Buddhist Modernism

I finally read David McMahan’s book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, over this last week or so. I have pretty mixed feelings about the book, and the few scholars I’ve discussed the book with have largely concurred. On the one hand it is a “must read” because of its sweeping scope and rhetorical force. It really has many more positive things I could say about it than negative. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be taken as gospel – at all. Dealing with so many disparate areas of thought, the treatment of any in particular is necessarily limited. If you’re not careful you will come away thinking you know a lot more than you actually do. So while I could write a lot about what I liked about the book, I’ll simply link to some other excellent reviews at the bottom and give you a few words of caution.

A case in point: my own history with the book goes back to when I was advising a bright undergraduate student who had studied Buddhism and wanted to write about Buddhist Environmentalism. Great, I thought, I’ve done a fair bit of work in Buddhist environmental thought. I recommended he look at Peter Harvey’s chapter on the environment in his great work on Buddhist Ethics along with three or four books devoted to Buddhism and the environment, such as Buddhism and Ecology (my first Buddhist Studies professor, Alan Sponberg, has an excellent article in that volume). The student came back to me later a bit disappointed. He said he wanted to read more about how German Romantics such as  Schelling, Schlegel, and Schleiermacher and the American Transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson had shaped Buddhist environmental thought.

I don’t have my copies of Buddhism and Ecology and other such works handy now, but I don’t think the German Romantics or American Transcendentalists played much of a role in the articles in any of those works. As a philosopher and (increasingly) a historian of Buddhism, I have learned and advised my students to carefully study of the source materials and the contexts out of which they evolved. The Pali texts have some good starting points for environmental thought, as do many East Asian writings. I asked my student what he had been reading to make him think that the Romantics and Transcendentalists were so important. It was The Making of Buddhist Modernism.

At times, McMahan is careful to note that both Buddhism and Modernism are very vague categories and that he is at best giving a rough sketch of a difficult religious phenomenon (Buddhist Modernism), which is, after all, still emerging. At other times, though, he makes connections between Buddhism and Modernism that are fairly tenuous. Here is one example:

The Transcendentalist category of “Universal  Religion”—which was believed to transcend the bounds of time and place and to consist of personal experience rather than dogma, ritual, and the specificities of culture—provided a vast arena into which promoters of Buddhism could easily introduce its ascetic, hermitic, and meditative traditions, along with the East Asian reverence for nature. These factors influenced how westerners understood Buddhism, as well as the shape it would take in the modern world. (p.168)

Why the Transcendentalists? Handn’t Spinoza advocated similar ‘space and time transcending’ religious ideals? And Kant? And Hegel? And Christian Mystics?

A problem is that Buddhist thought is so multi-fasceted and so varied over its 2500 years and numerous geographic contexts – and so is Western thought, even in just the past two or three hundred years – that one could pretty easily pick and choose aspects of each that seem to fit together. And no doubt Westerners have been doing just this. And no doubt many Buddhists -East and West- have borrowed from the Romantics, Transcendentalits, scientific thought, Western monotheism, Kant, Nietzsche, The Beatles, and Britney Spears, to name a few!

When a contemporary Buddhist such as Thich Nhat Hanh says:

We classify other animals and living beings as nature, acting as if we ourselvesare not part of it. Then we pose the question ‘How should we deal with Nature?’We should deal with nature the way we should deal with ourselves! We shouldnot harm ourselves; we should not harm nature . . . Human beings and natureare inseparable. (Eppsteiner, 1988: 41; quoted in Peter Harvey, 2001)

we might say that he is responding to the same problem as Romantics (and, indeed, many others who have confronted this problem), but some serious work would need to be done to suggest that he is in any way ‘influenced’ by Romanticism or any other particular aspect of Western culture. Indeed, checking Peter Harvey’s chapter on Buddhist “Attitude to and treatment of the natural world” we find no mention of Romantics or Transcendentalists.

Similarly, Harvey quotes the Thai forest monk Ajahn Pongsak:

Dharma, the Buddhist word for truth and the teachings, is also the word for nature. This is because they are the same. Nature is the manifestation of truth and of the teachings. When we destroy nature we destroy truth and the teachings. (Bachelor and Brown, 1992: 92) (Harvey, p.181)

But I fear that many readers will come away from The Making of Buddhist Modernism thinking that Romanticism in particular has played a major role in the development of (all) 20th-21st century Buddhism (McMahan doesn’t spend much time discussing counter-examples, i.e. traditional Buddhism in the East or West, which continues to this day). Again, I don’t think this is McMahan’s fault – he does give caveats – but this is nonetheless how many Buddhist enthusiasts will read the book. Sentences like this don’t help:

Suzuki is clearly drawing from psychoanalytic theory, and perhaps from the Romantics, when he declares, like Schelling as well as Jung, that the unconscious is the seat of creativity. (p.131)

Perhaps, sure. As a writer in 20th century Buddhism, Suzuki is borrowing English words that Romantics and psychoanalysts also use(d). But the ideas expressed can be traced to early Buddhism to some extent and more clearly to the Yogacara school of Buddhist philosophy which had such a strong influence on Zen.

If you are a scholar or well-versed practitioner, you know this. If not, you might interpret the above as saying that Suzuki is borrowing ideas from Romantics and psychoanalytic theory (“drawing from” is perhaps purposefully vague). Elsewhere McMahan is careful to note that Suzuki never directly states any such influence or borrowing and it is unclear whether he read the Romantics at all (p.122).

McMahan runs a risk of perhaps being considered a sort of neo-Orientalist when he writes:

The various pictures of dependent origination, samsara, and the natural world that emerge from South and East Asian canonical texts do not themselves provide sufficient material to account for the ways the concept of Buddhist interdependence has developed in recent decades. (p.162)

I doubt he’s being Orientalist, suggesting that Asians couldn’t have come up with these interpretations on their own because they lacked the philosophical materials for them. But rather, he is making the almost banal point that some Buddhists today borrow from outside the South and East Asian contexts to form new interpretations. It’s somewhat banal because Buddhists have always done this. On the other hand, I might only find it banal because I’ve been steeped in critical thinking and inquiry and the rule never to take -even Buddhist- claims at face value (many thanks to my early teachers).

That said, I do agree with Roger Jackson, who wrote of the book that, “This sweeping and sophisticated analysis of the ways in which westerners and Asians alike have constructed new forms of Buddhism under the pressures of modernity is thoroughly disillusioning, in the best sense of the word.” For those who have been fed Buddhism spiced with various aspects of Western thinking as if it were the same thing being taught and practiced in Asia, this book will be just the treatment needed.

I think it’s a book to be read, but with a critical eye. The forces McMahan describes do indeed play a role in some contemporary Buddhism, and if you are a practitioner this book may help you see those more clearly. Just as with each political, economic, or geographical shift in Buddhist history, the teachings have struggled to both maintain their connection to the past and to adapt to new circumstances.

But be careful not to over-do it. I’ve been to many Lamas and Bhantes who I’m quite confident could talk about the unconscious or creativity without the slightest reference to or influence from Schelling or Jung. If you keep McMahan’s caveats and the necessary vagueness of the subject area in mind as he suggests, you can get a lot from this book. If you get too wrapped up in McMahan’s very good writing and his attempt to make a strong case, you might forget that there is a lot of Buddhism (both current and past, East and West) that doesn’t fit at all into the picture that McMahan paints of Buddhist Modernism.

I highly recommend the academic reviews below as well as the two podcasts.


http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=24528 (excellent)

http://www.globalbuddhism.org/10/schedneck09.htm (excellent)

http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2010/05/JBE-Murphy.pdf (pretty good)

And out in the blog-world:

http://buddhism.about.com/b/2011/11/09/modernizers-v-orientalists.htm (Barbara O’Brien)

http://buddhism.about.com/b/2011/11/09/modernizers-v-orientalists.htm (O’Brien again)

http://hardcorezen.blogspot.com/2011/09/making-of-buddhist-modernism.html (Brad Warner)

http://www.thesecularbuddhist.com/episode_072.php (a podcast via the Secular Buddhist)

http://newbooksinbuddhiststudies.com/2011/09/02/david-mcmahan-the-making-of-buddhist-modernism-oxford-up-2008/ (another podcast, with Amod Lele)

http://triangulations.wordpress.com/2011/01/04/the-making-of-buddhist-modernism/ (Sabio Lantz)

http://imcw.org/Resources/ArticleDetail/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/64/Book-Review-The-Making-of-Buddhist-Modernism-by-David-McMahan.aspx (Carl Skooglund)

http://meaningness.wordpress.com/2011/06/16/the-making-of-buddhist-modernism/ (David Chapman)

And, just for fun:

Spurious Parallels to Buddhist Philosophy by EDWARD CONZE

  • http://www.secularbuddhistassociation.com Ted Meissner

    Hi, Justin. This is an excellent treatment of David’s book, you bring up very valid points of discussion those of us who do not have an education in philosophical history. Thank you for writing it, and thanks for the link to The Secular Buddhist podcast interview!

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks, Ted – I really appreciated your podcast. I hope my readers listen to it – as it gives great context to the book – the motivations and drives behind its creation. It made me much more sympathetic, in the purest sense, to McMahan; and I hope my criticisms here are taken in the best possible way, as hopefully constructive, part of our ongoing project of understanding Buddhism.

  • Erick

    I find quite bizarre your criticism that McMahan doesn’t discuss traditional Buddhism, in the ‘East’ or the ‘West’, or the forms of Buddhism in the present or the past that don’t fit under the rubric of Modernist Buddhism. His book, after all, is about Modernist Buddhism. He is very clear about the demarcated, restricted boundaries of his subject matter. Why in the world should he be talking in any systemic way about non-modernist modalities of Buddhist thought and practice? The limited degree to which he does address non-modernist Buddhism is to show precisely how many ideas prevalent in contemporary modern Buddhism reflect the often unacknowledged influence of modernist, Western intellectual influences rather than older Asian Buddhist traditions. McMahan is not arguing that Romanticism has significantly influenced 20th and 21st century Buddhism, but rather that it has significantly influenced 20th and 21st century modernist Buddhism. Given that fact, your criticism is really, almost quite literally, besides the point.

  • Justin Whitaker

    Hi Erick, thanks for your comments here. I definitely could have been clearer about that point. I was hoping and would have liked it if McMahan had given more little “here’s a counter-example” or “here’s a case of contemporary Buddhism that may seem modernist but isn’t” discussions. My worry was that people would get carried away with thinking that anything and everything of modern Buddhism can and will fit into modernist Buddhism.

    I agree that McMahan gives warnings – but not that there are ‘demarcated, restricted boundaries of his subject matter.’ I think even he notes at times that the boundaries are *anything but* demarcated. Modernism is a very fuzzy term, as is Buddhism.

    So his use of counterexamples from non-Modernist (i.e. traditionalist) Buddhism might have helped people to not get too carried away. My experience with one student might have been itself an outlier, but I’ve ‘sensed’ (sorry, vague, I know) that others have over-interpreted McMahan’s application of Buddhist Modernism elsewhere too.

    In any case, I think his work is good and important, and I hope to see rigorous work following it to try to tighten the categories and help us all see more clearly what is and isn’t Modernist about contemporary Buddhism.

  • http://KarmaLifeReadings.wordpress.com mickey

    Thanks for the thought-out writing. As a lay practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism for nearly 12 years, I have faith that all sentient beings have Buddha Natures inside them. According to one’s karmic baggage brought into this life, the samsaric tendencies and latent karma could lead one to become a Christian, a Jew, a Hindi, a Muslim. We are all the same. Yet we manifest, because of our karmic baggage, as Kant, philosophers, authors, et.al.
    I think the reason this is so—that there is much overlapping from traditional Tibetan practices with other cultures . . . that Buddhism seems like an umbrella over all other spiritual practices . . . to me.
    This speaks to me as a kind of collective unconscious (a universal truth), where people who perform similar rituals, for example, are currently unaware of each other, yet both peoples have developed highly similar rituals. To me, this accounts for the quality of universal truth found in Buddhism. The world is drawn to it because of its great flexibility, and all of us are drawn to truth. “There are as many ways to enlightenment as there are sentient beings.” —Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand(?). Buddhism is just one of those ways, that more and more cultures are embracing since 1959.
    The Romantics and psychoanalysis definitely contain indirect and direct Buddhist expressions.
    Justin wrote “I do agree with Roger Jackson, who wrote of the book that, ‘This sweeping and sophisticated analysis of the ways in which westerners and Asians alike have constructed new forms of Buddhism under the pressures of modernity is thoroughly disillusioning, in the best sense of the word.”’
    Huh? What is disillusioning? The flourishing and evolution of Buddhism worldwide was like a volcano erupting precious Dharma to the far reaches after 1959. (There are no coincidences.) It changes in its manifestation from culture to culture. This is also the way language evolves organically.
    So the natural evolution as it evolves, like language around the world. Your friend Roger and you are grasping to “the way it was” and insisting on non-changeability in Buddhism. Buddhism is subject to impermanence just like every”thing” else.
    mickey morgan

  • Erick


    I’d say check out the edited volume, “Buddhism in the Modern World”, coming out from Routledge at the end of this year, beginning of next (and there is actually a paperback, although a bit pricey). Many established authors looking at the topic both in terms of national/geographic traditions and thematic foci.


    I have to confess I don’t find “traditional Buddhism” particularly useful as a category for analysis. While Modernist Buddhism is fuzzy, traditional Buddhism is usually simply a grab bag container category for everything that is “not modern”, whatever the hell the latter may mean.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks for the recommendation, Erick. I’ve requested a review/exam copy from Routledge, so we’ll see if I get that. If not, I’ll hopefully be able to track it down at the SOAS or Senate House library next time I’m there.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Ah! And thanks also for the comments on “traditional Buddhism” – I think you’re right on the money and it’s something that I hadn’t really thought about much. As an aside, I was at the recent Buddhist Ethics conference at Columbia and a former student of mine joined me one day. She later remarked, a bit off hand, that the presenters really need to look up ‘tradition’. I hadn’t thought much of her comment until I saw yours, but I think she meant that the scholars were simply ‘name-dropping’ “tradition” as a sort of argument to authority; something which went completely over my head (and I think others as well).

      • Dharmakara

        Hi Justin. Your friend pretty much hit the nail on the head in regard to name-dropping “tradition” as a sort of argument to authority (argumentum ad verecundiam), not to mention a host of other fallacies that give new meaning to the maxim “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” LOL

  • Charles Patton

    You’re points are well taken. But if that Suzuki quote was D.T. Suzuki, he actually was consciously aware of Western modernism and was attempting to reinterpret Buddhism through a Western lens. If anyone fit the bill this author is looking to fill, it was D.T. Suzuki, I think.

    • Justin Whitaker

      I agree, Charles. D.T. Suzuki fits one (sort of) ‘extreme’ in terms of Japanese intellectuals adopting and adapting Western ideas.

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  • http://www.petemarchetto.com/ Pete Marchetto

    Having only today discovered that I am a Buddhist Modernist and have been for some years, I took time out before hunting down the badge, tie and t-shirt to do a bit more research. Certainly this work is alarmingly forefronted in a Google search, and I’m pleased I read this piece before reading anything else.

    If I’m right, and I have indeed been a Buddhist Modernist for some years before realising it, then it seems to me invidious to try and pin down influences. Of course, there will be those writers, artists, pundits, philosophers, analysts whose work is more or less helpful in throwing a new light upon some of the ideas core to the philosophy, but given – as I assume – the philosophy is effectively timeless and cultureless given that it is a reflection upon reality, it’s no surprise if people are coming up with ideas reflective of that reality across time and across cultures, (though I myself wouldn’t cite Britney Spears amongst my influences).

    So back to my Google search. It’d be a shame on this, the exciting day I find I have had a religion for decades and not known it, when I’m all ready to go out there and sign myself up for clubs and have washed myself in preparation for the learning of any arcane secret handshakes – it would be a shame, then, if a work such as this that figures so highly in a Google search on the subject were to find traction as an ‘informative guide’. If people come to the idea of Buddhist Modernism with even a loose canon of poets and philosophers in mind as definitive voices within the field, then I’m going to have to pack my tie up, throw away the badge, and sit around for another couple of decades waiting for someone to come up with Buddhist Postmodernism.

  • NaphiSoc

    I am a research chemist; married. Child on the way. My wife and I are finding ourselves becoming more and more Buddhist almost daily. I am respecting that Buddhism is a System and one cannot pick and choose Dharma. Only following all of the eightfold way can one really be a Buddhist (IMHO of course)

  • fionnchu

    Thanks for the “pretty good” mention above via my JBE academic review. I admit the other reviews are “excellent.” I just found this via a FB link through Lynette Monteiro’s “Hits and Myths on the Wonky Path” at “108 Zen Books” responding to a NYT piece on mindfulness. Another book worth a mention is Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s “Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion” (Routledge, 2004) as to a post-60s shift in Western Buddhism to a secular and corporate-sponsored approach.