By Swati Chopra
Buddhist practices and teachings are emerging from the cloistered space of monasteries into a brave new world, to be examined, explored and put to use in dynamically different ways
In the two and a half millennia since the Buddha first articulated them with post-nirvana clarity, his teachings have traveled to varied lands, on tips of myriad tongues, enshrined in the hearts and minds of all manners of people. Yet never has there been such a collective upsurge of interest, global in scale, as in recent decades, nor such a radical energy associated with this ancient wisdom way, ever since one man set out on a quest for truth, for answers, for peace.
Unprecedented interest in the Buddha’s teachings in non-Buddhist societies, as well as a re-interpretation of the dharma in traditional ones, is a significant aspect of this phenomenon that has begun to be called ‘modern Buddhism’. It is a coming out of Buddhist practices and teachings from the cloistered space of monasteries and monsoon retreats into a brave new world, where they are being examined, explored and used in dynamically different ways.
Ignoring encrustations, like the Mahayana-Hinayana debate, which formed over the dharma in traditional societies, modern Buddhism has committed itself to a return to the teachings of the Buddha, or better, to his ineffable experience beneath the bodhi tree. In its relentless search for the path he first wore into the ground, thought to have become buried under dogma and scholarly interpolations, modern Buddhism reflects the stimulus one imagines sparked Siddhartha’s quest and enlightenment. Not only is it remarkable as a movement that has stirred and stormed the large, amorphous pool that is Buddhism, in a larger sense, it has also emerged as a major influence within contemporary global spirituality.
For even as a fast living, hard fighting, out-of-breath humankind looks bleary-eyed at the plastic world it’s created for itself, somewhere in its addled head a neon light flashes at a God-shaped hole. And its heart, as yet living in parts, yearns to make sense, to connect, to be happy. To go to places not sacred anymore, to understand anew. It chances upon a way to do this, to have an inner life, to contemplate and meditate without god or guru, rituals or relics, things it doesn’t understand anymore. That way, for many modern minds, is non-theistic, rational Buddhism.
Pegging this impulse to a historical timeframe, we see the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a starting point. A period of flux in terms of notions of nations and colonialism and wars, it engendered greater exposure of the East and the West to one another. Forums like the World Parliament of Religions held in Chicago, USA, in 1893, offered platforms for spiritual traditions of both parts of the globe to begin getting acquainted with one another.
At the Parliament, even as Swami Vivekananda delivered his legendary Vedanta speech, Buddhist delegates like Anagarika Dharmapala and Zen priest Shaku Soen introduced the Buddha’s dharma and formed networks that would facilitate travel of scholars and scriptures. The exchange between intellectuals that began then would gain momentum, and in time, snowball into modern Buddhism.
Contrary to popular belief, the modern impulse in Buddhism was not restricted to its westward journey. It was a stirring palpably felt in traditional Buddhist societies too, through the revitalization of the sangha in Sri Lanka, the vipassana revolution in Burma, the return to India under B.R. Ambedkar, and similar resurgent movements in Japan, Thailand and China.
Buddhist philosophy began to be widely known in the West early 20th century onwards, and soon formed an ingredient in the cocktail of eastern mysticism that was catering to a spiritually starved post-war generation. For many, the initial head rush did transform into a lasting commitment, and young people began thronging monasteries in Japan, Thailand and Vietnam, even as their countries waged wars in those parts of the world. Visiting teachers, Japanese and Korean Zen and later, Tibetan, brought dharma teachings to ever increasing audiences around the world.
So, what makes Buddhism attractive to modern minds, eastern and western, once the tinsel of exotica has worn off? To my mind, Buddhism is the least ‘exotic’ of all religions to have acquired a global presence in the last century. In its atheism, belief in a causal, interdependent universe, emphasis on equality, and rational approach (you accept only what you find to be true), it is rather like the scientific, democratic, weaned-away-from-religion, modern mind.
Buddhism’s spirit of logical inquiry resonates strongly with the empirical approach popularized by science and technology—you identify the problem, locate the cause, and based on this data, contemplate a solution. The scientist’s way seems also the Buddhist philosopher’s, and has led such disparate figures as Anagarika Dharmapala in Sri Lanka, T’ai Hsu in China, Shaku Soen in Japan, and more recently, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to assert the compatibility of Buddhism with science. Of course, modern Buddhists tend to dismiss ‘unscientific’ views, such as a flat earth, as cultural accretions irrelevant to the scientific sensibility they trace to the Buddha’s own systematic search for truth.
The Dalai Lama has been participating in meetings with Western scientists for the past 11 years, organized by the Mind and Life Institute, which are quite revolutionary in their own right. In these, issues facing modern science, from ethics and understanding the mind, to nature of reality and matter, are debated. As His Holiness said in his 1989 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: “From one viewpoint, Buddhism is a religion, from another, it is a science of mind and not a religion. Buddhism can be a bridge between these two sides.”
So, can we call Buddhism the spiritual path for the modern scientific culture? Buddhism’s investigation into mind, consciousness and reality, laid out in direct, non-parable language, might act as a complement, even providing fresh stimulus to scientific inquiry in these areas. This is evident in the Mind and Life conferences, where scientists who would have nothing to do with religion or spirituality otherwise, arrive grudgingly, and are pleasantly surprised by the extent of logical investigation they find in the Buddhist perspective. Of course, a more fruitful interaction would require some self-introspection on the part of science, on whether its goal is merely hunting facts (which it seems to be entangled in), or arriving at an integrated vision of reality?
The view that Buddhism is an ancient psychotherapy has also found credence with neurotic, caffeine-driven modern minds, who find its tools and practices to be as effective, perhaps even more so, than time spent on a therapist’s couch. Buddhism’s idea of working with oneself, taking responsibility for the self without resorting to external agents or blind belief, echoes in the strong individualistic instincts modern life and education encourages. This might be why meditation practices are the main aspect of dharma discipline for many.
Interestingly, Buddhism in its contemporary avatar has found it easier to shed layers of accumulated dust (rituals, clergy-laity hierarchy, image worship) than many other religions, perhaps because these were not part of it in the first place. If, in the manner of modern Buddhism, we look at the Buddha himself, it is quite clear that he was not setting out to establish a religion, or adding another ‘ism’ to the teeming morass of spiritual disciplines and philosophies that abounded in the India of his time.
So, what was the Buddha’s quest? And who was this individual? Certainly not a superman with extraordinary spiritual muscles, that legends handed down to us make him out to be. To my mind, he was a regular guy like you and me, not born out of his mother’s side, or on the verge of realization at birth. Instead, Siddhartha seems to have had the sixth century BC equivalent of the ‘good life’, afforded by his father’s riches, in a hip-town of the age, Kapilavastu.
For 30-odd years, Siddhartha did what his peers were doing—hunting, sporting, making love. Except that something somewhere didn’t feel quite right. There was consumption, but was there satisfaction? There were joys, but they ended; there were connections, but where did they lead? Why was he alive? Angst that all of us experience, except that Siddhartha decided to do something about it.
Studying with various teachers, the earnest, young ascetic learnt a lot, but wasn’t able to reach the place of realization and clarity he could sense existed. He practiced severe austerities for several years, until his body almost withered away. Realizing the futility of this harshness, he seems to have moved into a gentler space by accepting nourishment from a young woman. Then, with quiet determination, he sat under the bodhi tree one moonlit night, and allowed his being to flow into awareness. By morning, he is said to have achieved complete realization, nirvana, aspects of which he would enumerate through his teachings, offering practical tools to translate words into experience.
What evolved from this was a ‘middle path’, wherein you aren’t harsh, nor do you indulge every whim, and the stress is on awareness and motivation of actions. It was a way towards human development, with personal striving as its key. Nothing was to be taken for granted, not even the master’s words. Even as he lay dying, the Buddha urged: “Be lamps unto yourselves.”
It’s not difficult to see why the Buddha should have become a role model for Gen-Y. A whole new wave of young people today identify with Siddhartha’s angst and his consequent journey. They also seem to find answers to their own disaffection in the wisdom he arrived at. So that we now have meditation teachers barely out of their teens, books such as Blue Jean Buddha: Voices of Young Buddhists and Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens written for and by young Buddhists, and bands that play ‘dharma punk’ music. For them, the Buddha, rather than being a ponderous master, is one very wise, very cool, teacher.
Modern Buddhism is exploring new ground using traditional tools, an outstanding example being the ‘engaged Buddhism’ movement. Drawing variously from the Mahayana concept of the compassionate bodhisattva who defers personal salvation to help others, and from the Buddha’s teachings of an interconnected universe, the energy of engaged Buddhism has come to be expressed in politics, ecology, and social action. Buddhism is no longer about sitting in seclusion pondering one’s navel; it is about a dynamic, interdependent engagement with self, world and society. As eco-philosopher and engaged Buddhist Joanna Macy says: “The world is our cloister.”
This recognition of Buddhism’s social dimension has happened among both traditional and new Buddhists. So while western practitioners have formed peace groups for enlightened activism and have championed significant projects for the protection of all beings and the environment, others, like the Dalai Lama and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, have honed compassion into statecraft. The Dalai Lama’s refusal to ‘hate the enemy’ is well known, as is his recognition of the ‘other’ as a co-human being, as deserving of happiness as oneself. And Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, has characterized her valiant, nonviolent battle for democracy as “the quintessential revolution of the spirit”.
So, could modern Buddhism be classified as a new yana? More accurately, it is an infusion of new energy in an ancient path, a turning of the wheel that has brought us to the Buddha’s initial search, to issues he dealt with and insights he arrived at. The challenge that modern Buddhism faces today is of retaining its deeper underpinnings, where its not reduced to its parts (like meditation), but is recognised in its totality as a vital, universal path.
This issue of Life Positive Plus is an exploration of this reinvention of the Buddha’s dharma in step with the times. It is an attempt to weave into a garland diverse expressions of Buddhist teachings and philosophy in modern life—in society, politics, business, art, literature, activism, economics, et al.
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