The emergence of Navayana Buddhism


Dennis is a founding member and senior monk of the Scottish Centre for Pragmatic Buddhism, and served as a Prison Chaplain at HMP Kilmarnock. He converted to Christianity from a secular humanist household, trained and served within the Christian tradition until he embraced Buddhism.

For more information on the Centre for Pragmatic Buddhism, click here.


From the Buddha’s time to ours, the Buddha’s original teaching has been variously characterised and described – by those who were seeking inner peace, altruistic service, and philosophical clarity for themselves and others.  Over the two and a half millennia since Siddhartha Gautama’s appearance, this has been framed in different ways – from individual illumination to community-based practices.

Today, there is a consensus about three groups of traditions, termed yanas (‘vehicles’): Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.  Some would add Tantra.  Collectively, these yanas have been motivated and sustained by ‘spiritual’ concerns, mixed with whatever else motivates humanity.  Sadly, we are learning in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, this can be channelled in harmful ways.  Nationalism has a way of trumping religion and ideology.

A secular point of view can lodge some deep critiques of past and present Buddhist expressions.  That said, it is easy to argue that Buddhism has done more good than bad, and tended towards engaging with life’s challenges rather than escaping them.  In our time many are discovering a fresh sense of improvement through ‘Buddhism’.  As we know, Buddhist understandings and practices are conditioned by particular historical and cultural contexts.  Their variety relates to different aspects of our complex humanity.  Those movements and traditions which meet significant human needs have endured, despite inevitable difficulties.  But that does not mean they will necessarily prove relevant to us (to ‘me’).

Each broad tradition has its distinctives, and all are now found in Europe and North America.  The entrance of eastern Buddhism into the west dates from the 19th Century[i] and has continued with two different motives.  Asian immigrants of Buddhist persuasion want to continue their practice, supported by their homeland communities.  More recently, Asian missionaries and their converts have intentionally been adapting the traditional practices and interpretations to better connect with our ‘indigenous’ culture.

Many different Buddhist spiritualities have emerged within the cultural pluralism of the West – from a nonreligious naturalism to a spirituality that emphasises rebirth and heavenly lands.  The Secular Buddhist Network stands on one end of this spectrum.  Religious groups such as Amida, Rigpa and New Kedampa  populate the other.  But from this uncoordinated diversity some commonality (not uniformity) is emerging.

An emerging new yana

It may be controversial to say so, but I am convinced that nothing less than a new yana is emerging in Buddhism – partly from the changing nature within established Buddhist communities, and partly through conversions.  I call it, Navayana -the new yana –  another turning of the dharma wheel (the fourth or fifth, depending on whether you include Tantra as separate from Vajrayana).

Vishvapani Blomfield, one of the early members of the Western Buddhist Order (now Triratna) and a leading Buddhist commentator, has described the changing nature of Western Buddhism[ii].  This includes:

  • It is ’more concerned with reshaping character and behaviour than big, mystical experiences’.
  • It has a new role for the ‘laity’, diminishing that of monastics. ‘Non-monastic practitioners are often very serious and they power the various Buddhist movements.’
  • The different schools are mixing together; a wider identity is gaining ground.
  • Western Buddhists are taking ’what they need, not what they’re given. For all the talk of lineage, transmission and the purity of the teachings, western Buddhism is driven by students’ needs as much as teachers’ wishes.’
  • Buddhism is having a strong, growing influence on western culture in in the arts, social action, environmentalism, psychotherapy – and, of course, mindfulness.
  • ’And we still don’t know if western Buddhism is secular or religious.

Neither Vishvapani nor anyone else can foresee a detailed  future of Buddhism in the west.  But it definitely is here to stay, and it’s increasingly different from its ancient Asian predecessors.  My sense is that both in the west and east, the growing edges of Buddhism are morphing into a different expression.  For example, an increasing emphasis on the importance of social ethics and its ‘socially engaged’ nature (Thich Nhat Hanh’s expression and one of the present Dalai Lama’s key emphases) is flowering within the wider Buddhist consciousness.  Will it have some western distinctives?

The development of ’yanas‘ takes many decades for an initial identity to become clear.  As old traditions take new shape in the west (and in the east, to a lesser degree) it is easier to see the different western Buddhisms separately.  To do so may be ‘missing the forest for the trees.’  Granted, Triratna is not like Zen.  My tradition, The Community of Pragmatic Buddhists, is a far cry from the Insight Meditation Society.  And yet we share some commonality, as observed by Vishvapani a decade ago.  The trends Vishvapani and others[iii] have highlighted are accelerating.

This movement may not, after all, be western in an isolated sense.  One can easily argue that there is, increasingly, a dominant world-embracing modern or ‘scientific culture, as western values and methods become more dominant.  The new yana might reflect that.

B.R. Ambedkar and Navayana Buddhism

The origins  of the term Navayana are ambiguous[iv], but often identified with the Ambedkar social revolution in India, dating from 14 October 1956.  On that date, B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian Constitution and the most prominent Dalit (formerly ’untouchable‘) of his time, publicly converted to Buddhism.  That ceremony included his leading half a million of his supporters to do the same.[v]  Within two months he was dead, from complications of his diabetes.  This momentous move was well prepared.  He had written The Buddha and His Dhamma (458 pages, published in 1957) as a guide for his prospective followers.  Today the Ambedkar movement links itself to the Navayana label, supported by Navayana Publishing.

Ambedkar’s Buddhism was radical.  He had considered leading his people toward communism but reckoned that the immense challenges they faced required the support of religion.  However, he promoted a secular religion.  His motto was drawn from the French revolution (‘liberty, equality, fraternity’), and he challenged the concepts of karma, rebirth, traditional Buddhist hierarchical structures, and the supernatural elements of traditional Buddhism.   Babasaheb Ambedkar even reinterpreted the Four Noble Truths.  His was a revolutionary religion which truly represented a new understanding of human flourishing.

B.R. Ambedkar is not the founder of the emerging new yana I foresee.  But he and his movement are certainly prominent within it.  Vishvapani’s six cited characteristics (he had more) are a firm beginning for conceptualising this multifaceted cluster of movements.  My own emphasis is to explore the helpfulness of synthesizing established Buddhist concepts with the insights of the human-development and coaching disciplines.  Those familiar with Mahayana know the variety of disparate understandings and practices that can coexist under a single label.  The same will be true of Navayana.

The future of Navayana Buddhism

Is it too early in the developing history of western Buddhism to talk of Navayana in this way?  If so, we can park the concept.  Arguing from another perspective, is it so blindingly obvious that major innovative emphases are present in many yanas that we don’t need to identify it?  One thinks of Moliere’s Mr. Jourdain in Moliere’s play, The Bourgeois Gentleman.  When Mr. Jourdain, the social climber, hears that he was speaking prose he crows: ’My faith! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose while knowing nothing of it, and I am the most obliged person in the world to you for telling me so.’[vi]

Yet I find Navayana a useful concept.  The dignifying of certain radical new directions within the established Buddhist tent – some of which seem to be ripping it in significant ways (not all of them ‘secular’) can free us from the dead-end of ossified systems, isolated and introverted experience, and overly-bounded thought.  For some it will be unacceptably ambiguous and unestablished.  But if it represents a significant shaking of the foundations and a refreshing opening up of a tradition which has proved itself amenable to redefinition and redirection, it’s worth considering.  Vive le défied; long live the challenge!


[i] ‘Buddhism was not really known in the West until a little more than a hundred and fifty years ago.’ (The Adaptation of Buddhism to the West by Frédéric Lenoir, 1999; Diogenes, Vol. 47, No.3,  page 100).

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/mar/16/western-buddhism-10-things-learned

[iii] See James Coleman’s comments (https://www.lionsroar.com/the-face-of-western-buddhism/). See his book, The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition

‘According to Heinz Bechert, Buddhist modernism includes the following elements: new interpretations of early Buddhist teachings, demythologisation and reinterpretation of Buddhism as “scientific religion”, social philosophy or “philosophy of optimism”, emphasis on equality and democracy, “activism” and social engagement, support of Buddhist nationalism, and the revival of meditation practice.’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_the_West)

[iv] The scholar Douglas Ober writes, ‘The term is most often used in reference to the form(s) of Buddhism practiced by followers of the Indian politician, social reformer and convert to Buddhism, B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956). While scholars often credit Ambedkar with inventing the term, I have been unable to locate even a single reference in which Ambedkar ever used it.  However, the Indian Buddhologist (and Ghadar revolutionary), Har Dayal, used the term as early as 1927 and Navayana also appeared with much more regular frequency in Anglophone Buddhist writings in the 1930s. For instance, the British Buddhist, Capt. J.E. Ellam titled his 1930 popular work on Buddhism, Navayana: Buddhism and modern thought. Navayana was also the name of an English-language Buddhist journal published in Hawaii during the 1930s (by Revd. Mr. Earnest Hunt of Honolulu).’ Origins and usage of the term “Navayana” | H-Buddhism | H-Net

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B._R._Ambedkar#Conversion_to_Buddhism

[vi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Bourgeois_gentilhomme


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