Friday, October 07, 2011

A Tale of Three Buddhist Modernisms

Once 19th century European philologists had rescued Pali and Sanskrit texts from the dustbin of history and constructed what they considered was an "original Buddhism" based on a founder and an ancient scripture, the Christian missionaries and foreign colonizers in Asia were faced with determining the status of actual existing heathens and idolators who mixed and matched their worship of Hindu deities with icons of the Buddha and local gods in their bizarre rituals.  Their practices were labeled as superstitions and "corrupt." Since legitimate nation states were deemed to possess modern characteristics, which included a recognized world religion, both anti-colonial nationalists and monarchs sought to update their religion in a process that scholars are calling "Buddhist Modernism."

For the purposes of this study, I want to examine the modernization of Buddhism in Sri, Lanka, Thailand, and, finally, in America.  In each case, modernizers reinterpreted the Buddha's teaching to appeal to a new audience while calling their reconstructions the "true" and "pure" Buddhism to affirm its authenticity.  But there were also ulterior motives.  In Sri Lanka, under the thumb of British rule, Christianity's privileged status was contested by local nationalists and a couple of Theosophists from America on a mission to uncover Eastern mystical wisdom.  In Thailand, a monk who became king reformed the local religion to partly prevent colonizing attempts by the British and France.  In America, the case was slightly different. Christianity was in crisis after two world wars and had failed to deliver the goods in the new capitalist culture of consumption.  Missionaries from several Buddhist nations brought to dissatisfied Americans a modernized faith that fitted their needs, one that was rational and shorn of unfamiliar rituals.

The literature on Buddhist modernism and its history is voluminous and growing daily.  "Modern Buddhism" was coined as a category in the 1970s by Heinz Bechert. A comprehensive summary is given by David L. McMahan in The Making of Buddhist Modernism (2008), and an overall view  is provided by David S. Lopez in the introduction to his A Modern Buddhist Bible (2002).  Lopez has followed this with Buddhism and Science: a Guide for the Perplexed (2008) which examines one of the basic tenets of Buddhist modernism that Buddhism is superior to other religions because it is scientific due to the early advice of the Buddha to test and verify every claim about reality.  A number of writers have studied the reforms of Thailand's King Mongkut (Rama IV) and similar efforts at further modernisation of Buddhism by reforming that reform on the part of the monk Buddhadasa Bhikku.  The subject of American, and by extension Western, Buddhism has been dissected by numerous scholars.  One has even suggested calling it "Ameriyana" to indicate that it has all the characteristics of a new sect like the other "yanas."

The key point to remember about Buddhist modernism is that it is a new reinterpretation based on a selection of myriad of texts discovered and translated by Europeans, usually with the connivance of Asians who used this new construction to make claims for social and political as well as religious purposes; it was a co-creation of East and West and not another "Orientalism."   And it resulted in separating "Buddhism" from the hybrid cultural values and practices the people of Asian had engaged in for over a millennium.  The actual lived religion of Asians in all its national and ethnic forms is more ritualistic and superstitious compared to the reasonable and intellectual understanding of Buddhism that often serves the interests of elites more than and common people.

The characteristics of Buddhist modernism are broad and variable for the three I intend to discuss.  Because of its beginnings, a focus on the written text and a purported founder who wrote or inspired them is essential (think the Jesus story as a model).  Tradition, ritual and myth are dethroned, a characteristic it shares with Protestantism which gave many of its defenders a model.  Along with ritual, clericalism is deemphasized.  Because the Buddha supposedly rejected the Brahmin priesthood along with the caste system, anti-Catholic Westerners saw him as an ally and he was hailed as the "Luther of Asia."  The importance of individual experience led to deflating the need for a mediator with the divine, although many devotees were later to accept the necessity of a "guru" and the value of a teaching lineage which allegedly led back to the Buddha.  Other characteristics that influenced Buddhism modernism included romanticism, centralization/decentralization, affirmation of the ordinary, environmental concern, social engagement, scientific naturalism, and a focus on techniques of meditation to the exclusion of all other rituals and practices, an imbalance especially predominant in western Buddhism.  McMahan writes that it is an "actual new form of Buddhism" that is
the result of a process of modernization, westernization, reinterpretation, image-making, revitalization, and reform that has been taking place not only in the West but also in Asian countries for over a century. This new form of Buddhism has been fashioned by modernizing Asian Buddhists and western enthusiasts deeply engaged in creating Buddhist responses to the dominant problems and questions of modernity, such as epistemic uncertainty, religious pluralism, the threat of nihilism, conflicts between science and religion, war, and environmental destruction.
Lopez adds that what was different about Buddhist modernism "was the conviction that centuries of cultural and clerical ossification could be stripped from the teachings of the Buddha to reveal a Buddhism that was neither Theravada or Mahayana, neither monastic or lay, neither Sinhalese, Japanese, Chinese or Thai." He adds that it is "perhaps best to consider modern Buddhism not as a universal religion beyond sectarian borders, but as itself a Buddhist sect."

Theosophy was developed in New York in the 1870's by Madame Blavatsky, Col. Henry Olcott and others as a movement to discover and reveal ancient wisdom in the mysterious East.  Their claims, recognizable today as New Age true verities, involved communication with "Mahatmas" (great souls) who lived in Tibet.  In their travels in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) they, perhaps unwittingly, inspired nationalist movements in both countries.  One of their proteges was Krishnamurti who later rejected their support and achieved spiritual renown on his own.  In Colombo, where Buddhism was dying out (as it had previously in India), Blavatsky and Olcott took Refugee Vows and became perhaps the first Western converts.  Olcott declared his mission to be the restoration of "true" Buddhism in that country and wrote The Buddhist Catechism which is still in use, and helped to design a Buddhist flag.  A native disciple took the name Anagarika Dharmapala.  He helped to found the Maha Bodhi Society which continues today and attended the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 to much acclaim.  Olcott, whose memorial statue I have seen in Colombo, said he was not a "debased modern" Buddhist, like the Sinhalese who were ignorant of their own religion. He identified his Buddhism with that of the Buddha himself.  "Our Buddhism," he declared, "was, in a word, a philosophy, not a creed."  During a talk Dharmapala gave in New York, he declared:
The message of the Buddha that I bring to you is free from theology, priestcraft, rituals, ceremonies, dogmas, heavens, hells and other theological shibboleths.  The Buddha taught to the civilized Aryans of India twenty-five centuries ago a scientific religion containing the highest individualistic altruistic ethics, a philosophy of life built on psychological mysticism and a cosmology which is in harmony with geology, astronomy, radioactivity and reality.
In short, a Buddhism very unlike that practiced by millions of ignorant Buddhists throughout Asia, but one very congenial to western tastes.

"More than any other single person," King Mongkut of Siam (Rama IV), in the words of Buddhist (Tibetan) blogger David Chapman, "invented Western Buddhism."  Before the Theosophists ever set foot in Asia, King Mongkut, grandson of Rama I, founder of the current Chakri dynasty, had been a monk for 27 years.  He formed a new monastic order, Thammayut, to purge what he saw as superstitious and magical elements from the state religion.  He also dictated a strict ascetic practice for his monks and emphasized a literal interpretation of scripture.  Taking scripture rather than oral tradition as authoritative was a new idea, according to Chapman, that some attribute to his friendship with Protestant missionaries.  He also believed Buddhism should be rational and scientific (the latter an interest that killed him when he contacted malaria while on an expedition to observe a solar eclipse he had predicted).  Siam's independence was threatened by the British in Burma and the French in neighboring Laos and Cambodia.  King Mongkut, and his son, King Chulalongkorn, undertook a modernizing program to show the foreign powers that their country was a modern one which should not be colonized.  Rama V centralized both political and religious authority in Bangkok (which some have called a form of "internal colonisation") and put monks under control with the Sangha Act of 1902 which is still largely in place. Along with his successor, Rama VI, these three modernizing kings of Siam, as Brooke Schedneck has shown,  used Buddhism to centralize and create a national culture and political identity.  In the process,
The Siamese have modified the Buddhist tradition to highight to Westerners its modern elements.  Thus Buddism was used to help Siam remain sovereigh and maintain its own modernity but at the same time to be compatible with the Western model.
Modern Buddhism, she writes, "is clearly a variable and complex tradition that can be molded to suit one's interests for desired results."

King Mongkut's reforms were continued by Buddhadasa Bhikku a century later, albeit in a different direction.  As Peter A. Jackson points out in his book Buddhadasa: Theravada Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand (1987, rev. 2003),  his reforms closely parallel aspects of King Mongkut's reforms, which included a rejection of traditional cosmogony and cosmology and an attempt in western terms to demythologize the world. "Buddhist intellectual culture in Thailand until the twentieth century," Jackson writes, "can only be described as conservative and stagnant."  Under the influence of European-influenced forms of Buddhism, Buddhadasa and others rejected folk religion and "assumed the very principles of rationality, logical consistency, and scientific methodology which were previously used to denigrate Buddhism...[in order] to prove the scientific character of the religion."  This same reformed Buddhism, says Jackson, "was ironically held up as symbolizing 'Thai-ness' and Thai independence from the west."  Buddhadasa, who died in 1993, is much admirer today by educated Thai Buddhists who share his iconoclasm and preference for meditation.  He rejected large sections of the Abhidhamma text and Buddhaghosa's Visuddhimagga commentaries as well as a concern for kamma and rebirth, views according to one scholar that most Thais would find "shocking." He also claimed monks had no privileged access to nibbana which is equally possible for lay people. Buddhadasa hoped to purge popular religious practice of magic and superstition and rejected the popular view of "merit as a metaphysical quantity which can be accumulated" (he reinterpreted it as an selfless act for the benefit of others).  According to Jackson,
Buddhadasa claims that the source of the obfuscation of the Buddha's universally relevant message of salvation lies in the influence of Brahmanical and animist beliefs, which have become associated with institutional Buddhism and which have distorted the original pristine character of the religion.
A universalist who would be more highly regarded were his works translated and distributed widely in the west, Buddhadasa believed that all religions were different fingers pointing at the same moon (to borrow a metaphor).  In a small book titled No Religion, he wrote that
Those who have penetrated to the essential nature of religion will regard all religions as being the same.  Although they may say there is Buddhism, Judaism, Taoism, Islam, or whatever, they will also say that all religions are inwardly the same.  However, those who have penetrated to the highest understanding of Dhamma will feel that the thing called "religion" doesn't exist at all.
This is a very heart-warming message to Buddhist modernists everywhere, and it certainly affirms that a "big tent" is possible, not only for Buddhists but for people of all faiths.  But it's a message very much at odds to those unaware of alternate Buddhist realities as well as true believers who hold to one "true" Buddhism over all others.

While I intend to talk about America's acceptance of Buddhist modernism, I've run out of space, and will have to rethink if I need to make points about this that others before me have said better in the past.

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