An exploration of the background assumptions of the modern age and the unique challenges they present.
If we are to push on the “transplant and adapt” metaphor for the transmission of the dharma to the West, we ought to be ever on the alert for another very real possibility it entails. We know from evolutionary biology that sometimes a species adapts to a point where it is no longer recognizable as itself, as happened 400 million years ago when the first animals made their way from ocean to land. Swimmers morphed into crawlers, and thus new species emerged. As we reflect on the nature of the transmission to date, we should be asking ourselves some very difficult questions. If we think of the dharma as a form of spiritual life, has the nature of its adaptation to a secular modernity changed it unrecognizably? Is modern dharma a new species? If so, in what sense can we then consider our dialogue with tradition authentic or our transmission successful?
If you operate within a closed dharma sensibility, the question might seem puzzling. It might seem like I’ve just asked something nonsensical—like, now that we know the world is round, have I lost the opportunity of jumping from its edge? Or maybe you’re thinking this closed form of Buddhism is a new species. And that’s a good thing! We’ve shrugged off all that superstition about reincarnation and karma, ghosts and demons, visions and relics—got the bugs out of the belief system. We’ve updated to Dharma 2.0.
Certainly it is true that throughout history Buddhism has always changed and adapted as it has moved from one culture to another. And we too, of course, have to make the dharma suit our culture—adapt it in a way that is authentic and relevant to our lives. We’ve worked hard to equalize institutional hierarchies and address women’s rights, for example. But Western converts have also used this justification to “update versions”: to omit or reinterpret doctrines that seem supernatural—like rebirth or karma, liberation or enlightenment; to downplay modes of knowing outside the bounds of instrumental reason— such as symbols and myths; and to discard practices that seem adventitious—like rituals. Here is why it is important to appreciate that there is more to Buddhism than a set of beliefs or tenets and to understand that beliefs are rooted within a context of implicit background assumptions that gives them sense, meaning, and force. If we fail to recognize the existence and importance of background context, we will consequently fail to see what is unprecedented about the transmission of Buddhism to the West. While Buddhism is indeed crossing between cultures, it is not doing only that: In entering secular modernity, it is also jumping historical epochs, and that makes for a much wider chasm. Buddhism is being pulled into the background contexts not just of Western culture but also of secular modernity— and in terms of the survival of a religion, the latter is a new and especially problematic threshold.
Updating the dharma to fit with our secular mindset isn’t simply change on the order of dress and manners. We’re not talking different taste or customs here. It is an attempt to fix the dharma, to make it right, which is to say, scientific. From the perspective of scientific naturalism, it makes sense to do this, because when one operates within that perspective, it seems that only believers are making leaps of faith. Secular humanists assume themselves to be commitment-free rationalists. But that is a profound misunderstanding. To assume “this is all there is” is also to make a leap of faith.
What is so difficult for us all to see is that we too have a worldview. We simply assume that the world we call “natural” is the only world, that the way we experience and think about things is the way things exist from their own side. Coupled with that assumption is another one: now we’ve got it right. Secular modernity has sloughed off the false beliefs and superstitions of our ancestors and uncovered the real truth, which is hard scientific fact. Taylor calls this progress myth a “subtraction story.” These are powerful biases, hard to shake, not because they are true but because they feel so self-evident.
Reflect on the earlier discussion of the porous/buffered self and the enchanted/disenchanted world. Consider that the self, its environment, the possible relationship between the self and its environment, and the type of knowledge available to a particular kind of self in a particular kind of environment are all culturally construed and historically contingent. They cannot, therefore, be “objective” facts.
When we assume that our secular worldview is de facto true, we are confusing conditions for reality with features of it. This is a little like setting our online newsfeed parameters so that we just get local news, and then coming to the conclusion that all news is local. In exactly the same way, immanence is a precondition for what can count as real in secular modernity. Western convert Buddhists often tend to mistake this background assumption for a feature of reality, and then as a consequence have a hard time making sense of transcendence, which was, by definition, just ruled out.
Before it arrived in Western secular modernity, Buddhism never had to reckon with transcendence being problematic in this way. No previous Buddhist culture construed objectivity and subjectivity as we do, so neither did our predecessors banish values, purpose, and meaning to inner space—nor could they have conceived of spiritual or moral life as just a matter of personal choice or subjective judgment. To be unaware that reality has moral and spiritual dimensions has always meant, as our texts tell us, that one is out of touch with how things are. To ignore reality’s moral and spiritual imperatives has a consequence— continued suffering. Buddhist practice, in its traditional context, is to align oneself more and more deeply with the cosmic order. Transcendence occurs when that coming into alignment is complete. In this paradigm, transcendence isn’t ruled out by the definition of the real. It is the definition of the real.