In my last post I spoke of Yavanayāna Buddhism, the new modernized, Western-influenced Buddhism (including Engaged Buddhism) that focuses on meditation and denies the supernatural. Many contemporary Buddhologists look at Yavanayāna with barely concealed disdain. Donald López’s article on belief in the volume Critical Terms for Religious Studies, for example, is a prolonged sneer toward the views of Henry Steel Olcott, the nineteenth-century reformer who made much of Sri Lankan Buddhism what it is today.
I’ve heard several fellow academics look at a Buddhism like Olcott’s or Walpola Rahula’s or even S.N. Goenka’s and snort “That’s not Buddhism!” And certainly, as noted, Yavanayāna Buddhism turns out quite different from what the Buddha actually taught. But few of these same academics are willing to turn around and say about East Asian Buddhism: that is not Buddhism. And yet, I would argue, East Asian Buddhist tradition has (at least at times) gone even further than North American Buddhism from anything that could be identified as the Buddha’s teaching. It’s not just Mahāyāna that I’m concerned about here; Mahāyāna Buddhism as such has its origins in the j?taka stories of the Buddha’s previous lives, which are some of the oldest Buddhist texts we know of. Rather, I think of doctrines like the Tiantai view that material things have a permanent and enduring nature – contradicting not only the classical Buddhist metaphysical view of non-self and non-essence, but also its ethical implications that material things are not worthy of our pursuit. If we’re willing to grant that Tiantai is legitimately Buddhist, I would argue, we cannot but do the same for Yavanayāna.
East Asian Buddhism is often seen as an “authentic” Buddhism in a way that Yavanayāna is not. But I’ve already posted my misgivings about the concept of authenticity. East Asian Buddhism seems authentic because people now are born into it, rather than choosing to join it as they do with Goenka; but we value what isn’t chosen because that’s what modern capitalism makes scarce. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that “authentic” Buddhism is a better path to follow; indeed, a certain romanticism may mislead us into thinking that nothing modern can possibly be good.