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This week I did a new podcast interview with David McMahan, about his book The Making of Buddhist Modernism. The “Buddhist modernism” of the title is what I have typically called Yavanayāna: the new forms of Buddhism that have emerged in the past two centuries, which sometimes portray themselves as if they’re what Buddhism always was. (In what follows I will use the terms “Yavanayāna” and “Buddhist modernism” interchangeably.)

McMahan’s chapters are topical rather than chronological, so that he can examine the various features of the transition to Buddhist modernism. Naturally, he rounds up the most common topics: the asserted compatibility between Buddhism and science, and the idea of meditation as the most central Buddhist practice. He takes a genuinely balanced perspective on these topics that’s a welcome antidote to others. But he also touches on a few less widely noticed topics: interdependence, nature, and ordinary life. During the interview, I began to think about how closely these topics are connected with each other – and how they share a history in Buddhism that goes back long before the rise of Yavanayāna.

McMahan, more than most observers of Yavanayāna, rightly notes the extent to which Buddhist modernists affirm the very phenomena that the early Buddhists were most suspicious of. I’ve noted before how Yavanayāna Buddhists often treat “interdependence” as something to be celebrated and rejoiced in – the very opposite of the Buddha of the Pali suttas, for whom it was something to be escaped. But McMahan extends the point to two other phenomena I’d thought less about: nature and everyday life. The old texts see the forest as a fearful place, full of dangerous animals, far from contemporary ideas of celebrating nature and our harmony with it.

And in what seems to me the most original and insightful of McMahan’s contributions, he points to the way that Yavanayāna Buddhists tend to treat “mindfulness” as an appreciation of the beauties and even sacrality of everyday life in the world of mundane work and family. Drawing on Charles Taylor‘s work, McMahan notes that modernity in the West has characteristically involved just this kind of orientation. Using the term found in Ken Wilber and Martha Nussbaum, I have characterized it as Descent. Indeed for McMahan, the affirmation of everyday life is found most characteristically in modern novels, especially those of James Joyce, which highlight the subtle and particular details of everyday experience and consciousness; and it is Joyce whom Nussbaum takes, in Upheavals of Thought, as the ultimate paradigm of the descent she advocates.

It strikes me that the affirmations of interdependence and nature are themselves forms of Descent – embracing the connections of the material world with all its flaws and imperfections, avoiding attempts to transcend it. The advocates of affirming nature and interdependence tend to see themselves as opposing scientistic and technological views of the world that attack nature; but I think they’re also in their way opposed to the early Buddhist texts’ quest for an other-worldly (lokottara) nibbāna/nirvana. Buddhist modernism, then, seems to be characterized by a move from Ascent to Descent orientation – as, it would seem, is modernity in general. (I might argue that in many respects Buddhist modernism is also a move from an integrity orientation to an intimacy orientation – and in this respect it is against the grain of modernity in general. But that could be a post of its own.)

But there’s more to the story of Buddhist Ascent and Descent than this. McMahan is rightly ready in his book to note that none of the features of Buddhist modernism have been entirely novel; they all had some precedents in premodern tradition. But those precedents were found far more often in Mahāyāna than in Theravāda – and above all in East Asian Mahāyāna. Yavanayāna has a stronger Descent orientation than does Ch’an or Tiantai; but those in turn have a stronger Descent orientation than the older Indian Mahāyāna, which in turn is more of a Descent than the oldest Buddhism recorded in Pali (or Gandhari or other ancient Indian languages).

So perhaps the most interesting thing about this story is that it is in some sense linear. Depending on one’s own orientation, one could view it either as progress or as decline; but it is a continuous progress or decline, moving toward one point and away from the other. The Buddhism of the Pali suttas is not all that far removed from its contemporary rival Jainism, about as thoroughgoing an Ascent tradition as one could name – a tradition whose monks practised self-mortification in order to achieve a superhuman state of transcendental solitude. Perhaps one could even identify early Jainism as the very first step, before early Buddhism, in an Ascent-Descent movement whose latest stage is Yavanayāna.

With the rise of Mahāyāna, Indian Buddhism takes a Descending step, especially under the influence of Nāgārjuna. Nāgārjuna claims that saṃsāra and nirvana are not different from one another; nirvana is merely this world viewed properly. This statement sounds like an affirmation of everyday life, a descent, and it will be used that way later; but it only goes so far. For Indian Mahāyānists like Śāntideva, the important thing is that we normally view this world improperly, and that wrong view mires us in the terrible suffering that constitutes everyday life. Transcending that everyday world is still paramount, and one is best suited to do it as a monk, leaving work and family behind. Nature, too, remains suspect – the Indian Pure Land sūtras describe a world of beautiful buildings and carefully manicured gardens, and view it as a marked improvement on the chaotic and dangerous nature that normally surrounds us.

East Asian Buddhism, as I understand it, takes a step past Indian Mahāyāna toward Descent and immanence. For pre-Buddhist East Asian thought was already far less anthropocentric than Indian thought, more oriented to what we in the West would call nature; and Buddhism in East Asia absorbed such an orientation to the physical world. McMahan notes that classical Ch’an/Zen literature is full of stories of monks liberated at the sight of mundane natural images, like a frog jumping into a pond; this is not an idea one would find in India. Relatedly, the Huayan tradition begins to talk about interdependence in something like the positive light it takes on in Yavanayāna. For the Huayan thinker Fazang, we do not need to transcend the world, not even through knowledge of its illusory nature as in Nāgārjuna or Śāntideva: interdependence or dependent origination is the “marvelous manifestation of the cosmic Buddha,” so properly seeing the world means only “seeing it as the wonder as it is.” And East Asia also introduces the idea of sudden liberation: taking Nāgārjuna a step further, liberation is now something we can achieve not only in this life but in this moment, right here and now. (It increasingly seems to me that the Chinese and Japanese changed Buddhism at least as much as the modern West ever did.)

Despite all of this, East Asian Buddhism still retains an emphasis on monkhood. Buddhists soften their criticisms of family life when they defend the tradition in China, to win acceptance in a society whose ways of ethical thinking are heavily Confucian; but they continue to emphasize the detached, ritualized life of the monk. Ch’an and Zen affirm the everyday world, but McMahan notes that it is the monk‘s everyday world. He notes that the Zen master Dōgen had said “There is no gap between practice and enlightenment or zazen and daily life.” But, says McMahan, “In contrast to contemporary interpretations of Zen spontaneity however, this meant an intensive formalization of every activity, from meditation to using the bathroom.” (234-5) The “practice” spoken of was not merely being mindful of events in the everyday household life, but in the ritualized life of a monk. “True spontaneity, on this model, was not doing whatever one wanted; it could only come about when the extremely formal gestures and acts that made up the monastic life became ‘natural’ and effortless. Then they could be understood as expressions of buddha-nature.” (235)

Here Yavanayāna takes one more Descending step. Even though some of its most influential figures (like Anagarika Dharmapala and Thich Nhat Hanh) were and are monks, Yavanayāna Buddhists tend to downplay the importance of monasticism. Indeed, S.N. Goenka‘s organizations effectively prohibit it. One is allowed to live at a Goenka vipassanā meditation centre (and help run its activities) for a period of a few months; but one may not do it for the long term. Even if one wishes to, one cannot leave worldly society for a Goenka Buddhist society, in the way that the most devout would have been expected to follow in traditional Buddhist societies. That path of Ascent is forbidden. From the original disparagement of everyday life, Buddhists – even Theravādins like Goenka – have now moved to requiring it.

EDIT: Due to a technical glitch, the podcast was not yet available when this post first appeared. It is now available: http://newbooksinbuddhiststudies.com/2011/09/02/david-mcmahan-the-making-of-buddhist-modernism-oxford-up-2008/