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 www.davidloy.org.