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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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world, a buddha’s omniscient cognition or emanative forms seem, frankly, superstitious— part of an ignorant and outdated worldview no more relevant to modern people than ghosts or demons.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?

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celticpassage's picture

I always find it amazing that many (most?) people think that if something is real or true that it must have the blessing of 'science' behind it, and of course the corollary that if 'science' doesn't give it's blessing then it can't be true. It seems to me that 'science' is a widespread modern delusion, as is it's protector, the fear of appearing foolish if one questions or disavows 'science' as the only source of truth. Of course, the protector, fear of appearing foolish and it's consequent, fear of rejection primarily through ridicule is a powerful one and has been busy since the very distant past.

eternallyperplexed's picture

Well said, celticpassage. I don't know the author of this quote that I wrote down a long time ago in the middle of my 'scientific' training: "If human beings are composed of matter,body,mind,soul and spirit, then science deals handsomely with matter and body,poorly with mind, and not at all with soul and spirit" (although I am not too sure it deals all that handsomely with body).

celticpassage's picture

Thank you EP.
Nice quote, although as you suggest, science has found matter not quite as simple or unmysterious as perhaps when the content of that quote was spoken.

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.