Buddhism’s Journey Into Modernity

Buddhism’s Journey Into Modernity
David Xi-Ken Astor

I have been viewing John Bush’s wonderful and acclaimed trilogy entitled Journey Into Buddhism.  It is more then just a documentary that highlights the practice of Buddhism around the world.  Bush, a long time practicing Tibetan Buddhist, has produced and directed a visual work that goes beyond words to bring a broad brush introduction of Buddhism through images and explanations that at times are quite profound.  He has no agenda other then to hold up a mirror that reflects how Buddhism appears today through action and iconography.  My only regret is that he has not brought the camera lens to reflected Buddhism from a Japanese perspective.  But that in no way diminishes the value of this work of art.

What this work does do for me, as do books in general, is to raise questions relative to how Buddhism WAS and how it is NOW.  One striking fact that this work brings up when looking at all the abandoned Buddhist structures built in antiquity, is what happened to make Buddhism vanish?  The Buddhist religion was so prevalent in both practice and political dominance for centuries throughout Asia. Now it is like an island amidst a sea of third-world bustle.  The work is a direct confrontation of the old meeting the demands of modern cultures.  I say cultures, because modern Buddhism is not only about the West, but about how Eastern cultures also confront the realities of change.  There is an old Tibetan saying that “when the iron bird flies, Buddhism will go to the West”.  One glaring difference between the West and East is that in Asian countries, contemporary society still has the very ancient imagery, architecture, and practices that go back centuries.  While in the West we have a clean slate on which to set Buddhism down that reflect our Western cultural values, as well as our concepts of artful display of how we wish to show our belief in a spiritual practice.  This trilogy confronts these differences head on, it seems to me, especially from my monastic point of view.

In many ways this is not that different from how Christianity has emerged from the dark ages, but the big difference in the Christian migration into modernity is that it started in the West.  Nevertheless, we have today very ancient Christian iconography sitting along side modern Christian-based structures of both architecture and practices.  And this progress has been so slow that from the modern Western perspective it seems that what we see is very natural.  But when it comes to our confronting Buddhist practice in our contemporary communities, Buddhism seems quite foreign.  It has yet to meet the qualifications necessary for cultural authenticity in a way that overcomes it’s Eastern appearance.  This is like “birds of a feather” kind of thing.  But progress is being made as more Western Buddhist teachers move into leadership roles and bring fresh perspective that blows away the cobwebs of time.

I, and others, raise the question, “Can Buddhism retain a place for itself in the modern world?”  We must first recognize that this question cannot be answered intelligently if the ordinary Western clichés about Eastern religion(s) are to hold sway.  We cannot even begin to understand Buddhism if we only obtain our understanding from outdated images and sources, not to mention prejudicial assumptions whose only objective is to erect walls of ignorance.  For the past few decades, Western Buddhism has seemed to be engaged from an existential worldview.   And Zen Buddhism has made more inroads of acceptance, perhaps, on this bases.  Zen is not theology, and it makes no claim to deal with theological “truths” in any form.  Nor is it an abstract metaphysic.  It is a concrete and living practice which explains itself not in theoretical propositions but in acts emerging out of a certain quality of consciousness and of awareness.   It is because of this difference, that Buddhism, and Zen, has had an uphill slog for social acceptance.

In an era in which traditional religious documents are being passed through the sieve of a most refined scientific criticism, the Buddhist sutras are no more fortunate than any other religious cannon and may turn out to be in some respects more vulnerable than others.  But Zen has always assumed, as one of its basic principles, that enlightenment demands a certain freedom with respect to the authority of any literal canonical text.  Eihei Dogen said as much when he referred to Zen as being beyond scripture, doctrine, and ordinary reasoning.  He was pointing to Dharma itself.  The aim of Buddhism is the ultimate emancipation from duality.  This is why to some Christians, Buddhism seems to be atheistic.  And their understanding is correct.  This is the challenge Buddhism has in gaining authenticity, as it goes against the established Western norm of what “creation” is, when measured against it’s doctrine of Dependent Origination.  The difference being that the notion of creation is a noun rather than a verb.   A Creator is neither affirmed nor denied by Buddhism, insofar as such affirmations and denials are dualistic, therefore irrelevant, which is precisely an emancipation from all forms of dualistic thought.  This is as much a  philosophical and psychological issues as it is a spiritual one.  And as such, is the heart of the issue surrounding Buddhism gaining wide acceptance in a well established God-based culture.   There is so much common ground in how Siddhartha Gotama and Jesus saw their world that could act as a catalyst for mutual dialogue that will act to rip at the wall of misunderstanding, if there was only a chance to do so.

When I speak about Buddhism gaining authority, I am referring to cultural acceptance, and not how individuals look for authority upon which to base a spiritual practice.  In Zen, true authority we come to recognize is when we awaken to how we really are, which is itself authority and does not rely on anything outside ourselves.  True authority is where there is no distinction between that which relies, and that which is relied upon.   Unfortunately, in my opinion, Buddhism has not done a good enough job in the West to help reconcile our differences with established norms.  How we come to view our world relative to form, and the principles of interdependence and interconnectiveness is not so easy to convey.  And it is this very fact that keeps the mortar in this wall of separation strong.

“One in the many” in everyday life, and in the ordinary world around us, is the foundation for Zen humanism.   Hence the very concept of Nirvana itself becomes dynamic and existential, and a basic humanistic one.  The Buddha came to realize that Nirvana is nothing but our realization of our existential self and the human form being reflected as a Universal expression.  So, Nirvana is not only a transformative reality, but a personal one as well.  When combined with Zen’s goal of “realizing the self” and actively engaging the world around us in order to promote human flourishing, we see that Nirvana is not an escape from phenomena and from the everyday world with its problems and risks, but a realization of our real natures to work to elevate suffering of all beings.   This is also what Jesus was expressing in his Sermon On The Mount.  Yes, the language is different and so is the theology now developed around his life, but when we learn to get past all the foreign elements still reflected in Buddhist practice images, and concentrate on the message, it is where Buddhism will shine a different shadow that will no longer be so threatening.

Some schools of traditional Buddhism as practiced in the West, in their original forms that have not changed for centuries, are formal, rigid, doctrinal, sterile, and fit for the museum, irrelevant in the modern world, not because they are out of touch with current realities, but because they are out of touch with human experience itself.   Buddhism in the West has moved away from the monastic community as a Sangha, and now in large part is made up of lay communities of active members that are often led by lay teachers.  And while it is still vital that a strong monastic model be supported for the purpose of scholarly study and communal  devotion, the focus in the West is on lay practice.  This strengthens the culture it finds itself in by contributing to passing on to the next generation the ethical and moral principles that make a viable civilized society.  This is not just the responsibility of one tradition over another.  A pluralistic social practice helps broaden human understanding and prevents stagnation into the pitfalls of institutionalism.   Once again we find ourselves on existentialist ground, involved in a critique which has the potential for alienation which substitutes ideas and forms for authentically experienced realities.  This is a course common to all arbitrary and purely authoritarian orthodoxies, whether in religion, politics, culture or science.

The challenge that Buddhism has is one of creative transformation while not loosing the core of Buddhist thought.  And at the same time crafting the message that is relevant to our culture’s interests.  In my case, American.  The problem of human suffering is unsolvable as long as men are prevented by their collective and individual delusions from directly confronting social inequities within themselves.  One must break through these illusory forms and come directly to grips with ourselves and our relationship with others.  Though there are many important differences between the various traditions, they do have very much in common too, including a few basic assumptions about ethical and moral conduct, and social justice.   It is on this platform that Buddhism, in all its various forms, will become a force for spiritual reform in the modern world.


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