Modern Buddhism: the new koan?Posted: August 18, 2012
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…