Traditional and modern Buddhism: an illusory duopoly

Buddhism in the West has settled into two main camps: traditional and modern. They now coexist peacefully, but both actively suppress the alternatives that are neither traditional nor modern.

I think traditional and modern approaches are both unworkable, in ways that may lead to their extinction in this century. That means other alternatives are critical if we want Buddhism to survive.

Traditional and modern: underlying questions and answers

“How should Buddhism be? Why should it be that way?”

Traditionalism and modernism are ways of answering those questions.

The traditionalist answer is: “It has always been our way. It was set up that way by Shakyamuni Buddha. Other versions of Buddhism are degenerations, caused by people changing the original form. They mixed it with other religions, added their own made-up stuff, or only got part of Buddha’s message, or they garbled it. We’ve got the complete, original thing.”

There are two problems with this:

Modernism tries to answer “why should Buddhism be our way?” by appealing to general, abstract principles:

This has two similar problems:

Many people reject scientific rationality. Many people don’t think there is any way to get special access to reality. Many people doubt the universality of ethical and justice claims. Many people don’t want to be saints.

Claims that Buddhism is (or can be) rational or scientific seem dubious. Meditation is a great thing, but it probably has nothing to do with intuition, a supposed true self, or “ultimate reality.” Buddhism doesn’t seem to have anything more to do with justice than any other religion does. If you want to benefit people, Buddhism isn’t the most obvious place to start.

Forming a duopoly

Traditionalism and modernism are naturally opposed to each other:

Currently, in the West, neither has enough political power to suppress the other. So, somewhere around 20 years ago, they made an implicit truce. In public, they mostly avoid dissing each other. (This is part of the Western Buddhist Consensus: “we must make respectful gestures toward traditional Buddhists, although privately we think they’re terribly wrong.”)

Mixing traditional and modern

Many Buddhist groups are both traditional and modern, mixing elements of each, and using both traditional and modern justifications. This creates a perceived spectrum from traditional to modern. Such mixtures are probably more widely useful than either extreme. I explain in a later post that the political power of the Consensus, plus market dynamics, have made it more difficult to occupy this middle ground.

Neither traditional nor modern

In the 1980s, the duopoly had not yet formed, so there was a much greater freedom to experiment with alternative approaches than in the 1990s.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Shambhala Training (which was my gate into Buddhism) is an excellent example.

Shambhala Training worked extremely well for me, and for thousands of other people. But it couldn’t survive the imposition of the duopoly unchanged.

The two sides are united in their condemnation of possibilities that are neither traditional nor modern:

Trungpa Rinpoche’s successor has revised Shambhala to make it both more traditional, and more modern. He’s added a lot of traditionalist Sutric teachings (which seem to me incompatible with its Dzogchen roots). He’s also worked to make it “more accessible” or user-friendly, which I suspect involves de-emphasizing anything that contradicts modern principles.

A new opening for non-traditional, non-modern Buddhism?

Traditional and modern Buddhists divvied up control of the Buddhist media (magazines and book publishers) between them. From the early 1990s until recently, it was difficult for non-traditional, non-modern Buddhists to get heard. For various reasons—including the internet—that’s changing.

In this blog series, I’m suggesting that the duopoly is starting to lose its grip. Exhibit A would be Brad Warner. He is neither traditional nor modern:

On the other hand:

Alternative answers

I suspect that there have long been many little-known approaches to Buddhism that were neither traditional nor modern. To help loosen the duopoly, it would be good to make a list of them. Can you help? Please post examples in the comment section, below.

Other approaches will have different answers to “why should Buddhism be that way.” Here are some alternatives to “because Buddha said so” and “because of our universal principles.”

“Because it works.”

As an engineer, I like this answer a lot, and it seems to have new resonance recently. The Buddhist Geeks site often invokes this principle—naturally enough! Daniel Ingram, often interviewed there, has particularly championed it.

There’s an emerging “pragmatic dharma movement,” opposed to both traditionalism and modern Consensus Western Buddhism. It’s against ritual, hierarchy, institutions, and Asian cultural influences; it favors rationality, secularism, transparency, and popular Western culture. On the other hand, it’s also against niceness, psychotherapy, New Age junk, and talks about a return to original, core techniques that come out of ancient scriptures.

If there seems to be a lot of “against” in that, it might be because anyone who wants to operate outside the duopoly now has to explain forcefully that they are in neither camp, and why that’s OK—or else they will get assimilated or dismissed.

“It’s straight outta tha’ dharmakaya.”

The more I read Buddhist history, the more I realize Buddhism has constantly, drastically innovated, in spite of its rhetoric of continuity and tradition. So the question “why should we accept this new version” has always been hot. Usually, the answer is “it’s not new—it’s the original one,” and then some fake history is concocted to justify that.

Tibetan Buddhism allows “terma,” or revelations. It is explicit that these are new teachings that specifically address the new circumstances of the time when they are revealed. There are three different explanations for why this is OK.

The explanation I like is “it just popped out of the dharmakaya.” [Dharmakaya is creative, enlightened emptiness.] The Nyingma tradition regards this as the most correct of the three.

It’s a no-explanation explanation. “Here it is; there’s nothing more to say.”

Shambhala Training was a terma. It just popped into Trungpa Rinpoche’s head. There is no justification for it beyond that.

The Aro gTér, which I have practiced, is another terma. It too is neither traditional nor modern, for which it has been criticized from both sides.

“I like it.”

Many social theorists say the modern era is over. It ended sometime around 1980. Modernity was the period during which Western culture tried to find answers in universal founding principles. For various reasons (this is a big subject), it ended in failure.

In the post-1980 world, chaotic, kaleidoscopic fragments of culture recombine, according to patterns that have no universal justification. We have to learn to cope with the vertigo of no ultimate foundations. Perhaps not just to cope, but to revel in it.

In this world, the answer to “why?” can only be “because I like it.”

I like that answer, too.