The Making of Buddhist Modernism
David L. McMahan
New York: Oxford University Press
2008, 320 pp., $29.95 paper
Buddhism was the first major missionary religion, and by all accounts it seems to have spread peacefully. The merchants and monks who transported the dharma did not accompany conquering armies or attempt to defeat the local gods. Most often, Buddhism engaged with native traditions in a co-creative process that led to the development of something new. Buddhism in Tibet has been significantly influenced by its interaction with the indigenous Bön tradition, Taoist and Confucian thought helped shape Chinese Buddhism, elements of Shinto are woven into Buddhism in Japan, and so forth. Buddhist teachings about impermanence and insubstantiality apply to Buddhism too.
Today the buddhadharma is facing perhaps its greatest challenge ever. In Asia, it has for more than a century struggled to remain relevant in the face of immense social and political change. In the West, Buddhism is assuming a role in a globalizing civilization that is still paramount but is also losing self-confidence as it struggles with serious problems that raise questions about its own values and direction. Buddhism might be able to offer some guidance as Western dominance is challenged and Asia becomes a leading player on the world stage. Contemporary Buddhism is one of the sites where, obviously, Asian and Western cultures meet and, less obviously, a premodern cultural tradition meets the currents of modernity. The Buddhism that most of us know has been emerging from this complex web of influences, yet how well do we understand that we ourselves are suspended within that web?
This issue has been a subject of study in academia since the 1970s, when the Buddhist scholar Richard Gombrich and the anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere coined the term “Protestant Buddhism” to describe new forms of Asian Buddhism that have been developing in response to colonialism and modernization. Although these revival movements were often reacting against Christian missionary activities, they were nonetheless influenced by post- Enlightenment developments within Christianity. They tended to de-emphasize supernatural events, ritual, and hierarchy and to promote more individualistic religious experience and doctrines that are compatible with science.
Today the preferred term is “Buddhist modernism,” and recently this phenomenon has become a topic of discussion within practice communities as well. Much of the discussion has focused on a provocative study by David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism. McMahan argues that “elements of Buddhism that many now consider central to the tradition—meditation, internal experience, individual authority—are so constructed because of the gravitational pull of modernity.” The novel types of Buddhism that have developed since the mid-19th century, both in Asia and in the West, do not simply revive and reiterate the dharma but embody just as much Western ways of thinking. In short, modern Buddhism means not only Buddhism in the modern world but new, hybrid traditions that are as much modernist as Buddhist.
McMahan emphasizes that both Buddhism and modernity are multivalent, contested terms. Following the philosopher Charles Taylor, he focuses on three currents of thought that he sees as essential to the modern world: Western monotheism, especially as transformed by the Protestant Reformation; rationalism and scientific naturalism, which includes a negation of premodern religious mythologies; and Romantic expressivism, which includes American Transcendentalism, Theosophy, and elements of the counterculture of the 1950s and 60s, all of which were responses to what the sociologist Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world” and the challenge of nihilism in a world where God is, if not quite dead, then seriously ill.
Two themes pervade all three of these currents: a world-affirming attitude and a shift toward interiority and self-reflexivity. Although both themes have become essential to Buddhist modernism, McMahan argues that neither was emphasized as much in premodern Asian Buddhism, where the goal was escape from samsara, and contemplative practices were only one element in a communal and comprehensive spiritual life that also included morality, religious ritual, institutional roles, and so forth.
The three currents of modern thought interweave, but there are also serious tensions among them. McMahan skillfully demonstrates how Buddhist modernism has been negotiating the conflict between scientific rationalism and Romanticism. In opposition to Christianity, Buddhism is often claimed to be a “rational religion,” yet in opposition to the materialistic and reductionistic tendencies of science, modern Buddhism has also drawn on Romantic and psychological perspectives that emphasize the importance of interiority. “Many staples of Buddhist modernist literature—the exaltation of nature, the idea of spiritual experience as identifying with the natural world or a universal spirit, the emphasis on spontaneity and creativity through the cultivation of an interior experience, the transcendence of conventional morality through an intuitive and interior source of ethics, the reverence of the simple and the rustic over the complex and the technological—owe much to the intertwining of Buddhism and the Romantic-Transcendentalist stream of thought.” McMahan emphasizes that these staples were not absent from traditional Asian Buddhism, but they have become much more central today.
Perhaps no single person did as much to articulate a Buddhist modernist perspective as D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966), who, not coincidentally, also did more than anyone else to introduce Buddhism to the West. Suzuki, observes McMahan, was so successful because he decontextualized Zen from its Sino-Japanese origins and incorporated it into a Western worldview that emphasized spontaneity, creativity, and appreciation of the natural world, unmediated by the dualizing intellect. “Suzuki’s insistence that the enlightened person transcends social conventions and prescribed morality, realizing intuitive action as the vehicle of nature, reconfigures and radicalizes Rousseau’s primitivism.”
McMahan’s analysis is too rich and nuanced to summarize adequately in this short review, but the main target of his critique deserves special attention because it demonstrates the general problem he sees with Buddhist modernism: its emphasis on meditation, often isolated from its Asian religious context and presented as a psychological or scientific technique. His examples include the American Vipassana movement, which is largely independent of the Theravada tradition from which it originates; and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, which promotes a mindfulness practice divested of its traditional cultural and religious framework, an approach that according to founder Jon Kabat-Zinn “has nothing to do with Buddhism per se or with becoming a Buddhist, but it has everything to do with waking up and living in harmony with the world.”
McMahan sees this modern detachment of meditation from the rest of the Buddhist tradition as continuing the Western emphasis on individualism, which minimizes the value of social relationships and community. Meditation, then, becomes a tool to be used as part of one’s personal spiritual path or to improve one’s everyday life, but without the need to commit to any collective enterprise, structure of traditional authority, or ritual activities. By no coincidence, this type of mindfulness practice also fits into modernity’s world-affirming attitude, as a way of valorizing everyday life rather than trying to escape it. “This privatization, deinstitutionalization, and detraditionalization of meditation is a significant development in the history of Buddhism.”