Book Review: The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan > IMCW

Book Review: The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan

Book Review: The Making of Buddhist Modernism by David McMahan

By | Jun 12 2011

The Making of Modern Buddhism

Reviewed by Carl Skooglund

What we experience today in the West as Buddhism – the fact that we experience it at all – is the result of its favorable interaction with what David McMahan calls the “discourses of Modernity”: the European Enlightenment, Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Protestantism/theism, democracy, feminism, scientific rationalism and psychology. The Making of Buddhist Modernism explains how these frameworks, which form the basis of the Western worldview, influenced what interpretations of Buddhism became possible for us – and impossible. It shows how Buddhism entered existing philosophical systems, was influenced by them and, in turn, influenced them. McMahan sheds light on how portions of Buddhist doctrine and practice were emphasized, augmented, ignored or suppressed allowing Buddhism to gain a foothold in Western culture.

For anyone who wants to deconstruct, disentangle and parse the divergent – sometimes contradictory – notions that fall under the umbrella term “Buddhism” this book is invaluable. It is not a Dharma book per se, but it is a critical one for today’s practitioners: it explains how what Westerners now know as Dharma came to be.

For example, in the late 1800’s, Buddhism’s proponents equated its use of direct experience as a basis of inner knowledge with the scientific method’s reliance on rationality and direct observation. By some, it was contrasted with Christianity’s emphasis on faith. To avoid being viewed as life-negating and “mechanical,” labels that burdened science, the following elements of Chinese Buddhism were highlighted and then linked with their counterparts in Western Romanticism and Transcendentalism: an appreciation of beauty, the elevation of intuition over the intellect, feeling over thought, and nature over civilization.

Western psychology played a crucial role in translating Buddhism for Americans and Europeans. For example, Carl Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious became a lens through which to comprehend the Mahayana school’s idea of universal Buddha Nature. The pantheon of Tibetan deities was perceived literally by its original adherents (and still is largely). However, its meeting with the West in the early 1900s provided psychological interpretations of the deities, transforming them from “primitive superstitions” into sophisticated portrayals of human mind states.

“Many paths, one mountain” is an expression of the centuries-old Perennial philosophy, which has held that truth is universal and all the great religions reflect some aspect of it, albeit partially. In addition, Romanticism established the notion of the individual search for truth and the freedom to devise one’s own spiritual identity. Together, these ideas laid the groundwork for eclectic approaches to spirituality in the 1900’s. They provided the license to pick and choose, as one saw fit, distinct components from among the entire range of religious traditions, as well as from distinct schools within specific traditions. In practice, this allows a Buddhist practitioner to mix Vipassana and Tibetan teachings, attend a Native American sweat lodge on Saturday, and appreciate a church service with her Christian husband on Sunday.

In one wonderful chapter McMahan charts the course of a key theme in Buddhism: interdependence. The earliest Pali scriptures established a framework of cause-and-effect, of “conditionality” that was narrowly focused – quite intentionally –on the cycle of human suffering and rebirth. The Mahayana school greatly expanded the realm of Dharma with visions of a cosmos populated by innumerable Buddhas, yet asserted the essential “sameness” of ultimate reality. These concepts met and mixed with, among other things, the Romantic notions of wholeness and inseparability, of an “interlocking order”, and the ecological musings of John Muir. What resulted was the hybrid we now know as “interdependence,” with all its connotations of existential oneness, and its activist orientation regarding social and ecological justice.

The book also explores some of influences currently impacting Buddhism: popularization, commercialization, secularization, and homogenization. For example, what happens when an ancient tradition, based on renunciation and conceived to free the human mind from craving, meets the juggernaut of consumerism?

In terms of style, McMahan’s writing is fluid, crisp and witty. The degree to which he uses philosophic terminology and esoteric concepts can be challenging (it took me three trips to the dictionary to finally remember what “hermeneutical” means). He is obviously a scholar, but he gives the layperson a good chance of understanding a very complex subject, and the insights he provides are well worth it. Again, this is not a book that teaches Dharma – but one that helps you better understand the Dharma that is currently being taught.


Carl Skooglund has been practicing Buddhist Vipassana meditation with IMCW since 1993, taught the Family Meditation class for ten years, been an IMCW mentor, sat on the IMCW board and Teachers Council, and participated in IMCW sutta study and Kalyana Mitta. In 2008 he completed the Community Dharma Leader (CDL) program of Spirit Rock Meditation Center. 


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