Western academics, scholars, and thinkers in the Victoria era were disillusioned by Christianity. The new trend of the time was western rationalism and scientific naturalism and Romantic expressivism. So they looked for a social framework, much like Christianity, but without the religious ‘baggage’. And as with anything back then, such search requires colonization and the importation of far away foreign loots.
These Western colonists found Buddhism. Not in China by the way which was and is the majority expression of Buddhism. But from the Southern Buddhist tradition who, for reasons native to them, were struggling to maintain Buddhism or Buddhist practices. Western colonists brought in their philologists, the Western Protestant textual scholars. Which is racist in itself, suggesting that Buddhists are ‘savages’ who don’t really understand their own religion, and therefore, the truth can only be learned from Protestant assumptions of studying the “Original Texts”. (That’s the birth of Early Buddhist studies but that’s a post for another day.)
Because the study of texts is devoid of getting exposed to the reality of Buddhist praxis, its people, their life, and culture, not to mention the studies of archeology, arts, etc, Western Buddhist ‘scholars’ cocooned themselves and fabricated a new form of Buddhism, one that rejects or deemphasizes authentic Buddhism, the actual teachings of the Buddha, the cosmology, the devas, rebirth, karma, all the essential core doctrines, all of that would take a backseat in the Neo-Buddhism these scholars were concocting. What came out instead is a new religion created in the image of Western Protestant academics. Practices, rituals, imagery, monastics, traditions, and mantras, were done away with. The new focus or emphasis is on a Buddhism that’s been ‘sanitized’, brought to the West for Western sensibilities. A new religion from the East that is scientific, and rational, that can be used to improve one’s life in the present, that is psychological, more “philosophical” not religious, and even has health and mental benefits. That’s the birth of Buddhist Modernism.
These Western Protestant academics were not alone. They had help. The Buddhists in the Southern Traditions were faced with assaults on multiple fronts. One is the natural demise of their tradition and practices, and two, with the colonization of the West itself, which means that if the Queen is not going to behave like a Buddhist monarch, then there won’t be patronage of Buddhism and that would be the end, and third, finally, from the Christian missionaries who were establishing their churches and schools. So as a response, the Southern Buddhist traditions, it seems to me, had an unholy alliance with secular Western Protestant academics in creating or perpetuating this modernization of Buddhism. In hindsight, we have the luxury to see that it’s bad due to the outcome. But with the 3 crises facing Buddhists above at the time, this unholy alliance didn’t seem to be so bad in comparison. All this gave birth to the Modern and Western Theravada. And it’s from this social milieu that we get the ‘religious’ Buddhist Western converts turned scholars/monks. Ajahn Thanissaro, Sujato, Brahms. All of whom reject or are highly critical of Buddhist tradition and practices in the name of “Early Buddhist Studies”. (which isn’t so much a study at all but a mere Protestant imposition of textual criticism)
For their part, the Zen and Himalayan Buddhists also contributed to the Buddhist Modernist phenomenon. Not with the same political and survival intent as the Southern Buddhists. Perhaps Buddhism Modernism was just so alluring to the Western audience. It’s able to generate a lot of book sales, fill stadiums of people to listen to lectures, so Buddhists regardless of tradition, and without hindsight, learned to co-exist and even contribute to the movement. HHDL, Thich Nath Hanh, didn’t see the movement as something to be resisted or rejected. They were quite more nuanced or perhaps skillful. Whether they were right or wrong is not for me to say. But they and many other Buddhists filled the bookshelves with modernized Buddhist books that emphasized one’s wellness in the here and now and de-emphasized most of the traditional Buddhist practices. It’s not to say that those were completely absent but one would have to be so eager to learn them to actually acquire those pure Buddhist teachings.
So, here we are. Notice that Buddhist Modernism isn’t so much a group that is one, and separate from us. It’s easy to point to the Secular ‘Buddhist’ which is a pure expression of Buddhist Modernism, but in reality, the vast Buddhist Modernist movement is in our midst. Inside the mainstream Western Buddhism. In every Zen, Tibetan, and Theravada Buddhist center. Some common manifestation of Buddhist Modernism is the bizarre obsession with meditation, and mindfulness, which are more common in the secular non-Buddhist West than in Buddhist lands. But our own temples in the West do promote them. Not so much to be liberated from samsaric rebirth to the unfavorable realms but to be happy, to have great careers, and to be calmer in the workplace. Besides meditation, we as laypeople have a newfound appreciation for reading the Bible, only now, it’s in the form of sutras. Those two, prayers and Bible reading (meditation and sutra reading) are what define a lot of what Buddhism in the West is today. In the mind of secularists and even Western Buddhists, “Don’t talk about rebirth or karma. That’s just not fashionable these days. And don’t bother with statues, life-release, elaborate rituals, bowing, prostrations, veneration of monastics, or iconography, those are just the unwanted cultural primitivism and Asian baggage. You have to go to the core. What does the text say?”
It would be easy if only meditation and sutra readings are the issues. But Buddhist Modernism impacts the entire practice IMHO. Some of these impacts aren’t as damaging as the ones mentioned above. Some are quite benign that many Buddhists themselves see this as harmless. There is a lack of emphasis on karma in general. And as such, there is little emphasis on how actions today can impact the next life. This would be a common day-to-day conversation in Buddhist lands but in the West, it’s more common to hear about being ‘present’ or ‘in-the-moment’. There is less stress on the need to actually be connected to the monastery, or the temple, or the monastics. Many find comfort in merely reading their new books and watching a few clips online. Believe it or not, it’s Buddhists themselves who would defend this. The idea of being an isolated, autodidactic, self-taught, book-reading Buddhist is completely acceptable and commended amongst us, Buddhists. And if you bring up samsara, nirvana, karma, or rebirth, (you know, Buddha’s actual core teachings) you’ll be accused of gatekeeping.
Then there seems to be a lot of (mis)application of Buddhism on some insane things like corporate profits, corporate responsibility, mindful workplace, Buddha in the Office, mindful eating, compassionate abortion (WTF?), and if you are critical of any of these, it’s Buddhists themselves who would take issue and think you are a fundamentalist. That’s how far it has become. Buddhist Modernism takes Buddhism to the extreme of secularism and western degeneracy, so any expression of authentic Buddhism is seen as fundamentalism. The list of impacts is too long but one last thing I’ll bring up is the seeming removal of nirvana, 4NT, and N8P outside their religious context. Like these are merely self-help, psychological domains. A list of nice tips to be calmer. 4NT/N8P are studied or read (not taught by a monk or practiced for life) but read from some webpage. This leads some to think “I’m a Buddhist. I’ve been practicing N8P for years” yet hasn’t stepped into a monastery or seen a monk nor taken a formal refuge vow. Nirvana to these people is seen as nothing but a more than brainhacking for a more successful life, work, and relationship.
BuddhistFirst | Tibetan Buddhist | Korean Guy
I just couldn’t get through their mindset…what makes them thinking that they know what the Buddha intended to convey just by superficial reading of English translated Suttas?
And how these English translation came to be if without the usage of Pali dictionary and Theravada tradition that were based on commentarial tradition?
And just how arrogant and hypocrite they are, by saying the commentarial tradition since the third council and persists for thousand year is wrong, while these people only arrive at this religion less than one hundred year?
If they are correct, why there is no Arahant from Sauntrantika sect? Not even one dared to admit it.
And these people from EBT sect, not knowing what Abhidhamma or the content of Atthakatha really is, still criticizing these teachings blindly. Always confused and without right view, they like to ask random nonsensical questions and if people don’t reply, they pointing finger at you and say:“Hah! You couldn’t reply, therefore I’m correct!” This is absolutely naive.
A case can and should be made for Classical Theravada and against EBT nonsense, but calling it racist isn’t giving anything to the argument. The reality of the situation is that the woke movement has made the claim of racism a constant, and redefined the word to be incredibly broad, while at the same time allowing certain overt bigotries to be inexplicably exempt from criticism. Thus, making arguments that sound woke gets people to lump the argument with that movement, and then all the other important points get lost or ignored.
Even that aside, EBT is incredibly flawed, but racism isn’t really a strong point on which to hinge an argument as to what those flaws are. The only way this would be a strong point would be if the vast majority of EBT people were truly racist, and the movement was itself entrenched in true racism, in the pre woke meaning of the word.
For example, what’s a stronger, more convincing, more consistently true point about all of EBT? That EBT cannot hope to present Buddhism properly while throwing out the commentaries which explain it and were composed contemporaneously with it? Or that EBT is racist?
Call those that made these stupid early decisions and created EBT arrogant fools, or whatever, but “racism” doesn’t seem to have been their motivation for creating their absurd version of Buddhism, and even then, the claim of racism is completely irrelevant to modern EBT study. That is, unless we’re using the woke meaning of “racist”, but then it’s so broad, and so markedly different from the normal use of the word that it’s an absurd word that means very little.
I sometimes feel that I’m one of the few English Dhamma mediums that writes on kamma and rebirth as a foundation to explain things.
Maturity in Samsara is a pre-requisite to understand Buddhism, I think.
Seems like a good observation!
It goes along with Zans’.
I sometimes feel that you’re currently the main English Dhamma medium that emphasizes the value of Classical Texts.
I second this.