Exploring history, as Jacqueline Stone stated in a recent interview with Tricycle, exposes what has been lost and forgotten, and, often, what has been added. Awakening to how deeply personal experience is shaped by our embeddedness in a particular time and place can inform and enrich Buddhist practice. Over the last 150 years, changes of what is broadly called “modernity” have molded our world and structured our experiences in profound ways. Tracing back the influence of these changes on Buddhism reveals that what we usually take for granted as “Buddhist” may be more a consequence of history and social trends.

Although the social, political, economic, religious, and technological changes that characterize modernity originated in the cultural West, their impact on Asian Buddhism was not a one-way current—Asian monastics, teachers, and lay practitioners arose to the challenges of modernity and seized the openness of the moment to reinvent and revitalize their traditions. Monks and nuns brought practice out of the forests, mountains, and monasteries and into the lives of everyday people, envisioning Buddhism as a much-needed “spiritual” practice to counter increasing materialism. They manifested their vision of a new Buddhism for a still-suffering world, and the Buddhism we know today is firmly rooted in their struggles and efforts.

Professor David L. McMahan, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College, is a leading expert on the complex constellation of social influences impacting Buddhism during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book The Making of Buddhist Modernism is the indispensable text on the subject. In this latest interview with Tricycle, he elucidates the Asian roots of the modern transformation that has shaped Buddhism around the world.

Frederick M. Ranallo-Higgins

Since you published The Making of Buddhist Modernism in 2008, scholars, including you, have continued to explore the subject. How do scholars currently understand Buddhist modernism?  Part of the project of scholars in identifying a specifically modern Buddhism was to show that what Americans and Europeans often encountered in recent decades are historically unique forms of Buddhism. Like other historical forms of Buddhism, this version had been adapted in response to the intellectual trends, the default intuitions, the background assumptions, and the ethical values of the time and place. To point out that these new articulations of Buddhism exist need not be a judgment on their authenticity—Buddhisms have been changing and adapting for twenty-six centuries.

Buddhist modernism specifically refers to distinctive forms of Buddhism that have emerged in the last 150 years and have been significantly shaped by modernity’s ideas, practices, and institutions. These include, for example, an engagement with some of the intellectual forces of modernity, such as science, Enlightenment rationalism, romanticism, transcendentalism, Protestantism, and psychology, as well as social forces like democracy, feminism, liberalism, and egalitarianism. Buddhist modernism is sometimes described as a fusion of these discourses with aspects of Buddhist thought and practices, creating unique hybrid forms.

Sometimes these forms are critical of, or simply ignore, widespread aspects of Buddhism, like relic veneration, appeasement of troublesome spirits, or prayers to buddhas and bodhisattvas for good fortune. They often abandon or reinterpret traditional cosmology in favor of a broadly scientific worldview and recast concepts of karma as “natural law” and meditation as an internal science that discerns empirical realities or laws of nature. There is a tendency toward the psychologization of teachings as well, for example, interpreting the various realms of rebirth primarily as states of mind. The spread of meditation among laypeople, the attenuation of hierarchy, and increasing gender equality are also identified with Buddhist modernism.

Having said all of this, though, no one monolithic “Buddhist modernism” or a definitive break between “modern” and “traditional” Buddhism exists. Multiple Buddhist modernisms contain unique combinations of traditional and modern elements with a variegated spectrum of continuities and discontinuities. For example, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama makes ample use of science and is exceptionally well-versed in it; at the same time, he believes in rebirth, the nonmaterial basis of consciousness, and gods that can have good or bad effects on humans.

What do we mean by “tradition” and “modernity”? “Modernity” is usually defined as a time period, a set of ideas, as social, political, and economic institutions, technologies, and so forth. This term’s unique cultural and historical realities have had significant, unprecedented transformative effects on the world. However, like all dualisms, the binary of “tradition” and “modernity” starts to deconstruct at a certain level of analysis. And this can be useful.

These concepts often come with polemics and value judgments. The modern is associated with progress, rationality, and science, and some practitioners may see certain “traditional” elements of Buddhism as outdated, moribund, and a matter of “cultural baggage.” Naturally, people of any religion will ask how their tradition can exist in harmony with, for example, contemporary science, democratic institutions, egalitarianism, and other elements of the modern world. But there is a history to keep in mind. Westerners have often ascribed “modernity” to themselves and “tradition” to non-Western peoples, usually ones that Western powers have colonized. So there is an unfortunate echo of colonialism and racial prejudice that can be a part of the mix. Appeals to the modern also tend to flatten everything “traditional” into a uniform, ahistorical past rather than recognizing that Buddhist traditions have been dynamically changing, adapting, and innovating for centuries.

Some may conversely see Buddhist modernism in a negative light and strive to shun anything “modern,” insisting that theirs is the pure, “traditional” dharma, unencumbered by the supposedly corrupting influence of modernity. But what is “traditional” is always imagined from a present perspective, and some aspects of tradition are reinterpreted and deployed in response to—or reaction against—the modern. Like the various Theravada forest traditions, what may seem like a very “traditional” form of Buddhism is often a recent reformulation.

Photograph by Eric McNatt

When did the modernization of Buddhism begin, and what were some contemporaneous sociopolitical currents stimulating the drive to modernize? It’s essential to recognize that whatever Buddhist modernism is, it is not simply “Western” or “Westernized” Buddhism, nor Buddhism that’s been salvaged by the people of North America and Europe. It’s often assumed that the most innovative reformers of Buddhism were from Europe and America. But the first modern Buddhist reformers were in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), China, Japan, Burma, etc. They were motivated to reexamine and reform their traditions, partly due to internal social forces but also in light of the tumultuous effects of colonialism and the attendant disempowering of Buddhism in their countries. So these reform movements associated with Buddhist modernism mostly came from the 19th and early 20th centuries and began in Asia.

For example, bringing meditation out from the monastic community to the masses was part of Ledi Sayadaw’s response to British rule’s threat to Buddhism in Burma. He was concerned that colonialism could destroy Buddhism; part of his plan to preserve it was to bring philosophical teachings and meditation to laypeople. Anagarika Dharmapala, in Sri Lanka, presented Buddhism as essentially compatible with, even a precursor to, modern science, insisting on its compatibility with evolutionary theory, psychology, and scientific ideas of causation. This was very important in establishing a link between Buddhism and science that is still prominent in different ways.

Were Asian Buddhists simply reacting to colonialism and hegemony and not necessarily creatively responding to the challenges of modernity? These are not exclusive of each other. Creativity often emerges in stress, conflict, and pressure, and we can see a mixture of defensive moves and creativity in modern rearticulations of Buddhism.

The project of reimagining Buddhism led reformers not just to critique their own traditions and reform them in ways that would be acceptable to the West; they often used Western concepts, fused with Buddhist ones, to critique the West, especially its drive for economic and military power.

Part of the creativity has involved looking at resonances in global currents of thought and practice. For example, the concept of dependent arising underwent a considerable transformation in Asia before it reached a global audience. It began as bad news: karmic bonds enmesh us in bondage, suffering, and continual rebirth. But the interdependence of all things begins to take on more positive meanings in East Asia, especially when combined with the idea that buddhanature permeates everything, including the natural world. Today, the more generalized notion of interdependence has been forged from a mixture of classical articulations and more recent conceptions of ecology, biology, and causality, as well as the empirical reality of the increased systemic interconnectedness of everything and everyone in the contemporary world. In this sense, Buddhist thinkers have been able to think deeply about classical ideas that resonate with current concepts and realities.

Engaged Buddhism is also sometimes characterized as a Westernization of Buddhism. Yet many of the most influential figures in this movement, like Thich Nhat Hanh, Sulak Sivaraksa, the Dalai Lama, and Buddhadasa, are Asian and have infused particular concerns rooted in their cultural context into the movement.

What role did literacy and education play in early efforts to modernize Asian Buddhism? The explosion of Buddhist publishing, the wide availability of classical Buddhist texts in translation, and the increase in literacy over the last 150 years has radically changed how it’s possible to access Buddhist thought and practice.

Many Asian reformers were educated in their local forms of Buddhism and Western curricula set up by colonial governments. This enabled them to embrace certain Western ideals while using them in unique ways. For example, Dharmapala critiques colonialism by employing Western ideals of freedom and democracy, pointing out the apparent contradiction between these ideals and the subjugation of colonized and enslaved people.

The development of a transnational educated population accessing the same scientific theories, literature, and philosophical ideas also contributed significantly to the development of transnational Buddhism. People worldwide began working from a shared repertoire of ideas, which allowed new resonances and connections.

You’ve argued that Asian Buddhists used the term “spiritual” to position Buddhism as secular but also to critique and expand the borders of the secular. What influence has this had on Western Buddhist modernism? The way we use “spiritual” and “spirituality” today is a relatively recent phenomenon. People in the late 19th century began to use it to refer to something at once deeply personal and at the same time universal, almost something free-floating above established religious traditions. Spirituality began to be conceived as something that all religious traditions have but to which no tradition could lay exclusive claim. It was the idea that there is more to religion than just institutions, dogmas, and hierarchies—spirituality pointed toward an internal experience with its own authority.

Buddhism appealed to certain Western seekers partly because it was articulated as compatible with secular forms of knowledge. But it also promised to infuse spirituality into these forms of knowledge or extend secular knowledge into the spiritual realm without contradicting it. One powerful narrative throughout the 20th century was the narrative of science and modernity being forces that were “disenchanting” the world, robbing it of the meaning, depth, and life that it had in premodern times. Buddhist reformers tapped into this disenchantment among specific educated populations by promising to “reenchant” the world, while not contradicting the basic principles of science and secular discourses.

Photograph by Eric McNatt

Were Asian Buddhist reformers concerned with finding an imagined “original” Buddhism, similar to some Western Buddhists?  Yes, many framed it that way. Many Theravada Buddhists claim the Pali canon as the “original” Buddhism. There is a lot of debate among scholars about how confident we can be that the current versions of the Pali suttas reflect the earliest forms of Buddhism, since these texts were not written down until several centuries after the life of the Buddha, and they were redacted in subsequent centuries. Scholars can be confident that specific layers of these texts are likely earlier than others, but we can’t be confident that these give us an unambiguous “original” Buddhism. I think of the Pali Nikayas and Chinese Agamas as reflecting the earliest iterations of Buddhism to which we have access. But we have no access to whatever “original Buddhism” was.

Did Asian reformers receive pushback from other monastics who didn’t want to modernize?  Modernizing efforts successfully established new possible ways of practicing Buddhism, but they in no way displaced things not associated with modernist revivals like rituals, belief in spirits, prayer, etc. One of the crucial fissures was between an approach ultimately committed to a universalist or theosophical version of Buddhism—like that of Henry Steel Olcott, one of the first Americans to become a Buddhist—and a reformed Buddhism that is not interested in subsuming Buddhist truths within a more general all-religions-lead-to-the-same-ultimate-truth approach. Dharmapala broke with Olcott because he didn’t want Buddhism to be seen as one part of a larger truth to which all religions had access. He believed in Buddhism.

Regarding people within the monastic community, many were interested in modernizing and reforming Buddhism. And, yes, some resisted and still do. These are matters of vigorous debate. Many were not interested in scrapping all features of Buddhism that couldn’t be made to fit with scientific, psychological, or transcendentalist ideas. So, again, one could see it as a complex, plural, and variegated continuum of beliefs and practices. One modernist articulation of Buddhism might draw heavily from psychology but also believe in spirits that populate the human world. Another might insist on no “supernatural” elements at all. This is why the notion of a singular Buddhist modernism is problematic.

In an interview with Tricycle, Robert Bellah criticized religious expressions of the “radical ‘disencumbered’ individualism that idolizes the choice-making individual as the prime reality in the world,” and then stated that “to emphasize primarily the individualistic side of Buddhism (especially Zen) in America is only to contribute to our pathology, not ameliorate it.” How might Buddhist modernism reinforce our own cultural and individual pathologies? There is, of course, a dimension of Buddhism that emphasizes internal or extraordinary experiences that can break through delusion. The idea has usually been that practitioners must awaken to the same realization as the Buddha. The Buddha’s awakening to a wider and truer sense of reality is the paradigm.

In the West, this emphasis on internal experience can get assimilated with modern Western individualism, notions of the atomistic, autonomous self, and the absolute authority of individual experience. This latter may seem quite Buddhist: many texts insist that it is not enough to “believe” in the Buddha; one must verify the truths he realized. But in practice, this has almost always been a collective project carried out in close consultation with a teacher, the sangha, and one’s particular tradition. Zen, for example, may seem like the ultimate individualist, trust-your-experience, find-the-buddha-within path. Yet, in practice, one’s insights and realizations are cultivated in close consultation with the roshi, who can ultimately confirm them as genuine or dismiss them as illusory.

This traditional importance of a sangha and teacher in Buddhist practice seems at odds with contemporary mindfulness practices used for individual health and wellness.  Yes! There is tension between conflicting possibilities in contemporary mindfulness and meditation practice. On the one hand, it can reinforce an individualism that seeks to enhance the self. You meditate to make yourself a better worker, parent, hedge fund manager, or golfer. On the other hand, it can shake up the boundaries of the self, show its fluidity, disrupt its narratives, and foster a sense of interrelatedness with others. It can make one more comfortable in challenging conditions and more accepting of social norms, or it can be a powerful tool of critical self-inquiry that can entail questioning the default intuitions and tacit ideologies of one’s society as they exist in one’s mind.

In some cases, Buddhist modernism may become wedded to the more pathological forms of Western individualism. One feature often ascribed to the milieu that Bellah is referring to is an implicit opposition between the individual and society. There is a strong tradition in the West, beginning with Rousseau and others, of conceiving society in opposition to the individual. Society corrupts the individual’s purity and constrains individual freedom. And in Buddhist circles today, we often hear that the Buddhist path is a matter of overcoming social conditioning, implying that only the pure, authentic insight of the individual who transcends all social and cultural influence matters. However, this interpretation neglects how Buddhist insight has always been fostered in a complex interaction between individuals, teachers, communities, and cultures.

But more community-oriented forms of Buddhism are emerging—maybe forms of Buddhist postmodernism, as Ann Gleig suggests—that cast a critical eye on seeing the spiritual quest as one solely of the internal experience of the isolated, lone individual. They might encourage people to see themselves more relationally, which has implications for personal relationships, community, and social-political engagement.

You’ve written that a new understanding of spirituality emerged in which personal spiritual experience transcends doctrine and authority. What challenges might this personal, subjective spirituality create? This is another creative tension in Buddhism today. In some iterations of contemporary spirituality, individual insight is sacrosanct and transcends institutions and religious authority. For example, Buddhist meditation aims to cultivate insight into things as they really are. When hearing this, we tend to think of insight in psychological terms—I have an insight into what’s been making me anxious or obsessing about something.

But meditation, as laid out in classical texts, suggests that the insights to be cultivated are Buddhist insights, for example, into the impermanence of everything, the unsatisfactory nature of the body, or the fact that we have no permanent, independent self. What if I have an insight that fundamentally challenges Buddhist doctrine? After 2,500 years of Buddhists insisting that there are five skandhas, what if I have an insight that there are seven? Buddhist communities have to negotiate this emphasis on the authority of individual insight and the authority of the dharma and Buddhist institutions.

This is not unique to the modern or contemporary context, but the current emphasis on the authority of individual experience undoubtedly enhances it. Different traditions will likely navigate this terrain in different ways, some insisting on adherence to doctrine over personal experience and others giving more credence to innovation. This negotiation may be especially challenging to Buddhism since it has been understood recently as a path that elevates personal experience above all else.

People often characterize Buddhism as a “way of life” or a philosophy—in other words, it’s not a religion. Is Buddhism a religion? Scholars have endless debates about what “religion” is or is not. Without getting into that, it’s clear that if you see Buddhism on the ground in Asia, you’ll most likely think it’s a religion. It involves prayer, ritual, belief in supernatural beings, etc. The same is true of a lot of Buddhism in the West too! In the last 150 years, some Buddhists and Buddhist enthusiasts have cast the tradition as a way of life or philosophy. They often mean that one can, for example, follow the eightfold path without resorting to the things one usually associates with religion. There is a certain truth to that—but it’s a truth that has come about recently. Before the last 150 years, no one conceived of a Buddhist way of life that resembles contemporary secularized versions.

The Search for “True” Dharma

A distinctive mark of Buddhist modernism is the search for an “original” form of Buddhism. In this quote from his 2017 article “Buddhism, Meditation, and Global Secularisms,” in the Journal of Global Buddhism, David McMahan writes about the search for a true Buddhism and the academic skepticism toward any such possibility.

In the 19th and 20th century, authors from around the globe began to create a narrative of Buddhism, celebrating the rediscovery of “true” Buddhism, in part by Western scholars: a Buddhism of texts, philosophy, psychology, meditation, and ethics that contrasted starkly with the “degenerate” Buddhism that colonists found on the ground in places they occupied. The latter Buddhism was a matter of “cultural baggage” that had accumulated around the core of the dharma and was inessential—even corrupting—to its original liberative message. Most scholars today are quite skeptical of this narrative and recognize the picture of a pure rational core of Buddhism enveloped by various cultural impurities to be inadequate to account for the complexities of Buddhism in all its varieties now and throughout history. Yet the picture persists in many different contexts of the rescue of Buddhism from moribund tradition and its (re)emergence into its true ancient form, which turns out to be the most compatible with the modern.

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