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 Paths 2Even among worldviews, which are all convincing to their adherents, secular humanism combined with scientific materialism has a particularly compelling normative force. The success of instrumental reason in producing vast wealth, status, and power combined with obvious scientific and technological advances allows us to believe that this style of thinking and its discipline of science are not just efficacious but also indubitably and solely true. By these standards, other worldviews and other modes of knowing are unable to justify themselves and therefore seem invalid. But failure to satisfy the criteria by which secular modernity measures success is not a shortcoming of other worldviews and other modes of knowing; it is simply a result of applying our own criteria outside their ken. For the past 100 years, scholars across fields ranging from philosophy and cultural anthropology to the history of science, sociology, literary studies, and linguistics have questioned the assumptions that constitute the immanent frame. Unpacking why the immanent frame’s subtraction story spin is so convincing has been and continues to be an urgent challenge for modern thinkers who are concerned about the ethical implications of unbridled individualism let loose in a value-neutral world.

The point here is not that a traditional Asian worldview (or some other) is right and ours is wrong, but that our secular and materialist convictions block us in certain critical ways from participating in what has always constituted a Buddhist form of life. Much of the meaning of a religion is conveyed in its symbols, rituals, and myths. Consider how our privileging of rational knowing gets in our way.

Reason is concerned with literal meaning—that is, “x is y.” Symbolic knowing is concerned with metaphorical meaning: “x is like y.” Thus, while reason hones in on facts, symbols explore relations. Reason demands one-to-one correspondence: either water is H20 or it isn’t. In contrast, symbols work with multifaceted meaning; the water offered on a Tibetan altar is at once flowers, incense, and light. Symbols govern intricate patterns of meaning. They condense many meanings into one. They expand one meaning into many. And they can even hold together discordant or contradictory meanings.

From the point of view of instrumental reason, ritual seems like purposeless action. But ritual too is working with another kind of knowing—the sense in which we know the floor is solid and the walls obstructive, which we discover by finding our way around—by walking on the floor or bumping into the wall. This type of knowledge is not theoretical in nature; it is how we live. And ritual can shape that level of meaning, articulate it in definite ways. Ritual doesn’t represent meaning like rational propositions do; it enacts it. Bowing to the Buddha, for example, isn’t just how you think about your faith; it is how you go about attaining it and how you live it.

Again, from the perspective of reason, myths are just bad theories or wrong propositions. But narratives can deeply shape our understanding—both intellectual and intuitive. They are deeply interwoven in our identities and can pull strings on our motivations—ask any psychotherapist, politician, or advertiser. Or ask yourself: Why do you practice Buddhism? Your answer will be a story.

Our Buddhist tradition is like a meaning-symphony in which symbols, rituals, myths, and beliefs harmonize and counterpoint. Reducing the dharma to a system of rational beliefs and associated meditative techniques and discarding the rest is like covering one’s ears so that only the percussion beats through. Listening to our tradition in that manner, we can’t even tell what piece is playing. If then, on top of that, we toss out Buddhist beliefs that don’t fit with materialism, it’s as if we are only hearing that percussion line as a beat we already know. Is this an authentic dialogue with tradition? In what way are we to learn something new?

Certainly we cannot turn the clock back. There is no returning to a presecular world. We must reckon with our secular scientific background. What, then, is the way forward?

There are no easy answers. We might begin, however, by confronting our biases—indeed, our chauvinisms: our presumption that science has got it all figured out; that the modern worldview is a triumph over all past forms of understanding; and that today we are closer to a truer understanding of ourselves and our world than people of any other place and time. We need to start examining the immanent frame’s background assumptions, which constrain our sense of the possible. As we hold each assumption up for examination—as we pull it from the background and into the foreground and subject it to analysis—something curious happens. In a certain sense it loses its power over us—its status as “the way things are”—and becomes one possible way among many ways that things could be.

Examining and even questioning the foundational assumptions of secular and scientific materialism doesn’t mean we stop doing science or stop living in a technological world. Rather, it means we begin to see our worldview as a worldview, to appreciate how it, too, came to be constituted on the basis of a number of sleights of hand and is, as a result, no more universal or final or resting on solid ground than the worldviews of our medieval Western or traditional Buddhist predecessors. Like their worldviews, ours is a set of conventions. We can then understand that this is what it means to have a worldview: the human form of life operates within a vast web of implicit background understandings that limit what can count as valid beliefs and experiences.

The distinction between explicit beliefs and their implicit background context has been a critical one in our own Western philosophical tradition for the last century. Many of our most prominent thinkers—from Wittgenstein to Kuhn up to Taylor— have called attention to its importance and the problems that arise when it is overlooked. Although the understanding of background context emerged in the West, its implications lead us back home to one of the core teachings of Buddhist tradition— the two truths. When we as Buddhists consider that all our experiences, along with the objects of our experiences—and even subjectivity and objectivity themselves—arise within the context of implicit background assumptions, we recognize what we call “conventional truth.” When we consider that therefore, as a consequence, no worldview can appeal to the objects of its own creation for its own validation—that no worldview rests on solid ground in this sense—we recognize “ultimate truth,” emptiness.

At some moment it could hit us that the liberative possibilities spoken of in Buddhist texts may not be superstitious fairy tales. They may be real possibilities. For the first time it may seem plausible, indeed credible, that just as our form of human life gave rise to the material accomplishments toward which it directed its aspirations—skyscrapers and Internet technology and the like—so too might another form of human life, operating within different background assumptions, with different aspirations and with an understanding of its own conventional nature, be capable of giving rise to spiritual accomplishments like liberation and enlightenment. Then with courage and genuine humility we might begin to look at our job as dharma pioneers differently. Our cutting-edge task is not to fit Buddhism into our world. Nor is it to adapt ourselves to fit a world that is no longer available to us as it might have been to our ancestors. It is to reach across a great chasm and to meet our tradition in a new place where it—and we—have never been before.

Of Related Interest:

Linda Heuman reviews Religion in Human Evolution, by sociologist of religion Robert N. Bellah.

"The Transcendent Imperative," by Tricycle features editor Andrew Cooper.

Linda Heuman, a Tricycle contributing editor, is a freelance journalist based in Providence, Rhode Island.

Image 1: Central Tibet, 1700-1799, Gelug lineage. Ground mineral pigment, fine gold line, red background on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art, New York.

Image 2: Tibet, 1800-1899. Uncertain lineage. 93.98x64.77cm, ground mineral pigment on cotton. Collection of Rubin Museum of Art, New York.

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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.