ascent/descent, Chan/Zen 禪, Charles Taylor, David McMahan, Dōgen, Fazang, Huayan, interview, James Joyce, Martha Nussbaum, modernity, Nāgārjuna, natural environment, Pali suttas, Pure Land, S.N. Goenka, Śāntideva, Siddhattha Gotama (Buddha)
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/
Justin Whitaker said:
Very good post, Amod. I look forward to the podcast. I still need to read McMahan’s book – it’s on a shelf waiting alongside many others – so perhaps this will encourage me to do so sooner rather than later.
A couple notes: Dhamapala wasn’t a monk, but an Anagarika, a homeless one, a state between householder and bhikkhu.
Regarding nature, I don’t think all of Pali Buddhism can be boiled down to their seeing forests as fearful, dangerous places. This is misleading if you don’t mention that it is just these qualities that make the forests important to early monastics as places of practice. Indeed such a fearful reverence can surely be traced in the works of many modern environmentalists, both Buddhist and non. While such places may have been feared in the Buddha’s time, they were also respected, and that respect is an emotion well worth recapturing today.
Amod Lele said:
Good to hear from you, Justin. Re forests: quite correct. But it’s important to stress that the forest was respected because of its danger, not because of its tranquility or beauty. Though I think you make a good point that that itself could be an important resource for contemporary environmentalism: we need to respect nature not necessarily because we like it, but because it can kick our butts.
This is not to counter anything you say, Amod, but just a re-emphasis of what seems to me the main point about the forest: simply that it is not the village. It’s where one goes to withdraw–a tradition that of course far antedates Buddhism, and is to some extent transformed by it. The desert plays an analogous role in early Christianity, and the devil is said in some texts to have an especial prominence there. (Is the same true of Mara, Lord of Illusion, in the forest?) The point seems to be that if one is going to do battle with the distractions that arise within, in order to realize just what mind is, one might find it helpful to be as free as possible from distractions from without.
Ethan Mills said:
I think you’re right that East Asian Buddhism changed Buddhism just as much (I’d say far more) than Westerners have changed Buddhism so far, although we need to give Yavanayāna a few hundred more years. Stephen Batchelor makes that point in (I think) Alone With Others and I’m convinced because it explains the fact that I don’t understand East Asian Buddhism at all and at least slightly understand South Asian Buddhism!
I’m also not sure of the monolithic nature of Pāli Buddhism such that you can say it’s necessarily just Ascent or just fearful of nature. Those may be general tendencies, but those texts are not very systematic so people see all kinds of interesting things. Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, for instance, sometimes sees a kind of theory in which nirvāṇa is a state you can go into and out of. Now, he may be (and probably is) wrong about that, but I think the Pāli Canon is just vague and varied enough that you can get a lot of differing interpretations out of it. I like Buddhadāsa because he thinks carefully about the implications of the passages he sees as discussing ultimate truth (for instance, he stresses no self over rebirth and says the idea of applying dependent origination over three lifetimes is pointless).
Amod Lele said:
True, true, the reality is always more complex. At the same time, I am a firm believer in trying to generalize and simplify things enough that you can actually say something about it – if you let everything stand in its full complexity, you’re effectively aiming at a 1:1 scale map, which is not only impossible but useless. McMahan has a nice line in the book where he jokes that he wants his next project to be proving that something or other actually is monolithic. :) OTOH, I would be interested in seeing the passages Buddhadasa takes as evidence that you can go out of nirvana.
Ethan Mills said:
It would be fun to argue that something really is monolithic! “The Monolith of the Nikāyas” or what not (it would be hard not to sneak in a reference to the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey). Of course, generalizing and simplifying can be quite useful, especially when you want to say philosophical things, but it can also be interesting to point out the statistical outliers, too.
As for Buddhadāsa, I was pretty sure he said something like that and I was really trying to remember where. I briefly checked some of his books that I own. He definitely thought that nibbana is achievable without dying, but that’s uncontroversial. His point is really to make Buddhism more practical so people don’t just say, “Well, I’ll just be a monk in a future life.”
In my despair, I googled “buddhadasa” and “nibbana” and found an essay I probably read at some point:
Here’s a quote from that essay that *almost* says what I thought he says:
“Any reactive emotion that arises ceases when its causes and conditions are finished. Although it may be a temporary quenching, merely a temporary coolness, it still means Nibbana, even if only temporarily. Thus, there’s a temporary Nibbana for those who still can’t avoid some defilements.”
So, maybe he thinks there’s such a thing as “temporary nibbana,” although he doesn’t directly cite the Nikāyas to support this idea. I also may have gotten this idea from a book by Peter Jackson (not the director) called “Buddhadāsa: Theravāda Buddhism and Modernist Reform in Thailand.” I’ll let you know if I figure out why I thought what I said I thought.
Amod Lele said:
Cool, do let me know. That’s a very interesting passage you found, though. It’s basically taking the etymology of nirvana/nibbana and effectively using it to argue for the existence of what in (North-)East Asia would have been known as sudden liberation, within a Pali context.
Now that I think about it, one of the more interesting developments in the Yavanayana of recent years – which I have not seen a history of, in McMahan or anywhere else – is the idea of Buddhist non-sectarianism, and more generally the dialogue between far-flung Buddhist traditions. It’s something I’ve written (critically) about a couple of times:
What I like about Buddhadasa’s idea here is he’s not trying to say the sectarian distinctions don’t matter; as far as I know, he still thinks Theravada is the best. Instead he’s taking an East Asian Mahayana idea and arguing to make it a comfortable fit within Pali Buddhism – which I think is pretty darn cool.
I know there’s a book “The British Discovery of Buddhism” (Philip Almond I think?) that talks about how Europeans first slowly came to realize that the Thai sasana phut and the Chinese fo jiao and the Tibetan lamaists all traced their traditions back to the same Indian guy. I haven’t read it; I wonder if he talks about this sort of thing, about inter-Buddhist dialogue.
Ethan Mills said:
I found another interesting passage from Buddhadāsa’s book Key to Natural Truth, p. 26: “In everyday language, nibbāna is a dream-city; in Dhamma language, nibbāna is the complete and utter distinction of dukkha right here and now.”
Again this isn’t quite what I first claimed and I was probably just misremembering something, but Buddhadāsa is generally interested in making Buddhism more practical and down-to-Earth so this fits that tendency. He was influenced by East Asian Buddhism, but as you said, never gave up on Theravāda even though he criticized a lot of Theravāda orthodoxy as incompatible with the Pali texts. Probably partly because of Buddhadāsa, I see a lot more of the ideas that Mahayāna lords over Theravāda and Early Buddhism (emptiness, compassion, etc.) as already present in the early texts in some form. Mahayāna’s smug superiority complex is undeserved (and how could a Bodhisattva be so smug anyway?). So, it’s not quite as weird as it sounds for Buddhadāsa to talk about emptiness (using the Pali version of course: suññatā).
Is it “distinction of dukkha” or “extinction of dukkha”?
Either way, I don’t understand the quote.
Ethan Mills said:
It’s supposed to be “extinction.” Sorry. By “everyday language” he means how people tend to talk about nibbana as something other-worldly so “dream-city” is a metaphor for that.
Thanks. That makes sense.