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Unmodernising Buddhism

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      One reads a good deal these days about Buddhist modernism.  This is a movement that began in South and South East Asia as a resistance to colonialism.  Local Buddhists wanted to present their countries as “modern” and so injected a lot of Western rationalist prejudices into their culture and religion in order to make it look  more compatible with science which was, in the West, becoming dominant over the established monotheistic religions.  It became possible to say that Buddhism was the most scientific religion, or even that it was not a religion at all but rather a way of life, a philosophy and a science of the mind.

      This strategy proved more successful than even its inventors had hoped.  Not only did it stimulate a rejuvenation of Buddhism in Asia, it led to this new Buddhist modernism or modernised Buddhism being imported into the West.  By deliberately playing to all the prejudices of Western culture, a new Buddhist product had been created that had direct appeal to Westerners alienated from their traditional faith traditions.  In the process the modernisation went further and further.  Buddhism was presented as a psychological technique leading to happiness, free from rituals, superstition, gods, priests and any kind of superstition.  In other words, Buddhist modernism became, as many writers have now pointed out, a new fabrication that has precious little in common with Buddhism as practised for the twenty five centuries or so up to 1900, or, indeed, with Buddhism as still actually practised by ordinary folk in Thailand, Taiwan or Tokyo.


      So now we face a situation where Buddhism in the West has absorbed a mulitude of values and attitudes that have no connection with Buddha, but have their roots in Europen history and North American concerns.

      There have been a number of reactions to this situation.

      1/ As Buddhism has become more established in the West Buddhist groups have sought legitimacy and have established institutions.  Temples, monasteries and centres have come into being.  Generally these strike some compromise between their historic tradition and what is necessary to be sufficiently popular in a Western context to keep people coming through the door.

      2/  Some people and groups have sought to extend Buddhism into or even identify it with current “progressive” Western concerns – ecology, psychology, gender equality, democracy, social justice, racial parity, and so on.  Sometimes this is a bit of a stretch since traditional Buddhist texts do not mention most of these subjects.  It can be argued, however, that Buddhism did advance what is recognisably a psychology and that since it taught universal compassion, these are naturally the modern forms of such.

      3/  Some have taken techniques from Buddhism and applied them in the service of amelioration of contemporary ills.  In the process, in order to make them acceptable to modern sensibilities, they have carried moderisation to an extreme, stripping out every trace of religiosity.  The most widespread and notable case is “mindfulness” about which I have written extensively elsewhere.

      4/  There has emerged a quasi-spiritual quasi-commercial phenomenon called New Age.  This is a kind of hotch-potch of popular spiritual and magical ideas combining a variety of (often mutually contradictory) principles such and practices drawn from Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Druidism, Shamanism, Sufism and so on.

      5/  In the forms of Buddhism now popular in the West there has emerged a broadly recognisable consensus around such principles as interdependence (or interbeing), non-duality, Buddha nature, present-momentism, expanded consciousness and awareness.

      6/ All of this has been linked to an almost complete identification of Buddhism with the practice of meditation, especially three forms of contemplation: insight meditation, metta (loving kindness) practice, and choiceless awareness.  Most Western people now assume that meditation and Buddhism are more or less synonyms.

      7/  Most recently Buddhist modernism has struck up an alliance with neuroscience, a branch of science that has been rescued from moribundity by the discovery of neuroplasticity.  If the brain can change, then Buddhism, presenting itself as a set of meditation techniques, can claim to be the methodology for improving the brain.

      8/  Some more academically minded, surveying this scene, have despaired of the idea that there is really any such thing as Buddhism.  Rather they see a diversity of forms, more appropriately studied by anthropology than religious studies or theology, that have some family connection, but no core essence.

      There are others. There is no doubt that this has produced a fertile and creative melting pot situation in which new ideas and new forms periodically emerge and, broadly, this is all to the good as far as it goes.  However, in the plethora of adaptations and confusions, the actual salvation that Buddhism offered tends to get lost or submerged.  This feels rather unsatisfactory, but one cannot go backwards, so the question become how to go forwards from here.

      I recently spoke at a conference.  The speaker who followed after me was Chinese.  He started his presentation by saying (and I paraphrase from memory) “Doctor Brazier and I are on opposite, perhaps complimentary, tracks.  He is trying to remind Westerners that there was a perfectly good, functioning Buddhism before it got contaminated with modern Western culture and I am trying to persuade Easterners that Buddhism needs modernising and reforming to conform to the needs of the contemporary world.”  No doubt he and I shall go on learning from one another.


      I am a Western born and Western educated person.  I share many of the views of my progressive liberal friends and even some of those of my more conservative ones.  None of these, however, take priority over my faith. I do not see Buddhism as a way of advancing other causes and I do not think that the Dharma of Buddha needs to be modified to fit us.  We need to modify ourselves to fit it.

      I came into Buddhism from the position of an already established spiritual outlook.  To me, religion is not something to be rejected out of hand as old fashioned, nor is it a modern invention, as some have suggested.  As I see it, people have a fundamental spiritual need and an unavoidable intuition of a beyond.  We call ourselves homo sapiens, but this is a conceit.  It would be truer to call ourselves homo religioso.  Every culture generates, in one way or another, a dimension that is recognisably religious.

      Everything in ordinary life is finite, impermanent, incomplete, measurable and non-ultimate, but to say that this is all is to deny the unavoidable intuition.  All worldy things can be counted, but, as Einsteinn is supposed to have said, not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.  There are numbers, but there is also zero and infinity and these beyond-the-limit items, which we all intuit, do not behave like rational numbers.  The same is true with the lived life: we experience a great diversity of conditional circumstances, but somehow the mind cannot avoid intuiting the unconditional.  To me, this is what Buddhism is fundamentally about. This is what Buddha designated as the only possibility of true liberation.

      My own approach therefore has been

      1/ to study the sutras and try, as best I can, to glean the real message

      2/ to strip away the Western cultural accretions and try to find the true spirit

      3/ to take it that the core of Buddhism is, on the one hand, an answer to the religious longing of people, and, on the other, a way to let the Beyond into our lives

      4/ to take seriously the assumption of pious Buddhists that Buddha can help

      5/ to not be afraid of ritual, symbolism, poetry, priestly roles and overt religious forms; their replacement by socio-political equivalents is not progress

      6/ on the observation that most Buddhists do not meditate, to not assume that Buddhism is a technique

      7/ to take it that Buddhism is seriously religious and is not simply an anthropological cultural category or congeries of diverse practice forms lacking ultimate meaning

      8/ to assume that Buddhism is not designed to answer “modern” questions, but rather to satisfy the heart and soul of people in all cultures in all times, like any other major religion

      I respect the religious impulse.  That does not mean that I approve of the subversion of religion by politics in order to set communities against one another.  Nor, contrarily, does it mean that I think all religions are the same.  I see them as vehicles.  The well designed ones can get you from here to infinity.  Some will give you a more comfortable ride than others.

      Modernist people are often completely cut off from their religious heart.  They think in materialistic terms and lack a sense of spirit.  Their world is disenchanted and they think that this is reality, whereas, in fact, it is a spiritual desert.

      In a nutshell, the problem is that we have taken the bhakti out of Buddhism.  We have tried to make it into a cold, clinical, secular, utilitarian, intellectual rationalism with a set of techniques that can be used as remedies for modern ills.  It is not and never was like that until this modernism came along.  To hear modern Buddhists, one would think that Buddha never mentioned such things as faith or devotion, yet for most Asian Buddhists throughout history faith and devotion have been precisely what Buddhism has always been about. That is bhakti.  Bhakti is to throw oneself heart and soul into the hands of Buddha.  It is free fall.  or, at the simplest level, it is to kneel in humility, place a flower on the altar, and receive the blessing in one’s heart. This is what we have lost.  It is not that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, it is that we only have bathwater and the baby has gone.


      A simple example of where we have got to is the fact that almost all Western Buddhists like the idea that Buddhism teaches that everything is impermanent.  This sounds like science and it is the kind of phrase that can be applied to a multitude of situations.  However, it completely misses the point that what Buddha actually taught was that all worldly things are impermanent and impermanent things offer no reliable or permanent spiritual refuge.  This was not the Buddha stating a hypothesis about physical reality, it was an injunction to find that which is not impermanent, to find the true refuge.  Finding such a true refuge – nirvana – is the core of Buddhism.  Modern Western Buddhism has lost this core.  But if you take the heart out, the body no longer lives.  At best you are left with a mechanism, a robot. Buddhist modernism is such a robot. It has no soul, no spirit, no religion.

      Somebody wrote to me recently and said that they had been to an event at which the presenters had been asked if they were Buddhists.  One of the presenters had said that yes, he was Buddhist, but immediately hastened to say that Buddhism is not a religion and that for him it was simply a collection of techniques that could make life less stressful.  My correspondent found this unsatisfying, which is why he wrote to me about it.  No doubt the presenter was in some degree nervous of alienating the audience if he showed anything more than this very watered down idea.  Perhaps he really was wishy washy or perhaps he just did not have the courage of his faith.  Unfortunately, in the contemporary West, wishy-washy is the norm and, often, the only socially acceptable stance.

      To unmodernise Buddhism does not mean adopting tenth century packaging nor pretending that we are not twenty first century Europeans or North Americans, but it does mean finding some way to put the bhakti back into Buddhism.  Buddhism needs rehydrating; it needs to rediscover its passion.  When Buddha gave teachings people danced for joy, the hair on their necks stood up, they wept and sang. Where has this gone?  Rationalism launches no ships.

      Somehow we have inoculated ourselves against drinking the living water.  In our haste to expel anything that seems remotely superstitious we have become academic.  To say that something is merely academic is to say that it does not really matter.  The modernised Buddhism is a hobby that does not really matter.  Real Buddhism is about salvation and liberation and this is not achieved through something that is merely a hobby or an intellectual interest.  Real Buddhism has a vast cosmic vision that includes the possibility of myriad lives in myriad realms, with beings rising and falling according to their deeds.  It is not just giving impartial attention in the present moment; it encompasses destinies in the perspective of eternity.  Somehow we have made something inherently vast and magnificent into something trivial and cheap – an easy sell.  For sure we have established Buddhism in some of our academic citadels and we have infiltrated vaguely Buddhistic ideas and techniques into society at large, and this is better than nothing, but it is still a long way short of the liberation promised.  Many are wasting for want of the Dharma.  I hope that some few shall understand.

      :: link to original essay

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