Episode 72 :: David McMahan :: The Making of Buddhist Modernism

David McMahan

David L. McMahan talks with us about The Making of Buddhist Modernism.

Hi, everyone. Over the past year or so of the podcast, many of you have heard me use terms regarding the ‘evolution’ of Buddhism in contemporary culture. Some of us also use terms like ‘adaptation’, but the underlying principle is the same: Buddhism is affected by conditions. And, as a product of the human mind, carried forward through time by human processing, it is irrevocably changed by those interactions.

The book The Making of Buddhist Modernism is an excellent examination of the causes and conditions which have contributed to the overall landscape of contemporary Buddhism. Our guest David L. McMahan is Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, having earned his Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on Buddhism and modernity, South Asian Buddhism, and the effects of globalization. He has published a number of journal articles about these topics, and has presented lectures all over the world, most recently by invitation at Minzu University in Beijing, China.

As with last week’s episode, I really encourage you to take a look at the episode page for this interview. Thanks to the wonders of my Kindle, I’ve put together a pretty comprehensive set of quotes from the book and posted them there.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Orange Blossom. My room-mate just made one.

:: Discuss this episode ::




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“While a modest naturalism does not absolutely rule out the transcendent, it presents a powerful presumption in favor of natural causes. This is not an atheist dogma. It is a conclusion made on the basis of cumulative evidence.”

…”someone faithfully conveyed that semester’s version of what has become a standard view: that Buddhism is a religion in which you don’t really have to believe anything in particular or follow any strict rules; you simply exercise compassion and maintain a peaceful state of mind through meditation. Buddhism values creativity and intuition and is basically compatible with a modern, scientific worldview. It is democratic, encourages freedom of thought, and is more of a “spirituality” than a religion.”

“Most non-Asian Americans tend to see Buddhism as a religion whose most important elements are meditation, rigorous philosophical analysis, and an ethic of compassion combined with a highly empirical psychological science that encourages reliance on individual experience.”

“It is, rather, an actual new form of Buddhism that is the result of a process of modernization, westernization, reinterpretation, image-making, revitalization, and reform that has been taking place not only in the West but also in Asian countries for over a century. This new form of Buddhism has been fashioned by modernizing Asian Buddhists and western enthusiasts deeply engaged in creating Buddhist responses to the dominant problems and questions of modernity, such as epistemic uncertainty, religious pluralism, the threat of nihilism, conflicts between science and religion, war, and environmental destruction.”

“Buddhism itself had to be transformed, reformed, and modernized-purged of mythological elements and ‘superstitious’ cultural accretions.”

“What scholars have often meant by “western Buddhism,” “American Buddhism,” or “new Buddhism” is a facet of a more global network of movements that are not the exclusive product of one geographic or cultural setting.”

“To attempt to read such texts without the help of a teacher and outside all established pedagogy would have been-and still is considered by some-folly. Thus the translation of canonical texts into Western languages is not just a linguistic translation; it is also a cultural transformation, or rather the establishment of a new, unprecedented textual practice in a new Buddhist culture shaping itself to the textual practices of modernity.”

“In all of the geographic areas where Buddhist traditions have emerged, the dharma has been understood in terms of the categories, practices, conventions, and historical circumstances of particular peoples at specific times.”

“Buddhist modernism began in a context not of mutual curiosity, cultural exchange, and open-minded ecumenical dialogue, but of competition, crisis, and the violence of colonialism.”

“A crucial part of modernization, whether we are talking about trade or religion, is its tendency toward globalization, a tendency that in many cases compromises local difference.”

“Detraditionalization embodies the modernist tendency to elevate reason, experience, and intuition over tradition and to assert the freedom to reject, adopt, or reinterpret traditional beliefs and practices on the basis of individual evaluation. Religion becomes more individualized, privatized, and a matter of choice-one has the right to choose and even construct one’s own religion.”

“For Trungpa, the primary significance of the realms is that they symbolize various states of mind, helping practitioners to map them out and ultimately free themselves from their dominance. The god realm is a symbol of self-absorption; the realm of jealous gods corresponds to paranoia; the human realm corresponds to passion; the animal realm corresponds to stupidity; the hungry ghost realm corresponds to a feeling of poverty; and the hell realm corresponds to anger.”

“While connecting the six realms with specific emotions or states of mind to be overcome has solid grounding in Buddhist textual traditions-beings are reborn in realms that provide karmic consequences of their actions of mind, body, and speech-the presentation of their significance as primarily or even exclusively psychological is uniquely modern.”

“What I am calling demythologization is the process of attempting to extract-or more accurately, to reconstruct-meanings that will be viable within the context of modern worldviews from teachings embedded in ancient worldviews.”

“The early Buddhist sympathizer C. T. Strauss, for example, claimed that “genuine Buddhism is the reverse of mystical, rejects miracles, is founded on reality, and refuses to speculate about the absolute and other so-called first causes.””

“… sympathetic orientalists presented the Buddha as a protoscientific naturalist in his own time. Over the centuries, his ancient-modern doctrine was buried in the rituals and superstitions of the common people and thus had to be excavated not from its ancient context but from its more recent accretions.”

“The translation of Buddhism into psychoanalytic language has also been a significant component in the introduction of Zen Buddhism to the West, beginning with Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, who interpreted the collective unconscious as an aspect of the dharma-kaya (see chapter 4). Jung, an inveterate writer of prefaces, gave his psychoanalytic imprimatur to this approach in a preface for Suzuki’s Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Later, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, collaborating with Suzuki, suggested that Zen was a kind of radical psychoanalysis that strove to unearth the entirety of the unconscious and bring it to consciousness, thereby overcoming alienation and bringing the practitioner to wholeness.”

“Perhaps the most successful has been University of Massachusetts psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, in which mindfulness practices, for example attention to breath, body, feelings, and cognition, are adapted from their Buddhist context, stripped of much of their traditional religious significance, and integrated into therapies to reduce stress, control anxiety, manage physical pain, and treat depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.”

“If psychoanalysis has aided in the demythologization of Buddhism, recent practical psychotherapies have helped to detraditionalize it, allowing meditation to operate in non-Buddhist therapeutic settings, often for non-Buddhist goals and without requiring commitment to explicitly Buddhist values.”

“Rather than an integral part of monastic life bound up with its rituals, ethics, and cosmology, meditation has become something not only for lay Buddhists but for those of any religion or none.”

“… when we talk of modernization, detraditionalization, and demythologization, we are talking about broad tendencies that coexist in creative tension with traditional elements, with neither side necessarily winning out wholesale.”

“A tradition must then survive in an environment other than the one it has evolved in; it must adapt. It must connect with the tacit assumptions, cultural norms, and social and institutional practices of an entirely different ideological ecosystem.”

“The first Asians to present Buddhism to the West boldly proclaimed its essential compatibility with science. Soen Shaku (1859-1919), a representative of the Japanese delegation to the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1893) and the first monk to teach Zen in the United States outside immigrant communities, is an example. He was one of the most important early founders of Buddhist modernism.”

“Perhaps the most important western figure who attempted to interpret Buddhism through science was Paul Carus … He is important here because his popular presentation of a definitively rationalist, scientific Buddhism, like Olcott’s Buddhism, reflected the broad themes of liberal Protestantism and Enlightenment philosophy but was much more devoted to a mainstream, rather than occult, understanding of science.
… He believed that his own experience mirrored the evolution of religion itself, the “dross” of which the light of reason and science must erase to leave only the gold. The despair entailed in this purging was necessary in order to “learn to appreciate the glory and grandeur of a higher stage of religious evolution” … His new faith was in a religion that was not yet fully formed, he thought, but was emerging through the rise of science and the increasing contact among the world’s religions…For Carus, “science is stem and unalterable; it is a revelation which cannot be invented but must be discovered”. He often insists that scientific truth and religious truth are one and the same-this means that truth is the correspondence of ideas and reality, and that no matter the path to it, scientific or religious, truth is one. If a religion has any claim to truth, that truth must also be scientific-for Carus, there simply could be no other definition of truth … He mends this disjunction by recourse to the ideas of symbolism, allegory, and mythology-loosely used in his vocabulary to indicate nonliteral stories or ideas that nevertheless contain ethical meaning or point obliquely to literal truths. The recasting of ideas incompatible with a scientific worldview as having nonliteral, symbolic meaning was and is a very common tool of modernizing religious reformers.”

“The historical question regarding contemporary Buddhism, then, is not “Is Buddhism scientific?” but “How is Buddhism transforming itself through its engagement with science?” Rather than telling us what Buddhism “is,” the discourse of scientific Buddhism itself is constitutive of novel forms of Buddhism, with shifting epistemic structures and criteria for authority and legitimacy.”

“The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that if there are Buddhist doctrines that are found definitively to contradict established scientific conclusions, then these doctrines must be abandoned. Indeed, he has declared some aspects of traditional Buddhist cosmology to be mistaken, though he still maintains many traditional beliefs, such as karma and rebirth. Taken at face value, if the dharma itself is subject to scientific epistemic authority, this would seem to signal a profound change in the structure of Buddhist claims to authority.”

“The discourse of scientific Buddhism, therefore, has become an important part of how Buddhists address a question that permeates religious thought in the modern world: how to decide what is to be understood as literal and what is to be reinterpreted as myth, symbol, or allegory.”

“… ideas, social practices, institutions, and cultural phenomena are the results of a complex multiplicity of factors that extend out into an ever-widening causal web.”

“The internalization of religion, the attribution of religious significance to the natural world, the emphasis on solitary contemplation of nature, and the view of such contemplation as a remedy for the excessive materialism of the modern world all served as essential ingredients in the interpretation of Buddhism in the West, particularly North America.”

“… there is something new in the contemporary articulation of interdependence, something emerging in response to the unique circumstances of the modern world and attempting to answer questions that simply could not have arisen in the time of the Buddha, Nagarjuna, or Dogen.”

“As noted, Buddhist modernism attempts to embrace science while distancing itself from strict materialism. Meditation often serves as a focal point of this stance, as some authors construe it as both a scientific endeavor and a corrective to what they consider the excessive rationalism, materialism, and reductionism of mainstream science.”

“How do we distinguish a Buddhist meditator’s “discoveries based on firsthand experience,” in Wallace’s sense, from those of Christian or Hindu contemplatives who through repeated “experiments” have confirmed and had verified by their peers-and superiors-that there is, in fact, an eternal soul beneath the fleeting apparitions of the personality? If I am doing Buddhist meditation and make such a discovery, what then? There is no scientific way to adjudicate between Buddhist doctrine and my conclusion. This does not mean that there can be no personal grounds for one or the other conclusion; it simply means that it is not publicly verifiable, as scientific experiments must be. This example suggests that Buddhist meditation in its traditional contexts, rather than being an open-ended “scientific” experiment, is bounded by Buddhist suppositions that guide the practitioner toward certain experiences and conclusions. It is a method less of open-ended inquiry than of discovering for oneself the truths of the dharma that the Buddha put forth, that is, those authorized by the tradition.”

“Further, while Buddhists happily draw on the prestige scientific attention brings, what if further scientific studies show that meditation is actually not nearly as effective in diminishing destructive emotions as, say, cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotropic medications? Such
considerations suggest that meditation need not necessarily be construed as a science in order to be beneficial and that the enfolding of meditation within the discourses of scientific rationalism may leave some of its possibilities undisclosed.”

“First, Buddhist mindfulness has taken on a new significance within the context of modernity’s broad world-affirming attitude. Second, its recent articulation is informed by modem literature’s valorization of the details of everyday life, its finely tuned descriptions of the flow of consciousness, and its new reverence for ordinary objects and their capacity to reflect the universal. And third, this articulation provides a distinctively modern way of resacralizing the world without resort to the supernatural.”

“The application of mindfulness to finding more appreciative and skillful approaches to work, family, and all of the hectic activities of life is a phenomenon of the current age.”

“What is it about the modern period that has provided an arena for mindfulness to emerge as central to the practice of Buddhism among the laity? To first sketch the answer in the broadest possible terms: one of the constituent features of modernity-so deeply ingrained in modern cultures that it is in fact hard to see-is a new kind of world-affirming attitude that began with the Reformation and continues to our time.”

“The descriptive power to re-create the familiar so that its banality becomes remarkable, and the recovery of the immediacy, freshness, and vividness of things obscured by habit and fixed conceptions, have been crucial to the literary and artistic sensibilities of the twentieth century.”

“This modern Buddhist affirmation of the ordinary is in tension with the more traditional Buddhist suspicion of the things of the world and their ability to mesmerize the mind and enchain it to suffering.”

“Buddhist traditions-indeed all traditions-have constantly re-created themselves in response to unique historical and cultural conditions, 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.”

“The situation demands more than just adaptation to different cultures. The decentering tendencies of postmodern globalization disembed Buddhist discourse from its traditional sites and reembed it in a wide variety of discourses-not only those of the environmental movement, for instance, or the recent dialogues between “world religions” but also in the ubiquitous expressions of the market, in which Buddhist books, CDs, and ritual performances compete with novels, music, and theater.”

“This reformulation of Buddhism in the languages of western modernity could have two potential and opposite effects. It could position Buddhism to bring novel conceptual resources to the West and the modern world that might indeed offer new perspectives on some of modernity’s personal, social, political, and environmental ills. Indeed, if it does not speak the language of modernity, it cannot address these ills. The second possibility, however, is that it could accommodate itself so completely to mainstream western values and assumptions that it no longer is an alternative to them and thus accedes the resources it has for critiquing them.”


Music for This Episode

Shakuhachi Meditations

Shakuhachi Meditations

The music heard in the middle of the podcast is from Rodrigo Rodriguez’s CD, Shakuhachi Meditations. The tracks used in this episode are:

  • Kyuden No Kurayami