Are you a “modern Buddhist”?

The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David L. McMahan
Oxford University Press, 2008. BQ316.M36

Are you aware of the vast gap between the Buddhism you know and the culture familiar to hundreds of millions of people in “Buddhist countries”? All of the practices and goals described by Western Buddhists, such as meditation, a philosophical quest, and an emphasis on freedom and egalitarianism, are part of a great revolution in Buddhist knowledge as the Western world discovers it. In this book, David McMahan seeks to describe these differences, neither demeaning or praising either side, but raising our awareness of the new role that our Buddhist modernism is giving to these ancient teachings.

When we read about Buddhism by choice, seeking out its most fruitful and meaningful teachings, we are doing virtually the opposite of how laypeople experience Buddhism in Thailand or Tibet. For an average Thai woman, Buddhism means a concern with “honoring, appeasing, and managing the spirit powers that pervade her existential world and with generating the karmic effects to provide good fortune in this life and lives to come.” (37) She doesn’t pick out what interests her the most, nor is she familiar with what the Buddha actually taught, except on the most basic level of virtue and compassion. She might see us as a strange phenomenon: we know as much about Buddhism as a fully ordained monk, but we do not perform any of the rituals that she considers essential for moral upkeep.

Our creation of a philosophical world for Buddhism in the Western/Greek tradition makes us undeniably modern, and grounds our Buddhism in European history just as much as Asian history. Even the act of reading a Buddhist text on your own is a transformation: “It would have occurred to virtually no one [in medieval Tibet] simply to pick up a book and try to understand it himself … The vast canonical literature of Buddhism was written as an aid to oral and personal instruction by an authorized teacher.” (17) And this, too, is only one of a huge variety of ways that reading was performed throughout Asia. The way we Westerners read texts is no more culturally neutral than any of these, but comes down to us from Martin Luther’s idea of sola scriptura.

In a major sense, this modernism arose in response to the demands of 19th century Christians to see either rationality or superstition in the teachings they came across. India is the most important case of a complex culture being reduced to a perceived primitive, uninteresting superstition which the British called “Brahmanism” or “Hinduism”. In the Buddhist world, too, accusations like “atheistic, nihilistic, quietistic, pessimistic, and idolatrous” came fast and furious from Western colonists. (69) When contemporary Sri Lankans and Japanese aimed to combat the ignorance of these critics, they created in response a Buddhist modernism, that is to say a Buddhism that was compatible with the Western philosophical tradition. This was the Buddhism that was equivalent to science, opposed to superstition, and in agreement with Christianity or even superior to it.

Although he is in some sense trying to demythologize this modern Buddhism, McMahan is careful to note that modern portrayals of Buddhist literature have often turned out to be accurate. For example, the Tibetan Book of the Dead was given an intense psychological rereading by Carl Jung which described its images of fierce Buddhas and bodhisattvas as “‘nothing but’ the collective unconsciousness inside me.” We might assume that Jung is projecting his own beliefs onto the traditional book of chants. (53) However, if we look at the text of the book, we find that Jung had ample basis for this representation: these powerful beings are indeed described as “appearances” (pratibhasa) who are “not distinct from the deceased subject wandering in the bar do“. (54) Jung’s interpretation was certainly novel, in the sense that any Tibetan he talked with would not have been familiar with it. But that does not mean he was wrong.

In fact, the main criticism I have of this book is that it does not attribute enough agency to Asian Buddhists for the elements of Buddhism that have reached us today, such as meditation, interbeing, and aesthetics. McMahan quotes Paul Heelas as saying, “people—whether ‘premodern’/’traditional’, ‘modern’ or even ‘post-modern’/’post-traditional’—always live in terms of … typically conflicting demands” to change or renew the meaning of their culture; our own modernism is just the past 100 years of change in a long, living history. (58) One of the Victorian conceits in their encounter with Buddhism was to portray it as ancient teachings submerged in a “dead” religion, and I think we should avoid framing the Western encounter with Buddhism as “breathing life” into it. Some examples of undoubtedly traditional Buddhism used to modern effect, such as tree ordination in Thailand, might have sufficed to round out the complex image presented here. McMahan brushes over these developments as “post-modern” or “retraditionalization”, which seems to imply (falsely) that they have progressed beyond a stage of modernism. (247)

One thing I think McMahan could pay more attention to is the Western discourse on the terms “religion” and “religions”, and their role in the creation of this modernism. D.T. Suzuki’s claim that Zen is “the essence of religion” (143) is novel, not because nobody had ever claimed an essential nature for Zen before, but because he connects it to the Western ecumenical idea of “religion” as the universal impulse that arises in various forms throughout the world, as opposed to different impulses for different places. He then places Zen as the breakthrough technique to uncover the Ground-Source of this mysterious impulse. It is good to note how Buddhism was reconciled with science by 20th century modernists, but how was it reconciled with this idea of “religion”? Has a discourse on universal spiritual impulse been important, or perhaps even necessary, in the creation of this modernism? This question may be confusing, but I believe it is quite important for understanding how we modern seekers relate ourselves to Buddhism today.

Posted: March 23rd, 2010 | Book Reviews