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.
WESTERN CULTURAL ACCRETIONS
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.
BUDDHISM IS A RELIGION: YOU CAN BELIEVE IT
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.
MISSING THE POINT
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.
Discussion on the mindfulness issue is continued at
I agree. There is some disconnection from our religious heart. Understandably, many people have lost trust in religious institutions. Unfortunately, they have also lost faith in religion. They see religion as belonging to institutions, rather than trusting their own religious heart and experience.
These days we like to put our faith in science. Which is not completely wrong, but it cannot replace unshakable faith in the Dhamma.
Actually, I do think meditation practice is important. Heart and mind become stronger and also smoother (not sure about this word…forgive my English.) But mindfulness, metta, or choiceless awareness do not really make sense if just used for worldly aims or as an end in itself. Exposing oneself to the Dhamma teachings is vital. Spending time with a teacher who can talk from his or her own experience is also vital. Devotion to liberation and compassion is what holds me in this practice, not mindfulness! Sharing this spirit with others brings deep joy.
Thank you Dayamay and Tineke. I agree.
"Devotion to liberation and compassion is what holds me in this practice, not mindfulness! " - my understanding of this is that the Kabat-Zinn definition completely changes the meaning of mindfulness. Before his innovation, mindfulness did not mean present moment awareness, it meant keeping wholesome or useful experience and knowledge in mind. In a Buddhist context, this meant keeping the Dharma in mind - or in heart. Thus devotion to liberation and compassion is mindfulness in the original sense - in the sense in which it occurs in the sutras.
Jon Kabat-Zinn certainly oversimplified the meaning of mindfulness. From the view of the Satipatthana Sutra (MN10, Four Foundations of Mindfulness), he selected some items of the first three foundations of mindfulness and neglected all mindfulness of Dhamma, except for the Five Hindrances to insight. His approach tears the mindfulness practice out of the Dhamma practice. One can doubt whether this makes sense at all. I personally think there is too much emphasis on "living in the present moment" and a painful lack of cultivating wisdom and compassion.
However, if we look at MN10, or at MN118 (Anapanasati Sutra), mindfulness does seem to have a quality of being present:
(...) “And how, bhikkhus, is mindfulness of breathing developed and cultivated, so that it is of great fruit and great benefit?
“Here a bhikkhu, gone to the forest or to the root of a tree or to an empty hut, sits down; having folded his legs crosswise, set his body erect, and established mindfulness in front of him, ever mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out.
“Breathing in long, he understands: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he understands: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he understands: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he understands: ‘I breathe out short.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in experiencing the whole body of breath’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out experiencing the whole body of breath.’ He trains thus: ‘I shall breathe in tranquillising the bodily formation’; he trains thus: ‘I shall breathe out tranquillising the bodily formation.’ (...)
Translation by Bikkhu Bodhi on https://suttacentral.net/mn118/en/bodhi
I would be interested what sutra you had in mind when you said that mindfulness originally meant "keeping wholesome or useful experience and knowledge in mind."
Thank you for allowing me to post a small rebuttal to your essay. I am a long time reader and fan of your many books and essays. I am also a "Buddhist Modernist," and content to be so. I believe that there are ways to engage in a reformist Buddhist without falling into most of the pitfalls you describe.
If I may quote your essay above:
Yes, this is true ... but so what? David, you himself, as a Pure Land practitioner, are following a path that is likely a later creation and innovation to suit peoples' understanding of the world and psychological needs in a certain culture and age far removed from earlier flavors of Buddhism. All Mahayana. Vajrayana and Zen Buddhists are as well (and so are Theravada Buddhists, in the sense that they have layered millennia of interpretations and cultural changes onto the original teachings). It may not be true that Buddhism in the past was necessarily more "scientific" than other religions, but for some of us, our work now is an effort to make Buddhism more relevant and consistent with modern understandings and culture, as has happened countless times in the past as Buddhism moved from India to other lands and times.
Why is it bad that it became so for some practitioners, while also bringing other positive innovations such as greater opportunities for practice for lay people including women? Some wish to focus more on our world without merely concern to escape it. (In fact, for some of us, nirvana and samsara need not be opposing things, and one can work to fix what can be fixed in this world, while also able to see beyond this world.) If there is room in Buddhism to make, for example, ecological and social justice concerns part of practice, why can we not do so? Why is it wrong to do so even if not part of the earlier Buddhist formulations? It is possible to find enough if ancient writings to assert that our Ancestors, alive in the closed and traditional societies of ancient Asia, might have done more on those fronts if they had the chance and freedom to do so?
One can be modern and skeptical of some traditional beliefs (e.g., a belief that "Kannon" is an actual, other worldly entity with 1000 hands looking down on us), and yet find a certain power and meaning in Kannon that retains her truth (e.g., a position that our acts of compassion are a real force in the world, so that we are the "hands of Kannon" when our hands work in compassionate ways). A symbol of a truth is just as true and powerful as that truth which it represents. We can chant and hold ceremonies because of the messages they contain, and the beauty and power of throwing oneself into their dance. Even a skeptic or atheist can still appreciate a beautiful wedding or child's graduation, and so for our meaningful ceremonies in Buddhism. Even a skeptical, modern Buddhist can hold a powerful ceremony.
If some of us want to modernize the teachings of Buddhism to make them more consistent with, for example, our current understanding of how the universe, time, atoms, and our brains work as unknown 1000 years ago, is that impossible, or necessarily always a bad or counter-productive thing? It is quite possible to do and, further, perhaps an abandonment of centuries of very questionable or superstitious beliefs in Buddhism ranging from the earth's being flat ...
... to belief in the efficacy (apart from psychological effects) or various chants, questionable medical and psychological treatments for the ill, amulets and magic spells to bring worldly results ... ultimately brings us to even more powerful and liberating truths.
Now, I do not mean to criticize others' practices ... for them. Their way is to be honored. There is nothing wrong, and much positive to be had, if someone finds comfort from lighting incense and praying to a Buddha, Bodhisattva, religious hero or saint. I am not saying that others' beliefs are fallacious if those people find power and truth there: for their belief and their feeling about it is a fact. However, not all of us need to find our power and truth so. There are ways to experience a Buddhism more consistent with current understanding of how the world works, and modern democratic values, WHILE NONETHELESS preserving a sense of wonder, poetry, beauty and awe. For example, in our Zen school we tend to emphasize that all this world is sacred ... even so much that we take as ordinary. We encourage people to find their "Pure Land" on this earth and (although the task is endless) work to make it so. Such a path need not be cold, clinical and materialist. A scientist may have much to say on the mechanisms by which a flower germinates and grows, and the processing of photons and optical nerve signals by the eye and brain ... yet never capture the richness and beauty of the simple experience of gazing upon a flower, offering one to a loved one, or the wordless experience of the Buddha’s holding up a flower before his disciple, Mahākāśyapa, who smiled.
Many items ... a statue, beads, incense or robes ... can be kept for their artistic, psychological, mesmerizing, symbolic uses and meanings which move the heart and remind the mind of something important. They, even as art and image, are rich in meaning and the power they have upon the heart.
Well, all those images of the seated Buddha, cross legged, show that meditation has always been very important in our tradition. No, it was never the only thing ... and the Precepts, study, work practice and much more go hand in hand. Devotion to this Path has its place too. Unfortunately, until recently, it was very hard for lay people to have the opportunity to engage in any of that. Now they can.
Do not strip away the layers of a flower looking for the scent. To do so is a form of essentialist fallacy, or to believe that one has a monopoly on the only way to a "true spirit." David, of course, you are just looking for the "true spirit" for David, and others can find the "true spirit" of Buddhism which resonates in other ways.
David, your objections to modernist Buddhist certainly apply to some forms of that, but may mischaracterize and misunderstand many other corners of Buddhist modernism. For many of us, the core and heart and body are still present and alive, even if we take soul (never really had that in Buddhism anyway) and spirit in a more poetic sense.
Gassho, Jundo Cohen
Treeleaf Zendo, A Soto Zen Sangha
PS - If I may also point to an old interview I did at the Secular Buddhist Association Podcast, I spoke up for the possibility of a "middle way" I called "Religious-Secular Buddhism: The Best of All Worlds."
Thanks, Jundo. Good luck with your integration ! Just be careful that in bringing Buddhism into line with modern thinking you are not actually abandoning most of Buddhism and giving a modernist philosophy a Buddhist mask to wear. The "so what" is that one reaches a point where one is actually just inventing a new religion. Do you know a Buddhist text that says that this world is sacred?
I am looking forward very much to your Genjo Koan book, now on order. I have already heard great things about it from friends. I also have a book on Dogen, "The Zen Master's Dance," coming out from Wisdom Publications in October.
As to your question, perhaps, yes, in some views of the Mahayana in which Samsara is certainly Nirvana, and a Buddha Realm, to those with eyes to see. For example:
As in this assembly we see the Buddha sitting, So it is also in every atom; The Buddha body has no coming or going, And clearly appears in all the lands there are. Demonstrating the Practices Cultivated by enlightening beings The various techniques of innumerable approaches to their stages Expounding as well the inconceivable truth, He causes the Buddha Children to enter the realm of reality. Producing Phantom Buddhas numerous as atoms Corresponding to the inclinations of all beings minds, The expedient doors into the profound realm of truth, Boundlessly Vast, all he expounds. The Buddhas names are equal to the worlds, Filling all lands in the ten directions.
The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment (Yuanjue jing) says:
"Good sons, the unchanging purity of the nature of enlightenment completely pervades—it includes everything without restriction. Therefore you should know that the six faculties completely pervade the realm of reality. Since the faculties completely pervade, you should know that the six sensory fields completely pervade the realm of reality. Since the sensory fields completely pervade, you should know that the Four Elements completely pervade the realm of reality. It is the same way with all things ... Good sons, these bodhisattvas and sentient beings of the degenerate age who cultivate this mind and are able to fully consummate it, have neither cultivation nor consummation. Their Perfect Enlightenment illuminates everywhere, and is perfectly still, without duality. Here, Buddha-worlds a quintillion times as many as the incalculable amount of grains of sand in the Ganges river haphazardly arise and cease like flowers in the sky. There is neither sameness nor difference, neither bondage nor freedom. Now you know for the first time that all sentient beings are originally perfect buddhas; that saṃsāra and nirvana are like last night's dream. Good sons, since they are like last night's dream, you should know that saṃsāra and nirvana have neither arising nor ceasing, neither coming nor going. In the actualization of this there is neither gain nor loss, neither grasping nor releasing. In the one who realizes, there is no 'naturalism,' 'stopping,' 'contrivance,' or 'annihilation.' In this actualization there is neither subject nor object, and ultimately neither actualization nor actualized one. The nature of all dharmas is equal and indestructible."
Comments on the Pure Land as right where we stand are also not uncommon in Zen, e.g., Master Hakuin's Zazen Wasan:
This world is nothing less than the Pure Land.
As it is, this body is nothing less than the Buddha.
This world is both fallen, and yet there is no place to fall.
Now we are more on the same page.
David Brazier said:
Now we are more on the same page.
Yes, I think so, David. Of course, I take all those "Buddhas sitting within atoms" as symbolic of truth, rather than as an actual event, but in the end it all gets us the same non-place.
Visiting here, I discovered a couple of books by you that I had missed. I will be sure to check them out.