In Defense of Double Cultural Appropriation
I read the Dhammapada in translation
Before this morning's session on the black mat, I read from the Dhammapada. I own two copies. The copy I read from this morning has the Pali on the left and an English translation by Harischandra Kaviratna on the right. I don't know Pali grammar but I have swotted up plenty of Pali vocabulary over the years.
My point, however, is that I was feasting on insights from a tradition not my own. I am not now, and never have been, Indian. I am of Northern Italian extraction, 100%, and that makes me European. So what am I doing appropriating insights from a foreign tradition? I am feeding my soul and doing no wrong.
To appropriate is to make one's own. To appropriate is not to steal, although stealing is a form of appropriation, an illicit form. If I appropriate what you own by stealing it, then I do wrong. If I appropriate what you own by buying it from you in a mutually consensual transaction, I do no wrong. Libertarians speak of capitalist acts among consenting adults. I am not a libertarian. I merely appropriate their sound insights while rejecting their foolish notions. Critical appropriation is the name of the game. 'Critical' from Gr. krinein, to separate, distinguish, discriminate the true from the false, the prudent from the imprudent, the meaningful from the meaningless, the real from unreal, that which is conducive unto enlightenment from that which is not, and so on.
One can also appropriate, make one's own, what no one owns. I appropriate oxygen with every breath I take. I make it my own; it enters my blood; it fuels my brain; it is part and parcel of the physical substratum of spiritual production. Who owns the air? Who owns the oxygen in the air?
Who owns sunlight? I appropriate some every day. Who owns the sky, "the daily bread of the eyes"? (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Before the session on the black mat and after my reading I walked out into the Arizona pre-dawn darkness to gaze with wonder at "the starry skies above me" (Kant). Who owns Orion or Ursus Major?
Who owns truth?
Some races are better at finding it and expressing it, but no one owns it.
There are truths in the Dhammapada and no one owns them. Since no one owns them, they belong to all. Belonging to all, they are no one's property. They cannot be stolen. Their appropriation cannot be illicit.
My appropriation of Asian wisdom -- which is Asian in that it is from the East, not Asian in that its essence is Eastern -- is made possible by a SECOND form of licit cultural appropriation, namely translation. Translation is cultural appropriation! If done well, it is good.
ONE WAY TO MEDITATE. Start discursively with a verse from some noble scripture from the East or from the West, for example, verse 150 from the Dhammapada:
Here is a citadel built of bones, plastered with flesh and blood, wherein are concealed decay, death, vanity, and deceit.
Run through it, but then whittle it down to one word, death, for example, and than ask yourself; Who dies? Answer: I die! And then inquire: who or what is this 'I'?