Enlightenments beyond the Enlightenment

Cover of American Dharma

Ann Gleig’s American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity explores recent developments in American Buddhism.1 Her language is academic but simple and clear, with hardly any technical jargon; the book can be read by anyone with a basic understanding of Buddhism. Her treatment of controversies is admirably non-polemical, with even-handed (but colorful) presentation of multiple points of view on every issue.2

American Dharma may be important both for academics and for practitioners:

I care mostly about that last one. American Buddhism is at a turning point, and I want the people steering it to take what Gleig has to say seriously. This post is about why.

Because I’m extremely self-centered, I’ll also explain how her work relates to what I was trying to do with Vividness, and how it may influence what I may do with it later.

Buddhist modernism

“Buddhism Beyond Modernity” is Gleig’s subtitle, and Buddhist modernism is the central theoretical category. The book is in large part a response to David L. McMahan’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism.

So is Vividness. I explained that in 2011, together with a brief summary of the book. If you are not familiar with the concept of Buddhist modernism, it may be good to read that post before continuing.

In short, McMahan showed that American Buddhism, in even its most “traditional” and “authentic” forms, consists mainly of European ideas that were imported into Asia in the late 1800s, lightly sprinkled with Buddhist jargon, and then re-exported to the West in the 20th century.3 Particularly, our “Buddhism” synthesizes aspects of European Enlightenment rationalism, Romantic Idealism, and Protestant Christianity. These are three pillars of “modernity,” the system that long ruled the developed world.

Each of the three was significantly flawed, and the system started to fall apart a hundred years ago. It took several decades to figure out what had gone wrong, but there are now detailed explanations for how rationalism, Romanticism, and Protestantism are each dysfunctional, and why modernity failed.

If American “Buddhism” is mostly that, this would be a serious, urgent, and probably terminal problem. I think it is. Modernity is over, and it has taken Buddhist modernism with it.

McMahan treated this issue briefly in his final chapter. In 2008, when he was writing, the decline of Buddhist modernism was only barely visible, whereas in 2015 I declared it effectively complete. As of today—according to this report, just in—Buddhist modernism is [glances at news sheet, then back to camera] still dead.

Gleig picks up where McMahan left off. If modernity is over, what possibility does that leave for Buddhism?

The P-word(s)

Whether modernity is “over” can be argued. Rationalism, Romanticism, and Protestantism are still enormously influential. Some theorists, who admit that something fundamental changed in our culture around 1980, describe current circumstances as “hypermodern” or “ultramodern.” That would suggest that the defects of modernism can be repaired by becoming even more modern—or at least that this is what our culture is attempting. I’m dubious about that. We have changed direction, and rightly so.

Logically, whatever it is that has come after modernity could be called “postmodernity”; and so it is. Unfortunately, the word “postmodern” has accumulated all sorts of baggage, confusions, conflicting definitions, and negative associations. As Gleig writes:

Certain [Buddhist] practitioners have adopted the term “postmodern,” [but] others have rejected it. For example, in response to my framing of Buddhist Geeks as postmodern, David Chapman recommended against using the term on the grounds that participants associated it with vacuous and pretentious academic theory. When I quoted his objection during my presentation at the Buddhist Geeks conference, it was met with raucous laughter and applause, which suggested he was on point. (p. 291)

Her preferred title for the book was “Enlightenments beyond the Enlightenment.” Her editor may have been right to nix that as puzzling, but I like it. (So I’ve recycled it as the title of this post.) As Gleig wrote, it would be good “simply to talk of the new sensibilities and turns occurring in American Buddhism after Buddhist modernism.”

But, in relating the phenomena to general contemporary social theory, “postmodern” is unavoidable. Gleig reviews briefly the better theories of postmodernity. In the simplest and most useful sense, it is simply the era in which it is impossible to take -isms seriously.4 Some consequences she observes in contemporary Buddhism include:

Since none of the theories of postmodernity is really satisfactory, Gleig adds two more P-words: “postcolonial” and “postsecular.”

As part of the Vividness project, I too was trying to work out the implications of postmodernity for Buddhism. If Buddhism is an -ism, and if you want to take it seriously—as I do—the end of -isms is a problem.

While at the 2012 Buddhist Geeks conference, which was mainly attended by people in their 20s, I realized that the Boomer, X, and Millennial generations each have quite different approaches to Buddhism. The Boomer countercultures were the final phase of modernity, and the dominant Boomer Buddhism (which I called Consensus Buddhism) was modernist. Gen X’s approach I describe as “subcultural,” and the Millennial one “atomized.” I wrote several tens of thousands of words about this. But then I recognized that the distinctions I had made were not exclusive to Buddhism, and affected all aspects of life. So I expanded this into a huge pretentious theory and began writing about it in “How Meaning Fell Apart.” That project is unfinished, although I hope to return to it when time permits. The Buddhist aspect of it currently appears only as one row in “A gigantic chart that explains absolutely everything.”

In the mean time, I abandoned the explanation of Buddhism in postmodernity. It was my intention to get back to it someday. However, one reason I’m excited about American Dharma is that it covers much of the same material. Moreover, Gleig’s treatment is more detailed, more rigorous, and far better grounded in empirical research than I could have managed. This may let me skip over the book-length explanation of pomo Buddhism I had planned, and move on to what may come after it.

Gen X Buddhism

Gleig’s ethnography of Gen X Buddhist teachers is one of the most interesting chapters.5 She finds that they do have a distinctive approach, and that it often is compatible with the general theory of postmodernity. Excitingly, in some cases this is explicit on their part. They understand the concept of Buddhist modernism, reject some aspects of it, and see themselves as developing alternatives.

I suspect this is due to the influence of David McMahan’s book. It has explained to practicing Buddhists why Consensus Buddhism is as it is, and how that may be inadequate. I don’t think he set out to change American Buddhism, only to describe it, but he’s probably significantly reshaped the culture.

There’s an analogy to Margot Adler’s 1979 Drawing Down the Moon, a scholarly survey of American Neopaganism, which was at that time a very small and obscure phenomenon. Although only descriptive and more-or-less academic, the book was, for a great many people (including me), our first exposure to the religion, and a huge inspiration. It was a major contributor to the rapid growth of Neopaganism over the next few years; it effectively conjured into existence the religion it optimistically described. I suspect, and hope, that McMahan’s and Gleig’s work can do the same for Buddhism-after-modernity.

Nevertheless, Gleig observes that this new Buddhism is “still marginal, if increasingly visible” (p. 298), and it will take a lot of work to establish it (pp. 299-303). As a description, rather than a conjuration, her book is perhaps ill-timed; it will be much clearer in ten years whether or not P-word Buddhism is a thing.

Also… although she finds that the way Gen X teachers approach Buddhism is distinctive, it seems to me that the content of their teaching is mainly unchanged. It’s the same old Consensus stuff, pretty much. I find this unsatisfactory.

Too little, too late

Punk was the prototypical subculture (as I use that term). It’s natural that the Gen X Buddhist teachers invoke it frequently.

Punk originated in the mid-1970s; the movement was over by the early 1980s. I date “the subcultural mode” that punk initiated as ending around 2001. The first Buddhist/punk connection was made in Brad Warner’s 2003 Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies and the Truth About Reality. However, subcultural/Gen X/punk-influenced Buddhism mostly only started showing up a decade later, and is still kinda mostly not a thing.6

We’ve already had forty years of postmodernity, and you are only beginning to catch on?

1950s Beat Zen was a decade ahead of its time. Consensus Buddhism, based on the 1960s-70s monist counterculture, lagged the cultural cutting edge by a decade, meaning it hit the sweet spot for mass adoption in the 1980s. Punk Dharma, in 2019, seems hopelessly, cluelessly retro. I mean, seriously?

Anyway. Postmodernity was kinda fun while it lasted. But it was also kinda scary; and, overall, kinda unsatisfactory. And—news flash—it’s kinda over. We don’t have time to spend the next few decades working out the details of a postmodern Buddhism that is already obsolete before we got started on it.

Let’s skip that.

The M-word(s)

When I was first writing about this, in 2009, I dimly intuited both that Buddhism has a solution to the problems of postmodernity, and that this might be the direction our culture is taking of its own accord. That vague apprehension has gradually come into clearer focus—both for me, and for others working independently. There are also growing signs that our theoretical prophesies are becoming reality.

I call this new mode of meaning meta-systematicity or “fluidity.” I’ve summarized my understanding in “Desiderata for any future mode of meaningness.” Others have termed this trend “metamodernity”—another M-word. I’m hoping that Gleig’s book will allow me to let go of feeling responsible for explaining postmodern Buddhism, so I can jump ahead to imagining a metamodern version.

The “gigantic chart” summarizes fluid Buddhism as “an amorphous assemblage of means for the transformation of culture, society, and self by uniting spaciousness and passion to unclog energy and empower nobility.”

The new mode incorporates desirable aspects of tradition, modernity, and postmodernity. Meta-systematicity is inherently “reflective”: aware of its own functioning in a way systematic modernity could never be. That awareness is necessarily historical in part, so metamodernity is impossible without an understanding of all its antecedents.

Consequently any metamodern Buddhism must rely on work such as that of McMahan and Gleig. There is evidence in American Dharma that the necessary reflection is already taking place, as a conversation among and between practitioners and theorists.

  1. The term “American Buddhism” is problematic, as Gleig notes. Most American Buddhists are of Asian descent, and most of what they practice is not included in what is meant by “American Buddhism.” That seems frankly racist, with the implication that Asian-American Buddhists are not adequately American (and probably not adequately Buddhist, either). Various alternatives, such as “convert Buddhism” and “white Buddhism,” have been used, but each is also factually inaccurate as a description of the-thing-we’re-talking-about, and also has racist implications if you think about it. No one knows what to do about this. 
  2. It’s tempting to attribute Gleig’s even-handedness to academic convention. However, in Buddhist studies, most academics do take religious and political sides, and grind their axes in preparation for combat. Most have dismissed the whole phenomenon of American Buddhism as inauthentic, trivial, or a mere manifestation of consumer capitalism in its final death throws. (They do have a point, but it’s been important enough for millions of people, for half a century, that it also needs to be taken seriously.) Gleig describes my own writing as “typically hyperbolic” (p. 261). Guilty as charged, obviously! I do indulge in shameless polemic, but also deliberately undercut it with absurdist humor to point that out I’m not entirely serious; or more explicitly by enumerating on-the-other-hands. This wouldn’t work well for academics, or for most Buddhist teachers; I can only deploy the strategy as a nobody. 
  3. I’m being polemical and exaggerating here. McMahan—also admirably even-handed—was careful not to opine about the relative fractions of Western and traditional Buddhist influences that went into the stew. It’s fair to say that the fraction of traditional Buddhism in Buddhist modernism amounts to rather more than a “sprinkle.” 
  4. This is more-or-less a summary of Jean-François Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, one of the two root texts for postmodern theory. His famous characterization of postmodernity is “incredulity towards grand meta-narratives”—i.e. -isms. 
  5. Gleig covers many topics that I’m not mentioning in this post, because they aren’t relevant to the polemical axe I am grinding. Others I found particularly interesting were her discussions of sex scandals, the mindfulness war, and the economics of Buddhist teaching. 
  6. My 2012 draft explanation of Buddhist postmodernism includes a chapter titled “Gen X Buddhism: MIA/KIA?” which speculates about why it wasn’t happening then. One reason, I suspect, is that subculturally-oriented Buddhists mostly gathered around Asian immigrant teachers who promised a more authentic offering than the Boomer Consensus. “Authenticity” was a key theme for the subcultural mode, and that made it hard for native-born American teachers to compete. The Gen X teachers Gleig discusses seem not so interested in “authenticity.” Maybe recurrent sexual misconduct by immigrant teachers has dispelled the illusion that being from Tibet or Japan makes you genetically holy. Or maybe the subcultural mode is so over that no one, even in Gen X, cares about authenticity anymore.