“But when leading Buddhist figures, along with a mass of laity and sympathizers, begin to embrace a novel interpretation, practice, or idea, it should alert the scholar than an important reconstruction of doctrine is underway and that a new normativity could be emerging. . . The history of religions is precisely the history of such reconstitutions of doctrine and practice, which are themselves reconstitutions of prior versions.” (David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, 2008, p. 180.)
I’ve been reading David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, which I absolutely love. McMahan’s section on Buddhist Romanticism focused on Zen master D. T. Suzuki and his enormous influence on 20th century art, especially the Beats. He explains the 21st century reinvention of the Buddhist concept of pratityasamutpada as interdependence, which today is one of the major doctrinal sources of Buddhist ethics and social justice. McMahan provides a thorough critique of Buddhist modernism, which is a product of colonialist scientific and cultural processes (Asian and Western). Nonetheless, I am ready to declare that I am an unapologetic modernist.
I think the way Buddhism ought to be divided up today is not by lineage, but in terms of traditionalism v. modernism. I venture to say that most Buddhists today are some kind of modernist, whether they realize it or not. So the question is not “what kind of Buddhist are you?” based on lineage. The relevant question today is “what kind of modernist are you?” Tantric modernist in the style of Chogyam Trungpa? Zen modernist in the style of D. T. Suzuki? Theravada modernist in the style of Anagarika Darmapala or Jack Kornfield? Are you a Gen X modernist in the style of Ethan Nichtern? Or a neo-Vedantist like David Loy? Are you an eco-Buddhist in the style of Joanna Macy? Beat modernist in the style of Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg? Are you mostly into Buddhist psychology and the mindfulness movement? Are you a secular or skeptical Buddhist like Stephen Batchelor? Are you a Buddhist punk-hardcore, like Noah Levine or Brad Warner? Are you a Buddhist geek, into technology and neuroscience? Are you a critical Buddhist (X Post-Non)? Are you an engaged Buddhist in the style of Thich Nhat Hanh or Buddhist Peace Fellowship? Most likely you participate in several of these together, and they all draw on different Asian lineages..
You will notice that these are all contemporary movements in Buddhism. I contend that Buddhism in the 21st century is better defined by it’s movements than by its lineages. So to hell with lineage and tradition (rhetorically). Buddhist modernism is where the party is. Moreover, Buddhist modernism is its own lineage as it began in 19th century Ceylon. Sri Lanka is the site of one of the oldest Buddhist traditions in the world, having practiced the Theravada tradition continuously since approx. 200 BCE. Ironically, it is also the original site of the most contemporary tradition, Buddhist Modernism. Buddhist Modernism draws from several traditional Asian lineages, and both Asian and Western cultural sources.
David Loy sums up his assessment of McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism:
It would be easy to misread this book as criticizing modernist Buddhism for incorporating too many non-Buddhist elements and therefore being inauthentic. McMahan is much too sophisticated a scholar to fall into that: he acknowledges that Buddhist traditions, like other traditions, have always needed to keep re-creating themselves, “amalgamating elements of new cultures, jettisoning those no longer viable in a new context, and asking questions that previous incarnations of Buddhism could not possibly have asked.” .
* * * * *
Likewise, when we peer into Buddhist Modernism, who we are determines what we look for and what we find in Buddhist Modernism. Some readers see mostly Buddhist “Protestantism”; some focus on a critique of the meditation movement; some see an emphasis on Romanticism and Theosophy; some see mostly “scientific rationalism”; some see just the oppression of Western colonialism. I see all of these influences, but I also see how Buddhism is shaped by these historical forces into new forms that both blend and contrast with contemporary global urban culture
McMahan’s study of Buddhist modernism helps to make sense of the crazy-quilt landscape that is contemporary Buddhism. For me, the Modernist narrative clears up some of the confusion around what it means to say “I’m a Buddhist” or “I practice Buddhism” in a 21st century context, a way of understanding Buddhism that makes sense for my 21st century life. And I stopped feeling that sense of alienation by trying to be part of a traditional Buddhist culture that frankly, is found only in ancient texts, and is not practiced in its original form anywhere in this global urban society, east or west.
So let’s go mod, buddha baby. My co-conspirator in Meta Buddhist Inquiry has agreed to embark on a study of Buddhist Modernism in our monthly meetings. We will structure the meetings around discussion of different Buddhist movements, the lineages and cultures they draw from, and how we experience them in contemporary Buddhist culture.
As usual, Meta-Buddhist Inquiry will meet at the Halifax Central Library on Spring Garden Rd., somewhere on the fourth floor. I will post the dates in early January.
The full quote that David Loy excerpted is the following, and we will use these questions for our discussions:
*What is a Buddhist? What is the boundary between Buddhism and non-Buddhsim? At what point is Buddhism so thoroughly modernized, westernized, detraditionalized, and adapted that it simply no longer can be considered Buddhism?
We can surely dispense with the myth of the pure original to which every adaptation must conform. If “true Buddhism” is only one that is unalloyed by novel cultural elements, no forms of Buddhism existing today qualify. To say that western Buddhisms must adhere rigidly to their Asian predecessors would still be arbitrary, since they, too, are hybrids embracing numerous cultural adaptations. Every extant form of Buddhism has been shaped and reconfigured by the great diversity of cultural and historical circumstances it has inhabited in its long and varied existence. Buddhist traditions—indeed all traditions—have constantly re-created themselves in response to unique historical and cultural conditions, amalgamating elements of new cultures, jettisoning those no longer viable in a new context, and asking questions that previous incarnations of Buddhism could not possibly have asked.
(D. McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, 2008, p. 254)