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Reviewed by:
  • The Making of Buddhist Modernism
  • Mark D. Wood
The Making of Buddhist Modernism. By David L. McMahan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 299 pp.

In The Making of Buddhist Modernism, David L. McMahan illuminates the discourses, interpretative frameworks, and social forces that informed the construction of Buddhist modernism. McMahan denaturalizes Buddhism by demonstrating how the seemingly self-evident claims made regarding the original nature or true essence of Buddhism—for example, that it is not a religion but a practical guide to living, that it is a method of self-analysis compatible with modern psychology and the tenets of scientific naturalism, that it is egalitarian and democratic, that its core practices are meditation and mindfulness—refer to a specific variation of a socially situated and conditioned Buddhism. The variation of Buddhist modernism is "neither unambiguously 'there' in ancient Buddhist texts and lived traditions nor merely a fantasy of an educated elite population in the West" (p. 5). Rather, says McMahan, it is a "new form of Buddhism that is the result of a process of modernization, westernization, reinterpretation, image-making, revitalization, and reform that has been taking place [End Page 270] not only in the West but also in Asian countries for over a century" (p. 5). Buddhist modernism is "a hybrid tradition with roots in the European Enlightenment no less than the Buddha's enlightenment, in Romanticism and transcendentalism as much as the Pāli canon, and," McMahan adds, "in the clash of Asian cultures and colonial powers as much as in mindfulness and meditation" (p. 5). In elucidating the "specific modern ideological forces, textual sources, social and cultural practices, overt philosophies, and tacit assumptions" that "westernized, demythologized, rationalized, Romanticized, Protestantized, and psychologized Buddhism," McMahan contributes importantly to our knowledge of the history of Buddhism (p. 8).

McMahan also makes a methodological contribution to the study of religion by illustrating how "translation and transmission is inevitably—word-by-word, text-by-text, culture-by-culture—transformation" (p. 18). The translation of bodhi as "enlightenment," he observes, reveals "a complex of meanings tied to the ideas, values, and sensibilities of the European Enlightenment: reason, empirical observation, suspicion of authority, freedom of thought, and so on" (Ibid.). By highlighting such translation-transmission-transformations, McMahan reminds us that "interdependent co-origination," "meditation," and "enlightenment," like "Creation," "prayer," and "salvation," are theoretical abstractions whose meaning depends on their articulation within historically and socially specific contexts, that "all ideas, social practices, institutions, and cultural phenomena are the results of a complex multiplicity of factors that extend out into an ever-widening casual web" (p. 149). In this respect, McMahan makes skillful use of what might be described as the interpretative method of pratītya-samutpāda to explore how the meaning of ideas is profoundly shaped by their location within networks of discursive and extra-discursive relations.

After describing the theoretical assumptions that inform his research project, McMahan sketches several hypothetical portraits of contemporary Buddhists to begin to clarify some of the important differences between traditional Buddhism and Buddhist modernism. These portraits include a Western Buddhist sympathizer, a Thai laywoman, an American Dharma teacher, a traditional monk, and an Asian modernizer. His portraits not only help to distinguish between traditional and modern Buddhism, but also to challenge the still commonly invoked essentialist assumption that East equals traditional and West equals modern. Summarizing the differences among his portraits, McMahan writes that traditional Buddhism is "deeply embedded in the social life of the community," often involving ritual practices, including prayer and ceremonies in honor of the Buddha, that presuppose the existence of supernatural beings and the hierarchical authority of an all male priestly caste (p. 36). Buddhist modernism, on the other hand, is more a matter of individuals choosing to practice, for example, meditation and mindfulness, and to do so on their own or in the company of a relatively small group. Whereas traditional Buddhists learn about Buddhism through institutionalized practices and the recitation of scriptures, modernist practitioners tend to learn about the tradition through books by Buddhists and about Buddhism, as well as listening to live and recorded talks by global Buddhists such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. Moreover, Buddhist...


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