An exploration of the background assumptions of the modern age and the unique challenges they present.
In this new ecosystem of secularism, a new form of spiritual life is flourishing. To recognize it, it helps to note that religious sensibility comes in two types. One type of sensibility (Taylor calls it “closed”) understands the highest good and deepest sources of meaning to be located within this world; the other sensibility—an “open one”—seeks connection to the sacred in something beyond. In other words, says Taylor, all modern people living in the secular West share a common immanent frame of reference, but we can live within it either open or closed to the possibility of something beyond. In the history of religious life, this closed kind of religious sensibility is a newcomer. Until modernity, it wasn’t conceivable that the quotidian here-and-now could be all there was, so it was likewise unintelligible to imagine that a life lived meaningfully could orient itself in a fulfilling way to strictly immanent goals. Today, not only can we conceive of doing such a thing; we’re doing it en masse. The emergence of this new closed spiritual possibility marks the key difference between earlier times and the secular age.
To put this in Buddhist terms, in modern Western Buddhism, for the first time in Buddhist history, it is now possible to construe the purpose of dharma practice as the improvement of one’s psychological well-being or physical health, as a means to experience more harmony in one’s relationships, or as a way to build a more equitable, kind, and peaceful society. In this materialist-compatible version of Buddhism, death is the end, so the only problems are here and now. An endless cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth doesn’t exist, so freedom from it is a not a coherent goal. In today’s science-based world, a buddha’s omniscient cognition or emanative forms seem, frankly, superstitious— part of an ignorant and outdated worldview no more relevant to modern people than ghosts or demons.
In contrast to this closed form of Buddhism, there remains an open one, in which Western Buddhist practitioners still strive for transcendent goals that once made sense within a traditional Buddhist world but that seem oddly incoherent against the backdrop of our daily secular lives. These spiritual practitioners (I include myself among them) experience a normative pull from the secular environment that makes it hard for us to take transcendent goals seriously, even as we actively practice to attain them. Those who seek transcendence in the context of the immanent frame have a brand-new disadvantage, one that Milarepa or Dogen never had to overcome. We have to perform a tug-of-war with ourselves that was never required of our spiritual predecessors. For Milarepa, to strive for awakening was to throw his weight toward the collective sense of cosmic order into which he was born. We, on the other hand, have to pull against ours. Our conviction can thus be double-headed. Like Dr. Dolittle’s pushmi-pullyu, many of us progress on our spiritual path two-steps-forward-one step-back: straining ahead toward our highest spiritual aspirations, drawn back by socially inculcated common sense. We don’t have the wind at our back.
Wanting to eliminate the tension drives some practitioners to adhere to tradition in the manner of fundamentalists. They retreat from the complexities of modernity into an anachronistic fantasy. Others think redefining “awakening” will resolve the tension: they reconstrue the problem so as not to reference samsara, assuming that recasting the problem won’t change the solution. Still others take on traditional Buddhist beliefs, but in so doing they extract these beliefs from the traditional Buddhist background context that supported them, and try to insert them into a modern secular background with which they are incompatible. It’s as if these practitioners are trying to run software designed for Windows on a Mac.
Any of these convert Buddhist practitioners might have deeply transforming experiences. But because these experiences will occur against the backdrop of the view of self understood as private, walled-off, and interior, and the view of meaning as inhering within the mind, such experiences will then likely be understood as private, psychological states, brain states, or states of consciousness, or even as personal achievements. It must then be asked, might not such an approach end up reinforcing and vindicating a self-experience that is a product of secular modernity? And because these experiences will occur against the backdrop of the view of the self as autonomous—rather than contingent— might they not further strengthen an already problematic misapprehension of the nature of the self that our texts tell us is the precise point of Buddhist practice to abandon?
Seen in this light, the adaptation of Buddhism to the West has two aspects. On the one hand, there is the rising popularity of a closed sensibility of dharma practice—one in which we have made a clear break with all previous Buddhist traditions, relocating techniques and teachings from a background context in which they served transcendent goals into one in which they serve immanent ones. On the other hand, there is an open sensibility of dharma practice in which practitioners navigate a deep incongruity between their practice and how their world is construed; where conviction struggles to plant a foothold for leverage against a strong counter-pull of doubt; and in which one must wonder and then ask, are the transcendent experiences of liberation and enlightenment, traditionally the core goals of Buddhist life, no longer possible for us?