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 not 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.
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