The Making of Buddhist Modernism
David L. McMahan
New York: Oxford University Press
2008, 320 pp., $29.95 paper

Buddhism was the first major missionary religion, and by all accounts it seems to have spread peacefully. The merchants and monks who transported the dharma did not88_LoyReview accompany conquering armies or attempt to defeat the local gods. Most often, Buddhism engaged with native traditions in a co-creative process that led to the development of something new. Buddhism in Tibet has been significantly influenced by its interaction with the indigenous Bön tradition, Taoist and Confucian thought helped shape Chinese Buddhism, elements of Shinto are woven into Buddhism in Japan, and so forth. Buddhist teachings about impermanence and insubstantiality apply to Buddhism too.

Today the buddhadharma is facing perhaps its greatest challenge ever. In Asia, it has for more than a century struggled to remain relevant in the face of immense social and political change. In the West, Buddhism is assuming a role in a globalizing civilization that is still paramount but is also losing self-confidence as it struggles with serious problems that raise questions about its own values and direction. Buddhism might be able to offer some guidance as Western dominance is challenged and Asia becomes a leading player on the world stage. Contemporary Buddhism is one of the sites where, obviously, Asian and Western cultures meet and, less obviously, a premodern cultural tradition meets the currents of modernity. The Buddhism that most of us know has been emerging from this complex web of influences, yet how well do we understand that we ourselves are suspended within that web?

This issue has been a subject of study in academia since the 1970s, when the Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich and the anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere coined the term “Protestant Buddhism” to describe new forms of Asian Buddhism that have been developing in response to colonialism and modernization. Although these revival movements were often reacting against Christian missionary activities, they were nonetheless influenced by post- Enlightenment developments within Christianity. They tended to de-emphasize supernatural events, ritual, and hierarchy and to promote more individualistic religious experience and doctrines that are compatible with science.

Today the preferred term is “Buddhist modernism,” and recently this phenomenon has become a topic of discussion within practice communities as well. Much of the discussion has focused on a provocative study by David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism. McMahan argues that “elements of Buddhism that many now consider central to the tradition—meditation, internal experience, individual authority—are so constructed because of the gravitational pull of modernity.” The novel types of Buddhism that have developed since the mid-19th century, both in Asia and in the West, do not simply revive and reiterate the dharma but embody just as much Western ways of thinking. In short, modern Buddhism means not only Buddhism in the modern world but new, hybrid traditions that are as much modernist as Buddhist.

McMahan emphasizes that both Buddhism and modernity are multivalent, contested terms. Following the philosopher Charles Taylor, he focuses on three currents of thought that he sees as essential to the modern world: Western monotheism, especially as transformed by the Protestant Reformation; rationalism and scientific naturalism, which includes a negation of premodern religious mythologies; and Romantic expressivism, which includes American Transcendentalism, Theosophy, and elements of the counterculture of the 1950s and 60s, all of which were responses to what the sociologist Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world” and the challenge of nihilism in a world where God is, if not quite dead, then seriously ill.

Two themes pervade all three of these currents: a world-affirming attitude and a shift toward interiority and self-reflexivity. Although both themes have become essential to Buddhist modernism, McMahan argues that neither was emphasized as much in premodern Asian Buddhism, where the goal was escape from samsara, and contemplative practices were only one element in a communal and comprehensive spiritual life that also included morality, religious ritual, institutional roles, and so forth.

The three currents of modern thought interweave, but there are also serious tensions among them. McMahan skillfully demonstrates how Buddhist modernism has been negotiating the conflict between scientific rationalism and Romanticism. In opposition to Christianity, Buddhism is often claimed to be a “rational religion,” yet in opposition to the materialistic and reductionistic tendencies of science, modern Buddhism has also drawn on Romantic and psychological perspectives that emphasize the importance of interiority. “Many staples of Buddhist modernist literature—the exaltation of nature, the idea of spiritual experience as identifying with the natural world or a universal spirit, the emphasis on spontaneity and creativity through the cultivation of an interior experience, the transcendence of conventional morality through an intuitive and interior source of ethics, the reverence of the simple and the rustic over the complex and the technological—owe much to the intertwining of Buddhism and the Romantic-Transcendentalist stream of thought.” McMahan emphasizes that these staples were not absent from traditional Asian Buddhism, but they have become much more central today.

Perhaps no single person did as much to articulate a Buddhist modernist perspective as D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966), who, not coincidentally, also did more than anyone else to introduce Buddhism to the West. Suzuki, observes McMahan, was so successful because he decontextualized Zen from its Sino-Japanese origins and incorporated it into a Western worldview that emphasized spontaneity, creativity, and appreciation of the natural world, unmediated by the dualizing intellect. “Suzuki’s insistence that the enlightened person transcends social conventions and prescribed morality, realizing intuitive action as the vehicle of nature, reconfigures and radicalizes Rousseau’s primitivism.”

McMahan’s analysis is too rich and nuanced to summarize adequately in this short review, but the main target of his critique deserves special attention because it demonstrates the general problem he sees with Buddhist modernism: its emphasis on meditation, often isolated from its Asian religious context and presented as a psychological or scientific technique. His examples include the American Vipassana movement, which is largely independent of the Theravada tradition from which it originates; and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which promotes a mindfulness practice divested of its traditional cultural and religious framework, an approach that according to founder Jon Kabat-Zinn “has nothing to do with Buddhism per se or with becoming a Buddhist, but it has everything to do with waking up and living in harmony with the world.”

McMahan sees this modern detachment of meditation from the rest of the Buddhist tradition as continuing the Western emphasis on individualism, which minimizes the value of social relationships and community. Meditation, then, becomes a tool to be used as part of one’s personal spiritual path or to improve one’s everyday life, but without the need to commit to any collective enterprise, structure of traditional authority, or ritual activities. By no coincidence, this type of mindfulness practice also fits into modernity’s world-affirming attitude, as a way of valorizing everyday life rather than trying to escape it. “This privatization, deinstitutionalization, and detraditionalization of meditation is a significant development in the history of Buddhism.”

A strong and interesting claim—but one that is then weakened by qualifications and exceptions that make it less interesting. It turns out that revalorization of the everyday world is not so foreign to traditional Buddhism: “The desire to see something deeper in the stone, the river, or the ketchup bottle is of course not solely a product of modernity; traditional Mahayana conceptions of Buddha nature have long sent people on quests to plumb the hidden depths of things.” And modernist overemphasis on meditation? McMahan acknowledges some important Asian models: “This elevation of the role of meditation over merit making, chanting, ritual, and devotion is, again, not simply a Western product. One of the most important founders of the modern Vipassana movement, the Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw (1904–82), like many modern meditation teachers, focused almost exclusively on the practice of meditation and the goal of awakening, deemphasizing ritual and monasticism.” The case of Mahasi Sayadaw, like that of his contemporary, the Burmese lay teacher U Ba Khin, is of special interest because it highlights the complexity of the issues involved in discussing what is Buddhist and what is modern. In particular, it underscores the need not to conflate “modern” with “Western.” The Vipassana revival in 20th-century Southeast Asia, which was rooted in Burma, was a modern movement that found its inspiration in Buddhism’s own traditions. It extended to the laity the opportunity to engage in serious meditation practice, but its emphasis on the possibility of making progress ress toward liberation from samsara meant that it did not affirm this world. 

Buried at the back of McMahan’s book is a long revelatory endnote:

The Pali suttas clearly assert the importance of meditation and its indispensability to awakening, and most Buddhist schools since have agreed. In this sense, the modern centralization of meditation could be considered a kind of revival of ancient teachings and practices that have become occluded, especially as the [monastic] sangha has been called upon to fulfill the role of priest and ritualist. Yet in the Pali canon, as well as in most Buddhist literature since, meditation has been considered a monastic practice and difficult under the conditions of typical lay life. Buddhist teachings for the laity were generally not aimed at the far goal of nirvana but at the more proximate goals of ethical cultivation and a favorable rebirth. A number of Mahayana sutras complicate this picture, depicting laypeople as meditating and attaining full awakening within the conditions of ordinary life. Dogen also affirmed the primacy of meditation among monastics and laity alike. Little evidence exists, however, that the ideal of meditation in the pursuit of full awakening has been commonly undertaken in most lay Buddhist contexts until recently.

Given the Buddha’s own emphasis on contemplative practice, and the fact that most practice in the West is by nonmonastics who find the conditions of typical lay life somewhat less difficult today, it is not surprising that there is so much focus on meditation.

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.” What I find lacking is something different, which perhaps should not be expected even in such a fine example of academic Buddhology.

Good critical studies undermine the assumption that culture is merely a kind of baggage that can be discarded at will. The problem for Buddhist modernists (including myself) is that we tend to view our own beliefs as culture-free. Extracting the essence of Buddhism from the societies in which it has been embedded is easier said than done, because those of us who try to do the extracting are embedded in culture too. Critiques such as McMahan’s help us see ourselves afresh, in ways we couldn’t otherwise do. But something else is needed too.

McMahan is careful not to make normative judgments about what is or is not genuinely Buddhist; he takes the tradition as a whole, with all its multiplicities and inconsistencies, and is content to observe “the circumstances in which Buddhists must develop adaptations and strategies of legitimation.” Yet there is more at stake than the legitimation of Buddhism in the modern world, because what we really need to do today is to distinguish the aspects of Buddhist traditions that are most helpful from those—patriarchy, for example—that are not. The broader context for the development of Buddhist modernism—still in its early stages—is a globalizing civilization in ecological, economic, and social crisis. What can Buddhism contribute to help us address these crises? Ultimately, the fundamental issue is not Buddhist interaction with scientific reductionism or Romanticism but how the Buddhism that is emerging might best address the individual and collective dukkha [suffering] of our time.

Of course, when we turn to Asian Buddhism we see only what we are able to see: as always, who we are determines what we look for. Yet what we look for and what we need may be quite different, which points to the basic issue at stake for Buddhist modernism. Will Buddhism itself be commodified and co-opted into a self-help stress-reduction program that does not challenge institutionalized dukkha but adapts to it, reproducing capitalism’s image of the consumer as atomized and isolated? Or will the modernization of Buddhism open up new perspectives and possibilities that challenge us to transform ourselves and our societies more profoundly?

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