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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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.

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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.