Buddhism as a Reform Movement
Buddhism is often viewed as the most modern of world religions.
Is this modernity surprising? Not really, because this Buddhism is itself a modern creation, a late-19th-century development deeply influenced by Western ideas even while emerging as a counterweight to Western colonial domination.
That, at any rate, is the intriguing point made by Donald S. Lopez Jr., a leading scholar of Buddhism, in his introduction to "A Modern Buddhist Bible: Essential Readings from East and West," published by Beacon Press.
Professor Lopez, who teaches Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, describes how a handful of cosmopolitan Buddhist intellectuals from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Thailand, Burma (now Myanmar), China and Japan created this modern Buddhism. They were aided, curiously enough, by an American, Col. Henry Steel Olcott.
Olcott and Blavatsky went to Ceylon where he embraced Buddhism and was soon founding a Young Men's Buddhist Association, publishing the first "Buddhist Catechism," trying to unite all the different forms of Asian Buddhism around a common denominator of beliefs and encouraging the leaders and intellectuals who would reshape Buddhism for their time.
Naturally, this new Buddhism presented itself as a return to the authentic teachings of the Buddha. The Buddhism of the Buddha's experience of enlightenment was seen, Professor Lopez writes, as "most compatible with the ideals of the European Enlightenment, ideals such as reason, empiricism, science, universalism, individualism, tolerance, freedom, and the rejection of religious orthodoxy - precisely those notions that have appealed so much to Western converts."
In effect, this modern Buddhism distanced itself from the actual Buddhism surrounding it. It rejected many ritual elements, Professor Lopez writes, implicitly conceding the charges of Western officials and missionaries that Buddhist populations were ridden by superstition and burdened by exploitative monastic establishments: "The time was ripe to remove the encrustations of the past centuries and return to the essence of Buddhism."
That essence was to be found in Buddhist texts and philosophy, not in the daily round of "monks who chanted sutras, performed rituals for the dead and maintained monastic properties."
The pervasive Buddhist practice of venerating images and relics of the Buddha, which Christian missionaries had considered idolatry, was de-emphasized. Traditional lines dividing monks and lay people were blurred. Important roles were restored to women. The fundamental Buddhist concern to bring an end to suffering now encompassed support for social justice, economic modernization and freedom from colonialism.
Central to modern Buddhism was meditation, an emphasis, Professor Lopez says, that "marked one of the most extreme departures of modern Buddhism from previous forms," which had made meditation only one of many spiritual activities and not necessarily the highest, even within monastic institutions.
Meditation now became a practice recommended for everyone - and also "allowed modern Buddhism generally to dismiss the rituals of consecration, purification, expiation and exorcism so common throughout Asia as extraneous elements that had crept into the tradition," he writes.
The emergence of modern Buddhism, as Professor Lopez describes it, played out a little differently in each Buddhist land. It did not touch Tibetan Buddhism, for example, until the Dalai Lama left Tibet and interacted with a Western audience.
Professor Lopez also notes that this idea of periodically reforming Buddhism from inevitable decline by returning to its roots was found within the tradition itself. But a Westerner reading this history cannot help but think of another religious response to modernization, the Protestant Reformation, with its claim to restore a pure primitive Christianity, its emphasis on equality rather than hierarchy and its rejection of sacrament and ritual in favor of individual piety and introspection.
See also: http://mailbox.univie.ac.at/~muehleb9/shangrila.html
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