The Roots of Today's Buddhism

Even though the historic Buddha, Prince Siddhartha Gautama, is said to have lived approximately 2,500 years ago, Buddhism is often viewed as the most modern of world religions.

Nontheistic, nondogmatic, nonviolent, emphasizing individual practice rather than institutional membership or obligations, the Buddhism expounded by, say, the Dalai Lama fits nicely with a modern, largely Western world view based on science and respect for the individual. Maybe that explains why it seems to attract so many physicists and psychotherapists.

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," just published by Beacon Press and excerpted in the fall issue of the Buddhist review Tricycle.

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.

In 1875, Olcott co-founded, with Helena Blavatsky, the Theosophical Society for the study and propagation of an esoteric religious knowledge drawing on spiritualism, Eastern religions and 19th-century science. Five years later, 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.

Protestant as well as Enlightenment ideals were of course very much part of the Western modernity that these Asian Buddhist thinkers were coming to terms with. After all, the British arrived in India, where Buddhism had begun and once flourished, centuries after it had died out there. So they found "Buddhist texts, artifacts and stupas," Professor Lopez said in a phone conversation, "but no Buddhists."

Thus Buddhism, he said, was a screen on which Europeans could project many of their own notions: the British in India, for example, sometimes calling the Buddha the "Luther of India" because he had supposedly challenged the Vedic priesthood and its rituals just as Luther had the Catholic priesthood and its sacramentalism.

Not only did British ideas of Buddhism reflect Victorian anti-Catholicism, he said; sometimes they carried a whiff of anti-Semitism, too: Buddhism could be admired because, unlike Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it had no Semitic origins.

Professor Lopez, it should be emphasized, is not questioning the authenticity of this modern Buddhism; he wants to give its creators, who have often been dismissed by scholars, their due.

Of course, his account does give the lie to the idea that the Buddhism the West, and even some of the East, now knows is the one true Buddhism, rather than one of the many Buddhisms that have evolved as an ancient teaching has interacted over two millennia with different cultures.

But that idea should be disturbing only to those who believe that great religious traditions can remain immutable and untouched by history.