Modern Buddhism: the new koan?

So, a significant milestone in the life of this blog has just passed: the number of visitors to this site has just gone over 10,000 just 6 months after its birth amidst the agonies of a fractured Dharma community. No doubt the ‘popularity’ of this blog owes something to the ‘notoriety’ of myself and my fellow contributors to this blog. Curiosity about the eventual fate of the of the ousted management of the Dharma community is also a strong draw, as attested by the fact that about 40% of the visits have been to the news section of this blog. But the majority of visits have been to the actual blog posts themselves, which indicates that they did contain relevant and timely material, much of which raised questions and issues that many visitors have undoubtedly felt worth raising and worth thinking about. For Dharma study and practice, I think we can all agree, does involve some serious thinking for oneself, and such thinking always involves asking deep questions of both oneself and the ‘reality’ one apparently experiences.

Of course, for some visitors the raising of questions, especially about the validity of certain aspects of a traditional form of Buddhism is iconoclastic and evident of my guilt as an ‘impure’ Dharma practitioner. Actually,you can’t get more ‘traditional’ than an accusation of ‘impurity’, which looks very odd in a ‘modern’ cultural context! But I’m pretty sure that for a lot of other visitors the questions raised, not just by me but by many of the most respected Western Buddhists of our time, are pertinent and provocative enough to warrant a considered and careful response from any Dharma practitioner who cares about the way Buddhism evolves within our Western society, and especially about how traditional Buddhisms negotiate the difficult interaction with, and adjustment to, the various aspects of modernity, both self-evident and subconscious, that are unavoidable for all of us. I certainly see the dispute at Maitreya Centre as being derived in large part from unspoken and unexamined assumptions on both sides of the dispute about what the relationship between tradition and modernity should be, and the need for a dialogue about that relationship cannot be forever suppressed by the reliance upon secular law and constitutional procedure to settle every argument within the tradition, whichever tradition that is; sooner or later the skeletons of inappropriate grasping at traditional forms of authority or unskilful adaptations to modernity will burst out of the proverbial closet. If you doubt this, I recommend the incisive analysis of David L. McMahan in his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (OUP USA, 2008). And no, just sticking the word ‘modern’ into the title of a book called ‘Modern Buddhism’ does not mean one has created the perfect union of modernism with Buddhism! And no, that is not a criticism of  THE book ‘Modern Buddhism’, written by you-know-who; merely to say that a book title like that cannot be taken literally as read, as if it were unproblematic. A modern Buddhism can indeed exist, but only after wading through, and hopefully resolving, a veritable Pandora’s box of paradoxes and contradictions. Actually, I think ‘Modern Buddhism’ is a naff title for an otherwise brilliant book that actually has precious little to do with modernism or any kind of ‘modern’ and which represents just one particular strand of one kind of Buddhism amongst a whole family of Buddhisms (some of them a lot more ‘modern’), and a kind of  Buddhism still very similar in many ways to its pre-modern form! There, that probably proves my ‘heresy’ once and for all, at least for those convinced that particular strand of Buddhism is perfectly pure and completely unequalled! But having the title at all is a classic admission of the overwhelming need, albeit unacknowledged, on the part of the publishers, to make sure that the book is compatible with enough of modernism to ensure its widest possible appeal to a ‘modern’ audience, even though the essential content of the book is supposedly traceable to the Buddha of 2,500 years ago and therefore authentically pre-modern to the point of being ancient! Now there’s a paradox for you! Or perhaps a new koan?

Nevertheless, the trauma of losing a Dharma community and a tradition that I worked so hard for and which I thought I would belong to for the rest of my life has been severe, but it has eventually been purifying and positive, opening up the time and space in my mind to ask questions of my own Dharma study and practice and to discover new depths and meanings to it that have given me plenty to follow up on over the years. Yes, I might be stuck in dukkha and, who knows, perhaps driving myself ever deeper into it, but wisdom has definitely shone through the dukkha; a fierce kind of wisdom, no doubt, but then, as T.S.Eliot would say, “we are consumed by either fire or fire”. The dispute may be unresolved still, and may look acrimonious from an observer’s standpoint, but it has ironically resolved a lot of psychological issues for me and made me stronger even though, once again, to external appearances it looks like I lost everything (whereas, in fact, I gained more than I ever dared to). Ironically, it is the teachings of the tradition that now has no place for me that has helped me be strong enough to stand up to the dysfunctional organisational stratagems of the tradition which undermine the mandate of that very tradition itself. Another paradox, another koan…


5 Comments on “Modern Buddhism: the new koan?”

  1. beth says:

    I am just not at all surprised by your last couple of sentences. Good for you. 🙂

    I also see this while still being inside NKT for myself. It is my intention to get the message so I try to not focus so much on the messenger. This helps in many ways…. including my teacher attachment/aversion (I experience both with any group (NKT, Shambala, Rigpa, DzogChen, FPMT, etc) I sit with very long). Always working on my guru devotion. Always practicing to avoid vitriol toward anyone or any side… I am not great at it but I am getting better 🙂

    • andydharma says:

      Thanks for this comment, beth. I entirely agree with your strategy for improving your dharma practice. What you say fits in very nicely with the essay I’ve just read by Jay L. Garfield, ‘Buddhism in the West’, available on, in which he says: “very often when we are aware of the ways in which Buddhism transforms Western culture, people smile and nod and are happy to see this transformation and to see a kind of improvement in Western culture, but then when they see respects in which Buddhist practice or Buddhist ideas themselves develop or evolve or transform in interaction with Western culture, they become afraid and they say: »Oh my gosh! It’s no longer authentic! It’s no longer pure! It’s no longer real Buddhism! Something happened to it!« and that is a reaction that I really want you to put aside because that has been happening to Buddhism from the moment the Buddha gained awakening at Bodhgaya. Buddhism has been transforming because fundamentally all compounded things are impermanent and Buddhism is a compounded phenomenon.” He goes on to say “just as Buddhism is alive and well and thriving in China, Korea and Japan, because it draws nourishment not only from its Indian roots but from its East Asian rain and fertilizers, it’s going to be alive and well in the West for years to come because it draws nourishment not only from its Indian roots but from the rain and fertility of Western ideas, and that needs to be a cause for celebration, not for anxiety, as we go forward.”

      Buddhism is being transformed in the West at the same time as it is itself transforming the West, and Garfield talks about how anxiety-provoking it is for Buddhist traditions so keen on preserving their own ‘purity’. He says: “Part of the ground of suffering is the phenomenon of change, that’s for sure. And we can see that because very little change is not attended by suffering, and indeed if we were to continue this discussion in a great deal of detail, we would see that the transformation of Buddhism not only in its contemporary form but classically has also been attended by a great deal of suffering and anxiety. I think that it’s almost a natural phenomenon for each of us to think that our task is to preserve in a permanent and unstained way what’s been handed to us by our tradition or by our teachers. And so when we see transformation or change, we instinctively think of degeneration, and that’s also part of Buddhist rhetoric.”

      But this suffering, this anxiety is unnecessary according to Garfield because: “I must say that my own view is that even … especially in the Buddhist tradition we see progress; and that the Buddhist tradition is a deeply progressive tradition that is beset by anxiety about that progress. So you always see any Buddhist commentary begin by saying: »I’m not saying anything new. All I’m doing is repeating what’s been said before«, but if that was true nobody would read the commentary. If it’s all been said before, then why bother wasting a palm leaf? So we get this kind of self-deprecation of originality; but the people we value the most—people like Je Rinpoche, people like Gorampa, people like Mipham Rinpoche—are the most theoretically innovative and creative teachers in the Tibetan tradition; and the people to whose texts we return in the Indian tradition—people like Candrakīrti or Śāntarakṣita or Śāntideva—we turn to precisely because they are building on what went before and they are innovating, even though given the internal rhetoric they have to talk about the decline of the dharma and how there is nothing original.”

      Very interesting stuff, for me anyway, given my background of being within a tradition obsessed with preserving its teachings in a completely pure form for aeons to come! Can’t be done anyway, unless you cut yourself off from the rest of the world completely, and attempting to police purity just gets everybody wound up, both the police and the policed!

      • DharmaForum says:

        It is not possible to preserve teachings without changing them, and teach at the same time. Every time you open your mouth to teach you are changing the teaching, even if it was just the tone you used. Similarly, you cannot control how people will hear your teaching. The only way to preserve teachings is not to teach, but to read. Even if you only read the founding teacher’s words to others there is always the problem of translation, re-editing, and misprints.

        The bible has had this problem for thousands of years and still does (see the problem with the dead sea scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library). But even if you read the same book to each other, quote from it exactly, and put to death, or eject as heretics anyone who doesn’t read/interpret the teaching correctly, you still can’t control how people will hear that teaching. And you will get different groups forming who argue about the interpretation of, or the exact edition to be used. The Christian church has been through all this and the history of the west is utterly bound up with this journey.

  2. beth says:

    hahaha… you made me laugh!! I can see the point and heartily agree. All the writings are commentary… some are commentaries on commentaries…. all because of this moving stream we are floating upon. We cannot stop the stream so we should embrace it and follow it in an intelligent way…… or try to stay in the middle 🙂

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