For many people, Buddhism seems to be only compatible with modern lifestyles and worldviews. It offers staunch atheists – those who believe in the existence of no god – a religious experience that does not require belief in supernatural beings. Conversely, it also provides new age spiritualists with a connection to a deeper reality beyond the limits of everyday observation and scientific knowledge.
With its nonjudgmental exploration of emotions and physical sensations, Buddhist mindfulness has influenced many schools of contemporary psychology. The Buddhist philosophy, which embraces constant change and the impermanence inherent in all things, also fits in with today’s fast-paced and fragmented societies.
A few years ago, as I began to practice meditation and study popular teachings of Buddhist belief, I wondered how a 2,500 year old religion could be so unique and modern. There seemed to be two possible answers.
One was that the Buddha discovered eternal truths through meditation which are now confirmed by contemporary philosophy and science. It was a nice answer, because it meant that maybe he was right about everything and therefore one could reach nirvana (the absence of suffering) by following his path.
The other possible answer was that modern Buddhism is a new invention, using the language and practices of the old religion, but giving them new meanings. This response was somehow depressing, because it meant that much of modern Buddhism could simply be a form of disrespectful cultural appropriation, fetishizing exotic Asian spirituality and converting it into a passing fad of consumption.
As someone who studies the cultural impact of Buddhism in the West, the question of how this ancient religion could be so modern was intriguing. So I turned to scholars who had documented the formation of modern Buddhism: Donald Lopez Jr, David McMahan, Jeff Wilson and Ann Glieg. But I soon discovered that the issue was more complex than the separate possibilities I outlined above.
First, I had to overcome my initial assumption that modern Buddhism was a purely Western phenomenon. It actually appeared in the East, as Asian countries struggled against colonialism and the influence of Christian missionaries.
In the 19th century, visionary monks sought to bring Buddhist philosophy and meditation out of the monastery walls, bringing religion closer to the people, just as Protestant reformers had done with Christianity in Europe. At the same time, Western scholars and spiritual seekers saw in ancient texts a non-theistic religion – the belief that, whether they exist or not, deities have no impact on how we should live our lives. As it centered on a mortal man and not on a God, it was therefore compatible with modern rationality.
On the one hand, all of these revivalists certainly transformed Buddhism, making it unrecognizable to many Buddhists. They invented a new, modern Buddha, no longer embedded in a universe of reincarnation, multiple heavens and hells, demons and gods. Their retelling of Buddhist beliefs removed these supernatural elements or made them psychological symbols rather than real forces.
However, it can be said that Buddhism has already transformed many times as it spread from India to the rest of Asia over the centuries. The efforts of these modernizers were the latest in a long series of reconfigurations of tradition.
What I found, rather than an answer, was a captivating cast of characters that make up modern Buddhism. The 19th century Burmese monk Ledi Sayadaw traveled the country teaching meditation and founding study groups. The forms of Vipassana meditation he initiated are the model for techniques still found in courses and textbooks around the world today.
American Civil War veteran Henry Steel Olcott and Russian émigré aristocrat Madame Helene Petrovna Blavatsky traveled together to Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) and joined the fight there against Christian missionaries.
Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism is a precursor to today’s proponents of fully secularized Buddhism, while Blavatsky’s mystical books tell of an ancient secret society based in Tibet. His work is reminiscent of some of today’s new age ideas, as well as popular comic fiction like Marvel’s. strange doctor series, with his character the Elder, a wizard from a secret land in the Himalayas. Olcott, Blavatsky and the Ceylon monks must have had some bizarre and fascinating conversations.
The parade of charismatic figures continues to the present day, with revered and recently deceased Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who, along with Jon Kabat-Zinn, helped make mindfulness a household word.
Rather than putting modern Buddhism to the test of authenticity, the more interesting story is how such a range of people founded schools of Buddhist faith, philosophy and psychology based on their struggles personal or social struggles against violence, injustice and widespread mental disorders. health problems. And how some of them then became larger than life figures, celebrities and icons.
My recent article on the movie Spike Jonze 2013 His argues that the disembodied protagonist Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is a Buddha-like figure, pointing to a future where artificial intelligence transcends the boundaries of ordinary thought and experience.
It is interesting that Jonze draws on the concept of Buddhist enlightenment as a model for this fictional future where our machines exceed our cognitive abilities. This shows the continued relevance of Buddha’s ideas to the issues and challenges we face today and will face in the future.
My journey to understand why Buddhism speaks so meaningfully to the modern world also led to a 14-minute documentary titled Why Buddhism now? He follows the modernization of Buddhism and comes to the following conclusion:
The new modern religion of Buddhist mindfulness, like all religions, speaks to our deepest social problems and anxieties. It can be part of those problems or part of their solution. Buddhism offers no definitive answer, just an invitation to meditate, explore experience, observe the thoughts of the mind, and learn from the endless flow of all living and non-living things.
Jesse Barker is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Aberdeen.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.