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« Let’s Talk: Can You Imagine? | Main | Book Briefs »

The Road to Modern Buddhism

Photo by Russ MorrisBuddhism In the Modern World
Edited by David L. McMahan
Routledge, 2012
$39.95; 352 pages

Reviewed by Annabella Pitkin

For years a private entertainment of many Buddhists I know has been to collect funny or irritating instances of collisions between the mass media and Buddhist images, words, and ideas. There is in fact a website partly devoted to this pursuit,, whose author, Rod Meade Sperry, has immortalized such collisions under the label “Dharma-Burgers.” Of course, there are also those for whom the counting of Dharma-Burgers is itself a part of the problem, a sign of the degeneration of Buddhism in our times, as a result of the encounter between Buddhism and the modern world, especially the machinery of pop culture, mass media, and New Age fantasy.

When I teach college courses on Buddhism and Asian history, I notice that my students are often fascinated by pictures and writings that juxtapose Buddhist ideas or people with bits of technology—cellphones, say, or computers—that seem to symbolize all that is modern. Pictures of such juxtapositions (monks holding cellphones and computers, for example, or Buddhist altars with electrically powered prayer wheels) often strike students as highly incongruous, sometimes even shocking or funny. Moreover, while my students often have little knowledge of the particular histories that have brought Buddhist concepts and practitioners into a global network of ideas and cultural exchanges, they are often very curious about Buddhist views on contemporary issues like women’s social equality, environmental issues, sexuality, or war. We might say that these students and many other people are struggling to wrap their heads around the phenomenon of modern Buddhism and the related but rather different entity sometimes called Buddhist modernism.

A new book, Buddhism in the Modern World, takes on the task both of addressing the context for such questions and creating the space for ongoing discussion about the nature of Buddhism’s relationship to modernity and to contemporary life. Edited by David L. McMahan, a scholar of Buddhism and modernity, the volume has contributions from a range of well-known and emerging scholars from a variety of fields. It’s a worthy project for McMahan, whose earlier book, Buddhist Modernism, broke important ground in describing and analyzing the contours of the new (and in some cases, older than you might think) Buddhisms of our contemporary era. The new volume in certain ways picks up where McMahan’s first book left off. Rather than being the voice of a single observer, Buddhism in the Modern World is a collection of short essays, ranging over topics from colonial history in Asia to Buddhist ethics and psychology, to yes, Dharma-Burgers of the most jaw-dropping kinds. A picture of Buddha-shaped pudding molds called “Il Buddino” are among the illustrations for the fascinating chapter by Scott A. Mitchell entitled “Buddhism, Media, and Popular Culture,” which examines the Worst Horse website and the phenomenon of Dharma-Burgers among other compelling contemporary developments. Once imagined, it is hard to shake the image of a diner cheerfully spooning up a glistening morsel of the Buddha.

At its best, the volume offers a kind of refracted lens for a diverse and plural web of communities and practitioners, shining a light on multiple and often contentious social histories and intellectual, economic and political forces. Working through it in order, a reader first encounters region-specific overviews of contemporary issues and recent history in Southeast Asia (with particular emphasis on Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka), Japan, China and Taiwan, Tibet and the Himalayan region, North America, and Europe. In the second half of the book, the conversation shifts to thematic topics—many of them familiar from blogs, magazines, and the occasional news headline or late-night discussion among friends—of Buddhism in relation to gender, science, globalization, media, popular culture, powers of the mind, politics, nationalism, and social activism.

Taken together, the essays give a sense of the enormity and complication concealed behind the term Buddhism, and give some sense—surely comforting to Buddhists well-versed in theories of interdependence and impermanence— that the category “Buddhism” itself is highly unstable, slippery, and defined in different ways by different people at different times.

One of the striking dynamics highlighted by the book is the arc of colonialism in Asia, and the role of encounters between Asian Buddhists and Christian missionaries, colonial administrators, and later religious seekers in shaping our present-day ideas about Buddhism. One of the better-known examples is the case of Sri Lanka, where the pressures of British colonial rule and missionary activity pushed Sri Lankan Buddhists to redefine and present their tradition in new ways—ways that Sri Lankan anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere famously described as “Protestant Buddhism.” Protestant Buddhism, also called “Buddhist Modernism” (a term coined in 1973 by Heinz Bechert, a German scholar of Buddhism), de-emphasized ritual and devotional activities, and the protective practices associated with warding off natural disasters and illness. The promoters of Buddhist modernism focused instead on “rationality,” ethical content, individual meditational techniques, and compatibility with the emerging sphere of modern Western science.

To consider the Sri Lankan case as an example, Buddhist Modernism emerged in large part in response to the pressures of colonialism, and specifically as a response to European Christian missionaries, who accused Sri Lankan Buddhists of being superstitious, ignorant, ethically lax, and not sufficiently involved in social service and charitable work. The great irony of course was that invasions, colonization, and efforts to convert Sri Lankans to Christianity on the part of European powers were responsible for eroding the traditional social roles and educational networks of Sri Lankan Buddhists. Buddhists in Sri Lanka had in fact historically been actively involved in providing education and medical services, and had played significant parts in public and political life. It was from precisely these social and communal functions that centuries of colonial pressure had displaced them, and quite intentionally.

Beginning under the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, and continuing with the Dutch in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the British in the nineteenth, Sri Lankan Buddhists found themselves beleaguered. As Stephen Berkwitz describes in his essay in the book, Buddhists were driven out of Portuguese-controlled areas of Sri Lanka, and under Portuguese control Buddhist monasteries (as well as Hindu temples) were dismantled or replaced by Christian churches. Portuguese Catholic missionaries tried aggressively to convert Sri Lankans. The result was a massive disruption of Buddhist “practice… scholarship… customs and institutions.” Despite the greater tolerance on the part of the Calvinist Dutch, who replaced the Portuguese in 1658, the Dutch presence too was detrimental to Buddhist institutions, and the Dutch also continued the effort to missionize.

The arrival of the British shifted the terms of the equation in significant ways. They succeeded in conquering the whole island, including the highland kingdom of Kandy, which had managed to survive as independent and Buddhist in earlier centuries. Even more important, the British view of their “civilizing” mission turned out to be markedly disruptive in its own way. Education and health care, traditionally the domain of Buddhist institutions, were replaced by British-built hospitals and schools. British missionaries, unlike their Portuguese predecessors, made an effort to learn about Sri Lankan Buddhism so they could counteract it. What they learned, or thought they learned, did not please them. They saw Buddhism in Sri Lanka as “characterized by atheism, idolatry, and a nihilistic goal of nirvana.” In response, and Berkwitz says due to frustration with their inability to win Sri Lankan Buddhist converts, British missionaries began publishing tracts ridiculing Buddhist doctrines.

When Sri Lankan Buddhists took offense at these tract publications and were unsuccessful in having them banned by the British government, they resorted to fighting them via Buddhist publications as well as through a series of highly public debates. In the process, Sri Lankan Buddhists became involved in trying to reform and modernize Buddhism as a way to revive and strengthen it. At the same time, some among the British civil servants in the colonial administration, such as T.W. Rhys Davids (1843–1922), became actively interested in Buddhism. Men such as Rhys Davids (who would go on to become an important early scholar of Buddhism) began to study Pali, the classic textual language of the Theravada Buddhist canon. Other European colonial administrators, adventurers, and scholars of the period elsewhere in Asia focused on Sanskrit and other Asian languages. These men also became interested in the search for Buddhist origins and the figure of the historical Buddha (in a way that paralleled the growing Christian interest of the period in the search for the historical Jesus).

Significantly, gaining knowledge about Asian Buddhism was closely bound up with the drive to establish colonies in Asia, both for the British and An international gathering of Buddhists in Ceylon in 1889. Colonel Henry Steel Olcott is seated second row, third from right. for their European counterparts. While Buddhism in the Modern World touches on this colonial history, the brief and somewhat textbook-like format limits the depth of the essays on this point. Readers particularly interested in the connection between imperialism and the European pursuit of knowledge in Asia might want to dig into the short and fascinating study by Thomas Richards, The Imperial Archive: Knowledge and the Fantasy of Empire, or the excellent treatment by Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Post-Colonial Theory, India, and “the Mystic East.”

In the midst of the powerful nexus between empire and scholarship, British pioneer scholars and their colleagues on the European continent particularly focused on what they saw as the rational aspects of Buddhism, its freedom from ritualism and superstition, and its systems of ethics and meditation that did not depend either on priestly authority or the presence of a creator deity. These in some sense “Protestant” Buddhist preferences in turn had great influence in the Sri Lankan case on Sri Lankan Buddhists themselves, who couched their program of revival and modernization in very similar rationalist terms. Arguably the residue of these preferences continues to influence Buddhist developments today.

Buddhism along the lines of Sri Lankan Buddhist modernism—with its de-emphasis of ritual and “supernatural” elements and its focus on rationality, mental training through meditation, and compatibility with modern science— was to prove enormously influential in Europe, the Americas, and Australia, as well as in many regions of Asia. Contemporary debates in the United States around questions like whether American Buddhist practitioners should subscribe to the theory of karma, or whether Buddhist meditation and so-called mindfulness meditation techniques are the same, are in many ways part of this much longer historical story.

When North American Buddhists argue about the importance of believing in karma, or about how much deference to accord Buddhist teachers, or even explicitly about whether Buddhism is a religion or a rational ethical and psychological system, whether we realize it or not we are in fact participating in a conversation that is also about authenticity and authority. This conversation is one with strong links to colonial history in Asia, and in particular to the way that many communities of Asian Buddhists reconfigured their Buddhisms to more closely fit the paradigm of the rational, ethical, scientific, nonsuperstitious system imagined and idealized by earlier generations of European and especially British scholars.

Notably, although this particular volume does not cover this in detail, the categories of Protestant Buddhism, and in particular its British varieties, would subsequently form a template through which the Buddhisms of Inner and East Asia (most of all Tibetan Buddhism, but also the Buddhisms of China and Japan) would be measured and found wanting. Tibetan Buddhism and many forms of East Asian Buddhism would be dismissed as degenerate, adulterated with shamanism and ancestor worship. Tibetan and East Asian emphases on ritual, prayer, devotion, and similar forms of practice would be criticized as corruptions of an “original,” pure Buddhism of simplicity and ritual-free rationality. Tantra in particular would be looked on with horror, both for reasons of Victorian and Edwardian era sexual prudishness and because tantric emphasis on ritual, devotion, and the public exercise of power by Buddhists (for instance in protecting the nation or consecrating rulers) contradicted what scholars now held to be the essence of the Buddhist tradition. The carefully researched and nuanced essay by Sarah Jacoby and Antonio Terrone in this volume, in the process of describing the current status of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet and elsewhere, points out long-term results of these earlier misunderstandings.

Religion scholar Philip Almond has done a wonderful job in The British Discovery of Buddhism of describing the way in which for men like Rhys Davids, “true” Buddhism was most perfectly preserved in textual form, and it was best understood by Western scholars. Asian Buddhists, on the other hand, were often mistaken about the tradition or were seen as practicing a degenerated form—a remarkable act of intellectual and cultural appropriation that resonates even now.

Related concerns about the authenticity of Buddhist practices, the primacy of textual Buddhism, or the primacy of rationality, meditation, and individual experience were not only picked up by Asian Buddhists themselves, who often framed their revival projects along these lines. They also found currency among interested seekers and would-be Buddhists outside Asia, in Western countries. There are many Buddhists today who would argue very much along these modernist lines for the compatibility of Buddhism and modern science, the rationality of Buddhism, or the singular importance of meditation (as opposed to ritual or devotion).

This is not of course to say that Buddhism is not rational, nor that meditation is not important, but only to say that such truths are only part of the story. Arguments about what Buddhism is like often turn out to be part of other arguments, such as who speaks authoritatively about Buddhism or who is a Buddhist.

At the same time, as McMahan’s book also makes fascinatingly clear, the transformations of Buddhism in the modern world, and especially in the West, have often involved not only the advocates of rationalism but also a host of distinctly more colorful figures—spiritualists, Theosophists, and other seekers who were among the precursors of what is now called New Age. These individuals too were not always as interested in what living Asian Buddhists were doing as they were in what they themselves imagined Buddhists might be capable of. This strand of spiritual seeking (what Richard Payne calls “occultism” in his essay “Buddhism and the Powers of the Mind” in this volume) is very much connected to the contemporary fascination with Buddhism in Western societies (and now parts of Asia) as well as arguably with what the pioneering Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called “spiritual materialism.”

The “Dharma-Burgers” our consumerist society seems intent on producing (recent entries on the Worst Horse website include an ad campaign for “Bodhichitta Bath Products” and a “Zen” sex toy) reflect the collision of Buddhism as people imagine it with our culture’s apparent desire to experience the world through shopping. It is greatly to the credit of the volume under review here that a number of the essays in the second section take up this topic. Read together, the second half of the book offers a medley of voices in discussion with each other and with topics of contemporary concern. Here, the essay format is more of a strength, with each essay approaching the topic of Buddhism’s place in the modern world from a slightly different perspective. Among the most thoughtprovoking are the discussions of Buddhism and contemporary political and economic issues, in particular the relationship between Buddhist ideals of renunciation, Buddhist notions of communal patronage and prosperity, and modern cultural patterns of globalization, consumerism, and marketing.

What is to be the fate of Buddhism in the modern world? In the first half of the book, the authors consider some of the specific challenges confronting Buddhists in various regions. From the intense government pressure on Tibetan Buddhists in the People’s Republic of China to the militarization of some branches of the Sri Lankan Buddhist establishment, and from the complex economic and social shifts in the landscape of Japanese Buddhism to the enormous outpouring of women’s commitment to Buddhism and social engagement in Taiwan, the picture is so diverse that it’s hard to categorize. But a few signposts appear. A great deal of creativity, flexibility, and adaptability are on display in the cases described in this book. On the other hand, the pressures of the marketplace are subtle but difficult to resist over time. While Buddhist teachers and texts provide some of the most incisive tools anywhere for critiquing consumer society, one has only to think of the Buddha-shaped pudding molds to wonder just how much Buddhist ideas, practices, or values may be altered in the sticky modern world.

Or then again, perhaps not. Buddhism in the Modern World at least will give readers one gift that Buddhists are said to prize—that of a certain kind of self-awareness, in this case of the history and implications of some of their daily choices where Buddhism is concerned. What readers do with this awareness is of course unpredictable.  

Annabella Pitkin is a visiting assistant professor in the Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures department at Barnard College. She specializes in Tibetan Buddhism and Asian intellectual history.

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