Cultural baggage in Zen practice

What is my self?  It is my body and thoughts, my logic and my creativity.  It consists of all the events of my life and my memories of them.  It includes every scar, mistake, misstep and malicious action.  My self is my baggage to my practice.  My self brings in a sack of cultural as well (unfortunately mine is in a beat up WallMart bag, but who is judging?).  The spiritual development and preconceptions what I was raised on and taught to me as a child come along for the ride.  They gleefully cling to my shirt-tales like wood nymphs.  They flit in and out of my sight. 

My ancestors ride on my back as well (or do I sit on their shoulders?).  We all bring baggage with us on the way to sit and practice.  But we also bring faith, doubt and determination.  With those three things our practice will organically develop into what we need.  It is always be in flux and it always changes along with us.  That bag turns to a carry-on to a duffle to steamer-trunk and back to a carry-on.

We bring Big Daddy God, Gods, deities, philosophy, preconceptions, myth and legends into our practice.  We bring magical books and a fear of death.  We wide-eyed expectation and hero-worship.  Like tracking in snow when we walk in from a storm, it makes a puddle on the floor but in time it disappears into a smudge and then with one wipe it disappears.  Gone.  Some of us just remove our shoes before we come in.

I like my cultural baggage.  Some people bitch about and some think that baggage is detrimental but pretending that it doesn’t exist won’t get rid of it or lessen its effect.  Hefting it into the Zendo and on the cushion helps us relate to it and understand it.  Once we understand it then we can put it into its proper context and lessen our attachment to it.  With understanding comes freedom.  This isn’t a rejection of baggage but just a knowledge of its actual worth.  Our baggage does not define us, but we pretend that it does.  Once we understand our own baggage then we can begin to slightly understand someone else’s.

When we complain about cultural baggage, it infers that we don’t understand it and thus it prevents and slows our practice.  When we loudly insist that our suitcases are our practice we make the same mistake. 

We all walk in with a few bags.  However, the minute we think that this bag of skin is me and everything inside it is me and that everything outside of it is not-me; we exclude the universe. 




9 thoughts on “Cultural baggage in Zen practice

  1. John,
    “The relative fits the absolute as a box and its lid.” Or in this set of thoughts, like a WalMart bag and …wait, my simile is starting to deteriorate! Well, JP, I also like the cultural stuff. It can be like the chrome moldings and white sidewalls on the Great Vehicle. Or the flags on the raft to the other shore. Oops, similes abounding.
    All kidding aside, thank you again for your generosity in sharing your thoughts and perceptions. I benefit from reading them.
    Your Friend,

    • It seems that people describe cultural baggage as the trim and subtle differences in practice that differ geographically. But that is really just the presentation.

      Baggage is what we bring to our practice, whether it is belief in gods or deities, esoteric or uber-rational; it is all still Buddhism and still practice. It aids our practice until we replace our practice with those elements. Thus the ongoing quest for “authentic” practice which is really just cultural comparisons.



      • Another thought: culture is a soup in which we swim. Which makes one wonder if too many cooks can indeed spoil the broth. What do you think?

        Now you are extending baggage to the five skandas. OK. In the pop psych world we used to say that people had “baggage” if they had “unresolved issues”. Not sure what that means anymore.

        PS Did you see “The Darjeeling Limited” with all that marvelous Louis Vuitton luggage?

        Your Friend,

  2. “When we complain about cultural baggage, it infers that we don’t understand it and thus it prevents and slows our practice.”

    Very true. I understand your use of it here, but personally I can’t stand the term “cultural baggage”. Does Buddhism have elements from other cultures intimately intertwined within it? Yes! Is there anything wrong with that? Not really. I think people create “baggage” out of the culture that they either don’t understand or identify with. I say do your best to understand it, but if it just doesn’t speak to you, move onward. But no need to deningrate someone else’s culture just cause it doesn’t sit well with you.

    Very, very nice post John.

    • What people term cultural baggage I like to term “Regional Perspective of Dharma”. Just as valid as any other path to enlightenment only tempered and molded in some way by the location and time period.

      Cultural Baggage for me is what the individual brings to their practice as absolutes that are really only differences in persepctive (ie. Buddhist are atheistic or Buddhism is transcendental/devotional/whatever). Those differences are stumbling-blocks only when we insist that they are absolute.

      IMHO, anyway!



  3. Pingback: Cultural baggage in Zen practice (via Sweep the dust, Push the dirt) | The Book of the Law

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