I first became interested in Buddhism as a martial artist in the 60s. Not much was available in English; Suzuki, Watts, etc. It was mostly Zen although Watts seemed to blend Taoism a bit as I remember it but memory fades and that may be to harsh.
I married a Thai woman who is a traditional Thai (Theravada) Buddhist. The first books I found in a Bangkok bookstore was the Dhammapada and one on the importance of extinguishing the “I” noun which was inconceivable at the time.
We go to a local Thai Buddhist temple where the monk will make an effort to speak with me in English briefly whenever I visit. For the most part it is Thai and Lao people speaking Thai or Lao, the monks chanting in Pali (my wife calls it the monk language) and the fingers of one hand of old white guys with Thai wives.
I am agnostic about things metaphysical and do things to help the temple and monks just because I think it the right thing to do without regard to the idea of making merit. As I wrote, she is traditional. Many people think of Buddhism as atheistic. I think of it as non-theistic. Most Asian Buddhist seem to believe in God or Gods but if you describe the Christian God to my wife she’ll say, not that one, the good one.
Perhaps it is my Westernness but I tend to view cultural differences in Buddhism in different countries more as distracting baggage and like Bachelor I try to look at the basics. My goto source is https://accesstoinsight.org/, a Theravada source.
People who see value in Vipassanā often decouple it from Buddhism because so many fundamentalist Christians think they’ll burn in hell if they try it. I’ve had a number of teachers, all monks. Some are strong in including Buddhist ritual and vows beyond those for lay people though not the full monk’s set of vows for the retreat. Another, who I learned the most from, said, “We are here to learn Vipassanā. I am a Buddhist monk. If you wish to learn about Buddhism come back on another occasion and I will be happy to teach you.” He wasn’t in it for money and while we could make a contribution that a lay worker would handle (monks can’t tough money) they were not a part of a Vipassanā for profit industry.
You have written about Westerners setting cultural aspects aside but haven’t Asians, who don’t lump themselves as a big group, done the same thing as Buddhism traveled from one Asian culture to another. I think that preserving what Buddha taught, as best as we can from cannon, is more important than the differences in Buddhism from Asian country to country. Am I a bad Buddhist because I am agnostic about reincarnation? In the Kalama Sutta, Buddha gave four assurances which either dismiss the importance of belief in the metaphysical or allow for agnosticism, and I don’t view the sutta as an OK to do my own thing.
“Now, Kalamas, one who is a disciple of the noble ones — his mind thus free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, & pure — acquires four assurances in the here-&-now:
“‘If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.’ This is the first assurance he acquires.
“‘But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.’ This is the second assurance he acquires.
“‘If evil is done through acting, still I have willed no evil for anyone. Having done no evil action, from where will suffering touch me?’ This is the third assurance he acquires.
“‘But if no evil is done through acting, then I can assume myself pure in both respects.’ This is the fourth assurance he acquires.