It is hard to know how to even begin to review a book of the beauty, depth, nuance, and complexity of David McMahan’s excellent Rethinking Meditation: Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds. McMahan’s previous book—his seminal The Making of Buddhist Modernism—is undeniably one of the most important books on contemporary Buddhism ever written, and Rethinking Meditation is destined to take its place alongside it as an indispensable classic. 

Rethinking Meditation: Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds

By David L. McMahan
Oxford University Press, July 2023, 264 pp., $29.95, hardcover

Rethinking Meditation is really two books in one. The first half of the book dismantles the myth that the Buddhist meditation we practice today is the timeless practice handed down from the Buddha. McMahan demonstrates how every culture and historical era reinterprets and repurposes Buddhist practice to make it relevant to its place and time. Every culture and era has “filters” and “magnets” that de-emphasize some aspects of the Buddhist tradition while amplifying others. Thus, modern Western meditators filter out classical Buddhist themes that are incongruous with late modern Western culture (e.g., rebirth, the foulness of the body) and emphasize themes that are culture-congruent and relevant to the moment (e.g., interdependence, secular re-enchantment, savoring the moment).

As a result, the ways in which an Indian Buddhist monk in 200 BCE understood meditation, and the purposes to which he put it, and those of an American convert Buddhist in 2023 are remarkably different. For example, the ancient Indian monk contemplated the foulness of the body—how it was filled with phlegm, pus, and bile—and engaged in charnel ground meditations to watch bodies decompose in order to disenchant himself with the body. Modern mindfulness meditators, on the other hand, engage in body scan practices to experience the body more fully, to reinhabit and become more intimate with it, and to live a fully embodied life.

McMahan also dismantles the idea that meditation is a “science of mind” that enables practitioners to objectively discover the “way things really are”—some true, unchanging nature of reality. Instead, he describes how the various mental maps from different schools of Buddhism shape and limit the kinds of insights practitioners are likely to discover through meditation. It makes a great deal of difference whether one thinks one becomes a Buddha through developing and embodying certain views, mental states, attitudes, and competencies (e.g., the paramitas and brahma-viharas) or whether one views enlightenment as an uncovering and realization of the Buddha one already is. McMahan is nuanced here, however, and acknowledges the possibility that meditation has the potential to deconstruct categorical thinking—a possibility also suggested by Nagarjuna’s tetralemma and Zen’s admonition to “go beyond words and letters.” Thus, different strands of the Buddhist tradition both constrain and liberate discovery. What meditation will show you depends on how you think about meditation. But even when meditation encourages us to transcend our categories, we are all still limited by our social imaginaries, our conditioning, our mental habits, and the constraining visions of our traditions.

What meditation will show you depends on how you think about meditation.

In the second part of the book, McMahan explores three aspects of late modern culture that strongly affect contemporary understandings of Buddhist practice: the ethics of appreciation, authenticity, and autonomy. We can understand how the ethic of appreciation affects modern Buddhism when we consider mindfulness meditation’s orientation toward embodiment, “stopping to smell the roses,” and finding new satisfaction in mundane repetitive tasks such as doing laundry. We see it also reflected in the title of Maezumi Roshi’s book Appreciate Your Life: The Essence of Zen Practice. This ethic of appreciation that characterizes a good deal of modern Buddhism in East Asia and the West is not something we find in early Indian Buddhism.

The ethic of authenticity is reflected in the idea that we have an authentic self (as opposed to a socially conditioned self) that needs to be uncovered, actualized, and expressed. We see this in the idea that meditation involves “going within” to discover one’s genuine self. Of course, early Indian Buddhism insisted there was no such thing as an essential or unchanging self.

The ethic of autonomy involves what philosopher Charles Taylor calls the “buffered” self—a completely independent, rational observer who is in control of his or her appetites and desires and is able to maintain equanimity in the face of untoward life circumstances. We see this reflected in the idea that meditation builds inner imperturbability and peace regardless of external circumstances, and that we are responsible for our own happiness.

McMahan suggests that we replace the idea of the autonomous self with what he calls “situated autonomy”—an acknowledgment of our embeddedness in social structures, counterbalanced by the simultaneous acknowledgment that practices like meditation can enhance our agency through increasing our awareness of possibilities for mental and physical action. McMahan points out that certain aspects of the Buddhist tradition mitigate against this autonomous self. The inner citadel model of the self is in conflict with late modern perspectives on the plural, contingent, dialogical, and interdependent nature of selves—perspectives that dovetail with traditional Buddhist views on nonself, dependent origination, and emptiness. The interdependent self introduces the possibility of an ethical responsibility toward all beings and the natural environment that mitigates against the individualized buffered self. This leads to an engaged Buddhism that is not just about feeling good but doing good—and doing good in ways that undermine systemic forms of privilege and oppression. But nuanced as always, McMahan points out that this new Buddhist interdependence is a modern secularized variant—it aims at a better world in this life rather than a future life, or through transcending the world completely to arrive at nirvana.

I have not sufficiently commented on the beauty of McMahan’s prose. There are very few academic writers who write as beautifully as he does—at times lyrically and poetically—and yet never losing precision, complexity, and nuance. You will want to read this book all at once, but the ideas are complex enough that you ought to read it slowly.

Rethinking Meditation is a book you will want to have on your shelf. It examines “traditional” Buddhist and secular mindfulness rhetoric and will help readers to think more clearly about how our understanding of meditation is inevitably affected by historical, social, and cultural contexts. 

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