The Making of Buddhist Modernism

David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism has changed the way I think about Buddhism more than any book I’ve read in years. I think it’s destined to be an influential classic.

It’s a history of how and why “Western Buddhism” came to be what it is. That casts new light on what “Western Buddhism” is, and raises new questions about whether that’s what we want.

My understanding of this book is the main basis for this blog series. (Of course, I use other sources too, and of course McMahan might disagree with everything I say.) This is not a general review. Instead, I will explain some parts of the book that are relevant to my own project.

Traditional Buddhism is very unlike Western Buddhism

Most Western Buddhists don’t realize how different even the most traditional and “authentic” forms found in the West are from traditional Asian Buddhism. Once this is understood, questions arise: where did modern Buddhism come from? Why? What is it good for? Is it legitimate? What are the implications of its differences from tradition?

The Making of Buddhist Modernism starts with a series of four portraits of typical Buddhists in Asia and in the West. It explains their understanding of Buddhist theory and practice. These portraits are devastatingly accurate; and very funny, because of the total disconnect between the traditional Asian and Western Buddhists. If you have not spent time in Asia, with traditional Buddhists, this chapter may come as a shock; and is certainly worth reading even if you skip the rest of the book.

Briefly: Westerners take for granted that meditation is a main Buddhist practice, and that reading and understanding Buddhist texts is another. Traditionally, in Asia, almost no one ever meditated, and almost no one ever read religious texts with the intention of figuring out what they meant. This was true even in monasteries, never mind lay communities. In traditional Asia, virtually all Buddhist practice is aimed either at accumulating merit in order to have a better next life; or at influencing assorted gods and demons, whose actions have practical consequences for one’s health and wealth.

Much of “Western” Buddhism was developed in Asia by Asians

It is startling how much of “Western” Buddhism was invented in Asia, before 1950—before there was much Western interest in Buddhism. McMahan suggests, therefore, that we talk about “Buddhist modernism” rather than “Western Buddhism.”

On a later blog page, I will summarize some of this history, concentrating on modernist Theravada and Zen, and drawing on the historical research of Gil Fronsdal and Brooke Schedneck as well as David McMahan.

Modernist Buddhism hybridizes tradition with Western ideologies

McMahan explores in detail the way Buddhism has been altered to incorporate three major Western ideologies:

McMahan treats two other Western systems in less depth:

  • Psychology and psychotherapy
  • Political ideals: individualism, egalitarianism, liberalism, democracy, social justice

What I found most startling and useful in the book was seeing how deeply these five ideologies have been “read back” into Buddhism, so that they are mostly overlooked, and taken to be traditional Asian products.

Later in this series, I will go into more detail about the influences of each of these Western ideologies on Buddhist modernism.

There is nothing inherently wrong with mixing Buddhism with Western ideas

Buddhist traditionalists object to mixing Buddhism with anything else. “Pure Dharma” is supposedly unchanged since the time of Shakyamuni Buddha, and messing with it is wrong wrong wrong.

I respect that viewpoint, but I disagree (and so does McMahan). Buddhism has actually been hybridizing with other systems almost from the beginning; and why should we think that new presentations of its core principles won’t be better for new times?

The five Western ideologies are also not altogether alien to Buddhism. They do resonate with some aspects of Buddhist tradition. In Buddhist modernism, those resonating aspects are highlighted, while parts of Buddhism that contradict Western ideas are suppressed. Quoting McMahan:

This “taking up” of selected elements of a tradition in the context of another tradition is how religions develop, adapt, change, and come to occupy different ideological niches from the ones they evolved in. The taking up and development of Buddhism in the context of [Western ideologies] has created a new Buddhism, a hybrid that is adapted to all [of them] and is able to both complement and criticize them. (p. 116)

Buddhist modernism is attractively familiar

Buddhist modernism has been successful because it makes sense to Westerners.

That’s not surprising: much of it is our own culture, repackaged and passed back to us.

Familiar ideas about individual access to ultimate truth (a core theme of Protestantism), social justice, and emotional health are dressed up with Sanskrit, Pali, or Tibetan words, and supported with highly selective quotations from Buddhist scripture. That makes them intriguingly exotic, yet comfortably unthreatening.

The West has its own powerful critiques of each modern ideology

The ideologies that were mixed into Buddhist modernism are each problematic. There are powerful Western critiques of each of these five Western ideas.

When these ideologies are disguised as “timeless Eastern wisdom,” we may accept them uncritically. Repackaging questionable Western theories as Buddhism might get them past filters when they shouldn’t.

New forms of Buddhism address new problems

It’s useful to think of each new form of Buddhism as trying to solve particular problems that crop up in a particular place and time.

Much of Buddhist modernism developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in Asia, to solve major Asian political problems. Western military power threatened colonial domination, and the influx of Protestant Christian missionaries threatened to replace Asian cultures. Buddhist modernism was created largely to help fight off these threats.

That motivation is irrelevant to us now. It’s worth asking how Buddhism has been shaped by anti-colonialsm, and whether a religion created with that agenda is still a good fit.

More recently, Buddhism in the West has developed in response to other problems. One is the widespread loss of faith in Christianity, potentially leading to the “disenchantment of the world,” a sense of meaninglessness, and nihilist despair and rage. Another was a series of political and social crises, addressed by the “engaged Buddhist” movement.

It is worth asking whether disenchantment, meaninglessness, and nihilism are still the problems they seemed 30-40 years ago. (I think not—and my theory is that this is why mainstream Western Buddhism is less attractive to people born after the ’60s.)

It is worth asking whether Buddhism is an effective way of addressing current political and social problems. (I’m not sure, but I doubt it.)

It is worth asking, what other problems might Buddhism help with now?

What kind of Buddhism do you want?

I think that Buddhist modernism is on the whole a good thing. But I can’t swallow it whole.

For each of the five Western ideologies that Buddhism has incorporated, I will point out ways I find them problematic, in Western terms.

I will also sketch some extremely tentative ideas about how Buddhism may develop in the world we live in now. It’s a world that has some new spiritual problems, emerging in the past couple decades, which we’re only beginning to recognize. I’ll point out some of those, and suggest ways Buddhism might be relevant.

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

16 thoughts on “The Making of Buddhist Modernism”

  1. David – thanks for this post – you’ve just sold a copy of the book, so McMahon owes you one! Your observations resonate with some thoughts I have about what I feel my particular tradition can ‘offer the world’ right here, right now. I practice because I enjoy it. In terms of explaining it to others, the best thing I think I can say is ‘these practices can make people into better parents’; better because they are more open, kinder, more appreciative, more engaged and engaging. . . Better parents = better kids = better next generation of adults = better world. So, that’s our fundamental contribution. I guess I identify with this because this appeals to that thing inherrent in all parents – that we want better for our kids than we had. Hell, that’s the root of the American Dream, isn’t it? But – that is what I want, so surprise surprise when I look to Buddhism I go looking for what I want – and I find it there. That is both shocking, and utterly unsurprising. Well, thank you for leading me to that recognition.

  2. Thank you for the pointer to Bernard Fauré’s book! The table of contents for his section on “Buddhism and Society” does look like it covers similar points (and does look to be funny!) It’s shocking how sure Western Buddhists are about “what Buddhism is”, when their ideas would be unrecognizable as “Buddhism” to traditional Asian Buddhists.

  3. “Dharma never tires of explaining itself through those committed to teaching. To everyone who has questions or incomprehension, Dharma re-clothes itself in fresh terms. No book of truth can contain Dharma – because Dharma speaks to every style of confusion; and the styles of confusion are as variegated as the cultures, societies, and epochs in which we live.”

    —Ngak’chang Rinpoche

  4. David,

    your outline looks great! looking forward to your future posts. added McMahan’s book to my reading list.

    that said, let me throw a wrench into this philosophical exploration and contract back into the sensations that make up this experience. see Buddhism vs. Buddha – – a chapter on Daniel Ingram’s hardcore and irreverent take on the dharma.


  5. ‘It is worth asking whether disenchantment, meaninglessness, and nihilism are still the problems they seemed 30-40 years ago. (I think not—and my theory is that this is why mainstream Western Buddhism is less attractive to people born after the ’60s.)’.
    Currently the universal salve of alienation is the internet; one could even call it the dominant world religion. As a religion (a Buddhist might point out), far from being a solution, the internet makes a pretty good catalyst of alienation – self-evidently, as it’s the foster-home for lone crazies of all descriptions, political & religious extremists, bombers, pornographers, bloggers (just my little joke) etc.
    The jury is out on this, but my penny’s worth is that a medium that inspires people at adjacent desks to prefer communicating via email is ipso facto alienating. I wonder if there might have been MORE protestors on the streets in the Middle East etc. WITHOUT Twitter, Facebook etc.
    This explains why, no matter how intensive the presence of Buddhism online, it is failing to affect the fall in numbers of Buddhist adherents on cushions in the most internet-intensive nations.
    I wonder how this is related to the emphasis on social participation and integration in the current wave of ‘conference dharma’ in the US, on which you have commented elsewhere. Is it a panicky backlash against the atomisation of Buddhism in the west, due to the presence of every kind of Buddhism that has ever existed historically or geographically, all at the same time and sometimes all in the same city? ‘Dividing the sangha’ is held to be highly culpable in Buddhism, but modern western conditions plus the internet make division and independence the order of the day. And it is easy to justify that from within those very Buddhist traditions; indeed some of us live by that.

  6. Hi, Rig’dzin Dorje,

    Nice to see you here! I think I agree with you about all that.

    What I’ll suggest, near the end of this blog series, is that the character of alienation is different now than it was in 1970. Meaninglessness is no longer the problem; it’s the onslaught of innumerable fragmented meanings, without good resources for selecting among them or integrating them. The internet is definitely a major source of this problem. This fragmentation of culture, of meaning, leads to a fragmentation of society and of the self. My take is that this is irreversible, so the task is to learn to dance with it, rather than to attempt to reassemble a coherent culture, society, and self.

    I don’t think I understand this very well yet. In terms of observations about generations, I may be too old to grasp it; I didn’t grow up in the post-fragmentation world. But I plan to explore it soon on both the Meaningness site and Buddhism for Vampires.



  7. It’s interesting how history *doesn’t* repeat itself, meaning that meaninglessness is back, but with a twist. What intrigues me is, when Buddhism comes back, what will be the twist? To get ahead of the twist, the catch is, probably it’s necessary to take rebirth at the right time. How much can one actually care about that, and at the same time be prepared to go to the wall for the Buddhism one espouses right now?

  8. Dear Rig’dzin Dorje

    Re: ‘Currently the universal salve of alienation is the internet; one could even call it the dominant world religion.’ Yes, yes – excellent – that has got my imagination racing. Heck, I’m an initiate in that cult. I’ve just recently ‘graduated’ from reading other folks’ sites and e-mail, to using Twitter – is this the Pratyekabuddhayana of the world wide web – shouting empty words in the forest of webtraffic using 140 characters or less? The internet – home of ‘virtual dharma’. There is some fantastic material within your proposition. What a wonderful tool the web – that provides a sense of connectivity with everyone, everywhere, yet that is at the same time hollow, shallow, superficial, because that contact is illusory. Do you think the themes you’ve picked up on might serve as the kernel for a teaching some time? Perhaps even a webcast!

    Best regards


  9. As a zen teacher and lawyer–classic non- traditional Buddhist, who came to Zen in my 50s–I just read McMahan’s book and loved it. Could relate to all the threads he pulls together, although I would have liked to see more in psychology. And I just found your site. It is energizing to read of explorations of the impact of the web on Buddhism now. A subject in which I am deeply interested as I see the Boomers showing up but not many
    Millenials. I look forward to reading more of your interchanges.

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