How Buddhist Is Modern Buddhism?

David Loy

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.”

A strong and interesting claim—but one that is then weakened by qualifications and exceptions that make it less interesting. It turns out that revalorization of the everyday world is not so foreign to traditional Buddhism: “The desire to see something deeper in the stone, the river, or the ketchup bottle is of course not solely a product of modernity; traditional Mahayana conceptions of Buddha nature have long sent people on quests to plumb the hidden depths of things.” And modernist overemphasis on meditation? McMahan acknowledges some important Asian models: “This elevation of the role of meditation over merit making, chanting, ritual, and devotion is, again, not simply a Western product. One of the most important founders of the modern Vipassana movement, the Burmese monk Mahasi Sayadaw (1904–82), like many modern meditation teachers, focused almost exclusively on the practice of meditation and the goal of awakening, deemphasizing ritual and monasticism.” The case of Mahasi Sayadaw, like that of his contemporary, the Burmese lay teacher U Ba Khin, is of special interest because it highlights the complexity of the issues involved in discussing what is Buddhist and what is modern. In particular, it underscores the need not to conflate “modern” with “Western.” The Vipassana revival in 20th-century Southeast Asia, which was rooted in Burma, was a modern movement that found its inspiration in Buddhism’s own traditions. It extended to the laity the opportunity to engage in serious meditation practice, but its emphasis on the possibility of making progress ress toward liberation from samsara meant that it did not affirm this world. 

Buried at the back of McMahan’s book is a long revelatory endnote:

The Pali suttas clearly assert the importance of meditation and its indispensability to awakening, and most Buddhist schools since have agreed. In this sense, the modern centralization of meditation could be considered a kind of revival of ancient teachings and practices that have become occluded, especially as the [monastic] sangha has been called upon to fulfill the role of priest and ritualist. Yet in the Pali canon, as well as in most Buddhist literature since, meditation has been considered a monastic practice and difficult under the conditions of typical lay life. Buddhist teachings for the laity were generally not aimed at the far goal of nirvana but at the more proximate goals of ethical cultivation and a favorable rebirth. A number of Mahayana sutras complicate this picture, depicting laypeople as meditating and attaining full awakening within the conditions of ordinary life. Dogen also affirmed the primacy of meditation among monastics and laity alike. Little evidence exists, however, that the ideal of meditation in the pursuit of full awakening has been commonly undertaken in most lay Buddhist contexts until recently.

Given the Buddha’s own emphasis on contemplative practice, and the fact that most practice in the West is by nonmonastics who find the conditions of typical lay life somewhat less difficult today, it is not surprising that there is so much focus on meditation.

It would be easy to misread this book as criticizing modernist Buddhism for incorporating too many non-Buddhist elements and therefore being inauthentic. McMahan is much too sophisticated a scholar to fall into that: he acknowledges that Buddhist traditions, like other traditions, have always needed to keep re-creating themselves, “amalgamating elements of new cultures, jettisoning those no longer viable in a new context, and asking questions that previous incarnations of Buddhism could not possibly have asked.” What I find lacking is something different, which perhaps should not be expected even in such a fine example of academic Buddhology.

Good critical studies undermine the assumption that culture is merely a kind of baggage that can be discarded at will. The problem for Buddhist modernists (including myself) is that we tend to view our own beliefs as culture-free. Extracting the essence of Buddhism from the societies in which it has been embedded is easier said than done, because those of us who try to do the extracting are embedded in culture too. Critiques such as McMahan’s help us see ourselves afresh, in ways we couldn’t otherwise do. But something else is needed too.

McMahan is careful not to make normative judgments about what is or is not genuinely Buddhist; he takes the tradition as a whole, with all its multiplicities and inconsistencies, and is content to observe “the circumstances in which Buddhists must develop adaptations and strategies of legitimation.” Yet there is more at stake than the legitimation of Buddhism in the modern world, because what we really need to do today is to distinguish the aspects of Buddhist traditions that are most helpful from those—patriarchy, for example—that are not. The broader context for the development of Buddhist modernism—still in its early stages—is a globalizing civilization in ecological, economic, and social crisis. What can Buddhism contribute to help us address these crises? Ultimately, the fundamental issue is not Buddhist interaction with scientific reductionism or Romanticism but how the Buddhism that is emerging might best address the individual and collective dukkha [suffering] of our time.

Of course, when we turn to Asian Buddhism we see only what we are able to see: as always, who we are determines what we look for. Yet what we look for and what we need may be quite different, which points to the basic issue at stake for Buddhist modernism. Will Buddhism itself be commodified and co-opted into a self-help stress-reduction program that does not challenge institutionalized dukkha but adapts to it, reproducing capitalism’s image of the consumer as atomized and isolated? Or will the modernization of Buddhism open up new perspectives and possibilities that challenge us to transform ourselves and our societies more profoundly?

David R. Loy, is the author of Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution and The World Is Made of Stories. For more on Loy’s work, visit


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williamftyler's picture

Owen Barfield talks about "Saving the Appearances" and mentions that the world of the past was seen through a different filter than what we see through today. It is not easy to peel away the layers/projections and see 'raw' reality - or at least attempt it. Does anyone have any sources on this topic?

Dominic Gomez's picture

The Mahayana grew in response to such concern with only one's own salvation, which "minimizes the value of social relationships and community."

wtompepper's picture

I read this review three times, and it still seems a bit puzzling to me. I can’t quite get the purpose.

On one hand, it seems to argue that academic study of Buddhism remains descriptive, and while this is fine as far as it goes, it isn’t enough. So, we need to make the hard decisions about what we want to do to improve the world, and not just describe what is, or isn’t, being done. We need to think about what concepts and practices Buddhism can contribute to an attempt to reduce suffering.

On the other hand, there’s the same old postmodern claptrap about only seeing what we are looking for, about our embeddedness being inescapable and limiting. Of course we are all embedded in our culture, and it is perfectly possible to know that we are—to make the mistake of assuming our culture is not one, that we live in the realm of the transparent and universal, is a foolish mistake, a delusion, we can perfectly well get out of if we are willing to. And the fact that what we look for is determined by who we are does not necessarily mean we will always be mistaken, that any perception is purely ideological and so no better or worse than any other. There’s an important distinction between why we talk about something, which is always ideologically motivated, and whether or not it is true. Certainly, the values placed on human life and the belief in the potential of scientific progress are ideologies that were important to the development of the polio vaccine; that doesn’t mean that the vaccine does not work, or would stop working if we stopped valuing human life or doing medical research. We don’t always see what we expect to. If we did, we would all still believe that the sun moves around the earth.

It seems evident that, at present, Buddhism is well on the way to being commercialized and co-opted to produce capitalist ideology. And this may help reduce some suffering, the way painkillers do—without removing the cause. If we want to remove the cause of suffering, and if Buddhism can help, we do need to move beyond description and into discussion of the truth of those insights to be found in thousands of years of Buddhist thought. But we also need to drop the postmodern assumption that we cannot see the truth of anything, because all we can know is our culture.

Academic descriptive objectivity is just one form of the postmodern avoidance of commitment to changing the world—just like the tendency to qualify one’s most interesting claims right out of existence. We can’t overcome postmodern passivity with a slightly different postmodern argument.

David Loy's picture

Perhaps your problem with understanding the review is your own distaste for postmodernism? The article does not mention the issue of scientific progress and the objective truth that may or may not imply, but it does discuss the implications of the fact the we are always embedded in a culture, and what that means for how we can understand Buddhism today, now that Buddhism is coming to the West. The important point is that we need a Buddhism that is relevant to our condition, that can help us address the challenges -- the crises -- we face today, especially since, as we agree, Western Buddhism is otherwise "well on its way to being commercialized and co-opted."

wtompepper's picture


I wouldn’t put it in terms of taste. I disagree with postmodern ideas, but it is not a matter of subjective preference. They are demonstrable wrong, and lead only to delusion and to the justification of abandoning thought or any attempt to change the world for the better.

I guess I was, and am, puzzled over whether you thought McHahan’s book was too postmodern, or not postmodern enough. Your conclusion seems to suggest that any Buddhism we create is purely one language game among others, and we can just choose to create a different one if it suits our present needs, or desires. However, it leaves us with no way to justify changing the world instead of simply adapting to “institutionalized dukkha.” Unless there IS some truth outside of our “embeddedness” which we can actually access, then there’s not way to argue that we should do anything in particular.

I would argue that Buddhist thought, particularly Madhamaka, can demonstrate how we can use reason, the structures of rigorous thought, to push our commonsense understanding of the world to, and beyond, its limit. We don’t, then, need to think we can only see what our language enables us to. If this were the case, we would never run into any conceptual problems, and there would be nothing to worry about.

I recently read an essay you wrote some time ago, about Nagarjuna and Dogen. You argue that Nagarjuna leaves us with a choice between (delusional) language and silence, while Dogen encourages us to use language to push the limits of our “mind”—which is, in a sense, not separate from but within that language. I would suggest a different difference: for Nagarjuna, we have a way, in rigorous philosophical thought which engages multiple individuals, to control and rework our language, which is not a window on the world, but a tool with which we interact with the world—our commonsense concepts are infinitely corrigible, but we can be sure we are improving them. For Dogen, we have no such privileged vantage point, and can never be sure that our newly refashioned collective language/mind is any less delusional than the previous one.

I do want to say that I absolutely agree with your insistence that we need to change the social institutions, not just relieve our stress. However, I think that the postmodern line of thought is liable to be an impediment to success in this project. When you say, as you did in the essay back in 1999, that Nagarjuna and Dogen are both dealing with a basic and fundamental difficulty common to them both AND to us, surely you are suggesting that there is some transcendent truth about how thought and language works, right? Isn’t your whole argument based on accepting that there are truths that transcend the particular culture in which they appear, that they can be made to appear in multiple cultural contexts? I’m suggesting that without accepting the possibility of a mind/language independent reality, the project of encouraging a real effort to change institutional structures isn’t going to get much traction.

Your essay has, though, prompted me to look into Dogen’s Shobogenzo. Any suggestions on translations?

Thanks for your reply. As always, I find your writing helpful and enlightening, even when I disagree with some of your conclusions.


David Loy's picture

Thanks for your very thoughtful questioning, and the generous words about my writings. Again, however, I suspect that you are seeing both McMahan’s book (have you read it? well worth reading, as I hope the review emphasized enough) and my review through the prism of your own preoccupation with postmodernism – which is not a topic addressed in the book, nor in my review. I would not consider myself a “postmodernist,” but you seem to be making generalizations about a very complex and variegated intellectual movement, and I believe that the sharp dichotomy you make between objective truth/reason and relativism is too simple. (Is your commitment to a “mind/language independent reality” consistent with the claims of subject-object nonduality in many Buddhist traditions?)
Please excuse the self-reference, but I’ve tried to show some of the similarities and differences between Buddhism and postmodernism in a previous article on “Indra’s Postmodern Net”: My McMahan review is not arguing that the Buddhism we reconstruct today is just one language game among others, and that we are free to create different ones if we feel like it. Just the opposite: today we urgently need a Buddhism that speaks directly to the particular set of personal and social challenges that we face– including, of course, our particular (post)modern sense of self. That’s where I part from academic “hands-off” reluctance to make normative judgments, because we very much need to distinguish what is most helpful in the Buddhist tradition(s) – eg, meditation – from what is not – eg, patriarchal institutions.
The article you cite about Nagarjuna and Dogen ( argues that, despite deep similarities in their perspectives and concerns, Nagarjuna ultimately seems to view ultimate reality as beyond all language/thought, whereas for Dogen language is itself an expression of ultimate reality, just like everything else. For Nagarjuna the ultimate is inexpressible, for Dogen everything expresses it: the trees outside my window, the clouds drifting by, and, yes, these words. Is it possible that both are right? Forms are empty; emptiness is manifesting in all these empty forms.

Dominic Gomez's picture

'both are right?' Such is the middle way. Non-dualism, even.

wtompepper's picture

Perhaps Dominic. Or perhaps it is the Dodo way: Everybody has won, and all must have prizes!

Dominic Gomez's picture

A level playing field at last!

wtompepper's picture


I don’t want to perseverate on this (but, I guess I will). We undoubtedly can’t make too much progress in discussing this in this venue. I do want to clarify a few things, though. You are surely right to suggest that “postmodernism” is multifarious, and this is of course a postmodern strategy--to become so very multifarious and appear so “diverse” and complex that nobody can say anything at all without being accused of “painting with too broad a brush.” I do know a bit about this, as I’ve been studying post-structuralist continental philosophy for about thirty years now, and have seen hundreds of people make the response you just did to many different opponents of postmodernism First: I am not “making generalizations” about diverse thinkers, but pointing out the error of a concept they all share: the idea that truth is relative, constructed only in language and culture. There’s a big difference between reductive generalization and discussing an abstract concept. Second: I would point out that if you reject the “sharp dichotomy” between objective truth and relativism as “too simple,” you have (simply) accepted the latter. Fuzzy thinking is simple; intellectual rigor is hard.

As for my commitment to mind-independent reality, it is completely compatible with nonduality, because the “mind” is completely a part of reality, just not all of it. Mind is not a mirror of reality on another plane, or radically divided from the material world, but is within reality; however, there is plenty of reality outside of the mind, which goes on existing in the same way regardless of what we think of it. To say there is a mind-independent reality is no more "dualist" than saying there is a table-independent chair. You say you are not a postmodernist, and perhaps you don’t consider yourself one, but the fact that you would assume that the existence of parts of reality separate from human thought REQUIRES a kind of duality illustrates how much postmodern ideas inform your thinking.

The reason I am concerned about this is that I completely agree with your goals, with your insistence that we need to make judgements about things if Buddhism is going to be of any help in stopping us from destroying the world and bringing suffering to everybody in it along the way. I do think Buddhism has much to offer, but not if it becomes a version of postmodernism in the sense that Frederick Jameson defined it about thirty years ago: the cultural logic of late capitalism. Postmodernism, as Jameson demonstrated, is not a philosophical school of thought but the ideological form most suited to global capitalism. And one of the features of postmodernism, most evident in writers like Rorty and Fish, is to insist on erasing the line between ideologies and philosophical concepts (or science, or anything that suggests there is a truth beyond language games.)

I would also completely disagree with your reading of Nagarjuna. I mean, I do see where you get it, and your article is very clear, but I think that postmodern assumptions have crept into the reading of Nagarjuna generally. I would suggest that a better way to understand Nagarjuna is to see that he is not claiming the ultimate is ineffable, a kind of Kantian noumena, but that he is demonstrating that it is because reality is what our language always must refer to, we can see the aporia and contradictions in our discursive formations. We don’t need, then, to say “we can’t say anything,” but to recognize that this very fact makes discursive formations corrigible, once we stop clinging to them and demanding a final and complete knowledge. Human knowledge, that is, is infinitely corrigible. And philosophical thought can continue to point out where it need expansion and correction. On the other hand, the Zen notion that everything expresses what is beyond language leaves us unable to change anything at all, reduced, like a lot of Heideggerians, to believing that our ideologically produced perceptual experiences are really an intuition of the transcendent truth. This is why we so often hear American Buddhists say things like ‘language screens us from reality,’ or ‘we need to get beyond language.’ They forget that language is not just a game, but a tool with which we, collectively, interact with (the rest of) reality. For Nagarjuna, that tool can be improved, if we start noticing its limits.
I’m not saying all this to be quibble, but to encourage. I think your goals are absolutely right, but that postmodern arguments and assumptions subtly informing your work are going to hamper your attempts. How can we claim to know what “particular personal and social challenges” we are facing, or to know how best to face them, if we accept that our claims have no hold on the truth? And if we start accepting the strategy of qualifying and complicating every statement, contextualizing it so thoroughly we cannot say anything at all about it, then we have accepted the cultural logic of late capitalism.

As I’ve said often before, I think debates like this are a very good way to move thought forward, and if we all agreed thought would be doomed. A discussion board in a popular magazine may not be the most productive venue, but it’s a way to avoid grading those papers on my desk. I’m eager to read the essay you mentioned on Buddhism and Postmodernism. And no, I haven’t yet read McMahan’s book--I was curious about it, which is why I read your review first when the new tricycle issue went online; it may have to wait for spring break, though.


David Loy's picture

You raise several issues that would be interesting to pursue, but, as you also say, this kind of format for discussion is really not the best way to conduct such a complex argument. We've wandered pretty far from McMahan's book, which I encourage you to read. The points he makes are important and all of us concerned about globalizing Buddhism need to be aware of them.
with best wishes and gassho,

chujoe's picture

When I read McMahan's book I often found myself wanting to defend contemporary Buddhist practice in the West against what felt to me like attacks that set up a more traditional, Eastern Buddhism as being more authentic. That was my sectarian (Zen) impulse at work. But as I read and reread McMahan more carefully, I came to see that what he was really doing was presenting an important set of empirical observations about different modes of Buddhist practice in different cultural spheres. This is an extremely important contribution, both for scholars and practitioners, because it allows us to place our own understanding in a wider cultural and historical context. Buddhism is no different from any other set of cultural practices in that it changes as it moves through space and time; but for Buddhists, at least, there remains within that shifting and impermanent set of practices a collection of skillful means that point to fundamental insights. Buddhism (surprise!) can be looked at from the perspectives of the relative and the absolute -- and both perspectives are equally real, as Shih-t'ou Hsi-ch'ien's great poem on the subject teaches.