Comments on “Modern Buddhism: Forged as anti-colonial weapon”

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Sabio Lantz 2011-06-22

@ David
That was a fun tour – thank you!
As you wrote earlier, McMahan’s book “The Making of Buddhist Modernism” does a great job documenting much of this too and with lots of support.
I think, as I said concern your previous posts, people may react to the abstract notion of “Modern Buddism” as if it is a real thing and that you are accusing them of having or not having it, but I think that misses your point in this post:

–> Buddhism-on-the-ground in developing countries was altered to defend again colonialism.

Ways I could see people being defensive against this observation are that they may see your post as:

(1) Implying that Buddhism before colonization was all superstitious.Real Buddhism is superstitious, nonsuperstitious Buddism is a modern invention. These folks want to think that their rationalized version of Buddhism is what the “real Buddha” taught and the rest is purely superflous cultural accretions.


(2) Calling their Buddhism Modern


(3) Calling all the values brought by modernism as faddish

Instead, I see you illustrating how ideas and history mingle and evolved into the various forms of Buddhism of today. For people who think they know what-Buddhism-is or what-Buddhism-should-be, understanding this post on the evolution of ideas may shift their opinions a little.

Florian 2011-06-23

Dear David,

I know embarrassingly little about Asian history of the 19th century. I just wonder to which extent your considerations also apply to Buddhism in the Himalayas. To my knowldege the most important development during that time in Tibet was perhaps the Rimé movement, but that does not quite seem to be based on the grounds that you are describing here. So when you speak about modern buddhism in Asia, what exactly are you referring to? Japan and South East Asia?


David Chapman 2011-06-23

Hi Florian,

Yes; Tibet’s policy of isolation left Tibetan Buddhism entirely un-modernized until the 1959 diaspora. The ways in which it has and hasn’t modernized since then is an interesting story which I don’t fully understand.

“Consensus” Buddhism is primarily rooted in modernized Theravada, with substantial input from modernized Zen. However, there are several Consensus leaders whose background is in Tibetan Buddhism (most clearly Lama Surya Das). It’s not clear how they have helped shape the core ideas and practices of the Consensus. I don’t really see any influence of Vajrayana there. Maybe that is exactly because Vajrayana wasn’t already modernized in Asia.

I may try to write about modernized Tibetan Buddhism and its relationship with the Consensus later in the series. I’m not sure I understand it well enough. I read one of Lama Surya Das’s recent books, for instance, and it’s openly non-Buddhist. His ecumenism has gone so broad that he’s talking about God and quoting Sufis, and sounding very much like Eckhart Tolle. So what to make of that?

I’d like to interpret this as a tacit recognition that Consensus Buddhism has failed. It was an attempt to re-package some Western ideology in exotic Asian clothes, and he understands that’s not working anymore. So he’s dropped the pretense and is just teaching the ideology as-is, with random quotes from assorted religions to make it sound like he has more to say than your uncle Bert.

I don’t know, I’m probably missing the point.

There’s also the fascinating question of how Tibetan Buddhism would have modernized if the Chinese hadn’t come in. The current Dalai Lama’s fascination with science is a clue, and there’s there’s the intriguing story of Gendun Chöpel. But, this would all be speculation…


Florian 2011-06-24

Dear David,

Thanks, that is pretty much all along the lines I had thought about it. I had seen the film about Gendun Chöpel quite a while ago, and had almost forgotten about it. Interesting story, though also quite saddening in many ways. Especially when it comes to the political prisoners in Lhasa and all that. There are also some quite illuminating stories in “The Mishap Lineage” by Trungpa Rinpoche, going right into the 20th century,

All the best,

NellaLou 2011-06-25

Here’s another viewpoint regarding a Japanese “reformer”. Inoue Enryo sought to re-vision Buddhist practice in Japan. Also some interesting points regarding the category of religion, as to whether that is an intrinsic Occidental notion or if it is a broader conception.

While I’ve not yet located the original article being critiqued here it provides some interesting background for “Buddhism as export”. Not necessarily an anti-colonial weapon but more of a repackaging.

David Chapman 2011-06-25

Thank you! This comes at a good time. I’m doing the research now for a post on the late-1800s reinvention of Buddhism as a “World Religion” (as opposed to a set of “local tribal superstitions”).

Csaba 2011-07-31

“Later in this blog series, I will cover the Protestant Reformation and rationalization of Buddhism in much more detail. I’ll also look at two case studies: Japan and Thailand. Those are the two most important sources for current Consensus Buddhism.”

These case studies were very insightful. What I wonder about though… what about the Tibetan connection? Tibetan Buddhism also seem to be a major component in the consensus of Consensus Buddhism. (Actually it’s the Dalai Lama who is the most engimatic superstar of Buddhism in the West, visible far beyond Buddhist confines.) Can you / will you elaborate on the cultural / historical background on that, how this spice got into the stew, and how tantra and other eccentricities of the Tibetan tradition was digested by the Baby Boomers?

Csaba 2011-07-31

(Now read #comment-163, that partly answers my question.)

David Chapman 2011-08-01

Hi, Csaba — Yes, this is a hard question. Tentatively, the parts of Tibetan Buddhism that got into the Consensus stew are mostly Tibetan Sutrayana. It’s got Tibetan flavoring, but it’s the same stuff. Which is why the Consensus often talks about the compatibility of “all the great traditions.” By which they mean Westernized Theravada, Westernized Zen, and Westernized Tibetan Sutrayana, and don’t mean Pure Land, for instance. They also don’t mean Tantra, which is too scary to deal with—and would be incompatible. I’m not sure, though. I suppose I need to read more Lama Surya Das, but after a couple of volumes I can’t figure out where he’s coming from.

I expect to do a post soon on ways Tantra might develop in this century.

gwern 2012-03-26

One of the most successful Protestantizations was in Korea (and especially South Korea), which had suppressed Buddhism in favor of ritualistic Confucianism:

James R. Martin 2018-02-28

Quote: “The Buddhisms was have now were created with....”

I had to read that koan four times before realizing it was a typo.

I believe you meant to say “The Buddhisms we have now were created with....”

Thanks for your engaging writing.

David Chapman 2018-02-28

Whoops! Thank you very much indeed. I have fixed the typo.

Peter Yodkaew 2019-05-08

Throughout its history, Buddhism borrowed vocabulary of the interpretative communities it was introduced. For example, Thai Theravada Buddhism had been affected by Mon and Khmer worldviews before it was adopted in Ayutthaya as a mainstream faith. Entering the era of globalization, Buddhism was affected by the ongoing rationalism and other scientific discourses when those Buddhist communities in that part of the world started weaving various modern discourses and imaginations into their Buddhist texts. Having said that, Buddhist Laws of Nature, Eight Fold Noble Path, Triraksana, Paticasamupada are deemed as the core of its mainstream teachings while most cosmological accounts expressed in other Buddhist texts were added presumably in India and Lanka. This is part of my studies and personal observation since I read Thai and other subjects in relation to regional cultures and languages.

Peter Yodkaew 2019-05-08

Buddhist worldview has been transcribed into varied ethno linguistic systems worldwide. However, its epistemology has never been watered down or totally altered, thanks to its strange or distinctive featuress. No matter how.. our human languages are limited in its semantic scope, thus failing to convey the true meanings and significances of most Buddhist thoughts and mental phenomena.

Peter Yodkaew 2019-05-09

Dear David, I love reading your articles, especially your vivid figurative explanation but you seem to overemphasize the concept of colonialism and postcolonialism, especially the impact of rationalism, Christianity and science upon certain forms of Buddhism while at the same time little attention is paid to the questions like how Buddhist teachings survive into modern times how other textual evidence can reflect or document sociocultural interactions at local, regional, and global levels that functioned over the past millennia to shape the way we meditated, the way we argued, the way we talked about the Buddha, and the way we crafted Buddhist teachings. For me, a lot of Buddhist teachings are not in line with the evolving knowledge you refer to as science. However, this does not necessarily mean that the said science is superior or accurate. Few hundreds years ago, the status of science is quite ridiculous, using Michel Foucault’s approach.

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