Sunday, 11 November 2007

Why Progressive Buddhism?

[Edited for silly mistake]
What is the purpose of 'progressive Buddhism' and why do we think is it needed? Doesn't being 'progressive' about Buddhism imply that the teachings of Buddha are flawed in some way and in need of improvement?

Buddhism has a long history of adaptation to new cultures and of evolutionary development from Theravada to Mahayana, Zen and Vajrayana. Similarly, customs and rituals adapt to the native culture as does the role of dharma practitioners in society - for example, the emergence of Zen monks who could marry and practice a trade.

The arrival of Buddhism in the modern West is particularly significant for several reasons. Previous host societies have been feudal, agrarian and mainly non-literate. Buddhism has arrived in a post-modern world, scientifically-literate and sophisticated scholarship recources. On the other hand it has values and social structure which makes it difficult for monks to survive with no source of income other than begging for alms. The costs of living are high and what few Buddhists exist in the population do not wish merely to support, they wish to be practitioners. It seems obvious that Buddhism must adapt, but how?

It is also a time of great opportunity. For the first time in history, all the different strands of Buddhism, which have so far evolved in isolation from one another, have for the first time become fully aware of one another. Should all of these regional variations continue unchanged, should we seek a synthesis or some combination of the two. All the expressions vary, but surely they are all trying essentially teaching the same thing. The appearance of all of these schools simultaneously in the modern west seems like a great opportunity to find a constructive synthesis between the various sects, between Buddhism and western thought and between Buddhism and science.

We also have access to sophisticated scholarship, archaeology, linguistics and cross-disciplinary scholarship, which can provide new insights into the origin, evolution and meaning of Buddhist text of all ages. The Buddha's original teachings are revealed as rational and pragmatic approach to the human situation which stresses lived experience rather than metaphysical specualtion.

Most traditional Buddhist societies believe in rebirth and karma in the most literal sense. And Buddha himself lived in a society in which these were given 'truths' of the human view of the world. We have no reason to suppose that he was omniscient. His original teachings were the means to escape from suffering, by following the Eightfold Path, and modifications of the concepts of reincarnation and karma which did not include a separate self or soul, a concept for which Buddha could find no corresponding experience or phenomenon in his investigation of the human condition. In the modern west, we do not generally have traditional beliefs in karma or rebirth, yet they are unneccessary for value to be found in practice. Buddha himself says this in the Kalama Sutta. Indeed, much common ground can be found with psychotherapy and a number of modern therapeutic methods have borrowed heavily from Buddhism.

Just as Dogen travelled to Korea and China to find and bring back the essence of Buddhism to Japan, we can investigate it in every contemporary expression and in the early teachings alike.

Furthermore, we now have access to scientific tools with which we can investigate the core tenets of Buddhism - the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path to the end of suffering.

One danger with the current situation, is that investigating the dharma as individuals is an activity of ego, a form of 'picking and choosing' what we like and dislike and hence a dualistic, samsaric condition. And we are not equally blessed with wisdom. We need the advice of teachers.

However I believe that this situation in not significantly different from that of Buddha's day and people will judge the value of a teaching according to its results and reputation. If we are wise we make our choices based on what we can verify personally and that which is 'praised by the wise'.

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