Filed in History, Science

What's at Stake as the Dharma Goes Modern?

An exploration of the background assumptions of the modern age and the unique challenges they present.Linda Heuman

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Vanishing PathsIn the summer of 2010, I sat a Dzogchen retreat at Garrison Institute with my teacher, a well-known Tibetan lama. He gave teachings during the day and then in the evening handed the microphone over to several academic luminaries who were also attending. In the morning and afternoon we received instructions on attaining buddhahood; in the evenings we heard lectures on how Buddhism’s contact with the West was leading to cutting-edge advances in brain-science research, medicine, and psychology.

One hot night—this was July in New York State—a professor was addressing the excited crowd about developments in medicine based on laboratory studies of meditators. Maybe I was strung out on the heat, maybe it was the effect of keeping silence or of sitting over the course of days with an accomplished master, but something hijacked my better judgment, and when question-and-answer time came I raised my hand.

As I asked my question, the buzz in the room came to a sudden stop. For what seemed a very long time, there was dead silence. One hundred pairs of eyes turned toward me and stared. A few people fidgeted. Somebody laughed.

This was my question: “Given the depth of suffering in samsara and the possibility of a solution to it; given that the very texts we study outline a path to that solution; given that we have a realized master right here who is, we believe, capable of leading us on that path to that solution—why would we devote our precious human lives to exploring whether meditation can lower blood pressure?”

At least some of my fellow Buddhists who stared at me across the meditation hall were, I am pretty sure, puzzled at my puzzlement. Perhaps more than a few imagined they were meeting a Buddhist fundamentalist. Others might have considered me just naive, scientifically uneducated, or even rude.

But however clumsy my attempt, I was trying to put my finger on was a very real tension, a discord between what our Tibetan teacher had been saying and what the community seemed to be hearing. It was visible right there in the structure of the retreat, palpable in the response to my question, and familiar—at least to me, and I imagine to others as well—in everyday practice. This tension points to an issue of key significance in the transplantation and adaptation of the dharma to the modern West, to what is an often overlooked and important difference between Buddhism as it has been traditionally practiced and Buddhism as it is practiced in the West today.

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 difference has been overlooked not because it is unimportant but because it is hard to see. It is operating at a level that is implicit, and therefore hidden. But our failure to acknowledge it 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.

We know this difference by its telltale sign—that familiar tension. It shows up most vividly when we consider big themes: how we understand the central project of Buddhism—the nature of our selves and our problem, and the purpose and possibilities of our practice. For example, for the first time in history, to suggest today in some Buddhist circles that the purpose of Buddhism is exactly what the traditional texts tell us it is—which is to say, that it is concerned with the transcendent—can be to come across sounding like a rube or to meet with condescension.

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Sareen's picture

Perhaps the role of science in the context of buddhist practice, as Jack Kornfield said at the end of a retreat about one year ago, is simply to apply the scientific method and confirm what we already know from our own experience. When you practice for a while, you simply know that practice works.

Is there a benefit to society for scientists to get involved? I suspect there may be side benefits, similar to the material benefits that come from the study of theoretical physics.

There are all sorts of traps to get into and over time, when we follow the instructions, do the practice, the traps show their illusory nature. The same will evolve with the application of the scientific method. It's no replacement for following the instructions and doing the practice.

Our society has given power to science. We generally look to science to explain reality. So when scientists are introduced to buddhism, they naturally bring their tools with them. As long as we realize that they are using a method to explain reality and that the conclusions are only as accurate as the experiment which is designed to test reality, then I think we are okay. When science comes to realize that the experiment in the case of buddhism has to be personal and that it requires following the instructions and engaging in many many hours of practice, they will come around to what Jack Kornfield said, you know that practice works by doing the practice.

Mat Osmond's picture

Thankyou Linda, I found this article very helpful. The naming of this strong cross-current within our contemporary secular worldview (irrespective of its plurality and complexity) certainly struck a chord within my experience. Until last year I spent about 15 years studying under an English Tibetan-Buddhist teacher, during which time the kind of conflict you allude to gradually accrued in the margins until I eventually left, feeling that on some level the Dharma as presented here amounted to an endless, distracting project, and a preoccupation from simply standing before the more-than-human beauty of the world, without any presumption to be liberating it; also, from facing the overwhelming problems that confront our culture as it hurtles enthusiastically towards ecocide.
Later I discovered that there were other presentations of the Dharma that took issue with the very tendencies I had incoherently struggled with, which seem close to the distinctions mentioned by Tom here. In truth I now no longer know what to think; at best I see that I do not see, which is I suppose a position of sorts. I think one aspect of what has taken me away from my teacher was a fear of letting this path lay a real claim on my life and my life-decisions. I also think at that level some of these philosophical distinctions (transcendence vs. immanence) become bracketed, as our deepening relationship with teacher, teaching, community offers a bulwark against simply going along with the functionalist flow of pursuing 'a happy life', which as you so accurately say Linda is what we (try to) do anyway, rather than a central criterion of liberation.
Your article has helped me to recognise a need to turn back and re-evaluate what I walked away from (and not for the first time); it also serves as a reminder that a certain level of inconsistency and internal conflict may simply be part of the deal here, and not in themselves an indication of error or falsehood - nor a source of guilt, for that matter.

wtompepper's picture


What I have in mind is a kind of immanence that rejects any transcendence, including the kind of back-door transcendence so often required by reductive, positivist materialism. In the book mentioned in the article, Taylor assumes that immanence is essentially equivalent to empiricist positivism; while that was, no doubt, a major position in the advance of secularism, it is certainly not the only alternative to transcendence. In a much better book on the same period (more or less), Israel argues that Spinoza is a key figure in the “disenchantment” of the world; Taylor barely mentions Spinoza, who is certainly one of the most important theorists of immanence ever. Radical immanence, like Spinoza’s, attempts to argue that everything is part of the same world, nothing escapes causation, and nothing escapes impermanence. For many Buddhists, this, not belief in escape from the fallen world of samsara, is the most important part of Buddhism.

Of course, there are those schools of Buddhism that do teach that we can escape this world to a state of pure, eternal bliss. On my understanding, though, this is another form of belief in an autonomous, non-contingent self, exactly what causes all our suffering. I think following Taylor’s definitions of transcendence and immanence is just imprecise and unhelpful.

eternallyperplexed's picture

Thank you Linda, much food for thought. Few of us have not experienced some of the dissonance you describe and the frame you provide is very helpful. David Loy explores some of these issues from a slightly different angle.
Tom, can you clarify what exactly you mean by 'radical immanence' in this context; I know the dictionary definitions but putting the two words together has a specific meaning for you that escapes me.

wtompepper's picture

It’s great to see somebody questioning the cooption of Buddhism by the positivist science of the Western health industry. The idea that all we can, or should, salvage from Buddhism is a collection of techniques for lowering our blood pressure and stress is so prevalent, it’s not surprising the audience at was struck dumb by the question.

That said, I have to stick my big BUT in: it is also an error to assume that all forms of Buddhism promote transcendence of this world into some kind of divine, blissful, pure consciousness. That idea seems to be common in Tibetan Buddhism, but for many forms of Buddhism this was understood to be exactly the Brahmanical belief that Buddha taught us how to escape from. What must be transcended, that is, would not be the world, but the assumption that our worldview is not one, that it is natural and timeless and created by the gods. We must also give up the idea of an atman of any kind, and accept radical immanence.

It is certainly the case that we have different difficulties today in our attempt to realize these Buddhist insights. In Buddha’s time, the assumption that of course we had a world-transcendent, permanent, abiding self was hard to overcome. In our own, we think because we have rejected this assumption we have gotten the point of Buddhism, and we mistake a naïve positivism for the final reality—we fail to understand dependent arising, and the full extent to which the conventional self is absolutely not autonomous. Or, we fall into the naïve postmodern trap of assuming there are no “objective” truths because our knowledge of them is always socially produced. Of course there are objective truths; the very fact that our “worldview” shapes our thoughts in predictable and explicable ways proves that we in fact can have objective truths—just not positivist ones.

I think many Buddhist throughout history have taken the truth of Buddhism to be one of radical immanence, not one of the transcendence of samsara by some kind of pure consciousness. The dharma remains the same, but the conceptual stumbling blocks to achieving it are very different.