A Small Meditation on Buddhisms, Traditional and Modernist

A Small Meditation on Buddhisms, Traditional and Modernist August 31, 2017


Yesterday on Facebook I was pointed to an article that purports to compare “traditional” Buddhism with “secular” Buddhism. The author appears to belong to a Traditionalist school of one sort or another, and, interestingly, to me, at least, is also a pretty far right person politically, identifying, it appears with the alt-right.

This generated several trains of thought for me. One has to do with Traditionalism and how it appears to be co-opted on occasion by rightists of various sorts. Some of them pretty reprehensible. Personally I find this unsettling and challenging. Particularly as I consider Perennialism and in particular Traditionalism have much to offer. A warning, perhaps, to take everything cautiously. And in matters like religion and spirituality to bring both our heart and our mind to the project. That later point, of course, is a hallmark of the modernist schools of Buddhism, which the author was criticizing under the thinnest of veneers of comparison.

At the same time the part I found most interesting was a list of differences between what the author thought of as the new-age sympathetic bleeding heart liberal nonsense held by “secularists” and those positions held by real Buddhists. Here I thought the major problem with the putative comparison was its reductionism. It assumed one kind of modernist Buddhism and seemed to represent one kind of “traditional” Buddhism. It wasn’t clear to me which, although I suspected some form of Vajrayana. The reality, however, is that there has never been a Buddhism, but rather there have always, even from before the sutras were written down, Buddhisms. Plural. Finally, the screed ended with a rather odd assertion that the real, I mean traditional Buddhists were interested in respect across the perspectives, while the unwashed were, well, not.

I found the essay wasn’t particularly useful. But it certainly has a lot of play across the inter webs. So, it made me think maybe a second try. I thought I’d offer this using the list itself as points of departure for reflecting on the range of Buddhisms and particularly the emergent modernist forms.. I thought by washing some of the special pleading and built in biases, there was a pretty good list of issues we probably should be paying attention to as a modernist and naturalistic Buddhism begins to appear across the globe, but are most common here in the West. These are areas worth looking at for anyone hoping to understand how a modernist Buddhism distinguishes itself from more traditional models. Hardly complete, but worthy.

These six principal points of departure are: Karma and rebirth, understanding of the nature of the Buddha, psychology, approach to sacred texts, and the nature of and relationship with teachers. To which I will add a seventh, a critical omission in the original offering, the emphasis on lay or non-monastic practice.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Karma and rebirth

This is without a doubt the big issue. Everything else follows this shift in understanding. I recall all these years ago reading John Blofeld’s introduction to the Son monk Stephen Batchelor’s lovely book Alone With Others. In it Blofeld, a beloved figure in early convert Buddhism, writing how he was so impressed with the monk’s book. However, he wished that Batchelor had addressed karma and rebirth, understanding that one cannot cover everything in a book, particularly one as focused as this was. And, well, then, some years later now former monk Stephen Batchelor offered his view of karma and rebirth in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs. It would become the first great intellectual volley of modernist Buddhisms, whether religious or secular.

Here we do indeed see the principal shift from the traditional Buddhisms, and that is a plural, and something new. It turns on the soteriological project, that is the doctrine of salvation. In the oldest strata of Buddhisms it seems pretty clear the concern was based in a belief that we are chained to a cycle of endless rebirths, the experience of which is endless personal suffering. To put it simply, although tottering toward simplistic, through finding right view we can be liberated from this cycle, breaking it all, and passing into nirvana. The process itself for most forms of Buddhism takes many life times, usually over vast amounts of time. While there are challenges to this within the emerging spiritualities of Chinese Buddhism and the schools that derive through China, it definitely is with modernity that a clearly asserted, or rather several clearly asserted variations are offered.

A marker of all modernist Buddhisms, I believe, whether they identify as secular or religious (and I fit into that later, “religious” category, thanks for asking), have to do with an assumption that the play of causality, while true, and tied in with the larger understanding of the “marks of existence” that everything is impermanent, and that nothing has an inherent substance, and that clinging to that which is passing is on the face of it hurtful; it all plays out in this one life. We are birthed out of the conditions of existence, live, and then as we die, it all falls apart. There is no extra or after for most modernist Buddhists.

So, that saving project for the modernist is about how we experience this one life. For one end of the modernist spectrum this is “psychological,” a way to endure the tension of existence. For the religious modernist, however, psychological doesn’t fully define the experience. And, here I find myself taking the most objection to what seems on the face of it a simplistic collapsing of the modernist project into a straw man version of some bare materialism.

Modernist or naturalistic Buddhisms are complex and approach the great matter in a number of ways. There is indeed a reductionist approach by some. But to say that approaching the matter naturalistically is merely reductionist is itself simplistic. And hardly universal.

Understanding of the Buddha

There have been a great variety of understandings of who and what the Buddha is over the many years of Buddhism’s existence. In its most “primitive” or maybe “original” use, the Buddha is a title for the human person Gautama Siddhartha. The word means awakened. And the Buddha is someone who has awakened to the fundamental insights described in the four noble truths, and who has won liberation from the cycle of rebirths. It would in the Mahayana come to be a title for a variety of teachers, mostly outside of history, who represent awakening in the past or future or in other realms. The word can also be used to mean the awakened state itself.

What the word Buddha means must be asked of advocates of every specific school. And the answer will not be the same.

I would say that for the range of modernist Buddhists the word is usually the title for the historic teacher, but often, particularly for the religious modernist, it also points to a state of consciousness, or even the sum total of reality which may be apprehended in some manner by human beings.


As Buddhism has entered the world’s cultures it has always engaged in a dialogue, rich and mutually transformative with the indigenous religions it encounters. The most dramatic example would be when Indian Buddhism moved to China where it encountered a culture fully as old and as established as Indian, as well as spiritual traditions well developed and nuanced. For us in the West the meeting of Indian Buddhism and Chinese religion, particularly Daoism and to a lesser degree Confucianism birthed what we call Zen. Pretty important to me.

And there is no doubt there have been some rich conversations in modernity out of the meetings between Buddhism and Islam and Judaism, and most of all with Christianity. But, rather unexpectedly, considering the history of religious encounter, the most powerful, and potentially fruitful, and no doubt, dangerous dialogue has been with western psychology.

Of course Buddhism has always been deeply interested in the mind. With the Abhidharma, an extremely early attempt to systematize the Buddha’s teachings, Buddhism ended up offering the world’s first attempt at a systematic psychology. And now in the contemporary West with its own sophisticated psychological models, something rich is going on. It is an encounter that includes both more traditional Buddhisms as well as the rich varieties that might best be categorized as modernist.

Approach to spiritual texts

There is a wild variety of approaches to the sutras, literally “sacred thread” that constitute the sacred texts of Buddhism. The Pali Nikaya texts attempt to present the actual teachings of the Buddha of history. How successfully, who knows? The texts themselves are written down hundreds of years, no less than two hundred, and possibly four hundred years after they were uttered and in a completely different language. Then there are the Mayahana texts found in Sanskrit another cognate but not the ordinal language of the Buddha of history.

How to approach these voluminous libraries is a conundrum.

For Theravadans, the answer is to attend narrowly to those Nikaya texts that purport to be the teachings of the historic Buddha. For those in the various Mahayana schools the problem is how to order that astonishing array of texts. In China various attempts at ordering them have helped, and depending on one’s tastes, one or a small cluster of texts are given primacy.

For those within the modernist schools, well, it all depends. For some, particularly those who fit into the secular spectrum the oldest strata, the texts attributed to the Buddha of history are generally given primacy. For modernists of either Zen or Pure Land inclinations, there are other places to focus one’s attention. For me the koan anthologies, mostly those of the twelfth and thirteenth century as well as later compendiums like the eighteenth century collection Entangling Vines, are where I give most attention together with writers like Hakuin Ekaku and Eihei Dogen.

None of these texts, however, for me, other other modernists, I suspect, are above critical analysis. While a number of modernist Buddhists give the texts little attention, that’s true of Buddhists in general. Those who give their attention to the sacred writings are a smaller subset of those interested in the religion.

The modernist approach is heavily influenced by Christian textual analysis along with the important assumption that these documents are written by human beings and subject to errors. This academic approach is in fact not that much different for more traditionalist and modernist Buddhists of all schools, just as for mainstream Christians whether liberal or conservative. All assume the validity of textual analysis.

One an argue this reflects the general bias toward critical engagement that might be seen as the spirit of our age. Although it is at the same time very much a hall mark of all the modernist Buddhisms.

Teachers and the Problems of Authority

Buddhism presents with a pretty clear hierarchy. Monks are at the top. Then nuns. Then lay people. The lay teacher is a relatively rare figure in traditional Buddhisms. Within Theravadan Buddhism authority rests pretty much exclusively within the ordained sangha, and more specifically among the monks. One sees more emphasis on the possibility of lay teachers in the Mahayana particularly with the introduction of a popular sutra focused on the wisdom of a layman. For those within modernist schools, probably there are any number of possible authorities, ranging from academics to meditation masters to people who’ve walked the way for many years and with or without formal authorizations have come to be regarded as wise guides.

As a Zen person of modernist sensibilities I know I want someone who teachers to a) have extensive training, and b) to have received some generally accepted authorizations within the tradition. Formal titles by themselves mean little. But, people who’ve actually practiced for many years, and have received authorizations within those generally recognized traditions, me, I assume have something to offer. Unless, of course, something presents that leads me to think otherwise.

So, extending that out, I’d say for the modernist of whatever school authority is mostly earned. Designated authority should be noted. But, the proof of the pudding is in that actual encounter. Do they live up to the advertising? For me in general this approach is a good idea. As one politician once observed, trust, but verify.

The Modernist Emphasis on Lay Practice

In many ways this probably should precede the question of authority or teachers. Because the issue turns on who practices? In most forms of Buddhism over the many years practice, particularly the disciplines of meditation were nearly exclusively the project of the ordained community. In the West probably the first steps in the birthing of a distinctive modernist school was not the theological or spiritual challenge to karma and rebirth. But, rather the challenge came in who practiced.

A number of Westerners have ordained, particularly over the years in the Zen schools of Japan with its own aberrant ordination models. But few in the West have felt remaining a lay person meant one could not practice. And, with this, there was also an instant gender equality that does not exist in any traditional forms of Buddhism. Although like with several other forms of Buddhism mentioned here, it is nearly impossible to find some absolute point where there is a “traditional” Buddhism to compare and contrast with a “modernist” Buddhism. There are always Buddhisms, plural, and it appears always exceptions to anyone’s rules.

Clericalism and sexism runs rife through traditional Buddhism. Nuns are nominally more important than lay people. But barely. And in some parts of the Buddhist world even full traditional ordination is denied women. In modernist Buddhisms the “spirit of our age” has prevailed and I cannot at this writing think of a modernist version of Buddhism that does not assume the full equality of women. And with that the questions of the full acceptance of LGBTQ people rise. In traditional Buddhisms there is a general disease with any form of sexuality, although there have been various interesting accommodations over the years.

In modernist forms of Buddhism this is that most distinctive feature, the flattening of all hierarchies.




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