One of the questions we ask ourselves in evaluating articles is, in what way does this matter to our readers? What is at stake in the issues that a particular piece explores? Since we are a Buddhist publication, for many of our articles, the answer is obvious. The value of pieces on Buddhist teachings and practice, for instance, goes without saying. And narratives by practitioners do what good narrative writing is intended to do—act as a lens to better examine one’s world and one’s own life. But for the historical pieces based on scholarship, the answer may not be immediately clear, although such pieces are no less important in understanding our traditions. As an example, a topic we have been exploring for years is Buddhist modernism. As best I can recall, the first time the term appeared in Tricycle was in an interview with Jacqueline Stone, then a professor of Japanese studies at Princeton University. In it, Stone laid out Buddhist modernism’s origins:
Buddhist modernism began in the late nineteenth century, as Asian Buddhist leaders and Western converts … sought to present Buddhism as the answer to the so-called crisis of faith brought on by the alleged incompatibility of Christianity and the modern rational-scientific worldview. So certain elements were abstracted from the larger religious context and presented as constituting the core or essential teachings of Buddhism, and other elements—elements that always had been a vital part of the tradition—were marginalized.
Stone adds that “the point is not that Buddhist modernism is wrong. Actually, I think it is part of Buddhism’s continuous interpretive effort to frame itself in accordance with the demands of time and place.”
Not long after that, on Stone’s advice, Tricycle’s features editor, Andrew Cooper, interviewed the scholar Robert Sharf (Summer 2007), to take on a subject that in Stone’s interview was all but an aside. In fact, with other scholars like Donald S. Lopez Jr., Sharf was one of the first to open modern Buddhist studies as a legitimate field of research, notably with his 1995 paper “Buddhist Modernism and the Rhetoric of Meditative Experience”; likewise, Lopez’s seminal Prisoners of Shangri-La (1998); A Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West (2002); and his inaugural lecture at the University of Michigan, “The Making of Modern Buddhism” (2001), anticipate works that follow, among them, David McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism.
In this issue, Seth Segall’s review of McMahan’s new title, Rethinking Meditation: Buddhist Meditative Practices in Ancient and Modern Worlds, continues our exploration. Like all good works of scholarship, McMahan’s rests on the surface of a much deeper ocean, drawing from the research of those who preceded him and building upon it. Rethinking Meditation reflects a central concern of the author: while Buddhism is often presented as a means by which to deconstruct our world, it is itself constructed within ever-changing historical and cultural contexts. As we learned much earlier from the work of Sharf and Lopez, the Buddhism we practice today bears little resemblance to the Buddhism of even a few centuries ago. To quote Segall’s review, “McMahan demonstrates how every culture and historical era reinterprets and repurposes Buddhist practice to make it relevant to its place and time.”
We often dismiss ideas as, well, mere ideas. But Buddhist history for Buddhist practitioners, to cite an approach used by the late scholar and Tricycle contributor Rita Gross (Fall 2010), can reveal otherwise hidden assumptions, sectarian attachments, and personal biases. And isn’t shedding light on such blind spots a big part of why we practice Buddhism in the first place?