Secular Buddhism and Buddhist Modernism

June 29, 2023

If belief in ‘emptiness’ is an accurate rendering of the core Buddhist teaching of Sunyata (Sanskrit) or Sunnata (Pali), it follows that Buddhist practices — and even some traditionally accepted beliefs — are also empty; that is, along with everything else, they are subject to change. 

The growth of secular Buddhism in recent years is a contemporary example. It has, of course, garnered some pushback from more traditionalist quarters. In response, Stephen Batchelor, the Scottish Buddhist writer and ex-Tibetan Buddhist monk, considered by many to be secular Buddhism’s leading advocate, said some years back:

Those with a vested interest in preserving the correct interpretation of texts cannot tolerate the idea that “ordinary” people might enter into a living dialogue with the authors of those texts. They will actively discourage them by emphasizing the difficulty of such writings and the need for arduous study to acquire the linguistic and interpretive tools required to understand them correctly. There is some legitimacy to this concern, but it can be used illegitimately to justify a blanket condemnation of any attempt to question  orthodox beliefs.

Batchelor’s comment was included in a 2018 article he wrote for Tricycle, the leading Buddhist magazine in the U.S.  More recently, David L. McMahan, a religious studies professor at Franklin & Marshall College, told a Tricycle interviewer that  ‘Buddhisms have been changing and adapting for twenty-six centuries’ — which is to say, since its initial articulation by the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. 

McMahan calls the contemporary process Buddhism is experiencing ‘modernism.’ The term refers to the social, economic and political trends shaping Buddhism today. It’s also in the name of his classic book, the 2008 classic The Making of Buddhist Modernism

According to McMahan, ‘Buddhist modernism specifically refers to distinctive forms of Buddhism that have emerged in the last 150 years and have been significantly shaped by modernity’s idea, practices and institutions,’ He cited science, Enlightenment rationalism, romanticism, transcendentalism, Protestantism and psychology, as well as social forces such as democracy, feminism, liberalism, and egalitarianism as some of the leading influencers.

Critical to the formulation of secular Buddhism, as well, is modernity’s abandonment or marginalization of some of traditional Buddhism’s supernatural claims and rituals, such as relic veneration, appeasing ‘troublesome’ spirits, and praying to the Buddha or bodhisattvas for good luck and fortune. 

‘There is a tendency toward the psychologization of teachings, as well, for example, interpreting the various realms of rebirth primarily as states of mind,’ karma is repositioned as the ‘natural law’ of cause and effect, and meditation is ‘an internal process that discerns empirical realities or laws of nature.’

The spread of meditation among lay people — a key element of Buddhist practice among Westerners — is also a modernist innovation. But it did not originate in the West, despite what many Western fans of mindfulness and Zen Buddhism might assume. Lay meditation actually began, McMahan explained, in Southeast Asia and Japan as a defensive reaction to European and American conquest and colonization.

Fearful that Western Christian influences would destroy Buddhist cultures, Buddhist religious figures such as Ledi Sayadaw, in what was then Burma, sought to save the religion by having the general population adopt regular practices meant to strengthen their connection. Introducing the masses to meditation was one such tactic. 

Another important aspect of western Buddhism – socially engaged Buddhism – also has its roots in Asia. Conditions in their homelands prompted Thich Nhat Hanh and others to add direct political action to their Buddhist activities decades earlier than American Zen leader Bernie Glassman and others who came of age during the politically turbulent 1960s and similar activist groups. Glassman organized meditation retreats on New York’s skid row and at Nazi concentration camps to draw attention to homelessness and uncontrolled hate.

It should be noted that the changes impacting Buddhism are by no means unique in today’s religious landscape. Virtually every sizable faith group today is losing members, particularly among the younger generations. The reasons for this vary. They include, in the West, assimilation among Jews and Muslims, and disenchantment with leadership among Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists. For United Methodists, it’s the culture wars over gender and sexuality.

The Covid pandemic also kept many away from in-person gatherings, including religious services and rites-of-passage celebrations. Recent Pew polling shows that many former churchgoers, for example, have yet to return, further suppressing attendance and affiliation, and leading some observers to argue that the Western world is in a post-religious phase (affiliated religious devotion remains stronger in Africa, parts of Latin America and much of Asia). 

Then there are the so-called ‘nones’ — unaffiliated individuals who might be expected to check the ‘none’ box when asked if they belong to a particular faith group. Recent surveys by Pew and others found that between 20-29% of Americans identify as a ‘none’. However, being unaffiliated does not mean that they’re all atheists or agnostics without any connection to religiously derived values and technologies meant to comfort and uplift.

In fact such surveys show that nones do not necessarily eschew so-called ‘spirituality. Many — about 27% — of all Americans told pollsters they think of themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious.’

But just what does ‘spiritual but not religious’ actually mean? A regular meditation practice? Reading books by the Dalai Lama? Or perhaps it merely refers to being transported to a state of overpowering awe via great music? 

Given all this societal change, it’s no surprise that Buddhist practice and thought are also in flux. It should also come as no surprise that there is no one Buddhism. Rather, it may be said that Buddhism is interpreted differently, to varying degrees, by every individual practitioner. 

‘One modernist articulation of Buddhism might draw heavily from psychology but also believe in spirits that populate the human world,’ McMahan told Tricycle. ‘Another might insist on no “supernatural” elements at all. This is why the notion of a singular Buddhist modernism is problematic.’

Ira Rifkin, a regular SBN participant, is a journalist who has specialized in the coverage of religion and spirituality since the 1980s.



3 Replies to “Secular Buddhism and Buddhist Modernism”

Colette Descent

Very interesting and refreshing piece, thanks Ira!

Thanks for this comprehensive overview of secular Buddhism’s engagement with the cultural phenomenon of modernism, Ira. I couldn’t help but take note of how the pushback from traditional Buddhists seems to be of a modest, if not actually polite, nature.
Contrast this with the state of our current political discourse, where the progressive left’s embrace of modernism (particularly in the form of its advocacy of diversity, equity, and inclusion) has evoked such hostile reactions from the “anti-woke” far right. I wonder if the Buddhist community has something to teach the wider population in this regard, and if so, I wonder how we go about communicating the lesson.

David Dane

I have been interested in Buddhism for about 4 decades and have often struggled with modernism versus traditional forms. Where I am now is in a more modernist place yet very interested in Ancient Buddhism, Greco Buddhism and parallels with Stoicism. I think dealing with the modern/postmodern world does call for engagement.
Best Wishes David Dane

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