Zen center just down the road, no different demographically, and only one lineage apart. The visitors were asked to help with some minor details of the service, passing out prayer books, since numbers were few. A wordless dance ensued amidst chanting and bowing as the visitors didn’t know the ‘right’ way to hand out booklets in this sangha.

All of these situations resolved with goodwill and only a little fuss. Cumulatively, however, the result in a feeling of ‘getting it wrong’ on a regular basis. Moreover, it sometimes leads to an feeling, however unintentional it may be, that this is not a place ‘for me’ or where I can ‘be me.’ Instead, I am on my best behavior at all times, hyper-observant of the people around me so I can attempt (poorly) to emulate their behavior, and ready to apologize and correct myself at the drop of a hat. It’s exhausting!

The cumulative result is that I don’t go to temples much. When I do, I am often very gratified and glad that I went. When I return, I often need a nap and prefer not to speak to anyone for the rest of the day. I can’t really afford that on a regular basis.

Sometimes I imagine that even long-time Buddhists in America must feel this way. Even if you grew up going to temple with your parents or grandparents on a regular basis and now continue the practice, certainly some things must have changed. Some of those changes must strike others the way the changes to the Star Wars movies struck me – as just every so slightly ‘wrong.’

Moreover, many Buddhist sanghas founded by Asian immigrants may find themselves under pressure to ‘adapt’ or ‘modernize’ in their new American home. It must be galling to witness someone who’s been calling themselves Buddhist for all of five-minutes ask for changes to hundred or thousand-year-old traditions to accommodate her preferences. I imagine this might be happening (I imagine I’ve been that five-minute old Buddhist), though I have less of a personal perspective on it than the other way around.

The problem as I see it is in the symbols. Each culture evolves a system of symbolic ways to convey meaning in particular words, deeds, images, music, etc., that speaks to us on deep, subconscious, emotional levels. These symbols are not easily translatable or transportable from one culture to another. They ‘speak’ to members of their own culture and also help differentiate insiders from outsiders, with whom they have little to no resonance. (And if they do, it is largely through their similarity to existing symbols and may therefore be distorted though the other’s cultural lens.)

For example, the Lord’s Prayer still stirs a response in me, not just in the words, but in the very way it is said; it has a particular cadence that was burned into my mind through weekly group repetition for all the years of my childhood. Today, I find that I prefer Buddhist chants that approximate this cadence, Pali and Japanese in particular. The Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean all sound simply too ‘foreign,’ still.

New symbols and meanings can be learned. Resonance can be acquired at any time throughout one’s life, with effort. Old symbols can also be re-purposed to have different meanings.

However, this process of learning or re-purposing is fraught with anxiety. The feeling of ‘getting it wrong’ persists throughout the process, often for years. There is danger in that feeling.

The dangers of feeling ‘wrong’ are twofold: first, when we interpret that feeling to mean morally wrong and, second, when we take that feeling as a personal rejection of our identity. In the first sense, it may be that something is simply different or new and our mind triggers the sense of ‘wrong’ compared to its internal expectation. This is not what ‘should’ be happening. Behavioral psychologists have identified that humans often confuse new/different with bad/unpleasant in various controlled experiments (often involving taste-tests or some other sensory impression).

Scholars of religion have likewise noticed a tendency for religious converts to overly stress ‘change’ in the name of improvement that really just brings their new religious tradition more into alignment with their existing cultural tradition. Thus, the so-called ‘Protestantization’ of Buddhism debate exists. We conflate that emotion into a moral judgment and then stand our ground for/against change on the basis of moral righteousness. I’ve witnessed this in both traditional and convert Buddhists, going both direction (i.e. traditional reformers and traditional conservatives; convert innovators and convert conservatives).

In the second sense, we can interpret the feeling of ‘wrong’ in a personal way: am wrong. am not welcome here. I can’t be me anymore. Yes, yes, we Buddhists talk about not clinging to the illusory self. It causes suffering – this suffering. So we must also have compassion for it. We should remember that the feeling of personal rejection is a strong form of suffering for a social animal such as a human being. When we feel personally rejected, our very survival is literally at stake. In the ancient world, this probably meant we’d freeze or starve or be eaten by a predator. In the contemporary world, the single highest risk factor for suicide is disconnection.

When people feel rejected or that what they bring to the table, who they are, is not of value to the group with which they’ve spiritually identified, this can be a huge blow. I believe this may be one of the reasons so few American-born Buddhists enter into or remain in Asian monastic sanghas. The necessity of changing everything about yourself as a person (how to sleep!) may be too high of a psychological barrier, especially coming from a culture that has told you to be an individual, to be unique unto’yourself’ for your entire life previous to that. The payoffs may be worth it. I know several American-born Buddhists who’ve bucked this trend and they are amazing individuals. (They may have started that way or become that way as a result or both; it is not clear.)  They are also very few.

The only thing I can think of to help this situation is to give one another permission to ‘get it wrong.’ To pause and examine feelings of ‘wrong’ when they come up to determine if they are truly based on a moral precept or just a result of novelty. To ensure that others know that they are welcome and wanted in our sanghas before we start correcting their behavior. Maybe even to correct a little less. Most will naturally adapt in their own time. To tolerate a feeling of being ‘wrong’ without over-identifying with it or personalizing it. To see it as a passing feeling and let it go without further self-criticism. Let us give each other  (and ourselves) permission to get it ‘wrong’ so that we can learn to be a family together.

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