Has the modern world discovered the ancient truths of Buddhism or simply invented a new version?
For many, Buddhism appears uniquely compatible with modern lifestyles and worldviews. It provides staunch atheists—those who do not believe in the existence of any god—a religious experience that does not require belief in supernatural beings. On the contrary, it also provides New Age spiritualists with a connection to a deeper reality beyond the limits of everyday observation and scientific knowledge.
Along with its nonjudgmental exploration of emotions and physical sensations, Buddhist mindfulness has influenced many schools of contemporary psychology. Buddhist philosophy, which accepts constant change and the inherent impermanence of all things, resonates even with today’s fast-paced and fragmented societies.
A few years ago, when I started practicing meditation and studying the popular teachings of the Buddhist faith, I wondered how a 2,500-year-old religion could be so unique. There seemed to be two possible answers.
One is that the Buddha discovered eternal truths through meditation that are now confirmed by contemporary philosophy and science. This was a good answer, because it meant that he could be right about everything and therefore we can attain nirvana (absence of suffering) by following his path.
Another possible answer was that modern Buddhism is a new invention, using the language and practices of the ancient religion but giving them new meaning. This response was depressing, because it implied that much of modern Buddhism could be a form of disrespectful cultural appropriation, promoting exotic Asian spirituality and turning it into a passing consumer fad. to do
As someone who studies the cultural impact of Buddhism in the West, the question of how this ancient religion could become so modern is questionable. So I turned to the scholars who have documented the formation of modern Buddhism: Donald Lopez Jr., David McMahon, Jeff Wilson, and Ann Gillig. But I soon discovered that the question was more complicated than the distinct possibilities I had outlined above.
Modernizers of Buddhism in East and West
First, I had to overcome my initial assumption that modern Buddhism is a purely Western phenomenon. It actually emerged in the East, when Asian countries were struggling with colonialism and the influence of Christian missionaries.
In the 19th century, visionary monks tried to take Buddhist philosophy and meditation outside the monastery walls, bringing the religion closer to the people, much as Protestant reformers had done with Christianity in Europe. At the same time, Western scholars and spiritual seekers saw in the ancient texts a nontheistic religion—the belief that whether or not gods exist, they have no bearing on how we should live our lives. Because it focused on a mortal man and not on God, it was compatible with modern rationalism.
On the one hand, all these revivalists certainly changed Buddhism, making it unrecognizable to many Buddhists. They invented a new, modern Buddha, no longer involved in the reincarnated universe, multiple heavens and hells, demons and gods. His retelling of Buddhist doctrines transformed these supernatural elements, or turned them into psychological symbols rather than actual forces.
However, one could argue that Buddhism had already changed several times as it spread from India to the rest of Asia over the centuries. The efforts of these modernizers were the latest in a long line of reconstructions of tradition.
What I found, rather than an either/or answer, was a fascinating cast of modern Buddhist characters. The 19th-century Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw traveled the country to teach meditation and found study groups. The forms of Vipassana meditation that he pioneered are the blueprint for techniques that are still found in courses and manuals around the world today.
American Civil War veteran Henry Steele Olcott and Russian aristocrat Madame Helene Petrovna Blavatsky traveled together to Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) and joined the struggle against Christian missionaries there.
Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism is a forerunner of today’s fully secularized Buddhists, while Blavatsky’s mystical books tell of an ancient secret society based in Tibet. His work is reminiscent of some of today’s New Age ideas, as well as popular comic fiction such as Marvel’s Doctor Strange series, in which his character is an Ancient One, a sorcerer from a secret land in the Himalayas. Olcott, Blavatsky and the monks of Ceylon must have had strange and fascinating conversations.
The parade of charismatic figures continues to this day with the venerable and recently deceased Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who along with Jon Kabat-Zinn helped make mindfulness a household word.
Rather than putting modern Buddhism on the test of authenticity, the more interesting story is how such diverse peoples have developed Buddhism, philosophy and philosophy based on their own personal struggles, or their social struggles with violence, injustice and broad-mindedness. Founded schools of psychology. health problems. And then how some of them became larger-than-life figures, celebrities and icons.
My recent essay on the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her argues that the disembodied AI protagonist Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is a Buddha-like figure, pointing to a future where AI pushes the limits of normal thought and experience. crosses over
It’s interesting that Jones draws from the concept of Buddhist enlightenment as a model for an imagined future where our machines surpass our cognitive ability. It demonstrates the continuing relevance of the Buddha’s insights to the problems and challenges we face today and in the future.
My journey to understand why Buddhism makes so much sense to the modern world also led to a 14-minute documentary called Why Buddhism Now? It traces the modernization of Buddhism and concludes:
The new modern religion of Buddhist mindfulness, like all religions, speaks to our most pressing social problems and concerns. It can be part of these problems or part of their solution. Buddhism offers no definitive answers, only an invitation to meditate, to explore experience, to observe the thoughts of the mind, and to learn from the endless flow of all living and non-living things.