Making of Buddhist Modernism

Author : McMahan, David L

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Making of Buddhist Modernism

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In this book, McMahan offers the first comprehensive attempt to chart the development of "modern Buddhism". His position is critical but empathetic: while he presents modern Buddhism as a construction of numerous parties with vested interests, he does not reduce it to a misrepresentation. Rather, he presents modern Buddhism as a complex historical process constituted by a variety of responses to some of the most important concerns of the modern era.

"This is an exceptionally well-written and imaginative piece of scholarship. David McMahon treats in great depth many different facets of Buddhist modernism including art and creativity, meditation and monastic ideals, and science…reflects an excellent understanding of how Buddhism fits into the larger scheme of modern religiosity and the development of modern scociety more generally." Steven Heine.

"Offers readers a theoretically structured analysis of the development of new modes of thought and discourse in the Buddhist religion since the latter part of the nineteenth century. Grounded in a proper understanding of premodern Buddhist ideas, this work effectively unravels the complex ways in which Buddhism has been adapted to fit the theoretical commitments and tacit understandings of people living in the modern world." Stephen Berkitz.

"With the Making of Buddhist Modernism, the study of modern Buddhism has reached a new level of maturity. This sweeping and sophisticated analysis of the ways in which Westerners and Asians alike have constructed new forms of Buddhism under the pressures of modernity is thoroughly disillusioning, in the best sense of the word. McMahon shows that much of what has been written and said about Buddhism in the modern era only can be understood against the background of dominant Western discourses. Trenchant but fair, erudite yet lucid, this book should be required reading for any serious student of Buddhism, and will be appreciated as well by those interested in intellectual history, cultural studies, or simply, the inquiry into modernity." Roger R.Jackson.

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Buddhist Modernism and the West

It is tempting to think of the various modernizing forms of Buddhism as "Western Buddhism," given the influence of western science, philosophy, and psychology on modern variations of the dharma, as well as the visibility of American and European authors on the subject. Indeed, westerners have contributed significantly to transforming Buddhism in highly selective and idiosyncratic ways in terms of the categories, ideologies, and narratives of their own cultures. The modernization of Buddhism, however, has in no way been an exclusively western project or simply a representation of the eastern Other; many figures essential to this process have been Asian reformers educated in both western and Buddhist thought. Nor can the motivations of major Asian figures in this process, such as Anagarilca Dharmapala, Daisetz t Suzuki, and of late, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, be reduced to the simple accommodation of Buddhism to western forms of modernity. Some have infused Buddhist categories into modernist discourse only to turn around and critique modernity's perceived weaknesses, to resist the colonialism of the West, or to assert their own forms of religious or national particularity. This new form of Buddhism that I want to discuss-what some scholars have called Buddhist modernism-has been, therefore, a cocreation of Asians, Europeans, and Americans. Although I intend to look primarily at its manifestations in the West, such interconnections between them belie any attempt to categorize my subject as "western Buddhism," for it is a global phenomenon with a wide diversity of participants. What scholars have often meant by "western Buddhism," "American Buddhism," or "new Buddhism" is a facet of a more global network of movements that are not the exclusive product of one geographic or cultural setting.

By "Buddhist modernism" I do not mean all Buddhism that happens to exist in the modern era but, rather, forms of Buddhism that have emerged out of an engagement with the dominant cultural and intellectual forces of modernity. Buddhist modernism is a dynamic, complex, and plural set of historical processes with loose bonds and fuzzy boundaries. Yet there is something distinct enough to outline its broad contours, c1arif~r some of its detailed features, and trace aspects of its emergence. Heinz Bechert established the term as a scholarly category in his Buddhismus, Stacu und Gesdflsehaft (1966; see also 1984). He described it as a revival movement spanning a number of geographical areas and schools, a movement that reinterpreted Buddhism as a "rational way of thought" that stressed reason, meditation, and the rediscovery of canonical texts. It also deemphasized ritual, image worship, and "folk" beliefs and practices and was linked to social reform and nationalist movements, especially in Burma and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In some places it attempted to reassert Buddhism as a national religion in the face of European colonialism and to counter its negative colonial portrayals in western literature (1984: 276). In a later article, Bechert identified a number of key components of the early forms of Buddhist modernism. They include demythologization-the modernization of cosmology along with a "symbolic interpretation of traditional myths"-something that has allowed Buddhism to be interpreted as a "scientific religion" over against others that stressed belief and dogma. They also include the idea of Buddhism as a philosophy rather than a creed or religion, the insistence on the optimism of Buddhism (to counter early western representations of it as pessimistic) and an activist element that stresses social work, democracy, and a "philosophy of equality." Also crucial is the newly central emphasis on meditation, a development that not only has revived canonical meditation methods but also popularized and democratized them, making them available to all at uniquely modern "meditation centers" (1994: 255-56).

Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere have mapped similar trends specifically in Sinhalese Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Emphasizing the Christian influence on modernizing forms of Sinhalese Buddhism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as those of Victorian English culture, they use the term "Protestant Buddhism" to suggest that modernizing Buddhism both protested against European colonization and Christian missionization and adopted elements of Protestantism. These included rejection of the clerical links between individuals and the religious goal, emphasis on the "individual's seeking his or her ultimate goal without intermediaries," "spiritual egalitarianism," individual responsibility, and self-scrutiny. The importance placed on the sangha (the community of monastics) was diminished as the laity became more important. Under the influence of Protestantism, Gombrich and Obeyesekere assert, "religion is privatized and internalized: the truly significant is not what takes place at a public celebration or in ritual, but what happens inside one's own mind or soul" (1988: 216). The rise of Protestant Buddhism was also connected with urbanization and the rise of the bourgeoisie in Ceylon, as well as other Asian nations, and mingled traditional Buddhist ethics with Victorian social mores (Gombrich 1988: 172-97). It also replicated orientalist scholars' location of "true Buddhism" in canonical texts, while often dismissing local or village iterations as degenerate and superstitious.

More recently, Donald S. Lopez Jr. has mapped some of this territory in his analysis of what he calls "modern Buddhism," which, he contends, "stresses equality over hierarchy, the universal over the local, and often exalts the individual above the community" (2002: ix). It sees the Buddha's original message as deeply compatible with modern conceptions of "reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom and the rejection of religious orthodoxy" (x). Modern Buddhism has much more active and visible roles for women than its more traditional predecessors, and its social location has often been among the educated middle classes. Lopez suggests that modern Buddhism has developed into a kind of transnational Buddhist sect, "an international Buddhism that transcends cultural and national boundaries, creating. . . a cosmopolitan network of intellectuals, writing most often in English" (xxxix). This "sect" is rooted neither in geography nor in traditional schools but is the modern aspect of a variety of Buddhist schools in different locations. Moreover, it has its own cosmopolitan lineage and canonical "scriptures," mainly the works of popular and semi-scholarly authors-figures from the formative years of modern Buddhism, including Soen Shaku, Dwight Goddard, D. T. Suzuki, and Alexandra David-Neel, as well as more recent figures like Shunryu Suzuki, Sangharakshita, Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, Chogyam Trungpa, and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

These closely related conceptions of Buddhist modernism provide a fine composite map of the basic territory this book will explore; but they do not tell the whole story. It is often said as a matter of course that modernist forms of Buddhism have been westernized, demythologized, rationalized, Romanticized, Protestantized, or psychologized, yet little has been done to illuminate the specific modern ideological forces, textual sources, social and cultural practices, overt philosophies, and tacit assumptions that have been involved in these ongoing processes. In this book, I want to excavate some of the specific modern western literature, concepts, ideologies, and practices that have intermingled with Buddhism to fashion a uniquely modernist form of the dharma.

I shall try to illuminate not only how Buddhism's encounter with modernity has changed it but also how the conditions of modernity have created implicit parameters for what interpretations of Buddhism become possible and impossible. What are the nonnegotiable elements of modernity to which Buddhism has conformed? What on the other hand are those aspects of modernity that Buddhism challenges and attempts to transform? How has Buddhist modernism situated itself within modern discourses of knowledge, social relations, science, and philosophy? How, in turn, have Asian Buddhists situated the discourses of modernity within more traditional Buddhist discourses? How has Buddhism been enlisted in preexisting concerns and debates inherent in western modernity? How and why have certain elements of the Buddhist traditions been selected as serving the needs of the modern world, while others have been ignored or suppressed? How has Buddhism fit into the metanarratives of American and European culture, and into those of an increasingly globalizing modernity? How did modernizers and reformers construct Buddhist responses to some of the issues inherent in modernity, and in doing so develop the intellectual underpinnings of new forms of Buddhism both shaped by and critical of modernity? And how have Buddhist texts, ideas, and practices come to be understood as addressing some of the modern West's-as well as the modern East's-deepest existential, social, and philosophical concerns? These are some of the questions I will ask as I try to ascertain some of the ways Buddhism and western modernity have become interfused.