Saturday, 29 September 2007

A Post-Modern Buddhism?

In a recent issue of Tricycle, Clark Strand argued that for Buddhism to survive in the West, it must adopt some of the more traditional forms of ritual inherent in Christianity and Judaism, so that young people brought up in Buddhist families will continue in the tradition. This is a very ethnocentric viewpoint.

As Tom Armstrong argued:

Strand believes that rituals and tradition and chanting and marriages and burials and birthings, as well as prominent religious holidays, act as family-cohering events within a religion, something the Christians and Jews have in plenitude, while we stinting Buddhists have very little of that group-hug, dress-up bonding crap.

These are valuable things in a culture that adheres to such beliefs, but America is largely moving beyond these older value systems. We are, as Americans, essentially a post-modern culture now. Certainly, many people still need these rituals to feel connected -- and I have no problem with that, the Buddha tailored his teachings to reach a wide range of people. Some teachings were far more advanced than others, both intellectually and culturally. But many Americans, especially Buddhists, are living in a post-ritual, post-mythic world.

When the Buddha was liberated, the culture was predominantly pre-rational, and many of the rituals and ceremonies of this cultural mindset survive into current Buddhist practice, especially in Tibetan Buddhism, which arose in a richly shamanic culture (the Bon tradition). But that was 2,500 years ago. The world has changed, and with it, so has Buddhism as it has moved to the West.

Science has shown that it is highly unlikely that we share the world with demons and other non-corporeal beings. Likewise, it is highly unlikely that there are hells or heavens, other than those we create for ourselves.

So what does this mean for American Buddhists?

When we discover Buddhism, we accept the Four Noble Truths and embark upon the Noble Eightfold Path. Many of us, especially in the Mahayana tradition, take the Bodhisattva Vow to work toward the liberation of all sentient beings before seeking our own liberation. This is very post-rational value system -- putting others before ourselves.

Throughout history, Buddhism has tended to remain aloof from political and social concerns. But in a global community, this is no longer feasible. When we vow to serve the liberation of all sentient beings, there are no exceptions. This is now being very clearly demonstrated by the Buddhist monks in Burma who are demonstrating against an oppressive and violent government.

Many would argue that this is not an appropriate behavior for Buddhist monks. And even their Thai neighbors have refused, so far, to support their efforts. But what can be more appropriate for Buddhist monks than working to free their fellow citizens from tyranny? How better to assist their fellow beings to be free of suffering than to help free them from an oppressive military junta that has blocked all efforts toward democracy?

A post-modernism Buddhism must recognize that we live in an interconnected world -- that Buddhists can no longer stand idly by as oppression happens around them. Thich Nhat Hanh advocated an Engaged Buddhism, after having lived that approach for many years. There is no other responsible course of action.

* * * *

As Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, moved into the West, many teachers failed to recognize that their new audience is so culturally different than their homeland in Tibet or India. While some Americans have been willing to adopt Tibetan traditions, such as prostrations and other archaic rituals, many more are not.

One of the few early teachers to recognize this cultural difference was Chogyam Trungpa. He brought a Westernized version of Tibetan Buddhism to American in the 1970s, the Shambhala tradition. He understood that Americans have different values and mindsets than Tibetans. It has been, sometimes derisively, called secular Buddhism. As such, it might be the first truly post-modern Buddhism, one devoid of rituals and traditions. [The lineage's new leader, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, declared in 2,000 that Shambhala is a Buddhist path, not a secular path.]

In a similar vein, many Western Buddhists, and Americans in particular, do not follow a single tradition. We might practice Big Mind, as developed by Genpo Roshi -- a combination of Zen practice and Voice Dialogue, a development from modern psychology. We might also practice mindfulness and Tonglen, as described by Pema Chodron in her many wonderful books. Many American Buddhists have come to the Dharma from other religions, and consequently may still believe in God, however non-anthropomorphic that belief might be.

If Buddhism in America is to survive and prosper -- and I have no doubt that it will -- we need to be less concerned with bringing in mythic rituals than with being open to the ways Buddhism can evolve to serve people in our current culture. And we also need to accept that our Buddhist values inform every area of our lives, including politics.

Even the Dalai Lama is willing to reject traditional beliefs if current science proves them wrong. We too need to be able to release pre-modern traditions to allow Buddhism to evolve with the current understanding of the world -- our post-modern world.


  1. Oh, quite a provocative post WH, thanks for posting. I can't do it justice in comments, so please allow me a bit of time to write a post commenting, extending, and posing some questions.

    It is an area of inquiry and great interest to me, the notion of spirituality/religion within the post-modern. But, I am less inclined to say that we live in a post-ritual, post-mythic age. I think those thins have morphed and are morphing and we need to look deeply at what mode they have taken in this historical juncture. Hmmm, thanks again, I'll try to get back to it tomorrow.



  2. Ah, a wonderful post, Bill! I wish I'd had the maturity and insight and wisdom to have understood all that you do to find the flaws in Strand's article.

    Too, I am glad your post -- so very appropriate as your first one in this outstanding new blog -- is generating a discussion. I will be interested to read nacho's follow-up Post-Modern post.

  3. No offense but this post reads as rather insulting to those of us who practice tantric Buddhist traditions and who don't think the the ritual work is useless and simply a pre-rational leftover to be discarded.

    Thanks anyway.

  4. Al,

    Is Bill's disagreement with a view you endorse in itself offensive? Perhaps he's right, perhaps you're right. We're free on this blog to (respectfully) disagree.


  5. He brought a Westernized version of Tibetan Buddhism to American in the 1970s, the Shambhala tradition. He understood that Americans have different values and mindsets than Tibetans. It has been, sometimes derisively, called secular Buddhism. As such, it might be the first truly post-modern Buddhism, one devoid of rituals and traditions.

    I'll only comment on this for now, but you've obviously never been to a Shambhala center or heard any teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche or of teachers within this lineage. There is a lot of rituals, "archaic" practices such as prostrations are practiced quite vigorously, and boy, let me not speak about forms... :) However, they are put in modern context and explained what is the point of every little detail.

  6. Thanks for your thought-provoking post Bill, it's also a subject I've considered myself many times.

    My own practice (AZI Soto Zen) is very traditional in form - there's lots of ritual using traditional tools and with most practitioners (at sesshins at least) wearing Japanese robes. I was quite sceptical initially about the need for this, but I quickly realised that ritual is not empty formalism or superstition, but is a practice of awareness in action. While the robes needn't be Japanese, the black uniform helps us to 'cool the personal mind'.

    I also wonder whether Buddhism should be seen as something to slot into our 'post-modern' culture or whether people are drawn to it because they are looking for an alternative to post-modern culture. I don't mean that Buddhism rejects or seeks to replace that culture, but I'm questioning whether it usefully should be seen as a subset of that culture.

  7. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    I had no intention of insulting anyone's practice, only to suggest that Buddhism in the West is evolving. I apologize for any offense I generated.

    I haven't been to a Shambhala Center, I have only read Trungpa Rimpoche's books, and those of his primary students.

    I think that, in an integral context, ritual, forms, myth, and tantra are all valuable -- we all relate to the world (to practice) better in one way versus another.

    I did intend to be provocative. I think how we, right now, begin to think about the future of Buddhism in America will go a long way toward shaping what it becomes.

    Do we want the version of Buddhism that Strand suggests we need? Do we want an open tradition where people can choose practices, buffet style? Do we want to go the way of Sam Harris and kill the Buddha, just keeping the meditation practice? Do we want to maintain the integrity of each tradition, and allow the "market" to decide which ones survive?

    These are crucial questions. Looking at what Buddhism might become in a post-modern is important. I only offer one view.

    Peace to all,

  8. I think Buddhism does need to change for American circumstances but that change also should include "archaic rituals" and not simply dismiss them.

    I think people should learn from the many Buddhist traditions but it isn't a buffet where you pick and choose what pleases you. That is the path to feed one's own neuroses. That is part of the value of having a real teacher and working within an existing tradition. You may learn things that you never expected or would have learned if you simply did what you felt like for your Buddhist practice. Why deconstruct more than 2,000 years of Buddhist lineage's traditions of practice.

    Once someone has mastered a tradition, that is the point where they can consider picking and choosing, not at the other end.

  9. I've just started up a new Buddhist forum specifically designed for the modern Buddhist. In particular we encourage the view that "rebirth" is a mental phenomena that happens each moment, rather than being a physical rebirth. Unless Buddhism escapes its superstitions, it will decay and disappear.

    i-Sangha Discussion Forum:

  10. contemplating bridging Science and Spirituality through Buddha's Middle Way to Knowledge...any thoughts? Also google for the Millennium Koan