August 20, 2012

What's at Stake as the Dharma Goes Modern?

What's at Stake as the Dharma Goes Modern?In “What’s at Stake as the Dharma Goes Modern?” Tricycle contributing editor Linda Heuman explores the challenges posed to contemporary Buddhists and, by extension, to practitioners of all faith traditions by modern assumptions and attitudes. Heuman combines rigorous thought and research with concern for the actual living reality of religious practice:

“The experience of being a modern Western Buddhist is different from the experience of all previous Buddhists in one crucial respect: we are contending with a radically different environment of faith. In discussions about Buddhism’s transmission to the West, most of the discussion about belief has focused on particular beliefs. What has been off our radar for the most part is an appreciation of the very different background of assumptions within which belief itself—both ours and that of traditional Buddhists—is construed.”

This problem, Heuman writes, is difficult even to discuss, because it operates mostly at a deep level of implicit assumptions, not explicit beliefs. But the effects of these assumptions are profound and far-reaching, and failure to come to terms with them “threatens to sabotage a rich and meaningful dialogue with Buddhist tradition, and in so doing, to hinder significantly the fullness of Buddhism’s transmission to the West.”

Heuman is not concerned with easy answers or quick fixes. What she seeks to demonstrate is how our secular and materialist convictions block us in certain critical ways from participating in what has always constituted a Buddhist form of life. In addressing the problem, we might begin modestly, by examining the background assumptions that shape our sense of how things are and what is possible.

“As we hold each assumption up to examination—as we pull it from the background and into the foreground and subject it to analysis—something curious happens. In a certain sense it loses its power over us—its status as ‘the way things are’—and becomes one possible way among many ways that things could be. Then with courage and genuine humility we might begin to look at our job as dharma pioneers differently. Our cutting-edge task is not to fit Buddhism into our world. Nor is it to adapt ourselves to fit a world that is no longer available to us as it might have been to our ancestors. It is to reach across a great chasm and to meet our tradition in a new place where it—and we—have never before been.”

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