This is a very interesting subject, one which I have been talking about and debating over recently. I didn't realize I stumbled upon a "Western" Buddhist forum [meaning that most Theravadins here are of Western descent]. I've never known or had a dialogue with a Westerner who is a Theravadin. Most Americans [I live in California] here who are Buddhists are more into the Tibetan stuff or even the various schools of Mahayana.
First about Asian vs. Westerner on who is better at Jhana. I don't believe one's melanin count and eye shape has anything to do with one's ability/capability to practice/achieve jhana, samadhi, etc. I believe mastery of meditation, vipassana, and so on is based on a person's inner condition/state-of-Mind. If one has learned or cultivated the Will and art of Taming or Controlling one's own Mind. Mastery of one's Mind takes time as it is not an inherent/default function of the human Mind, or rather, it is not a default function of beta wave consciousness.
For example if we take two teenage people and two 50 year old people and see which age group can meditate and concentrate better than the other, we can reasonably deduce that the 50 year olds - no matter what their ethnicity is - would win, because of the fact that Consciousness [chitta] - like a flowing river - is in a constant state of movement, evolution, growth, and self awareness. Thus the teenagers' Chitta is not in the right default condition for stillness and silence
We've all been teens before I assume.
The difference would be in outer factors and in general Dhukka [here meaning Worry and Unpleasantness] a person is experiencing in his/her life. It would be reasonable to assume that the more heartache and worry a person has - no matter the ethnicity - the less stillness and Sukkha [here meaning Peace, and Pleasantness] the Mind experiences. If the Mind is lost in Unpeace, and mental worry, it cannot think or concentrate on anything but such things that causes Dukkha - which is born from a fixation or attachment of Consciousness - Concentration - on the "wrong" things.
As for the other topics in this thread, I have direct experience - being raised in a Traditional Khmer family - to offer an "Asian" perspective and apprehension of things.
When I talk to the bikkhus and Bikkhunis in my own life [who are my own relatives] I pay the same amount of social respect to them as I would any of my civilian elders. We [Khmer] don't call monks "Venerable Brother," as the Thais do. We call them "Lok Ta" which. "Lok" means a "Sir" or maybe "Reverend," and "Ta" means Grand Father. We call the Bikkunis "Yay-ji." "Yay" in Khmer means a Grand Mother, and I don't know what "Ji/Gee/Chee" means.
It's so weird because I never realized the Yay-jis were "nuns" until a few years ago when I began studying Theravada Buddhism where I keep on running into the word "Nun" beings used? And I couldn't figure out what the text and writing were talking about because I've never seen a lady in a saffron robe before? All I've ever seen were the Bikkhunis who in my family and at our Wats are just old ladies who shave their hair and dress in all white. I asked my family what those Yay-jis are, and they just tell me that they are old ladies who take vows and live at the Wat to collect "good karma" for the next life.
Anyways. When we do go to a Wat where the monks are not related to us, then the respect is really given. By this I mean that we can't speak to them with our register of Khmer, we have to use a very different register of Khmer that has more Sanskrit and Pali words, which only the old ladies in my family seem to know how to speak. And there are other things you have to observe such as never sitting with your head above a monk's, or when you approach a monk you have to "Lune" which means to walk on your knees with your head lowered, and then you "Sapi Soo-ah" or "Crabtool" them which is when you claps your hand and prostrate to the floor 3 times.
I go to the Wat a lot with my grandmas so I pick up words they use in the sacerdotal register. For instance, when you want to say "I Greet You," you have to say: "Kana/Gana Twai Onkhum Lok." Kana is the sacerdotal register for "I/me," "Twai-onkhum" means to greet a monk or royal person. Kana also means "Yes." "Chan," means "to eat" when talking with a monk. Then when they refer to themselves they say: "Atma," instead of Kana or the low register "knyom" [me in common Khmer].
I didn't know what an "Atma" was. I always thought it just mean "me" for monks. But recently from my studies, I dis-covered that Atma is the Sanskrit word for Self/Soul. In Pali it is "Atta." This then presents a small problem: Anatta, which is the teaching/doctrine of Non-Self, states that that the Brahmanistic meme of Atma/Atta/Self/Soul is a reific [reification being the logical fallacy of treating something Abstract for something concrete/real] illusion. But yet every monk in Cambodia [at least] when speaking their register uses the term Atma to refer to themSelves. But this can be a topic for another time
In my own Theravada Culture, asking for a persons age to try and figure out "where" they fit into context to our social order, has nothing to do with "respect" per se. It has to do with the fundamental Essence of the Third Jewel of Buddhism which many Westerners forget: Sangha [sangham saranam gecchami]. To be a "Buddhist" one must take refuge in all 3 Jewels. What is exactly meant by "sangha?"
Sangha refers to 2 things: 1) Bikkhu-Sangha, and 2) Ariya-Sangha. The Bikkhu Sangha is the Order of monks and nuns who teaches Dhamma to the people. Dhamma is useless in text format, and is useless if all one does is recite, argue, debate, and study it. Dhamma must be a Way of Life: a Praxis. It must be translated from theory and principle into Action in daily Life. The Ariya-Sangha is the "vehicle" in which Dhamma is executed. Ariya Sangha refers to all the men and women who take refuge in the 3 Jewels and who seek Sama-Sambuddhi, which in Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia and Thailand means virtually everybody. It is through your family, your clan, your community, via your behaviour, your relationships, your interactions, that Dhamma is expressed as a way of Life in our Culture(s).
If as a Buddhist I believe in the cessation of Dukkha, whose Dukkha must I then relieve and help comfort if not people I see in real life: my Community [sangha], beginning with Family. This idea/concept is so important in our Culture that this way of life IS our Buddh-ism. As opposed to a Buddhism grasped/apprehended via texts and writings.
In the social class that my family belongs to [upper], this concept of "oneness of sangha" is so important that we aren't allowed to use personal pronouns when we speak to our family members [in our register at least]. Only peasants, the barbaric, and uncultured people use pronouns [I, you, he, she]. This is because pronouns creates an emotional and psychological condition of SEPARATION. Meaning that one person is automatically an "I," and the other is a "you" thus there is no Relation. I's and You's don't exist in Sangha: broherhood/sisterhood/community.
All of us in my family are raise in this culture where personal pronouns are as vulgar as cuss words. You can get into serious trouble if you call your mom or grandma a "you," or a "she." We use what we are to each other as pronouns instead. So for example if I wanted to ask my mom to drive me to the mall, I would literally ask her: "Can the Mother take the Daughter to the Mall, please?" Or if I wanted to ask a boy cousin older than me I would have to say: "Can the older brother take the little sister to the mall?" This is only in our register.
People from my social class use this same way of talking and referring to anybody out side out family, which is also common practice. Every body old is a grandma or grandpa. Everybody your father's age is an uncle. Everybody your mom's age is an auntie. Everybody your age is a sibling.
This culture of using familial titles as pronouns conditions your Mind [our language we think in defines our reality and weltanschauung: how we see and interpret the world] to "see", feel, and understand that everybody is closely related to you and are family.
So when you are born and raised with your Mind saturated in this culture where everybody you meet is family, you are in Heart open to everybody as a family member. You automatically pay your respects to all old people, and you automatically are conditioned and opened to loving, caring, and helping everybody. Thus, Dhamma through this Culture, Flows through our relations, interactions, and actions with everybody. In our Culture Buddhism is not an -ism, not a religion, not something you study or read. It is how you live and what you do and are to everyone around you.
So if and when we do ask for a "Westerner's" age it has nothing to do with "respect" or "disrespect." It is just our attempt to bring you into, or emotionally include you into our Living Cultural Buddhism's Sangha: Community/Family. And if your are going to be included into this Family, you will need a title of some kind. Knowing your age, helps us figure out if you are a Sibling [Bong and Pa-on], an young aunt/uncle (Mieng and Mia) [younger then our mother/father], and older aunt/uncle (Om srey and Om pros) [older aunt/uncle], or a Yay or Ta.
Referring to someone as a "you" - in the class culture that I come from - is like calling them a cuss word. I personally had a hard time when I first went to grade school because I didn't know what to call my teacher when I spoke to her. Because when I used the word "You" with her it makes me feel like I have done something bad, and that I want nothing to do with her as a person. It's like me saying: "Ok, you're you, and I'm Me, and we have nothing to do with each other, so stay out of my life."
When you're born and raise in a culture where pronouns don't exist, it hurts very bad and it makes you cry when your mom yells at you and instead of using the word "Daughter" to refer to you she uses "You," because it makes you feel as if she wants nothing to do with you. You feel a division where there was no division or feeling of separateness before. I can't explain it really.
So this is my main contention with Buddhism spreading in the West. I think it's a wonderful and beautiful thing, but it's spreading "backwards" into the Occident, with the wrong End first. And I mean no disrespect by this, nor do I mean that one group is a better Buddhist then another. By this I mean that Dhamma in the form of textual writings goes first, the Buddha goes in second, and Sangha can't be found anywhere. Because of this backwards spreading, the Western Buddhist knows more about Buddhism, as it is on paper and writing, than the general Asian Buddhist, who have never seen a Tipitaka or read a single verse.
Some Westerners may ask me: "Well, how can you be a Buddhist if you are ignorant of the Buddha's written teachings, if you're so smart?" To which I may answer: "Because it's a Living Culture and Tradition thousands of years old. It's embedded in our languages and ethnic identity. It's who we live our lives and how we live for others. Because Buddhism is our family, our mothers, aunties, and grandmothers. Because Dhamma has had centuries in areas like this to jump out of text to become living praxis. And because: What did the Buddha read to achieve Sambuddhi?
By Sangha not being anywhere I don't mean a lack of Western bikkhus. I mean that people in the West are very Individualized. Families are even commonly described as being "dysfunctional." People don't even like each other enough here in California to smile at each other when walking past each other on the street. Taking the bus here in California is a mental trip in sociology. Everybody on the bus has some strange "leave-me-alone" force field around them and don't even look at each other. Everybody has their face buried in their lap-tops, iPhones, and iPod earbud in their ears. There is a feel of great emotional and psychological distance between two people, even if you are seated right next to them.
My other contention is related to my first contention. There is actually no such thing as the suffix -"ism" in Khmer, Thai, Pali, or Sanskrit denoting a book based religion. It's called PreahPut Sasna; or Buddhadhamma. Sasna means an Instruction, or set of orders to be followed. Dhamma doesn't really mean a religion.
Many Westerners apprehend Buddh-ism like they learn Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. They approach it with this conditioned state of mind of grasping for written text and reading, and contemplating on the meaning, and when they talk about Buddhism with other Occidental Minds, they argue and debate their interpretations and understandings of what they have read with each other. There's like a tug of war game where everyone is pulling and tugging on dead letters, dead, words, and written text, to see whose got the greatest, biggest, and most stupendous interpretation and understanding, as if the written text is going to Enlighten them. They forget that the Buddha never read the Tipitakas
But yet he was Enlightened. And for 200-300 years after the Buddha's Tra [when he mortally expired] the Tipitakas weren't yet written, so how were the early Buddhists, Buddhists without written texts, debates, arguments, and literary chest beating contests?
I'm not saying that Occidental Buddhism is wrong. It is imbalanced. Too left brained, too book and text based.
But at the same time, being from the Orient, I can honestly say that what we may call "Oriental Buddhism" is also imbalanced. Too right brained, and ethereal. No lay person that I know in my family and Culture - who are devout Theravadins - knows what the Buddha and his Disciples taught as is written in the Tipitakas beyond the 5 precepts. It's so Life oriented that nobody besides monks has read anything.
I hope that someday, "Eastern" and "Western" Buddhism can merge to give birth to something balanced: a Buddhism that is a Way of Life, that is Community oriented, and also a Buddhism that is knowledgeable in its own written aspects and texts.
I prolly rambled off topic.