An exploration of the background assumptions of the modern age and the unique challenges they present.
“Enlightenment” and “liberation” are tricky terms, and Buddhists have argued about what exactly they mean since the time of the Buddha. Nonetheless, all traditions throughout Buddhist history have identified our problem with reference to samsara— the cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth. The motivation for practice was to transcend that cycle—or to help others to do so. At the very least, a Buddhist might strive to attain a better rebirth as a step on the way. While the practice of dharma may (and often does) bring some comfort, enjoyment, and even happiness in this life, the seeking of these states has always been the very definition of what is not dharma practice. We seek these naturally, no practice required.
Consider then how strange it is that in modern Western Buddhism transcendent goals have become, for the most part, optional, and on top of that, they can oftentimes be—as I became more and more acutely aware, the longer I held the mike while the silence dragged on—the harder option to embrace. Meeting our religion head-on—by studying root texts and commentaries, participating in its ritual life, or adopting Buddhist narratives and doctrines—can even be regarded as anachronistic and naive.
I’d like to suggest that this difference is due not to culture or geography, as our commonly used “transplant and adapt” metaphor assumes; it is due to a difference in epoch. In entering modernity, Buddhism has crossed a boundary of a nature entirely different from any geographical, linguistic, and cultural barriers it has navigated historically. Buddhism has entered a secular age, and that’s not just new soil—it’s a whole new ecosystem.
To understand why this phase of dharma’s evolution is an unprecedented shift, it is necessary to look very closely at the nature of the dharma’s new secular environment. We might tend to think of secularism in terms of the separation of church and state. Depending on your perspective, this may seem like a positive development, and indeed, in many respects it is. The post- Enlightenment purge of religion from political institutions and public life and the dismantling of some ecclesiastical hierarchies have gone hand in hand with the rise of democracy and egalitarian values, including the protection of beliefs. Today, we who live in modern secular societies can, in principle, believe what we want—including Buddhism—or we can choose not to believe in any religion at all. So far, so good.
But there is a much deeper level of secularism. Our secular age is marked off from the earlier period of religious life not only by changes in belief but also, more profoundly, by shifts in the very preconditions of belief, the background within with both belief and disbelief are construed. Secularism in this sense sets the parameters, the limit conditions, for what kinds of crops can thrive in modernity’s field of spiritual possibilities. It sets zone conditions: first frost, temperature lows, rainfall highs.
To get a sense of how radically different this ecosystem is from any to which Buddhism has adapted in the past, it is illuminating to draw on recent scholarship by the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, a leader in the fields of secular studies and the history of subjectivity. Taylor’s field-defining book A Secular Age (2007) traces the development of Western secular modernity from its roots in Latin Christendom.
Imagine for a moment living in Europe 500 years ago. How might you have experienced your moral, spiritual, or religious world? What might your sense of self have been like? Religion was then built into the very fabric of social, political, and private life—much as it has been, and in some cases still is, in Asian Buddhist cultures. The existence of God was not a belief you held; it was, quite simply and axiomatically, the way things were. In this “enchanted” worldview, people experienced an environment permeated with God’s presence and with moral forces, including demons and spirits—a world in which power could hang out in objects like statues or relics, and sacred presence could be, as Taylor writes, “enacted in ritual, seen, felt touched, walked toward (in pilgrimage).” To be a person in this world was to be in interaction with these forces, both accessible and vulnerable to them. Taylor calls this type of subjectivity “porous.” For such people, there was, claims Taylor, “no distinction between experience and its construal.” In other words, in a world where ghosts are real, to see a ghost is to see a ghost, not to believe you see one.
But this changed in modernity. Our world became, in the sociologist Max Weber’s famous term, “disenchanted.” Cartesian dualism and the rise of science chased the spooks from their haunts “out there” into a newly understood “in here.” In this newly constituted (Taylor calls it “buffered”) sense of self, we modern people experience moral forces both beneficent and demonic as private, internal happenings, not as facts about our world. Our “natural” world is indifferent, value-neutral. For the first time in world history, people do not live in meaning; meaning lives in us.
Secular people sense the world to be self-sufficient and impersonal: our post-Galilean universe is governed by natural laws. We see our societies as human, not divine, creations; we follow moral laws put in place by people, not God. Our very frame of reference for making sense of our world and for participating in it is thus an “immanent frame,” says Taylor. Half a millennium ago, we couldn’t have made sense of the world without God; now it’s hard to make sense of it with him. The pre-Reformation experiences of being a believer or disbeliever are no longer available to modern people because the background context of belief has fundamentally shifted. Taylor holds that the modern age is an “entirely new context.” In this sense, he says, “secularity has to be described as the possibility or impossibility of certain kinds of experience in our age.”