Wednesday, March 12, 2014


The first half of "Buddhism and Modern Thought" winds up with an important recent book, David McMahan's 2008 The Making of Buddhist Modernism. We're spending three classes on its nine chapters - still perhaps a big optimistic given that it's midterm and students are worn out.

The name "Buddhism modernism" (coined by Heinz Bechert in 1966) has come into its own in recent years, in no small part because of this book. It takes the place of "Protestant Buddhism" (thought to be at once too polemical and too Christocentric) and "Modern Buddhism," and hopes also to displace or at least complicate what's sometimes called "Western Buddhism." While McMahan's concern is the 150-year period in which the West encountered Buddhism (you can put scarequotes around all those words), he argues that the new form of Buddhism which has emerged in this time is cosmopolitan and indeed global in scope, shaped by Asians as well as Europeans and Americans throughout the world. It is no more the same than "modernity" is in Köln, Kandy and Kyoto, but it needs to be understood as part of a globalized world - and as responding to and addressing the condition of this world.

McMahan's book is the first we've read that admits the newness of these forms without pathologizing them. He has questions about Buddhism's new faces, as anyone must, but his stance is that of one who not only would like to think that the Dharma might make it past hurdles of translation, orientalism, colonial ideology, consumer capitalism and therapeutic culture, but is convinced that it in fact has made it. I don't usually make a point of asking if a scholar is a practitioner or not, but here it seemed relevant. We arrive on the shores of his book having navigated the wild seas of staggeringly complicated and varied Buddhist formations in 20th century Asia, haunted by the world-shattering harm done by colonialisms. Scrupulous scholars aware of the contribution their predecessors made to this devastation have challenged shallow and self-serving Western Buddhophiles. How could "Buddhism in the West" be more than a cruel joke - whether on Buddhist Asia, western wannabe Buddhists or both?

The first time I read through The Making of Buddhist Modernism I thought McMahan was on the side of the scoffers. He shows compellingly how liberal Christian theology, scientific discourses and Romantic-Transcendentalism "expressivism" affected the Buddhisms that have taken shape in the North Atlantic world. In fact, however, he's biting the bullet. "Buddhism modernism" is formed decisively by Western modernities. But he refuses to conclude from this that it's an incomplete or even a false Buddhism. (It's critical of modernity, too, he points out.) If translation across cultures were a problem, Buddhism would have entered the realms of inauthenticity two thousand years ago as it traversed the linguistic Himalaya of Indic-Chinese languages.

We've been struggling with how to articulate the extent to which Buddhist traditions (or any traditions) are reframed as they move across cultures. Some in the class think it's generally successful. Others think it can never succeed. McMahan suggests that determining what a given culture (or individual) is able to receive goes beyond conscious "theoretical" to deep "tacit" structures. Weber's "elective affinities" are something like this but McMahan takes from Jay Garfield the concept of "resonances," which we decided we preferred. Resonances are dynamic and mutual; other terms, from "adaptation" to "receptivity" to "accommodation" are static and one-sided by comparison. It does remain a difficult thing to think through, though - the tacit needs to be activated somehow, perhaps through dialogue? (Gadamer smiles from the wings.)

I've been suggesting that we're up against one of the biggest questions of all: how is it possible for anyone to truly encounter something new?

Western Buddhists come late to a tradition which many of its long-term hosts believe long ago shot its wad. Throughout the Asian Buddhist world it's thought that we live in an age where the Dharma is in decline if not indeed already gone. Our best hope is that a bodhisattva will whisk us to a more propitious place (like Amida's Pure Land), or that we are reborn in human form the next time the Dharma is available, in the time of Maitreya. Can late arrival Western Buddhists be blamed for wishing otherwise, or even for thinking that the arrival of a new audience must have given the Dharma a second wind? Aren't we singing to the Buddha a new song?

Rereading McMahan with this group and after what we've read together, I find myself both more sympathetic and more suspicious of the "Buddhist modernism" he describes. Western constraints seem at once too strong (he speaks of Western "non-negotiables" like gender equality) and too weak (disestablishment and minority status make it feel politically weightless and inoffensive). But I guess he's there too: The many recommendations in contemporary popular western Buddhist literature to trust your deepest experiences, your inner nature, your internal vision have more to do with this legacy of Romanticism than with traditional Buddhism. One seldom hears such counsel from traditional Buddhist texts and teachers; for them, until one is an advanced practitioner, one's inner experiences are likely to be considered just another form of delusion. (84

I'm keen to see what we make of the book as a whole. 

No comments: