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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“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.”

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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.