We typically associate modernism with the cultural West, and “Buddhist modernism” is no exception: traditional forms of the religion reached our shores, the story goes, and over time we worked to make them compatible with the realities of contemporary life. Yet the process of modernization has its roots in Asia. Grappling with the social, cultural, and economic pressures of colonialism and modernization, Asian Buddhist cultures not only developed strategies to defend against foreign incursions but also adapted Buddhism in highly creative and innovative ways. In Burma, for example, meditation was taken out of the monasteries and made widely accessible to lay men and women, ensuring its survival.
The process of adaptation is how Buddhism stays vital in the lives of those who practice it. So it is not surprising that from early on, some of Buddhism’s central tenets have been transformed to accommodate the demands of a quickly changing world. As the author and professor of religious studies David McMahan explains in this issue (“The Roots of Buddhist Modernism”):
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.
What began in Asia continued as Buddhism reached new lands. Eventually, what McMahan calls a “transnational Buddhism” developed, in which people globally “began working from a shared repertoire of ideas, which allowed new resonances and connections.”
There is perhaps no better embodiment of Buddhism’s modern expression than the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, whose centering of dependent arising—or to use his term, “interbeing”—influenced not only Zen schools in the West but also Buddhist traditions worldwide. Interdependence has been so pervasive in contemporary Buddhist discourse that it is fair to say that it is one of the ideas most closely associated with Buddhism in the popular imagination. Even outside Buddhist circles—particularly in the field of ecology—interdependence has found its way into common parlance.
In this and in so many other respects, it is difficult to overstate Thich Nhat Hanh’s influence. All the more reason that his loss is felt both inside and outside his Order of Interbeing, the school he founded and that has flourished beyond Vietnam’s borders. A figure so central to a school’s development is virtually impossible to replace, and in this issue, Megan Sweas looks at the future of his community in “After Thay.”
Thich Nhat Hanh opined that the future Buddha would “manifest in the form of ‘A Beloved Community,’” and members of the Order of Interbeing have taken him at his word, meticulously maintaining a horizontal, consensus-based model of decision-making in the sangha. “They must maintain a young tradition and stay true to Thay’s spirit by pushing at its bounds,” Megan Sweas writes, “all while no single person holds authority.”
It is not an easy line to walk, but given their extraordinary commitment to the legacy of their teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh’s students are confident they’ll manage in his absence. The creativity and innovation that characterized their teacher, after all, is precisely what has allowed the Buddhist forms we practice today to survive the convulsions of modernity.
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