The Making of Buddhist Modernism

McMahan, David L. The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

pp. 190–191

Buddhism, according to many modernist interpretations, imposes no answers but invites self discovery, interior exploration, and inner freedom.

And since individuals are free to collect and assimilate their own resources in their autonomous pursuit of truth-to construct what Durkheim called “a free private, optional religion, fashioned according to one’s own needs”-not only they themselves but the traditions from which they collect ideas and practices are “endlessly revisable”: one can take what is of use in a tradition (in this case, meditation) and disregard the rest (institutions, rituals, explicit ethical rules, etc.).

p. 4

Another of these conversations took place in my classroom the next Monday, when I asked my students in an introductory class on Asian religions-our first day dealing with Buddhism-to relate some of their ideas and images of the tradition. After the various impressions from popular films and magazine articles, someone faithfully conveyed that semester’s version of what has become a standard view: that Buddhism is a religion in which you don’t really have to believe anything in particular or follow any strict rules; you simply exercise compassion and maintain a peaceful state of mind through meditation. Buddhism values creativity and intuition and is basically compatible with a modern, scientific worldview. It is democratic, encourages freedom of thought, and is more of a “spirituality” than a religion. While scholars steeped in the rich diversity of Buddhism in a wide variety of cultures over its twenty-five hundred years of history-not to mention serious practitioners immersed in the complexities of Buddhist practice and doctrine-may roll their eyes at such vagaries, these notions are not simply a result of ignorance. They have specific roots in representations of Buddhism in recent history-representations created, in fact, by scholars and practitioners themselves. Indeed, they are accurate representations not of Buddhism in its diverse Asian historical contexts but of a new Buddhism that has emerged more recently.

p 6

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 Anagarika 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, clarify some of its detailed features, and trace aspects of its emergence. Heinz Bechert established the term as a scholarly category in his Buddhismus, Staat and Gesellschaft (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).

p. 7

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.

p. 13

Throughout each of these three discourses of modernity run themes that constitute some of modernity’s inescapable axioms, to which any bid for inclusion in the modern project must respond: individualism, egalitarianism, liberalism, democratic ideals, and the impulse to social reform. Two themes Taylor stresses that run through all three discourses will be important here: first, a distinctively modern world-affirming stance, a sense that the locus of a meaningful life is not in another realm but in the way this life, everyday life, is lived, and second, the shift toward interiority, reflexivity, and self-scrutiny. This shift is characteristic of Enlightenment rationalism, in that truth comes to be seen as located in the mind’s faculties of reason. Descartes’s dualism imports all meaning to the mind itself, a move that drains all but instrumental significance from the material world. Protestantism gave unprecedented value to internal scrutiny and to the experience of God within, while Romanticism located the source of morality, creativity, and spirituality in the deep interior of the soul. This inwardness of various facets of modernity became crystallized in another, later discourse that had an immense impact on later Buddhist modernism: that of psychology. Beginning with Jung’s archetypal psychoanalytic theory and working its way up to current intertwinings of psychotherapy and mindfulness practices, psychology would become one of the most commonly used lenses for the interpretation of Buddhism.

p. 15

Moreover, these discourses should not be considered only intellectual, artistic, or religious movements but rather broad, often prereflective tendencies that define some of the possibilities for modern consciousness.

The way a tradition is reconfigured in a new cultural context has much to do with what seems attractive, repulsive, or anomalous about it from the perspective of the tacit understandings and social practices of the dominant tradition-that is, what resonates. I use this rather vague term quite deliberately to suggest that the way a new cultural form succeeds or fails depends not only on its explicit theoretical formulations but also on a rather inarticulate feeling of whether it can make intuitive sense in terms of a culture’s pretheoretical understandings and social practices. These form the hermeneutical context for understanding another culture, the “preunderstandings” and “prejudgments” (to adapt Gadamer’s terms) that inevitably impose on it our own historical, cultural, and linguistic frameworks but that also are the precondition for comprehension. Such preunderstandings inevitably shape how a tradition will be taken up in another cultural context, the way it will find a niche in the new situation and mold itself to its contours.

p. 16

Buddhism has had to resonate with such implicit understandings as well as their theoretical expressions in its re-creation of itself as Buddhist modernism.’ The reason Buddhist literature often appears to meet so seamlessly with our everyday assumptions is that modernist authors have found ways, no doubt often unconsciously, of articulating Buddhism in the languages of modernity.

pp 16–18

Translation and Transformation

Identifying some of these broad coordinates of modern western life as deeply cultural and particular helps us appreciate the extent to which modernity is transforming Buddhism and creating novel Buddhist cultures. The uniqueness of these cultures is something generally unappreciated by even some very serious practitioners in the West. Here is an example. What could be more commonplace than a Buddhist—or perhaps someone simply “into” Buddhism’—going to a good bookstore, browsing a bit, purchasing a translation of a classic primary text, then going home and reading it? Besides meditation, most western Buddhists would consider reading Buddhist books one of their primary activities as Buddhists, and many have come to Buddhism through books (Coleman 2oo1: 19q). Yet, as Jay Garfield points out, in no other period in Buddhist history before about the past century or two has this been a common practice, or in many cases even a possibility. In most Buddhist cultures, the book has served as support for oral recitation. Traditional Tibetan monks, for example, read sutras aloud, memorizing their words and reciting them to their teachers. They do not peruse the Buddhist canon and choose to read Candrakirti one week and Vasubhandu another, according to whim, but follow an established curriculum. Outside of this curriculum, virtually no one ever reads these texts. Not only were there no bookstores and no widespread print culture in traditional Buddhist contexts but, until the recent global explosion of literacy, there were few people who could even read such texts. It would have occurred to virtually no one, furthermore, simply to pick up such a book and try to understand it for himself (even less herself). The vast canonical literature of Buddhism was written as an aid to oral and personal instruction by an authorized teacher. To attempt to read such texts without the help of a teacher and outside all established pedagogy would have been-and still is considered by some-folly. Thus the translation of canonical texts into Western languages is not just a linguistic translation; it is also a cultural transformation, or rather the establishment of a new, unprecedented textual practice in a new Buddhist culture shaping itself to the textual practices of modernity.

But the transformation does not stop there, as text itself is transformed in its being translated. As Garfield insists, all transmission and translation are also inevitably transformation:

When we translate, we transform in all of the following ways: we replace terms and phrases with particular sets of resonances in their source language with terms and phrases with very different resonances in the target language; we disambiguate ambiguous terms, and introduce new ambiguities; we interpret, or fix particular interpretations of texts in virtue of the use of theoretically loaded expressions in our target language; we take a text that is to some extent esoteric and render it exoteric simply by freeing the target language reader to approach the text without a teacher; we shift the context in which a text is read and used (forthcoming)

Key terms activate certain frames of reference, certain nexuses of ideas, emotions, and behavior. We might, for example, translate the Sanskrit term mokka as “freedom.” In Buddhism, this means liberation from rebirth in samsara as an embodied being, as well as liberation from destructive mental states (klesas), craving, hatred, and delusion, and from the suffering (duhkha) they produce.

When, however, moksa is translated as “freedom”—a perfectly justified translation, by the way—it cannot help but pick up the tremendous cultural resonances this word has in modern European languages and cultures. It inevitably rings the notes of individual freedom, creative freedom, freedom of choice, freedom from oppression, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom from neuroses, free to be me-let freedom ring, indeed. It is virtually impossible to hear this word without a dense network of meanings lighting up, meanings deeply implicated in the history, philosophies, ideologies, and everyday assumptions of the modern West. The translation of one of Buddhism’s central terms, bodhi, provides another example. It literally means “awakening” and describes the Buddha’s highest attainment under the bodhi tree. The most common English translation, “enlightenment,” invokes, however, a complex of meanings tied to the ideas, values, and sensibilities of the European Enlightenment: reason, empirical observation, suspicion of authority, freedom of thought, and so on. Early translators, moreover, consciously forged this link. Buddhist studies pioneer Thomas W. Rhys Davids (1843-1922) first translated bodhi as “Enlightenment” and explicitly compared the Buddha with the philosophers of the European Enlightenment (1882: 30).

p. 20

First, many of the important creators of Buddhist modernism were not westerners but Asian Buddhists who actively engaged with orientalist representations of Buddhism, adopting some features of them and countering others in accordance with various strategic interests. Seeing Buddhist modernism strictly in terms of western representations occludes the agency of Asian Buddhists as cocreators of modernist versions of their traditions (Snodgrass 2003: 10-15, King 1999: 149). Second, the many modernist scholarly and popular constructions of Buddhism, some of which have indeed been fantasies, nevertheless have not been idle fantasies. They have been productive, fashioning of new ways of being Buddhist practiced by living, breathing people around the globe. Fantasy, as the psychoanalysts have told us, is not something easily dismissed. It tells us important things about the fantasizer and can transform that which is fantasized about. Modern representations of Buddhism, even when they have been inadequate as historical description, have conditioned what Buddhism has become. Seeing Buddhist modernism solely in terms of representations and scholarly construction, therefore, neglects the most important thing to the historian of religions: that a novel, historically unique form of Buddhism has emerged in the last 150 years.

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