Comments on “How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics”

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Amod Lele 2015-09-28

So there’s a lot to talk about here, but let me first get out of the way this stuff about a “stage 4 ethical system”. IMHO, this line of thinking needs to go, as it’s possibly the single least justifiable piece of Wilber’s system (which, overall, has significantly less reasoning about ethics than Śāntideva’s does). Ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny in ethical development; the claim that it does depends on an ignorance of premodern systems and their differences. Even assuming that you’re right about Buddhism having no ethical system (as I’ve already questioning), medieval Christianity certainly did; Thomas Aquinas was more systematic about his ethics than are most 20th-century ethicists. And given that Kohlberg’s evidence is drawn from modern Western societies in the first place, even at the individual level it’s a leap too far to generalize his ideas of stages of reasoning outside those societies.

Some further thoughts on the point:

jayarava 2015-09-28

Hi David,

As usual a couple of comments. Buddhism was popular in Europe in the 1890s as well (alongside interest in the Upaniṣads). Edwin Arnold’s poem The Light of Aisa was a best seller.

You say “Traditional Buddhist morality goes no further than stage 3, which aims only at communal harmony, not justice.” I’m not sure I agree with this. Buddhists certainly had a conception of a “just world” and the idea goes back a long way in India. Karma is the instrument of creating a just world, and like other religious systems relies on an afterlife to enact justice. And Buddhists clearly sought to retain and maintain karma & rebirth as they tinkered with doctrines over the centuries. For example in trying to fix the disconnect between karma and pratītyasamutpāda, the Buddhists tinkered with pratītyasamutpāda and largely left karma alone. I attribute this to a commitment to the myth of a just world.

Is it delaying justice until the afterlife that makes you argue that traditional Buddhism did not aim at justice? Or does the theory of karma not qualify for some other reason?

It might be worth mentioning that TW and CAF Rhys Davids founded the PTS and were the first and second presidents. In fact German scholars had begun working in/on Pāḷi a little earlier I think. TW had worked as a judge in Ceylon and the local lawyers kept bringing up precedents from monastic law. Getting access to these legal precedents is what motivated him to learn Pāḷi. And of course as a classically educated Englishman he was well placed to do so.

You mention that Mahāyāna Buddhism takes feudalism for granted. I think you could go further than this and argue that it endorses feudalism. Indeed this was a major factor in the introduction of Buddhism in Japan in ca. 552 CE, from the Korean aristocracy directly to the Japanese Aristocracy (who were partly Korean). Certain texts, notably the Saddharmapuṇḍarikā and Suvarṇabhāsottama, endorse and promise to protect kings who have the text recited or copied. It reinforced the existing authority provided by Confucius for Imperialism - the emperor was obliged to bestow order and culture on the poor, stupid barbarians. In East Asia the monasteries were key players in feudalism, and of course in Tibetan the monks became the feudal lords.

Seth Zuiho Segall 2015-09-28

David, I understand your historical line of reasoning here, but am unsure what your main point is. All religions follow this line of evolution as they engage with other traditions. We can see how Avicenna’s, Maimonides’s and St. Thomas’s encounters with Aristotle changed Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. We can see how Judaism morphed from an animal sacrifice cult devoted to one deity among a world of many deities to a book-based monotheism stressing prayer, charity, and repentance. We can see how Buddhism morphed as it journeyed from culture to culture and era to era, influenced by other emerging Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese religions and philosophies like Tantra, Bon, and Taoism. We can see the current Catholic Church under Pope Francis struggling with traditional Catholic ethics and newer emerging social and political ideas about equality. All these religions are streams of history that evolve as they encounter, are challenged by, are misunderstood by and re-construed in the light of new conditions and ideas. There is no eternal, unchanging Buddhism. I would say – rather than saying there are no Buddhist ethics – that there are different sets of Buddhist ethics that have changed with different cultures and eras, as Peter Harvey’s “Introduction to Buddhist Ethics” clearly shows: The Tibetans abhorred homosexuality, the Japanese, not so much.

As any philosophical and religious tradition matures, it has to deal with the same issues concerning deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, etc. that all philosophical and religious ethical systems eventually have to deal with. It shouldn’t be any wonder if eventually, through dialogue, they begin to converge. What will keep any Buddhist ethics still “Buddhist” is a continued emphasis on non-harming and non-greed and and a sustained emphasis on interdependence and compassion. It does not need to claim to be uniquely Buddhist, because every tradition is free to rediscover the dharma –“the ways things are.” I’m reminded here of Thich Nhat Hanh’s claim that given his interpretation of emptiness as “interbeing,” Buddhism entirely made up of non-Buddhist elements, in the same way that a flower is made up entirely of non-flower elements.

If “Consensus Buddhism” (I still think your “Consensus Buddhism” is a straw man) has come to more or less agree on an understanding of what it believes to be the best Buddhist modernist ethics it can devise, I’ve no problem with it. If you have a better ethics that still feels consistent with core Buddhist principles, on with the show.

David Chapman 2015-09-28

Amod Lele — Kohlberg’s model was tested extensively trans-culturally; it’s not just based on Westerners. The finding was that the stage series is invariant in all cultures (although in some cultures, few people get beyond stage 3).

I have a pretty low opinion of Wilber; I don’t take him seriously, and wouldn’t want to defend him. I do think that stage 4 has a coherent logic that you can’t reach either as an individual or as a society unless you’ve got stage 3 solid, and the same for 5 following 4.

Systematicity is a matter of degree; all the great ancient civilizations were somewhat systematic. And individual geniuses rise above the ambient level; Shantideva and Aquinas being two fine examples.

From your interesting post on Wilber and MacIntyre:

There is no attempt to show why egocentric or sociocentric ethics breaks down on its own terms and needs to move to a higher level.

This is central to Kegan’s work. He does work out, in detail, exactly this. I’ll explain that in an upcoming post (scheduled for about three weeks from now).

David Chapman 2015-09-28

jayarava — Thanks, as usual!

Is it delaying justice until the afterlife that makes you argue that traditional Buddhism did not aim at justice? Or does the theory of karma not qualify for some other reason?

What I said was that stage 3 doesn’t aim at justice, rather than that Buddhism doesn’t. I can see how my wording makes this less clear than it should be, but couldn’t find an easy patch, even using a footnote. The karmic system of cosmic justice seems stage 1 to me. Absent from Buddhism, apparently, is any consideration of this-worldly justice (which would tend toward stage 4).

worth mentioning that TW and CAF Rhys Davids founded the PTS


you could go further than this and argue that it endorses feudalism.

Excellent point; I’ve added a half-sentence to that effect.

David Chapman 2015-09-28

Seth Zuiho Segall — Hi, nice to see you here again. I like your writing a lot (although we have quite different views on Buddhism).

The overall question is “What do we want Buddhism for?” What does it have to offer that we can’t get easier or better elsewhere?

The recent imbroglio over Buddhist vs secular mindfulness puts this question pointedly. (I have written a page about this, which I’ll post in around two weeks.) What does Buddhism have to offer that MBSR does not? Ron Purser and others have argued that Buddhism teaches ethics and MBSR does not. Secularists have replied by saying that they do teach ethics, so the criticism is unjustified. My upcoming post references your own particularly clear defense along those lines.

But if ethics is not Buddhism’s special sauce, which secular mindfulness cannot offer, then what does distinguish it?

What will keep any Buddhist ethics still “Buddhist” is a continued emphasis on non-harming and non-greed and and a sustained emphasis on interdependence and compassion.

Isn’t that emphasis characteristic of all contemporary leftish secular ethics? (The first page in this series cites Haidt and Lakoff as saying that it is.)

You have done a nice job defending secular mindfulness against Buddhist criticism. How would you defend Buddhism against the secular criticism that it has nothing to offer besides generic leftish ethics and mindfulness meditation, both of which are available elsewhere with less jargon and mythology?

If you have a better ethics that still feels consistent with core Buddhist principles, on with the show.

I do intend to sketch that, in upcoming posts, although it won’t be more than a sketch!

David Chapman 2015-09-28

BTW, here is a good review of research on the cross-cultural validity of Kohlberg’s theory.

At present [1985], 44 studies have been completed in 26 cultural areas. Longitudinal research has been carried out in the following countries: Bahamas, Canada (French), India, Indonesia, Israel (kibbutz), Turkey, and the United States. The remaining 20 cultural areas are represented only by cross-sectional studies: Alaska (Eskimos), England, Finland, Germany, Guatemala, Honduras, Hong Kong, Iran, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Nigeria, New Guinea, Pakistan, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, Thailand, Yucatan, and Zambia.

Kohlberg’s model does have several serious problems (mostly because it over-emphasizes rationality). Kegan incorporates emotion, relationship, and action into the model, thereby correcting many of the issues with Kohlberg’s theory. I don’t think it’s The Truth About Ethics, but I find considerable valuable insight there.

jayarava 2015-09-29

I’m looking at the article by Snarey and thinking that Kohlberg’s model seems to be at odds with the bulk of evolutionary oriented stuff I’ve read in recent years. It still looks like Neoliberalism and makes all kinds of assumptions that now seem false to me. I don’t see any human culture in which stage 1 is meaningful - stage one is a regression away from the basic structure of a successful social animal. Wild chimps seem to me to operate at stage 3. The model makes no distinction between intimates and strangers, and I think we’re already established that this is crucial in understanding human morality. I’ll try to track down something by Kegan, but this model looks anachronistic at best.

I remain to be convinced that how people answer questions about moral dilemmas tells us anything at all about how they behave on a day to day basis.

I find laughable the assumption that one can test individuals out of contact with their social setting and get meaningful insights into their behaviour. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what we are and how we make decisions.

jayarava 2015-09-29

More fundamentally I think Richard Payne’s point about agents is crucial. Buddhism is not an agent. Only Buddhists can be agents. Buddhism is not at any moral stage. Buddhists can be at different moral stages in the same community with the same rules. The rules themselves tell us nothing at all about the moral development of individuals, nor the social dynamic in which they operated. Indeed the same rules may reflect very different ethical development in different cultures across time and place.

Therefore you seem to be misusing the model of stages of moral development. Kohlberg’s model doesn’t apply to cultures, it applies to individuals (and as above I don’t think this application makes sense either!)

Buddhism at any stage offers a variety of motivations for ethical behaviour: for example, fear of suffering in this life, fear of a bad rebirth, and fear of disapproval (of community, of the wise, of the Buddha); desire for a better rebirth, desire to end rebirth, desire for approval, desire to transcend suffering, empathy etc. How such motivations translated into moral behaviour at any point in time is moot. The further back in time we go, the less information we have - following something like an inverse square law. We have to rely more and more on texts we know to be unreliable. If we know the texts to be fictions, then justifying a judgement about what moral stage Buddhists were at at any point in time requires something other than the evidence of the texts. And what we are not seeing is other kinds of evidence for the argument.

My guess is that we have no reliable information about how Buddhists actually behaved before about 1900. Thus no real information on how moral Buddhists were.

Also as I’ve said several times without getting a response, the sutras are not the only class of Buddhist text, and my understanding is that Jātakas were far more important in informing lay ethics than sutras, certainly in Theravāda countries. One would not expect sutras to be of any importance in formulating secular morality, even in nominally Buddhist countries. The role of sutras seems to be vastly overstated and the other kinds of Buddhist literature, particularly śāstric, are ignored completely in this account. By the Common Era few if any people, even monks, learned about Buddhism from reading sutras. The narrow focus on sutras is a modernist preoccupation.

roughgarden 2015-09-29

Thanks for introducing me to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu and Taixu and Yin Shun. They were remarkable people who led some pretty amazing social movements in their day. And their writings on both eastern and western social philosophies sound intriguing. I’m going to read more about them in my quest to further develop engaged Buddhism.

roughgarden 2015-09-29

@Seth Zuiho Segall; Touché. I tried to say this in another comment, but yours is so much more erudite. Buddhism is constantly changing and adapting, taking on new ideas and new forms from cultures into which it is adopted, and as you pointed out, so does every other religion.

David Chapman 2015-09-29

jayarava — Thank you again for extensive, on-point comments.

Your 1:36 a.m. comment accurately identifies most of the main problems with Kohlberg’s model. He was transferring ideas from moral philosophy, which is comprehensively worthless, to experimental psychology. The data are highly reproducible, but the implications he drew are somewhat mistaken.

Kegan does correct all the problems you identify, except that his work predates the evopsych revolution. I think his story is compatible with evopsych, but no one has yet done that synthesis explicitly. I think that could actually correct a “pendulum swung too far” tendency in Haidt’s work (e.g.) to completely discount rationality.

One of Kegan’s major sources of insight was his work as a psychotherapist and as an organizational consultant. Much of what people want psychotherapists and organization consultants for is help with actual real-life moral dilemmas, so he had heard hundreds of people talking those through. This has a very different texture from the silly hypothetical problems Kohlberg worked with, and those differences drove the theory changes. As a source of data, it’s anecdotal and unscientific, but he was subsequently able to operationalize and validate the insights experimentally.

I don’t see any human culture in which stage 1 is meaningful

All children go through stage 1. There is no intact adult culture in which stage 1 is predominant.

The model makes no distinction between intimates and strangers

Yeah, Kohlberg thought that universalism was the highest morality, so he downplayed that. Others working in the general framework have looked at how ingroup/outgroup relationships work differently at different stages.

I’ll try to track down something by Kegan

His Evolving Self is the only available introduction, and it’s fairly hard going. I will provide a ~3,000 word overview in this blog series before applying it to Buddhism.

Buddhists can be at different moral stages in the same community with the same rules. The rules themselves tell us nothing at all about the moral development of individuals, nor the social dynamic in which they operated. ... Kohlberg’s model doesn’t apply to cultures

Yes, definitely. However, a culture provides—or fails to provide—specific resources for development from stage to stage. If the fundamental social practices and moral concepts needed to develop to stage 4 are not present in the culture, it is difficult (although perhaps not impossible) to make that transition. The main reason I’m going on about this is that I will argue (in about three weeks) that Consensus Buddhism is failing to provide the resources needed to transition to stage 4, and may actively hinder that development. Better Buddhisms could actively support it, instead.

(Until I actually lay out that argument, it may not be useful to prefigure it here in more detail…)

My guess is that we have no reliable information about how Buddhists actually behaved before about 1900. Thus no real information on how moral Buddhists were.

I agree. What we can say is that there is no written record that suggests stage 4 social practices and moral concepts were available in any Buddhist culture—other than, possibly, the Nalanda university culture of the Pala era, exemplified by Shantideva.

my understanding is that Jātakas were far more important in informing lay ethics than sutras... The narrow focus on sutras is a modernist preoccupation.

I agree. But that’s exactly why I’m focusing on them too! This page is about how contemporary Western Buddhist ethics came to be. And the answer is, in part, that it’s a Victorian invention based on the Protestant assumption that the suttas were the correct basis for Buddhist ethics. That was silly for lots of reasons, but the “Buddhist ethics” we have now reflects their misunderstanding—and has nothing to do with pre-modern Buddhist moral practice.

Amod Lele 2015-09-29

David, FYI, I have written two responses to this series of posts, which will go up on Love of All Wisdom in October.

David Chapman 2015-09-29

Thanks, Amod, I look forward to reading them!

There’s about eight more posts in this series, which take it in directions that might not be expected yet. Possibly it would make sense to wait to respond until it finishes (mid/late October), but obviously that’s up to you!

Amod Lele 2015-09-29

That’s actually about the timing I imagine, although the posts are already written - I try to have a regular schedule of a post every two weeks, so they go up well in advance. May or may not rewrite…

Foster Ryan 2015-09-29

David, I have a few thoughts on this. First, this is a very interesting topic. I have been pondering social/political theories for some time and noticed that Buddhism is not very rich in them, except for maybe the Tibetan theocratic one. This got me to thinking that Rawlsian thought could easily fit well with the leftish Buddhism. OTOH, you could probably easily fit a number of other theories, including more conservative ones. Still, Rawls is my favorite and seems to me to be the best fit as it balances compassion with freedom/responsibility. I have also tried to match western ethical approaches and this seems to me to be where it gets trickier. Different versions of the dharma seem to match all the different theories. We have stoic ideas in theravadan/sutrayana approaches; Mahayana seems to go well with Aristotle and virtue ethics, along with Christian ethics; vajrayana seems to approach something like Utilitarianism and enters into Nietzche land, and dzogchen enters into postmodernism and maybe then ethics becomes heavily Nietzchian while maintaining all the earlier systems. It seems that these vehicles step through all kinds of levels of ethical approaches so they are all in there. By the time you are practicing dzogchen type meditations you need to have absorbed all of the different earlier levels and be able to embody them spontaneously and toggle between them without intention. Just like vajrayana and mahayana point out that their approaches exist in the early sutras but were just not unpacked, so I think is the case here.The west has a gift, and a curse, for analysis, but the East still had the same ideas just not so heavily rationalized. Therefore, our own traditions and thinking really can fit without conflict into Buddhist thought. The earlier Buddhists clearly did a lot less developing of political thought, however, but maybe that was a good thing. When Western religion heavily mixed politics and religion it led to the suppression of our religious traditions and caused them to be edited for political reasons. This led us to be talking about Buddhism right now, as it was free to develop without too much interference (although even it got very political in China and Tibet). Again, when the Gelug order got powerful it suppressed other schools of Buddhism in Tibet and led to a suppression of their thought, which has only recently revived(in the Rime movement). I think it would be great to really merge these worlds and we will all benefit.

jayarava 2015-09-30

These “everything you were taught and think you know is wrong” moments are incredibly valuable. I suppose I’ve had 6 or 7 in my adult life that have substantially changed my orientation, including some I’ve experienced as a Buddhist. This seems to be another.

roughgarden 2015-09-30

@David Chapman; I have read all your posts thus far on “Buddhist ethics.” So far you have not once defined, in detail what “ethics” is. You suggest in several places that ethics involves “ethical principles”, but you never define those principles nor explain how they are to be applied in a variety of situations.
In “Traditional Buddhism has no ethical system”:
There is no such thing as Buddhist ethics
“This assertion relies on a distinction between “ethics,” which involve justifications, and “morals,” which are statements about right and wrong that are given without explanations. Traditional Buddhism has only morality, not ethics, in this sense. Some modern academic Buddhist ethicists attempt to supply the missing justifications, by borrowing Western ethical principles.”
and again
“What’s missing is justifications: the “whys” and “wherefores” that are the substance of Western ethics.”

You never define ethics at all, you never explicate the principles that a Buddhist or non-Buddhist should understand and apply or how to apply them in divergent situations. Until you define what “ethics” is, your arguments against “it” (whatever “it” is) are specious.

roughgarden 2015-09-30

I will add that in many of your posts, you state what ethic is NOT, but not what it IS. And you vaguely describe a ‘Western ethics’, which you reject, but you never define or explain what you think a rigorous and appropriate ethics should be and how to apply it.

David Chapman 2015-09-30

Foster Ryan — Interesting points, especially about Dzogchen.

Different versions of the dharma seem to match all the different theories.

Yes; this is what much of Western academic Buddhist ethics is about: matching up common Western ethical theories with bits of Buddhism that seem compatible. I mostly don’t see the value in this, but whatever.

our own traditions and thinking really can fit without conflict into Buddhist thought.

Yes; since Buddhism has so little to say about ethics or politics, it’s compatible with anything.

practicing dzogchen type meditations you need to have absorbed all of the different earlier levels ... and toggle between them

Yes; in upcoming posts I’ll suggest that this is interestingly parallel to stage 5 in Kegan’s framework. Stage 5 is meta-systematic; it’s the ability to fluidly switch frameworks based on an understanding of how they operate individually and how they relate to each other and to reality. This is also characteristic of postmodernity (as Kegan points out).

I also think the parallels between Vajrayana and Nietzsche are significant. Both took some concept of “nobility” as fruitional. In both, that concept is somewhat problematic, but I believe it would be valuable to try to work out a notion of “nobility” that would function for us now.

David Chapman 2015-09-30

roughgarden — Almost nothing can be defined with complete precision. Outside of math, definitions are helpful only when there is a dispute that turns out to be due to different understandings of a term. So long as “we know it when we see it,” a definition is generally unhelpful.

I am assuming readers generally have an unproblematic, common understanding of what count as ethical/moral issues. I’ve borrowed from Keown a particular distinction between ethics and morals, and defined that in a way I thought was clear. If it’s not clear, you could ask specific questions and I can try to clarify. Or, probably better, you could read Keown. I’m not doing anything new with that.

you vaguely describe a ‘Western ethics’, which you reject

There is not one Western ethics, but many ethical theories and practices. I don’t exactly “reject” any of them. I don’t think any are fully adequate.

but you never define or explain what you think a rigorous and appropriate ethics should be and how to apply it.

I don’t intend to do what I’m guessing you want here. My upcoming discussion of Kegan points in this direction, but I think you will find it unsatisfyingly abstract.

Overall: In this series, I’m assuming a greater degree of sophistication on the part of readers than I do in most of what I write. Throughout the series, I’m taking for granted at minimum a basic understanding of mainstream Western moral philosophy. As the series progresses, it will get increasingly conceptually difficult. Unfortunately, the material just is complex and abstract and unfamiliar. Short of writing a long book, I won’t be able to carry all readers through it.

Sabio Lantz 2015-09-30

Couple of thoughts on Leftist use of Buddhism (or visa versa):

– Leftists are disproportionately atheists.

– Atheists in America are looked at with great distrust and disgust.

– Presenting oneself as a Buddhist let’s a Westerner (esp Americans) who has escaped Christianity say they are not Christian and yet still feel at least acceptable and ethical, as opposed to admitting they are filthy atheists. Thus “I’m Buddhist” became a comfortable sheep clothing for some ex-Christians and some natural atheists in a society that felt atheists disgusting and horrible.

– So as a market technique (and for self-deception), Leftists are wise to grab Buddhism. And Buddhists are wise to grab leftist ideology.

David Chapman 2015-09-30
Thus “I’m Buddhist” became a comfortable sheep clothing for some ex-Christians and some natural atheists

Yep! The page scheduled to appear on Monday (“What is ‘Buddhist ethics’ for?”) expands on this idea. Much of what it is for is to position yourself as vaguely well-intentioned without signing up for anything specific.

David, what do you think about the Ashokan edicts?

I’ve studied Yin Shun teachings, and attended retreats with Bhikkhu Bodhi. I appreciate your analysis (some of my fellow students, probably not so much).

Another influential modern Chinese Buddhist thinker, in addition to Taixu and Yin Shun, is Xu Yun (Hsu Yun).

Speaking of Yin Shun, there’s the example of his most prominent student, Cheng Yen. She (another important point) founded Tzu Chi, the largest Chinese-language and Buddhist NGO, running hospitals, clinics, and disaster relief around the globe. This activity was heavily influenced by Western models - official biographies mention her encounter with Roman Catholic nuns. Additionally, Tzu Chi has strongly embraced environmentalism.

David Chapman 2015-09-30
what do you think about the Ashokan edicts?

I don’t know much about them. I have been intending to learn more for several years, but it’s never quite been “next on the list.”

Thanks for the information about Xu Yun and Cheng Yen!

roughgarden 2015-10-22

David: You used McMahon’s “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” to critique Buddhist ethics as a form of disguised Protestant ethics. But your misrepresented his thesis because you only presented one of the two contributing influences. One is Protestantism, as you said, but not conservative Christianity, rather it was liberal, mystical Christianity.

The second contributing influence was Romanticism, which McMahon said had a great influence on a particular kind of Buddhist ethics that rejected asceticism, rules and public morals and placed the source of ethical authority within “Nature” and the “primitive” or “natural spirit of man.” In particular, Romanticism was deployed against the plight of modern nihilism (see page 13 for a full description of Romanticism vs. nihilism), which you wrote about in this blog. That along with Scientific Rationalism and Christian liberalism are the three great influences on Buddhism modernism (see page 86 for exact quote).

You also failed to disclose that McMahon also has a modernist critique of the particular form of Buddhism that you practice: western tantra. McMahon critiques western tantra as Global Folk Buddhism, a post-modern form that nonetheless shares the elements of global modernity found in the other forms. From “The Making of Buddhist Modernism”, to wit:
Global Folk Buddhism
pp. 261-262

Toward this end of the continuum, we have a new development, which I call global folk Buddhism—the emerging “popular religion” within Buddhist modernism. It is an admittedly ironic category that confounds the usual taxonomies of “great’ and “little” traditions and “elite” and “popular” or “folk” traditions. Scholars often describe popular traditions as the relatively unsophisticated local religion of common people. They contain more ritual than complex doctrine, blend traditions liberally, and employ magic and manipulation of material objects for protection and other this-worldly benefits. They may include fetishism and witchcraft and are often disruptive of orthodoxy. Popular traditions tend to be local, rooted in particular places, versus elite traditions with their universalizing impetus. The latter are sophisticated, textual, philosophical, normative and often imperial. They belong to the higher social classes and offer themselves as universal, true for all times and places.

Global folk Buddhism inverts certain staples of the popular/elite distinction: its appeal is often to the affluent; it is increasingly global, not tied to a particular locality; and tends to dismiss local, cultural and ethnic differences, instead privileging unity. Rather than being embedded in a particular cultural context, it is disembedded, merging into the currents of global discourse, commercial venues, popular culture, and social practices of the electronic age. This postmodern global folk Buddhism is a unique form of lay Buddhism that has emerged with the rise of globalization. It intermingles with continually emerging and expanding transnational popular culture, circulating primarily through television, print, and the internet. When elite Buddhist authors, work within the systems of significance, cultural practices, and commercial venues of this globalizing popular culture, they enact a variation of what Buddhist traditions have always done when bringing the dharma to a new place: they selectively and creatively re-present elements of Buddhism using the local vernacular, sometimes diluting it with local custom, accommodating it to local dialects, adapting it to local practices, and co-oping local deities—while often themselves, in turn, being shaped by all of these.

What is unique to the postmodern situation is that the local vernacular customs, dialects, and practices of global folk Buddhism are not local—they are popular cultures. Their venues are the popular book, lecture tour, concert stage, website and CD. Practitioners of global folk Buddhism, like those of local folk Buddhisms, do not have a sophisticated understanding of their own tradition and liberally mingle it with their “native” customs—in this case various forms of self-help, sports, commerce, entertainment, drug use, fashion, corporate culture, and other religious traditions and subcultures (e.g. the “Dead Buddhist Society,” for fans of Buddhism and the Grateful Dead; Zen Management for corporate heads). Rather than the elite occupation of dismantling the self through rigorous meditation, global folk Buddhism becomes an aid in the ever-ongoing process of reflexive self-making and remaking that, according to Giddens, constitutes self-identity in the contemporary world (1991)[unquote]

David Chapman 2015-10-22
your misrepresented his thesis because you only presented one of the two contributing influences.

I don’t see how I can have misrepresented him in this post when I didn’t even mention him. (I only cited him quoting Olcott.)

The second contributing influence was Romanticism

I have written about McMahan’s explanation of the influence of Romanticism on Buddhist modernism many times in this blog. I don’t see that omitting that from this particular post does him a disservice.

McMahon critiques western tantra as Global Folk Buddhism

No, he doesn’t. The passage you quote does not mention Tantra; nor is it about Tantra implicitly without mentioning it explicitly.

You also failed to disclose that McMahon also has a modernist critique of the particular form of Buddhism that you practice: western tantra.

If McMahan had done that, I probably would have discussed it somewhere. (He didn’t.)

However, you seem to be suggesting that I am somehow covering something up by “failing to disclose.” Even if he had made such a critique, I do not see that I would be in any way responsible for commenting on it.

Alf 2015-10-29

Never really convinced that modern leftish buddhism has anything to do with it’s supposed purpose of enlightenment. If buddha was enlightened in a monarchic, feudal world - what difference does it make what your social context is ? The argument could be that an enlightened and sensitive outlook and upbringing gives people less emotional baggage to have to work on, a naturally clearer and lighter self - but is that really true ?
A scientist could maybe mine data to see if more people become enlightened in a modern context than in a socially conservative one - but has anyone done that ?
Same goes with all those other paths - Christian and Islamic mysticism, shamanism etc., what has modernism got to do with altered states and enlightenment, really ?

richard baranov 2015-12-24

You obviously know nothing about Buddhism at all and, as a result, your suppositions are close to being 100% wrong. In essence they are crackpot nonsense.

loveofallwisdom 2015-12-24

Man, haters gonna hate, eh?

David, there’s an awful lot I disagree with in your interpretations, but as a PhD in Buddhist studies I can say: don’t listen to this guy.

David Chapman 2015-12-24

Thanks, Amod!

I have to admit that I really enjoy comments like richard baranov’s, and have even encouraged them a couple times (because I’m a bad person). However, most readers probably find them less entertaining than I do, so I restrain myself, and sometimes delete them if they become persistent.

D.C. Wijeratna 2016-05-20

“How Asian Buddhism imported Western ethics”
There is nothing to import and export. All religions are one [Max Muller]. This can be seen from the definition Buddhism in Oxford Dictionaries:

A widespread Asian religion or philosophy, founded by Siddartha Gautama in NE India in the 5th century bc.
There are two major traditions, Theravada and Mahayana.
The first statement is false. ‘Siddhartha Gautama’ was not the founder of Buddhism.

The second statement is an oversimplification: There are so many traditions today; by definition, they are different. For an explanation of tradition see World’s Religions, Ninian Smart or Religious Worlds by William Paden.

According to Britannica, language of Theravada is Pali; and language of Mahayana is Sanskrit, There is a canon of Theravada called Tritpitaka. What is the canon of Mahayana?

The Theravada canon is about 15000 printed pages, in an unknown language which is called Pali after Rhys Davids, who invented the language.

This discussion will never end. After all belief systems cannot be justified by argumentation.

I hope one of the participants will reply.

Shaun Bartone 2016-05-23

I have two challenges to your thesis, David. The first is what most westerners seem to have missed in their research and discussion of Buddhist modernism (which is what your discussing above, with the particular focus on ethics). And that is the influence of nationalist projects within Asian countries that were self-generated by those cultures themselves, not in response to western imperialism. This is an influence that even David McMahon missed in his work, because most westerners, when they look into Asian cultures, only see a reflection of their own culture. They tend to overlook aspects of the culture that aren’t similar to western features. The second is one that I intend to research myself, which is the influence of increasing literacy amongst Asian cultures, not only in ruling classes, but in subordinate classes as well. This is a worldwide phenomenon that is not limited to western culture, but seems to have been a general progression in the human species, i.e. increasing capacity for symbolic thought and communication. I will be researching the rate of literacy and numeracy in Asian Buddhist cultures to see if there is any link with Buddhist modernism.

Shaun Bartone 2016-05-23

Here’s an example of the internal modernization of Asian religions as a process of increasing literacy:
Charney, Michael W. (2001) Islamization and Buddhicization in Precolonial and Colonial Bengal and Southeast Asia. In: Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, 22-25 March 2001, Chicago. (Submitted)
Database: WorldCat
Recent work on Islamization in Bengal (Eaton 1993) and Buddhicization in Burma (Charney 1999) suggests that these seemingly very different developments have much in common. By looking comparatively at these developments during two phases of changing social relations, this paper seeks to formulate a model for understanding the formation, integration, and maintenance of cultural systems. In the first phase examined, early modern reciprocal social relationships and elite accumulation of agricultural surplus encouraged a system of personal patronage (by ruling elites for themselves and their clients) of saints and arhants and bodies of religious textual specialists. Extraordinary forms of personal piety (e.g., aranya-vasi practices) and religious-language textual orthodoxy according to classical textual norms conferred prestige, and encouraged the acquisition of high-status religious symbols, texts, and titles. In the second phase (the early colonial period), however, popular Muslim and Buddhist communal identities developed in the context of rural dislocation and the commercialization of rural social relations. This formation was fed by rural religious “specialists,” increased rural literacy in vernacular languages as a result of both religious and secular indigenous schools (independent of the colonial regime), the production and spread of stories reinforcing a Muslim or Theravada Buddhist world-view, reduced emphasis on textual orthodoxy, religious patronage by group conscription rather than by individuals, and the increasing inclusion in traditional agricultural festivals of Buddhist and Muslim symbols, rites, and religious specialists. Thus, parallel changes in the production and transmission of transregional religious cultures accompanied parallel social, economic, and political developments

Ann Gleig 2017-03-09

Hi David,

Hope this finds you well. Its been ages since we talked. At any rate, I’m nearly finished with the first draft of my book and I wanted to ask if I could get a little information from you as I cover your work in it. My question is:

(i) Do you have any data on traffic to the site–amount and where from. Are there any posts that stood out particularly in terms of traffic? Any general patterns to add context?



Dr. Ann Gleig Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Editor for Religious Studies Review University of Central Florida (PSY 226) 4000 Central Florida Blvd Orlando, Fl 32816-1352


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David Chapman 2017-03-10

Hi Ann,

Congratulations on the nearly-finished draft!

I do have some traffic data. I’ll reply by email—it may be a bit complicated to do here.

Shaun Bartone 2017-03-10

Modern “Buddhist ethics” is indistinguishable from current secular ethics and has nothing to do with traditional Buddhist morality. So, where did it come from, and why? The short answer is that Buddhist modernizers simply replaced traditional Buddhist morality with whatever was the most prestigious Western ethical system at the time. They decorated that with vaguely-relevant […]

And so did you, David. For Medieval, Colonialist and Modernist ‘Buddhist’ ethics, you substituted Kegan’s Western ethics of Mid-century Modern developmental psychology. Which is fine, I like it too. But you’re doing exactly the same thing as those you criticized, substituting a Western system for the older Asian versions. Pick your ethics, theirs is as good as yours or mine or anyone else’s. Ethical frameworks always work in some situations and not others.

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