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 Context Matters: An Interview with Buddhist Scholar David McMahan

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PostSubject: Context Matters: An Interview with Buddhist Scholar David McMahan   Thu Jan 09, 2014 12:32 am

Context Matters

An interview with Buddhist scholar David McMahan

When Western Buddhists sit down to meditate, many of us may imagine that we are doing the same thing Buddhists across the globe have done for centuries. We may think we are using the same practices Buddhists have always used to overcome suffering (and probably we hope to attain the same result).

But this is a problematic assumption, not least because it is based on the view that the meaning of Buddhist practice is independent of culture and time.

David McMahan studies the role of social and cultural context in meditation. A professor of religion at Franklin and Marshall College, he is the editor of the recently published volume Buddhism in the Modern World and the author of two books, including The Making of Buddhist Modernism (which Tricycle reviewed in Spring 2012). He is a frequent contributor to scholarly journals, reference works, and anthologies, and participates widely in conferences, seminars, and lectures across the United States and overseas. An expert on Buddhism’s encounter with modernity, McMahan suggests that we approach the subject by considering a monk in ancient India.

“He has left his family behind; he is celibate; he doesn’t eat after noon; he studies texts that give him a skeptical view of the phenomenal world and its value. Is his practice really exactly the same,” McMahan asks, “as that of a contemporary secular mindfulness practitioner who is meditating to excel at work or to be more compassionate to her children?”

If this question makes us a little uncomfortable, there is good reason, because it triggers an underlying tension. On the one hand, we want to counter McMahan’s challenge: Don’t we believe the Buddha’s teachings are timeless? Suffering, after all, doesn’t belong to a particular culture or historical age. Beings suffered in the past and they are pretty clearly suffering now. There was a solution to suffering taught by the Buddha and it is still available today. On the other hand, an ever-growing body of evidence tells us that over time and across cultures (and even within traditions) there exist multiple versions of Buddhism that all define the human problem and its solution differently. We might be left wondering: if Buddhism is changed by culture or history, how can it be authentic? How could it be true?

This tension isn’t just a Buddhist problem, McMahan points out. It is a deep paradox in modern life.

The double-whammy of rationalist thinking is that when we imagine truth is singular, cross-cultural, and ahistorical, we slam into the reality of historical change and cultural pluralism; when we accept that plural truth claims can be equally valid, we slam into relativism.

McMahan says, “The understanding that social science and contemporary philosophy and anthropology have brought to the importance of cultural context is a uniquely modern Western phenomenon.” But he assures us that Buddhism’s teachings on emptiness and dependent origination can shed important light on this seeming paradox. In June, I sat down with him during a break at a Mind and Life conference in Garrison, New York, to ask him to place Buddhism beside the contemporary Western intellectual tradition to explore why and how context matters.
–Linda Heuman, Contributing Editor

Is there some popular misconception you are pushing against in your work on Buddhism and modernity? There is a prevalent misperception, especially among Western practitioners, that what they are practicing is basically the same thing Buddhists have practiced since the time of the Buddha. They seldom recognize how contemporary forms of Buddhism have been re-contextualized by Western tacit assumptions and understandings.

Can you tell me about your current research on the role of context in meditation? I’m trying to see how meditation works in a systemic way within a culture. I’m trying to get away from meditative “states,” or thinking of meditation in a static sense: “you do practice A and it leads you to state X.” The meaning, the significance, the understanding, and the rationale for meditation in one culture might be different than in another. For example, if somebody from a Tibetan tradition who has had very little contact with the West does a particular practice, is it really going to be the exact same thing as a modern Western professional who is doing on paper “the same practice” but nested in very different contexts?

What exactly do you mean by “context?” First of all, there’s the explicit context of the dharma. Right now, for the first time ever, we have contemplative practices derived from the Buddhist tradition that are being practiced completely independently of any Buddhist context. Secularization has filtered out what we would call “religious elements.” It is those religious elements, those ethical elements, and those intentions that have always formed the context of meditation and that have made meditation make sense. Otherwise, what sense does it make to sit down for half an hour and watch your breath? Somebody has to explain to you why that matters, why it is a good idea, and what it is actually doing in the larger scheme of things. When meditation comes to the West completely independently of that, it is like a dry sponge; it just soaks up the cultural values that are immediately available. So it becomes about self-esteem. Or it might be about body acceptance or lowering your stress. It might be about performing lots of different tasks efficiently at work. It might be about developing compassion for your family. A whole variety of new elements now are beginning to form a novel context for this practice, which has not only jumped the monastery walls but has broken free from Buddhism altogether.

I know people who are not interested in being Buddhists or studying Buddhist philosophy who have really benefited from stripped-down mindfulness practice. So I’m not in a position to say, “Oh no, you shouldn’t be doing this unless you can read Nagarjuna!” [Laughs.] Every culture has its elite religion and its more popular folk religion; it’s almost like mindfulness is becoming a folk religion of the secular elite in Western culture. We’ll see whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

To expand the idea of context further, there is also cultural context, which obviously can be very different. And again, there are a lot of tacit understandings there: I feel myself in a world of atoms and molecules and bacteria and viruses and galaxies that are unimaginably far away. I think I’m literally incapable of feeling myself in a world in which there are cold hells and hot hells beneath my feet. So in that sense, just our ordinary being-in-the-world—our “life world,” to use a phenomenological term—is deeply conditioned by these cultural elements. And this cultural context provides novel goals and intentions to which meditation is put in service.

Does acknowledging the importance of context mean we have to be cultural relativists? I’m not a complete cultural relativist. I’m not saying everything is cultural. There are things that obviously go across cultures. We’re all working with the same basic neurophysiology. But epistemologies and ways of seeing the world are deeply embedded in cultures. The basic categories we use to make sense of the world are culturally constructed. I think it’s interesting that the Buddhist tradition has seen something of this—not so much in terms of culture, but in terms of language and concepts. For instance, Nagarjuna, in my reading, says that there’s no set of categories that finally, simply, mirrors the world. All categories, ultimately, are empty of that self-authenticating representation of reality as it is. I think that insight is really an interesting one to take into the contemporary world, because now we can expand on that with this idea of culture.

You can see how that rubs up against the whole scientific enterprise. Even though good scientists are much more nuanced about it today than they would have been a hundred years ago, the ideal of the sciences is still “a view from nowhere.” The purpose is to get us out of those contexts, to get us out of those very particularistic ways of seeing things. And that’s going to be a tension between the humanities and social sciences on the one hand and the hard sciences on the other.

We want to have a kind of final understanding of the world. That’s natural. We don’t want to be told that the way we’re seeing the world is just a product of our upbringing and our language and our culture. And yet there are certain things that can only be seen through the lenses of particular traditions or particular categories. So I think rather than seeing the existence of various systems of knowledge or taxonomies and so on as devaluing, you can see them as different lenses. That doesn’t mean they’re all the same and they’re all equally valuable. Some may be much more valuable for certain purposes, and some may be valuable for other purposes.

What sorts of misunderstandings about meditation might practitioners fall into if they assume the context of meditation is unimportant? It can lead to dogmatism about progress in meditation along the path: here is this stage, here is the next stage. And we find these schemas in the Buddhist texts, so there is every reason for a good Buddhist to think those schemas of meditative progress are simply built into the nature of things—built into the mind itself. Why shouldn’t we think that if we are going to be Buddhists and practice Buddhism? I’m not saying we shouldn’t necessarily, but first of all, we are confronted with the plurality of maps of the path. This is the same general problem of pluralism that we are confronted with in the modern world. I don’t even think it is unique to the modern world. One view would be to say that my map is simply the right one and everybody else is off. The other would be to say that there are lots of different maps, and that they do different things. If you look at actual maps of the earth, you realize that you can never really make a completely accurate map of the earth. Mapmakers struggle with this. Do you make it look curved? Do you represent roads? You just can’t represent the earth on a flat piece of paper in an absolutely straightforward way. You have to make all kinds of choices. So where you are going and what you are doing really matters when you are trying to make a map. In the Theravada, the ultimate goal of meditation is to transcend the world completely. In the Mahayana, you want to come back as a bodhisattva over and over again. So these maps get configured differently.

Isn’t the view that “no map is absolutely true” also a view? It is. In his Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way, Nagarjuna lays out his understanding of emptiness, and then he makes a surprising, even an astonishing, move. He says, “Ultimately, everything that I’ve said is also empty.” This is the idea of the emptiness of emptiness. He is admitting that everything he is laying out is also a pragmatic map, not an absolute system that corresponds to reality in an absolute way. There is some discussion and debate about whether when Nagarjuna critiques views he is talking about any view or just wrong views. I kind of like the “any view” view [laughs]—that any kind of map or system that you hang onto and make into something that you believe corresponds to reality in and of itself becomes a kind of bondage.

Isn’t part of the problem here the assumption that “corresponding to reality in and of itself” is what it means for a map, concept, or idea to be true? After all, we Buddhists don’t buy that there is reality “in and of itself.” Very true. That is why we have such a hard time as modern Westerners trying to see a way around this problem. It is so firmly built into the Western Enlightenment system of thinking, and into modernity, that we have sentences and representations in our minds that correspond (or don’t correspond) to external reality. Descartes and Bacon set up this whole way of thinking. There have been a number of moves in more contemporary Western thought—phenomenology, for instance—to develop a language that gets away from this. But it is deeply rooted in our culture to think that way. And science encourages us to think that way.

Maybe this tension is running through other cultures too—the tension between a very detailed systematic view of how things are versus a suspicion of our ability to construct a completely accurate model. In a lot of Abhidharma literature, there seems to be an attempt to account for everything, to get a category for everything, to really make a comprehensive accounting of the phenomenological reality of being human. I think it was in reaction to that systematizing that Nagarjuna and the Perfection of Wisdom came along and said that language doesn’t work that way—it doesn’t simply correspond to self-existing, independent entities that match our categories. So this tension is there even in the Buddhist tradition historically.

I think there is an assumption among many Western Buddhists that decontextualization of the dharma is okay because if non-Buddhists just do these meditation practices—for whatever reason—then they will have Buddhist insights. So it becomes almost a covert way of converting people.

Yes. From what you’re saying, it sounds like maybe it’s not so cut and dried. It is a little more complicated than that, because to have those insights you need to have a bit of that context in place. Explicit teachings are a context that reprograms the mind deeply, at both a conscious and a tacit level. It is no accident that Buddhists memorize and recite scriptures, repeating them over and over and over. This makes the dharma sink very deeply into the mind, so that it forms the tacit background of understanding. And that is part of what bubbles up in insight. It’s not just that insight clears away everything and then—just boom!—there’s bare insight into something. Reconditioning is a necessary precondition for at least some forms of insight.

Can you give me an example? Look at one of the earliest comprehensive meditation texts, the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. I’m always fascinated by the fact that people work with this fundamental text today, because generally people just take one tiny slice of it—bare attention to breath and physical movements—and that becomes “mindfulness” in the modern world. But if you keep reading to the end of the sutra, you realize that there are all kinds of very conceptual aspects. And far from being simply “nonjudgmental,” it suggests making wise and discerning ethical judgments and judgments on the value of various things. The sutra is training the mind to see the world and oneself in certain ways. Rather than have you see yourself as solid, singular, and permanent, it offers an alternative way to train to see yourself: five skandhas. It goes through the relationship between the senses and the external world. And then the sutra ends up with a meditation on the eightfold path and the four noble truths. You are meditating on a thumbnail sketch of the whole dharma! So there is a lot of conceptual stuff going on there. The text attempts to train the mind to see the world in a particular way that is conducive to following the Buddhist path and to making progress toward enlightenment. So the text supplies a whole raft of attitudes, orientations, ethics, and values that form the context—and sometimes the actual content—of the meditation practices. Bare awareness may be a starting place, a way of focusing and concentrating the mind. But this broader context supplies the rationales and aims of practice. Even in the most secularized contemporary mindfulness movements, there are lots of these values and attitudes that enter in because it doesn’t really work without some kind of conceptual and ethical orientation.

Why do you think the importance of context is so hard to see here? I think that’s fostered by a certain idea that meditation actually gets us beyond all context, that that’s really what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to get us beyond this cultural stuff and make us transcend our culture. And I would say that this itself is an idea that’s coming very much out of a modern context. Modern Western notions of freedom are often about freedom of the autonomous individual from social, institutional, cultural influences and conditioning. The idea that many modern practitioners have that meditation is somehow beyond cultural or other forms of context stems largely from D. T. Suzuki’s articulation of Zen, which really emphasizes the non-conceptual. It also comes out of the modern pluralistic context whereby, for the past couple of hundred years, we’ve been bumping into other cultures at an unprecedented rate, trying to figure out what to do with each other, recognizing each other’s differences, and having wars about those differences. If we can get beyond concepts, then we are not bogged down in who is right and who is wrong and who has the right model of things. D. T. Suzuki says we can just cut through all that and get to a direct pure experience of reality in and of itself, beyond cultural context.

There is a place at a certain point for overcoming concepts and conditioning, but there is also a lot of reconceiving and reconditioning. The idea is to transform the mind, not just to extract it from all cultural influences. Buddhism itself is a culture—one that attempts to train and condition minds in specific ways conducive to awakening. In some traditions there is the idea that you do transcend all causes and conditions completely, but there is a way to go before that.

Is there something to be said about the Buddhist notion of dependent arising in relation to context? If phenomena are dependently originated as the teachings tell us they are, in a sense it is all context. Yes, exactly. The very notion of things arising from causes and conditions is an affirmation of the importance of contextuality. It’s no accident that the concept of dependent arising or interdependence has become so prominent in understandings of Buddhism today. The world is so interconnected today that everybody is talking about this.

In the earliest forms of Buddhism, the notion of dependent arising or interdependence was not really good news. It was a device to explain how suffering arises (as in the twelve links). It wasn’t a celebration of our interconnectedness in a living web of creation. It was something you wanted to extract yourself from; it was bondage. With the arising of the Mahayana, especially in China, there was a shift in understanding the phenomenal world and its significance. Chinese Buddhists were able to look at nature as an expression of buddhanature—and there were debates about whether trees and grasses could be enlightened and whether they really were sentient. Also, there were a lot of nature metaphors for enlightenment. And so the Chinese appreciation of nature infuses itself into this idea of interdependence and provides a more world-affirming version of it, which then centuries later runs into the Transcendentalists and the Romantic view of nature and deep ecology. Now we have a whole new flourishing of the notion of interdependence that has been informed not only by these streams of Buddhism but also by various Western ideas of interdependence.

So there is a shift that happens over many centuries. There emerges the possibility of seeing the world both as a place of suffering and bondage and also as a place of liberation—a projection of the buddhas and bodhisattvas, like a training ground or a pure land, a place in which there is a sacred and wondrous hidden aspect in the ordinary things of the world. The Avatamsaka Sutra symbolizes this by wild visions of tiny universes in grains of sand or the pores of the Buddha’s skin. The attitudes toward the world itself become more varied and complex. And then, when you get to the modern world, certain realities and concepts in the modern world serve like magnets that pull out particular ideas from the Buddhist tradition, leaving others behind. Interdependence is one of these ideas that has really been pulled out. Not the old idea of the twelve-link chain of dependent origination. That idea resonates with people who really immerse themselves in the Buddhist worldview, but when I try to explain it to my students, they don’t get it right away. But when they read a paragraph by Thich Nhat Hanh about interdependence—how the paper is dependent on the sunshine, and the cloud, and the lumber worker, and all that—they immediately understand it.

Conditions right now in the world are such that interdependence is a prominent and obvious fact. Everything is connected through communications technology and through ease of travel. We know that if we screw up the environment over here, it can affect things on the other side of the world. So suddenly the image of Indra’s net attains new significance; in fact, it has become one of the most prominent images and concepts in modern articulations of Buddhism, while it had nowhere near that prominence in the past, except in a particular Chinese Buddhist school.

I do think this pointing out of historical change and the relativity of cultural contexts can be very disturbing and destabilizing. It is not necessarily a comforting thought. But it is interesting that it is destabilizing in a way that Buddhism has been pointing out all along.

Linda Heuman is a Tricycle contributing editor.
Photography by Chris Sembrot
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PostSubject: Re: Context Matters: An Interview with Buddhist Scholar David McMahan   Thu Jan 09, 2014 12:47 am

Listen to an interview / podcast with David L. McMahan about his book:

http://www.thesecularbuddhist.com/episode_072.php - LISTEN HERE

Episode 72 :: David McMahan :: The Making of Buddhist Modernism

Podcast- Listen To This Episode

David L. McMahan talks with us about The Making of Buddhist Modernism.

Hi, everyone. Over the past year or so of the podcast, many of you have heard me use terms regarding the 'evolution' of Buddhism in contemporary culture. Some of us also use terms like 'adaptation', but the underlying principle is the same: Buddhism is affected by conditions. And, as a product of the human mind, carried forward through time by human processing, it is irrevocably changed by those interactions.

The book The Making of Buddhist Modernism is an excellent examination of the causes and conditions which have contributed to the overall landscape of contemporary Buddhism. Our guest David L. McMahan is Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College, having earned his Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research focuses on Buddhism and modernity, South Asian Buddhism, and the effects of globalization. He has published a number of journal articles about these topics, and has presented lectures all over the world, most recently by invitation at Minzu University in Beijing, China.

As with last week's episode, I really encourage you to take a look at the episode page for this interview. Thanks to the wonders of my Kindle, I've put together a pretty comprehensive set of quotes from the book and posted them there.

So, sit back, relax, and have a nice Orange Blossom. My room-mate just made one.


"While a modest naturalism does not absolutely rule out the transcendent, it presents a powerful presumption in favor of natural causes. This is not an atheist dogma. It is a conclusion made on the basis of cumulative evidence. "

..."someone faithfully conveyed that semester's version of what has become a standard view: that Buddhism is a religion in which you don't really have to believe anything in particular or follow any strict rules; you simply exercise compassion and maintain a peaceful state of mind through meditation. Buddhism values creativity and intuition and is basically compatible with a modern, scientific worldview. It is democratic, encourages freedom of thought, and is more of a "spirituality" than a religion. "

"Most non-Asian Americans tend to see Buddhism as a religion whose most important elements are meditation, rigorous philosophical analysis, and an ethic of compassion combined with a highly empirical psychological science that encourages reliance on individual experience. "

"It is, rather, an actual 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 not only in the West but also in Asian countries for over a century. This new form of Buddhism has been fashioned by modernizing Asian Buddhists and western enthusiasts deeply engaged in creating Buddhist responses to the dominant problems and questions of modernity, such as epistemic uncertainty, religious pluralism, the threat of nihilism, conflicts between science and religion, war, and environmental destruction. "

"Buddhism itself had to be transformed, reformed, and modernized-purged of mythological elements and 'superstitious' cultural accretions. "

"What scholars have often meant by "western Buddhism," "American Buddhism," or "new Buddhism" is a facet of a more global network of movements that are not the exclusive product of one geographic or cultural setting. "

"To attempt to read such texts without the help of a teacher and outside all established pedagogy would have been-and still is considered by some-folly. Thus the translation of canonical texts into Western languages is not just a linguistic translation; it is also a cultural transformation, or rather the establishment of a new, unprecedented textual practice in a new Buddhist culture shaping itself to the textual practices of modernity. "

"In all of the geographic areas where Buddhist traditions have emerged, the dharma has been understood in terms of the categories, practices, conventions, and historical circumstances of particular peoples at specific times. "

"Buddhist modernism began in a context not of mutual curiosity, cultural exchange, and open-minded ecumenical dialogue, but of competition, crisis, and the violence of colonialism. "

"A crucial part of modernization, whether we are talking about trade or religion, is its tendency toward globalization, a tendency that in many cases compromises local difference. "

"Detraditionalization embodies the modernist tendency to elevate reason, experience, and intuition over tradition and to assert the freedom to reject, adopt, or reinterpret traditional beliefs and practices on the basis of individual evaluation. Religion becomes more individualized, privatized, and a matter of choice-one has the right to choose and even construct one's own religion. "

"For Trungpa, the primary significance of the realms is that they symbolize various states of mind, helping practitioners to map them out and ultimately free themselves from their dominance. The god realm is a symbol of self-absorption; the realm of jealous gods corresponds to paranoia; the human realm corresponds to passion; the animal realm corresponds to stupidity; the hungry ghost realm corresponds to a feeling of poverty; and the hell realm corresponds to anger. "

"While connecting the six realms with specific emotions or states of mind to be overcome has solid grounding in Buddhist textual traditions-beings are reborn in realms that provide karmic consequences of their actions of mind, body, and speech-the presentation of their significance as primarily or even exclusively psychological is uniquely modern. "

"What I am calling demythologization is the process of attempting to extract-or more accurately, to reconstruct-meanings that will be viable within the context of modern worldviews from teachings embedded in ancient worldviews. "

"The early Buddhist sympathizer C. T. Strauss, for example, claimed that "genuine Buddhism is the reverse of mystical, rejects miracles, is founded on reality, and refuses to speculate about the absolute and other so-called first causes." "

"... sympathetic orientalists presented the Buddha as a protoscientific naturalist in his own time. Over the centuries, his ancient-modern doctrine was buried in the rituals and superstitions of the common people and thus had to be excavated not from its ancient context but from its more recent accretions. "

"The translation of Buddhism into psychoanalytic language has also been a significant component in the introduction of Zen Buddhism to the West, beginning with Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, who interpreted the collective unconscious as an aspect of the dharma-kaya (see chapter 4). Jung, an inveterate writer of prefaces, gave his psychoanalytic imprimatur to this approach in a preface for Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism. Later, the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, collaborating with Suzuki, suggested that Zen was a kind of radical psychoanalysis that strove to unearth the entirety of the unconscious and bring it to consciousness, thereby overcoming alienation and bringing the practitioner to wholeness. "

"Perhaps the most successful has been University of Massachusetts psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, in which mindfulness practices, for example attention to breath, body, feelings, and cognition, are adapted from their Buddhist context, stripped of much of their traditional religious significance, and integrated into therapies to reduce stress, control anxiety, manage physical pain, and treat depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. "

"If psychoanalysis has aided in the demythologization of Buddhism, recent practical psychotherapies have helped to detraditionalize it, allowing meditation to operate in non-Buddhist therapeutic settings, often for non-Buddhist goals and without requiring commitment to explicitly Buddhist values. "

"Rather than an integral part of monastic life bound up with its rituals, ethics, and cosmology, meditation has become something not only for lay Buddhists but for those of any religion or none. "

"... when we talk of modernization, detraditionalization, and demythologization, we are talking about broad tendencies that coexist in creative tension with traditional elements, with neither side necessarily winning out wholesale. "

"A tradition must then survive in an environment other than the one it has evolved in; it must adapt. It must connect with the tacit assumptions, cultural norms, and social and institutional practices of an entirely different ideological ecosystem. "

"The first Asians to present Buddhism to the West boldly proclaimed its essential compatibility with science. Soen Shaku (1859-1919), a representative of the Japanese delegation to the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago (1893) and the first monk to teach Zen in the United States outside immigrant communities, is an example. He was one of the most important early founders of Buddhist modernism. "

"Perhaps the most important western figure who attempted to interpret Buddhism through science was Paul Carus. ... He is important here because his popular presentation of a definitively rationalist, scientific Buddhism, like Olcott's Buddhism, reflected the broad themes of liberal Protestantism and Enlightenment philosophy but was much more devoted to a mainstream, rather than occult, understanding of science. ... He believed that his own experience mirrored the evolution of religion itself, the "dross" of which the light of reason and science must erase to leave only the gold. The despair entailed in this purging was necessary in order to "learn to appreciate the glory and grandeur of a higher stage of religious evolution" ... His new faith was in a religion that was not yet fully formed, he thought, but was emerging through the rise of science and the increasing contact among the world's religions. ... For Carus, "science is stem and unalterable; it is a revelation which cannot be invented but must be discovered". He often insists that scientific truth and religious truth are one and the same-this means that truth is the correspondence of ideas and reality, and that no matter the path to it, scientific or religious, truth is one. If a religion has any claim to truth, that truth must also be scientific-for Carus, there simply could be no other definition of truth. ... He mends this disjunction by recourse to the ideas of symbolism, allegory, and mythology-loosely used in his vocabulary to indicate nonliteral stories or ideas that nevertheless contain ethical meaning or point obliquely to literal truths. The recasting of ideas incompatible with a scientific worldview as having nonliteral, symbolic meaning was and is a very common tool of modernizing religious reformers. "

"The historical question regarding contemporary Buddhism, then, is not "Is Buddhism scientific?" but "How is Buddhism transforming itself through its engagement with science?" Rather than telling us what Buddhism "is," the discourse of scientific Buddhism itself is constitutive of novel forms of Buddhism, with shifting epistemic structures and criteria for authority and legitimacy. "

"The Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that if there are Buddhist doctrines that are found definitively to contradict established scientific conclusions, then these doctrines must be abandoned. Indeed, he has declared some aspects of traditional Buddhist cosmology to be mistaken, though he still maintains many traditional beliefs, such as karma and rebirth. Taken at face value, if the dharma itself is subject to scientific epistemic authority, this would seem to signal a profound change in the structure of Buddhist claims to authority. "

"The discourse of scientific Buddhism, therefore, has become an important part of how Buddhists address a question that permeates religious thought in the modern world: how to decide what is to be understood as literal and what is to be reinterpreted as myth, symbol, or allegory. "

"... ideas, social practices, institutions, and cultural phenomena are the results of a complex multiplicity of factors that extend out into an ever-widening causal web. "

"The internalization of religion, the attribution of religious significance to the natural world, the emphasis on solitary contemplation of nature, and the view of such contemplation as a remedy for the excessive materialism of the modern world all served as essential ingredients in the interpretation of Buddhism in the West, particularly North America. "

"... there is something new in the contemporary articulation of interdependence, something emerging in response to the unique circumstances of the modern world and attempting to answer questions that simply could not have arisen in the time of the Buddha, Nagarjuna, or Dogen. "

"As noted, Buddhist modernism attempts to embrace science while distancing itself from strict materialism. Meditation often serves as a focal point of this stance, as some authors construe it as both a scientific endeavor and a corrective to what they consider the excessive rationalism, materialism, and reductionism of mainstream science. "

"How do we distinguish a Buddhist meditator's "discoveries based on firsthand experience," in Wallace's sense, from those of Christian or Hindu contemplatives who through repeated "experiments" have confirmed and had verified by their peers-and superiors-that there is, in fact, an eternal soul beneath the fleeting apparitions of the personality? If I am doing Buddhist meditation and make such a discovery, what then? There is no scientific way to adjudicate between Buddhist doctrine and my conclusion. This does not mean that there can be no personal grounds for one or the other conclusion; it simply means that it is not publicly verifiable, as scientific experiments must be. This example suggests that Buddhist meditation in its traditional contexts, rather than being an open-ended "scientific" experiment, is bounded by Buddhist suppositions that guide the practitioner toward certain experiences and conclusions. It is a method less of open-ended inquiry than of discovering for oneself the truths of the dharma that the Buddha put forth, that is, those authorized by the tradition. "

"Further, while Buddhists happily draw on the prestige scientific attention brings, what if further scientific studies show that meditation is actually not nearly as effective in diminishing destructive emotions as, say, cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotropic medications? Such considerations suggest that meditation need not necessarily be construed as a science in order to be beneficial and that the enfolding of meditation within the discourses of scientific rationalism may leave some of its possibilities undisclosed. "

"First, Buddhist mindfulness has taken on a new significance within the context of modernity's broad world-affirming attitude. Second, its recent articulation is informed by modem literature's valorization of the details of everyday life, its finely tuned descriptions of the flow of consciousness, and its new reverence for ordinary objects and their capacity to reflect the universal. And third, this articulation provides a distinctively modern way of resacralizing the world without resort to the supernatural. "

"The application of mindfulness to finding more appreciative and skillful approaches to work, family, and all of the hectic activities of life is a phenomenon of the current age. "

"What is it about the modern period that has provided an arena for mindfulness to emerge as central to the practice of Buddhism among the laity? To first sketch the answer in the broadest possible terms: one of the constituent features of modernity-so deeply ingrained in modern cultures that it is in fact hard to see-is a new kind of world-affirming attitude that began with the Reformation and continues to our time. "

"The descriptive power to re-create the familiar so that its banality becomes remarkable, and the recovery of the immediacy, freshness, and vividness of things obscured by habit and fixed conceptions, have been crucial to the literary and artistic sensibilities of the twentieth century. "

"This modern Buddhist affirmation of the ordinary is in tension with the more traditional Buddhist suspicion of the things of the world and their ability to mesmerize the mind and enchain it to suffering. "

"Buddhist traditions-indeed all traditions-have constantly re-created themselves in response to unique historical and cultural conditions, amalgamating elements of new cultures, jettisoning those no longer viable in a new context, and asking questions that previous incarnations of Buddhism could not possibly have asked. "

"The situation demands more than just adaptation to different cultures. The decentering tendencies of postmodern globalization disembed Buddhist discourse from its traditional sites and reembed it in a wide variety of discourses-not only those of the environmental movement, for instance, or the recent dialogues between "world religions" but also in the ubiquitous expressions of the market, in which Buddhist books, CDs, and ritual performances compete with novels, music, and theater. "

"This reformulation of Buddhism in the languages of western modernity could have two potential and opposite effects. It could position Buddhism to bring novel conceptual resources to the West and the modern world that might indeed offer new perspectives on some of modernity's personal, social, political, and environmental ills. Indeed, if it does not speak the language of modernity, it cannot address these ills. The second possibility, however, is that it could accommodate itself so completely to mainstream western values and assumptions that it no longer is an alternative to them and thus accedes the resources it has for critiquing them. "
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Context Matters: An Interview with Buddhist Scholar David McMahan
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