Buddhist Modernism

David L. McMahan

in Buddhism

ISBN: 9780195393521
Published online September 2010 | | DOI:
Buddhist Modernism

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Scholars have used a cluster of terms—“Protestant Buddhism,” “modern Buddhism,” and most commonly, “Buddhist modernism”—to refer to forms of Buddhism beginning in the 19th century that combined Buddhist ideas and practices with key discourses of Western modernity. They identify Buddhist modernism as characterized by an emphasis on texts, rationality, meditation, egalitarianism, and increased participation of women and laity, along with a deemphasis on ritual, dogma, clerical hierarchy, “superstition,” traditional cosmology, and icon worship. Buddhist modernism began in the context of European colonization and Christian missionization of peoples in Buddhist countries. It emerged both as a form of resistance to these forces and an appropriation of Western philosophy, religion, social forms, and ways of life, creating a hybrid of Buddhism and modern Western discourses and practices. It was a co-creation of educated, reform-minded Asian Buddhists and Western Orientalists and sympathizers, who presented Buddhism as rational and compatible with modern science, while at the same time drawing from rationalism’s critics, the Romantics and Transcendentalists, with their emphasis on interior exploration, creativity, and an organic, interdependent cosmos. Although novel in many ways, its advocates often claimed it went back to the original, “pure” Buddhism of the Buddha himself, prior to what many considered extraneous cultural accretions that had adhered to it over the centuries. It was more than just a return, however; it was a reformulation of Buddhist concepts in the categories, discourses, and vocabulary of Western modernity. Much of what is considered Buddhism today is inevitably part of, or at least deeply influenced by, these modernist forms that emerged over a century ago. Indeed, many 20th-century scholarly studies of Buddhism followed the modernists, assuming that this was “true Buddhism” and popular Buddhism on the ground was less than relevant. Only in recent decades have scholars begun to fully appreciate the modernity of these articulations of Buddhism against the backdrop of the great diversity of Buddhist traditions across Asia and throughout their long history. Recent iterations of Buddhist modernism include global lay meditation movements such as the Insight Meditation, or vipassanā, movement, modernist forms of Zen, and socially engaged Buddhism, which vigorously addresses political and social realities while liberally borrowing from Western political and social theory and the language of rights. The works below include scholarly analyses of Buddhist modernism and scholarly works that assume certain modernist perspectives (i.e., feminist analyses of Buddhism and socially engaged advocacy scholarship), along with a small sampling of primary sources (i.e., popular or apologetic works) that reveal Buddhist modernism from the inside and in its historical development.

Article.  8340 words. 

Subjects: Buddhism ; Tibetan Buddhism ; Zen Buddhism

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