Understanding Cultural Appropriation

What are the political ramifications of the different ways in which ideas are transferred from one culture to another?

**This essay is adapted from a longer paper. Read it here.

The appropriation of religious and cultural thought and practice is not a recent phenomenon within the contemporary world structure. As the modern understanding of the world is seen most clearly through the phenomenon of globalization — argued by David Kellner in “Globalization, Terrorism, and Democracy: 9/11 and its Aftermath, ” to be both a process proliferating standardized mass culture and heterogenic developments — cultures of the world are made increasingly more aware of one another.

This awareness takes shape in various events, such as the diffusion of ideas, militaristic and economic aid, political exploitation, or the appropriation of cultural thought. Though these events are not new, the frequency of their occurrences — made possible by modern technological advances so that the remotest parts of the world are within reach — demand scholarly insight to shed light on the negative or positive implications of the processes at hand.

The history of Buddhism — like the history of any modern religion — is characterized by the appropriation of beliefs and practices to new contexts and cultures that then took on new forms, creating new traditions. 

This essay will focus on the appropriation of Indian Buddhist thought to the Tibetan context, highlighting the formation of Tibetan bardo practices as a case study of the process of appropriation. The purpose of this essay is to argue against the current misconceptions of the process of appropriation in order to make room for a more nuanced understanding of the present world dynamics.

This essay will argue that the transfer of Indian Buddhist ideas to the Tibetan context was not merely a diffusion of ideas nor was it exploitation of the religions or people of either culture; instead, it can be best described by the process of appropriation. Appropriation is here defined as a process of mutual exchange, negotiation, and dependency between two (or more) heterogenous, cultural and political parties.

Of course, there are instances when the process of appropriation is damaging to the original culture, and the appropriators make victims out of the original owners of the cultural phenomenon. This essay does not intend to belittle the scenarios in which the process of appropriation is damaging and harmful. Examples of the potential negative implications of appropriation will be seen in the section titled Twentieth Century Appropriation of Tibetan Buddhist Thought to the West.

The primary purpose of this essay is to argue for a more nuanced approach to the process of appropriation: rather than viewing the process as solely negative or positive, this essay intends to address it as an unavoidable cultural phenomenon, and a process of negotiation, that has the potential for both negative and positive effects.

As a method for transference of religious thought across cultures and contexts, the appropriation of ideas is a necessary phenomenon whereby both the recipients and the primary owners of the cultural source struggle greatly from the appropriated religious beliefs.

If the appropriation of Indian Buddhist concepts into the Tibetan landscape had not occurred, Tibetan culture would not have developed its unique religious practices related to the bardo.

Theoretical Framework of Appropriation

To contextualize the historical significance of Indian Buddhism as it transferred to Tibet and the ultimate formation of Tibetan bardo, a short discussion on the theoretical framework of appropriation and its implications for the modern, globalized world is necessary. Recent scholarship on the notion of cultural appropriation has positioned it in a negative light, such that its common understanding is conflated solely with the notion of exploitation of the primary culture.

In the essay, “Toward A Theory of Cultural Appropriation: Buddhism, the Vietnam War, and the Field of U.S. Poetry, ” Baris Büyükokutan addresses this contemporary problem, wherein the notion of appropriation “is widely used to discuss whites’ plunder of black culture, dispossession of indigenous groups by multiculturalism, and non-Western cultural entrepreneurs. ”

The main problem with this understanding of the process of appropriation is its moralistic tendency, in which readers of this literature glean only that appropriation has just one cause — structural inequality — and that it has just one consequence — victimization. A more nuanced understanding of the process of appropriation is vital within this increasingly globalized world wherein there is easier access to the beliefs of various cultures. Though recent scholarship has gained greater insight to the process of appropriation, “we lack a comprehensive framework ” (620).

In his essay, “Diffusion, Appropriation, and Globalization: Some Remarks on Current Debates in Anthropology, ” Hans Peter Hahn focuses on the local perspective through the study of cultural appropriation, arguing this theoretical framework to be the “optimal way to understand the working of globalization on local levels ” as it overcomes the current methodological shortcomings of anthropological globalization research (191).

The phenomena of globalization and cultural appropriation are necessarily interrelated as the process of appropriation is a tool used to describe the link between worldwide distribution of cultural traits and their adoption or rejection in new contexts. Hahn focuses on the agency of the local culture who decide whether a certain cultural element is “picked up, transformed, and will become a feature of the local society — or not ” (197).

Utilizing Kellner’s understanding of globalization as “a strange amalgam of both homogenizing forces of sameness and uniformity, and heterogeneity, difference, and hybridity, ” scholarship and common culture can see how every local context is involved in its own appropriation and reworking of cultural products (248). The process of globalization makes possible a mass culture composed of ‘global products’: interconnected societies maintain a constant worldwide flow of people, ideas, technologies, and products.

The process of appropriation is more complex than limiting it to its potential exploitative elements. Jonathan Friedman in “Global Systems, Globalization, and Anthropological Theory, ” indicates how appropriation allows for hybridity and the emergence of new traditions.

Büyükokutan argues for the conceptualization of appropriation as “reciprocal exchange of scarce symbolic and material resources between two heterogeneous parties ” (620). By rethinking the concept of appropriation and utilizing it to construct a framework for global exchange of ideas, we can see it for what it is: intergroup exchange and mutual bargaining between multiple appropriators.

While the process is not always mutually beneficial, there is a negotiation, or struggle, in which both sides seek to maximize the benefit for themselves (where some may gain more than others), and all have agency through this process of negotiation but are also changed by the process.

Rather than viewing appropriation as “the theft of a preexisting entity by a preexisting group, ” appropriation may be seen as the “ongoing constitution of cultural goods as desirable objects and the actions of groups prepared to struggle for their ownership ” (622).

Büyükokutan argues that appropriation is a complex process, wherein there is mutual dependency between the two parties, the interactions of the two parties constitute social exchange, and the appropriators and legitimate owners both stand to benefit, even if the benefits are unequal. Additionally, Büyükokutan claims the process by which ideas transfer to new contexts cannot simply be understood by diffusion studies.

Though scholars utilize this term to study the ultimate cause and final outcome of cultural change, and diffusion studies are more nuanced in that they distinguish between three kinds of independent variables — the actor, environment, and innovation — “diffusion underestimates the impact of politics on cultural innovation ” (622). By focusing on the mutual dependency, exchange, and benefit, as well as the political dynamics, a working theory of appropriation, as it creates hybridity, can be realized.

The interaction of diffusion studies and the theoretical framework of appropriation will greatly benefit scholarship and will hopefully serve to reorient current misconceptions regarding what is meant by “cultural appropriation. ” Furthermore, the application of this framework to a specific portion of history (Indian Buddhism within Tibet) can provide insight into the creation of new and unique religious thought, such as Tibetan bardo.

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