Monday, March 17, 2014

Critical engagement

We're making our way steadily through David McMahan's The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Much in it is at least a little familiar by now, so I'm encouraging students to assess it critically: honor it for what it does so well, but also note what it doesn't do but could do. I want the students to approach it as a model of research, so to frame their praise and critique in terms of in principle doable research and writing projects.

For instance, McMahan opens his discussion with five skilfully drawn vignettes of representative figures of Buddhist modernism:
• Sara, a "Western Buddhist sympathizer" (in the UK)
• Yanisa, a rural Thai laywoman
• Rachel, an "American Dharma teacher" of Jewish background
• Lobsang, a "traditional monk" (Tibetan exile in India)
• Ananda, an "Asian modernizer" active in the West (his nationality strategically unnamed)

The first three are women, the remainder men. Through careful characterization and perceptive contrasts McMahan is able to describe a dynamic and multipolar and yet interconnected Buddhist modern world. They're very well done, but one can also raise questions. It's appropriate and helpful to ask if five is enough, and if these are the right five. One can also ask about the use of such types in the first place. But it's not helpful to say there should have been twenty vignettes, or two hundred.

I've also introduced two critical views from (Euro-American) Buddhists which should force us to size up McMahan's larger project from various angles. One is from a review of the book by Zen Buddhist David Loy:

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.  

The other is from an essay by Theravada monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu to which a key part of McMahan's book is a not always convincing response:

Just as the Chinese had Taoism as their dharma gate—the homegrown tradition providing concepts that helped them understand the dharma—we in the West have Romanticism as ours. The Chinese experience with dharma gates, though, contains an important lesson that is often overlooked. After three centuries of interest in Buddhist teachings, they began to realize that Buddhism and Taoism were asking different questions. As they rooted out these differences, they started using Buddhist ideas to question their Taoist presuppositions. This was how Buddhism, instead of turning into a drop in the Taoist sea, was able to inject something genuinely new into Chinese culture. The question here in the West is whether we will learn from the Chinese example and start using Buddhist ideas to question our own dharma gate, to see exactly how far the similarities between the gate and the actual dharma go. If we don’t, we run the danger of mistaking the gate for the dharma itself, and of never going through it to the other side. 

Interesting discussions ahead - as we head from the half of the course on modern and Western takes on Buddhism to the half exploring Buddhist takes on the modern and West.

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