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Buddhist modernism

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Title: Buddhist modernism  
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Subject: Buddhism in the West, Nanavira Thera, Noah Levine, Nyanatiloka, Mysticism
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Buddhist modernism

Buddhist modernism (also referred to as Protestant Buddhism, Modern Buddhism[1] and modernist Buddhism[2]) consists of the "forms of Buddhism that have emerged out of an engagement with the dominant cultural and intellectual forces of modernity."[3] While there can be no complete, essential definition of what constitutes a Buddhist Modernist tradition, most scholars agree that the influence of Protestant and Enlightenment values has largely defined some of its more conspicuous attributes.[4] David McMahan cites "western monotheism; rationalism and scientific naturalism; and Romantic expressivism" as influences.[5]

Examples of such movements and traditions of thought may include Humanistic Buddhism, Buddhist humanism, Secular Buddhism, and Engaged Buddhism, linkages between Buddhism and Gnosticism, the Japanese-initiated Nichiren Buddhism and Soka Gakkai, the New Kadampa Tradition and the missionary activity of Tibetan Buddhist masters in the West (leading the quickly growing Buddhist movement in France), the Vipassana Movement, the Triratna Buddhist Community, Dharma Drum Mountain, Fo Guang Shan, Buddha's Light International Association, Tzu Chi, and Juniper Foundation.


  • Overview 1
  • D.T. Suzuki 2
  • "New Buddhism" and Japanese Nationalism 3
  • Other "New Buddhisms" 4
  • Lopez's concept of "Modern Buddhism" 5
  • See also 6
  • Footnotes 7
  • References 8


Buddhist modernist traditions often consist of a deliberate de-emphasis of the ritual and metaphysical elements of the religion, as these elements are seen as incommensurate with the discourses of modernity. Renunciation of worldly matters, devotional practices, ceremonies and the invocation of bodhisattvas among other traditionally widespread practices are often perceived as culturally contingent, therefore relatively dispensable, sometimes inconvenient or impracticable. A number of Buddhist Modernist traditions, especially during the colonial period in Buddhist countries, have also been characterized as a defensive reaction against the threat of Western hegemony, whereby Buddhist Modernists attempted to protect their native Buddhist traditions from modernist attacks by presenting their traditions as being more commensurate with, and often transcending, modernity.[6] Buddhist Modernist traditions have also been characterized as being "detraditionalized", in that they are often presented in such a way that occludes their historical construction. Instead, Buddhist Modernists often employ an essentialized description of their tradition, where key tenets are described as universal and sui generis.

D.T. Suzuki

For a number of reasons, several scholars have identified D.T. Suzuki—whose works were popular in the West from the 1930s onward, and particularly in the 1950s and 60s—as a "Buddhist Modernist." Suzuki's depiction of Zen Buddhism can be classified as Buddhist Modernist in that it employs all of these traits. That he was a university-educated intellectual steeped in knowledge of Western philosophy and literature allowed him to be particularly successful and persuasive in arguing his case to a Western audience. As Suzuki presented it, Zen Buddhism was a highly practical religion whose emphasis on direct experience made it particularly comparable to forms of mysticism that scholars such as William James had emphasized as the fountainhead of all religious sentiment.[7] As McMahan explains, "In his discussion of humanity and nature, Suzuki takes Zen literature out of its social, ritual, and ethical contexts and reframes it in terms of a language of metaphysics derived from German Romantic idealism, English Romanticism, and American Transcendentalism."[8] Drawing on these traditions, Suzuki presents a version of Zen that has been described by hostile critics as detraditionalized and essentialized:

Zen is the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion. Every intellectual effort must culminate in it, or rather must start from it, if it is to bear any practical fruits. Every religious faith must spring from it if it has to prove at all efficiently and livingly workable in our active life. Therefore Zen is not necessarily the fountain of Buddhist thought and life alone; it is very much alive also in Christianity, Mohammedanism, in Taoism, and even positivistic Confucianism. What makes all these religions and philosophies vital and inspiring, keeping up their usefulness and efficiency, is due to the presence in them of what I may designate as the Zen element.[9]

Scholars such as Robert Sharf have argued that such statements also betray inklings of nationalist sentiment, common to many early Buddhist Modernists, in that they portray Zen, which Suzuki had described as representing the essence of the Japanese people, as superior to all other religions.

"New Buddhism" and Japanese Nationalism

Scholars such as Martin Verhoeven and Robert Sharf, as well as Japanese Zen monk G. Victor Sogen Hori, have argued that the breed of Japanese Zen that was propagated by New Buddhism ideologues, such as Imakita Kosen and Soen Shaku, was not typical of Japanese Zen during their time, nor is it typical of Japanese Zen now. Although greatly altered by the Meiji Restoration, Japanese Zen still flourishes as a monastic tradition. The Zen Tradition in Japan, aside from the New Buddhism style of it, required a great deal of time and discipline from monks that laity would have difficulty finding. Zen monks were often expected to have spent several years in intensive doctrinal study, memorizing sutras and poring over commentaries, before even entering the monastery to undergo koan practice in sanzen with the roshi.[10] The fact that Suzuki himself was able to do so as a layman was largely a result of New Buddhism.

At the onset of the Meiji period, in 1868, when Japan entered into the international community and began to industrialize and modernize at an astounding rate, Buddhism was briefly persecuted in Japan as "a corrupt, decadent, anti-social, parasitic, and superstitious creed, inimical to Japan's need for scientific and technological advancement."[11] The Japanese government dedicated itself to the eradication of the tradition, which was seen as foreign, incapable of fostering the sentiments that would be vital for national, ideological cohesion. In addition to this, industrialization had taken its toll on the Buddhist establishment as well, leading to the breakdown of the parishioner system that had funded monasteries for centuries.[12] In response to this seemingly intractable state of turmoil, a group of modern Buddhist leaders emerged to argue for the Buddhist cause.[12] These leaders stood in agreement with the government persecution of Buddhism, stating that Buddhist institutions were indeed corrupted and in need of revitalization.

This Japanese movement was known as shin bukkyo, or "New Buddhism." The leaders themselves were university-educated intellectuals who had been exposed to a vast body of Western intellectual literature. The fact that what was presented to the West as Japanese Zen would be so commensurate with the Enlightenment critique of "superstitious," institutional, or ritual-based religion is due to this fact, as such ideals directly informed the creation of this new tradition. Proponents of New Buddhism were concerned with internal reform and a return to what they saw as pure or original Buddhism, the vital essence of Buddhism, devoid of ritual and superstition, highly empirical and scientific, an ideal tradition that Western scholars themselves had largely created a few decades earlier, beginning with the work of Eugène Burnouf in the 1840s.[4] Imakita Kosen, who would become D.T. Suzuki's teacher in Zen until his death in 1892, was an important figure in this movement. Largely responding to the Reformation critique of elite institutionalism, he opened Engakuji monastery to lay practitioners, which would allow students like Suzuki unprecedented access to Zen practice.

Advocates of New Buddhism, like Kosen and his successor Soen Shaku, not only saw this movement as a defense of Buddhism against government persecution, they also saw it as a way to bring their nation into the modern world as a competitive, cultural force. Kosen himself was even employed by the Japanese government as a "national evangelist" during the 1870s.[13] The cause of Japanese nationalism and the portrayal of Japan as a superior cultural entity on the international scene was at the heart of the Zen missionary movement. Zen would be touted as the essential Japanese religion, fully embodied by the bushido, or samurai spirit, an expression of the Japanese people in the fullest sense, in spite of the fact that this version of Zen was a recent invention in Japan that was largely based on Western philosophical ideals.

Soen Shaku, Suzuki's teacher in Zen after Kosen's death in 1892, claimed "Religion is the only force in which the Western people know that they are inferior to the nations of the East ... Let us wed the Great Vehicle [Mahayana Buddhism] to Western thought…at Chicago next year [referring to the 1893 World Parliament of Religions] the fitting time will come.”[14] According to Martin Verhoeven, "The spiritual crisis of the West exposed its Achilles' heel to be vanquished. Though economically and technologically bested by the Western powers, Japan saw a chance to reassert its sense of cultural superiority via religion."[14]

Other "New Buddhisms"

Others have used "New Buddhism" to describe various movements real and aspirational, such as David Brazier, who wrote a 2001 book called The New Buddhism,[15] and James William Coleman, who wrote a 2001 book of the same name.[16] The former is a "manifesto for a socially engaged Buddhism" while the latter is a study of Buddhism in the West emphasizing departures from tradition.

Lopez's concept of "Modern Buddhism"

Donald S. Lopez Jr. uses the term "Modern Buddhism" to describe the entirety of Buddhist modernist traditions, which he suggests "has developed into a kind of transnational Buddhist sect", "an international Buddhism that transcends cultural and national boundaries, creating...a cosmopolitan network of intellectuals, writing most often in English". This "sect" is rooted neither in geography nor in traditional schools but is the modern aspect of a variety of Buddhist schools in different locations. Moreover, it has its own cosmopolitan lineage and canonical "scriptures," mainly the works of popular and semischolarly authors—figures from the formative years of modern Buddhism, including Soen Shaku, Dwight Goddard, D. T. Suzuki, and Alexandra David-Neel, as well as more recent figures like Shunryu Suzuki, Sangharakshita, Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, Chögyam Trungpa, and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama."[17]

See also


  1. ^ Lopez (2002)
  2. ^ Prebish/Baumann, 2002
  3. ^ McMahan 2008, p. 6
  4. ^ a b Masuzawa 2005.
  5. ^ McMahan 2008,p. 10
  6. ^ Lopez, Jr. 2008.
  7. ^ James 1902.
  8. ^ McMahan 2008,p. 125
  9. ^ Suzuki 1996, 129.
  10. ^ Satō 1973.
  11. ^ Sharf 1993, p. 3
  12. ^ a b Sharf 1993, p. 4
  13. ^ Sharf 1993, p. 7
  14. ^ a b Verhoeven 1998), p. 217
  15. ^ What is the New Buddhism?
  16. ^ The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition
  17. ^ Mcmahan (2008, p.9) citing Lopez (2002)


  • James, Alan; Jacqui, James (1989). Modern Buddhism. Aucana.  
  • Lopez, Jr., Donald S. (2008). Buddhism & science : a guide for the perplexed. Buddhism and modernity. University of Chicago Press. p. 264.  
  • Lopez, Jr., Donald S. (2002). A Modern Buddhist Bible. Beacon Press Books.  
  • Masuzawa, Tomoko (May 2005). The invention of world religions, or, How European universalism was preserved in the language of pluralism (1st ed.). University of Chicago Press. p. 359.  
  • McMahan, David L. (October 2008). The Making of Buddhist Modernism. Oxford University Press. p. 320.  
  • Metraux, Daniel A. (2001). The International Expansion of a Modern Buddhist Movement: The Soka Gakkai in Southeast Asia and Australia. University Press of America.  
  • Prebish, Charles S.; Baumann, Martin (2002). Westward Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Asia. University of California Press.  
  • Satō, Giei; Nishimura, Nishin (1973). Unsui: a Diary of Zen Monastic Life (illustrated ed.). University of Hawaii Press. p. 114.  
  • Sharf, Robert H. (August 1993). "The Zen of Japanese Nationalism". History of Religions (The University of Chicago Press) 33 (1): 1–43.  
  • Verhoeven, Martin (1998). "Americanizing the Buddha: Paul Carus and the Transformation of Asian Thought". In Prebish, Charles; Tanaka, Kenneth. The faces of Buddhism in America. University of California Press. p. 370.  
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