Has the modern world discovered the ancient truths of Buddhism or just invented a new version?

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 influence 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. That was a nice answer, because it meant that he might have been right about everything, and so we could get 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.

Like 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 Anne Glieg. But I soon discovered that the issue was more complex than the separate possibilities I outlined above.

Buddhist Modernizers East and West

First, I had to overcome my initial assumption that modern Buddhism was a purely Western phenomenon. It actually appeared in the East, when Asian countries struggled against colonialism and influence of Christian missionaries.

In the 19th century, visionary monks sought to appropriate Buddhist philosophy and meditation outside the walls of the monastery, bringing religion closer to the people, just as the Protestant reformers had done with Christianity in Europe. At the same time, Western scholars and spiritual seekers saw in ancient texts a non theist 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 had already been transformed many times because 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.

Buddha statue, Thimpu, Bhutan.
Loetscher Chlaus / Alamy

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 emigrated Russian aristocrat Ms Helene Petrovna Blavatskytraveled together to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and there joined the fight against the Christian missionaries.

from Olcott Buddhist Catechism is a precursor to today’s proponents of a fully secularized Buddhism, while Blavatsky’s mystical books speak of an ancient secret society based in Tibet. His work recalls some of today’s new-age ideas, as well as popular comic fiction like Marvel’s Dr Strange 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 the revered and recently deceased Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanhwith who Jon Kabat Zinnhelped 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 post on the movie Spike Jonze 2013 His argues that disembodied AI protagonist Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is a Buddha-like figure, pointing to a future where AI 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 significantly to the modern world also led to a 14-minute documentary called 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 does not offer definitive answers, 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.