Modernism and post-modernism

A little discussion about Ken Wilber a few days ago put me in mind of an observation he once made. I can’t remember exactly where, but it was something like: religions are still struggling to catch up with modernism, and have no idea how to begin dealing with post-modernism. I think this is a very insightful remark, and would like to examine it a little in the context of Buddhism, especially our relationship with Buddhist texts.

What does modernism mean here? Well essentially, when modern Buddhist studies began in mid-19th century, scholars learned the various traditional discourses. Theravada was the original, pristine teachings while Mahayana was a degenerate fabrication; or else Mahayana was the true embodiment of the Buddha’s wisdom, while Theravada was partial and narrow; and so on. You can still hear these claims in many temples today.

When these claims were subject to scrutiny along text-critical and historical lines, a different picture emerged. This was based on a study of the claims of all the schools, in addition to the revelations that were emerging from ancient India as it exposed itself to the archaeologists’ picks. The consensus view was that the Pali canon, with important reservations, represented the early Buddhist texts, and if the legendary embroideries were disregarded it could be accepted as a fairly reliable record of the Buddha’s teachings. Even those scholars who believed that the early canon was badly corrupted (e.g. CAF Rhys Davids) still had faith that the early message of the Buddha could be restored by means of textual criticism. The Mahayana Sutras were obviously later (500-1000 years after the Buddha), and the Vajrayana later still. This picture reinforced the Theravadin claim to orthodoxy, although at the same time the scholars were universally agreed that the Abhidhamma was a late addition, as was much of the Vinaya.

It is fairly obvious that this scholarly consensus has made little inroads to Buddhist culture. Despite being embraced by many prominent leaders, such as King Mongkut in Thailand, still we find Theravadins constantly asserting that the Abhidhamma was spoken by the Buddha; indeed most monks believe that the entire Vinaya is literally Buddhavacana, and so on. Within Mahayana circles, there have been great monks such as Yin Shun who have taken the historical analysis of Buddhism perhaps even further than the Western academics, and yet the anti-historical idea that the Mahayana texts were literally spoken by the Buddha is still accepted without question in all but elite intellectual circles.

This consensus lasted more or less for a hundred years or so until it was challenged on various grounds. Some of those challenges strike at the truth claims of the modernist consensus; for example, it is alleged that we can have no real knowledge of what the Buddha taught (a claim that I don’t find plausible). The more cogent of the post-modern critiques do not change the essential historical picture, but question how reliably we can reconstruct ‘the’ early Buddhism, given that there must have been great diversity from the beginning. A pristine and perfect ‘canon’ is itself the outcome of an ideological process. Rather than positing a hypothetical reconstructed ‘original’ Buddhism, post-modernists point to the diversity and relativity of the Buddhist textual scene, and question the relationship between text and practice.

For example, the modernist view tended to equate Theravadin doctrine with the Pali canon and commentaries. This viewpoint early on assumed a political significance. The Thai king in the late 19th century sponsored the first printings of the Tipitaka in modern book form, and even sent donations to England for the Pali Text Society. The way that Buddhist texts were disseminated was radically influenced by a new technology – the printed book – colonial geopolitics, and nationalist ideology. The Thai king could sponsor the printing of a set of books that would constitute the uniform doctrinal foundation for his nation’s religion, as an antidote to the twin threat of colonialists and missionaries.

Reports from around this time reveal that hardly any monasteries actually possessed a copy of the entire Tipitaka, still less the commentaries. Many monasteries only had a small collection of books. Often the teaching was based on was what called a ‘nissaya‘, which was basically a set of lecture notes by a local teacher. These would be used as the basis for classes, and copied down by the students. So the actual Buddhist education was diverse and local, and it was replaced by a uniform, national set of canonical texts.

But of course the canon itself is unwieldy and difficult, and to this day hardly any monks, at least in Thailand, actually read it at all. Even when I arrived at Wat Nanachat in 1993, we did not have the entire canon in English translation, and hardly anything in Pali. The Thai Tipitaka was there, kept safe in a cabinet that was rarely opened. If that was the situation in a monastery like Nanachat, in the vast majority of other monasteries it was far more extreme.

In fact the actual texts used to pass down ‘Theravada Buddhism’ are the Jatakas and various stories mainly from the Dhammapada commentary. As a monastic friend has just reminded me, such texts are almost never read by Western monks. If they read Buddhist scripture at all, they read the canonical Suttas and Vinaya. Traditional Buddhist communities, on the other hand, virtually ignore the canonical literature and would be mystified if they were told, say, that the Jatakas were folk-tales that were adopted into Buddhism as teachings, and were not really the past lives of the Buddha.

Yet the Jatakas, as well as including lots of great stories (and many fairly ordinary ones) contain much that is implausible or unpalatable, including some pretty virulent misogyny. If we read them today we are disgusted; but how are we to relate to the fact that these texts have been handed down, apparently without criticism, for thousands of years, by people who really thought they were the words of the Buddha? What are we to say to people who would defend their authenticity? How have such narratives contributed to the modern Buddhist cultures?

Far from being a monolithic textual orthodoxy, traditional Theravada has been full of diverse, contradictory local customs and teachings, which struggle in an ongoing tension with the centralizing forces of nationalism. I’m not trying to criticize the centralist forces here. I agree with them, pretty much, that the Pali canon (and corresponding early texts in other languages) is the Real Thing, and gets us as close as we can to what is of greatest interest to me, the words of the Buddha himself. I am just pointing out that the situation and agendas of those like you and me who read the Suttas for spiritual inspiration and learning is not necessarily the same as those who promote them on an ideological basis.

Another question raised by post modern theorists include the relationship between text and experience. The more radical question the category of experience itself, but more relevant is the question of what is the relationship between a text that is used as the basis for a meditation teaching, and the nature of the meditative experiences that the teaching will lead to. I have shown, i think convincingly (or at least no-one has managed to refute me) that the Satipatthana Sutta is a late compilation, and the the aspects of it that emphasize vipassana are mostly peculiar to one particular redaction. This calls into question the textual basis of most Theravada meditation in the 20th century; yet there is no doubt that the meditation techniques that have been developed, though on faulty textual grounds, are nevertheless still effective.

These are just some of the issues that post-modern analysis has raised, which have yet to be seriously digested in Buddhist communities. I think these are interesting and important questions. Yet post-modernism itself is probably on its way out, and we will face a whole new set of questions in the next generation, questions that we haven’t even learned how to ask yet.


36 thoughts on “Modernism and post-modernism

  1. Sujato, an excellent and thoughtful post — you raise many questions I’d like to address. It’s a very busy morning at my side, but for the moment, I’d like to contribute to the discussion the following page from Don Cupitt , a ‘Post Modern relgious thinker’ who I feel is urgently relevant to the important questions you raise here —

    Excerpts From Don Cupitt’s “After God, The Time of Angels”

    (Trivialization in our existence is partially due to ) “…an end of realism, the end of a belief in absolutes, the end of belief that the world is ready made to be our home, with all the rules to be kept already laid down and built in. People are becoming de-traditionalised, nomadised, casualized, as the old fixed points of reference disappear — Instead of marriage a series of relationships, instead of a home, a series of addresses, instead of a career, freelancing, instead of belief, whatever one is currently “into” ,instead of stable identities , pluralism and flux; instead of society, the market and one’s own circle.

    Culture seems to have become all fringe and no mainstream. Popular beliefs multiply exceedingly; but it’s all a fad. None of it is to be taken seriously, because it is not clear that anything is, or can be taken seriously anymore.

    There is a complete break with the past along with the rapid movement of capital, people and ideas around the world. There is a pervasive sense of groundlessness and outsidelessness. “Is that all there is? You mean this is it?” This loss is becoming so complete so quickly that very soon historians will find it very difficult to re-imagine what it was like to genuinely believe in something ( c/f “The Time of The Angels” Don Cupitt 2003 )

    “In the old consciousness, identity was something metaphysical — now it increasingly has become simply a corporate ID — not a substance but a sign. Reality itself has become only an effect , something conjured up within and by the motion of signs. The line between drama and documentary,reality and fiction has become blurred.” ( “After God”, Introduction, ix )

    “in modern, media led culture , we have in effect a return of the Middle Ages: it used to be the church that supplied everyone with an imaginary world in their head — now the media do that job,with celebrity as the new sainthood– in the all encompassing anonymity of the new global culture.”

    “This change has ruptured Europe and America, but also other cultures — In the new high rise post modern cities of South and East Asia,the wipe out of tradition is breathtaking –without any obvious resistance or regret,and within a single lifetime — It is perhaps the most severe and sudden cultural rupture in the whole of human history.

    The new global technological culture brings with it a very naturalistic cast of mind. The world is like a communications network. Everything is open,public,accessible and all on one level. Nothing is deep and nothing can be kept hidden for long. There is no secure privacy — the world of signs is a flowing , one level continuum with no one outside and no secret places.The presumption is that we can draw at least one clear line between the public and the private, between objectivity and subjectivity ,or between the dominant culture and the counterculture — But post modernity as a cultural condition has been constituted precisely by the erasure of these very distinctions. The public realm, the sea of meanings — is outsideless and and endless,nothing is fixed;everything moves and shifts together. It engulfs everything ,including values , private life,self hood and the counterculture. There is no way of hiving off a little cluster of meanings ( absolutes, certainties, or fundamentals) and preserving them unchanged. On the contrary, –as the long history of religious esotericism demonstrates — meanings and truths kept unchallenged and out of the public view very quickly deteriorate into simple nonsense.”

    “Eveything nowadays is beginning to float on a free global market — not only money and prices — but also linguistic meaning , religious truths and moral and aesthetic values.”

    “In the new understanding of culture as a system of signs in motion ,the world of symbolic meaning in which we live is an unanchored floating continuum. All reactions against it must use its vocabulary and are therefore part of it, and will be engulfed by it. You cant really drop out. There is nowhere to drop out to. Your protest against the system remains a part of the system.”

    (INTRODUCTION vii — xv )

    Chapter — “The Time of the Angels” ( 74–79) “(Nietzsche asserted that) once central authority broke down — he imagined Bacchanalian revel: with the end of realism, all free spirits run riot.”

  2. Sujato, you wrote — “These are just some of the issues that post-modern analysis has raised, which have yet to be seriously digested in Buddhist communities. I think these are interesting and important questions. Yet post-modernism itself is probably on its way out, and we will face a whole new set of questions in the next generation, questions that we haven’t even learned how to ask yet.”

    I agree, and in replying here, I certainly don’t wish to engage with Post Modernism and its ‘canon’ as a reified, quasi mystical, abstracted obfuscation as many do. To me, getting wrapped up in that kind of reading, is counterproductive. I prefer to read these thinkers and to immediately apply their insights, and to consider ‘the gems’ within their perspectives rather than getting into solipsism and placing myself ‘under’ these texts.

    You raised so many points, but I’d like to isolate only one small part of your posting and respond — to what degree are Post Modern thinkers ( and earlier 20Th C thinkers) relevant to the Dhamma seeker?

    I’d point to a number of texts and thinkers here, all of whom have influenced my spiritual practise and understandings.

    Thinkers and works which influenced my ‘spiritual life’ and certainly helped me along the path include ideas which pre dated Post Modernism — I am thinking here of writers like Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord ( of the Situationists’ “Society of the Spectacle” ) and Baudrillard (especially ‘simulacra’ ) , and of texts like “Dialectic of Enlightenment / Enlightenment as Mass Deception” ( Adorno and Horkheimer ).

    All of these aforementioned thinkers point to the ways in which modern urban industrial life inevitably alienate us, encouraging us to live life via projections and the establishment of dream and illusion, rather than engaging in living a genuine life. All these thinkers point to the idea that for us in the late 20th C — ‘real life’ is elsewhere. We are caught up in a net of co erced fabrications and chimera imposed on us by a consumer society. All of these thinkers point to the fact that even the very architecture and planning of our cities and our living spaces encourage alienation and illusion, rather than condoning any grounding in reality.

    As such, I can see an obvious connection to the spiritual life.

    After all, If historical classical texts like Ashtavakra Gita from the Hindu ‘canon’ can help us along the path, can help us see the illusory nature of much of our ‘external life’, and if poets such as Rumi and Hafiz can also enhance our joy in cutting through illusion in the spiritual life, and if Eckhardt can point towards understanding ‘the created and the uncreated’ — then why not look to more contemporary thinkers that can help our insights too ?

    I don’t see any problem in doing so.

    You have raised so many points, and I have only engaged with a small part of your post, but I hope it carries the debate forward, and I look forward to others’ views.


    • Thanks, Greg, these are all interesting ideas. I’ve been using the terms ‘modernist’ and ‘post-modernist’ in a very vague sense, more as an intellectual climate than a specific ideology.

      I agree that post-modern thought can be useful in a dhamma context; the very idea of ‘deconstruction’ is very Buddhist. My feeling is that as a philosophical movement it has more or less done its work. Each philosphical tendency arises in a particular context and addresses valid concerns in that context, and it is quite possible to point our similarities between Buddhist thought and just about any philosphical movement that you’d care to identify. At the end of the day, however, none of these philosophical systems are truly transcendental. It seems to me that the most urgent task for our times is the re-integration or re-construction of what the post-modernists have deconstructed. It is something that I see manifested in a hunger for spiritual depth free from dogma.

  3. Hi everyone,

    From Bhante’s post …

    “I have shown, i think convincingly (or at least no-one has managed to refute me) that the Satipatthana Sutta is a late compilation, and the the aspects of it that emphasize vipassana are mostly peculiar to one particular redaction.”

    For Bhante’s text-critical and historical analysis of the Satipatthana Sutta, see A History of Mindfulness: I recommend setting aside at least one annual leave period to those who want to properly digest this behemoth!

    “This calls into question the textual basis of most Theravada meditation in the 20th century; yet there is no doubt that the meditation techniques that have been developed, though on faulty textual grounds, are nevertheless still effective.”

    How effective, Bhante? Is it possible that what we have today, despite the polemical claims of each sect that their own particular ‘method’ is the ‘fast-track’ to Enlightenment, an understanding of the mechanics of Buddhist meditation which is not just slightly incomplete, but very much an open ground for intrepid empirical exploration, experimentation and re-correlation with authentic early textual descriptions?


    • i agree, our shifting historical perspective will inevitably have a real effect on the experiences that meditators have. I was simply making the point that a textual problem does not render the meditation method ineffective. In fact I think it’s remarkable how resilient meditation practice seems to be, as people following all sorts of ideas still report good results. I suspect that the method itself has only a marginal effect on meditation.

    • “I suspect that the method itself has only a marginal effect on meditation.”

      Perhaps this is why the suttas include only a small amount of material on specific technical methodology and much more on the quality of attitude, intention, effort, action and result.

      A shift of emphasis towards quality, as per the suttas, may assist in the day-to-day struggle against spiritual-materialism.


  4. Jason, thanks for sharing that PDF link — I look forward to reading it.

    I think the entire area Sujato brings up here is so relevant, in all its aspects.

    I only answered a minor area related his original points : Jason’s post bought it ‘back on track’ I feel, to Sujato’s central points.

    I look forward to seeing what others think of Sujato’s post and its immediate, and wider implications.

    Probably some readers think the end result of many of the arguments Sujato has raised, is that some of us ‘should just see these trains of thought to their logical conclusions and join a Mahayana sect’ if we want to get into all these ‘contentious and controversial’ areas.

    Whilst I have high regard for some Mahayana schools, I disagree with that conclusion — I think what Sujato is doing and saying here is very relevant to respectful ways of seeing Theravada Suttas and relevant to devoted, uplifting and committed ways of living within the Theravada Sangha, lay and ordained.


  5. Sujato wrote ( regarding some of the non Buddhist systems I mentioned ) — ” At the end of the day, however, none of these philosophical systems are truly transcendental. It seems to me that the most urgent task for our times is the re-integration or re-construction of what the post-modernists have deconstructed. It is something that I see manifested in a hunger for spiritual depth free from dogma.”

    Agreed — None of those thinkers are transcendental. I think that in many regards the ‘Post Modernists’ simply exposed the barren emptiness at the heart of many of our systems of ‘modern’ thought — I agree with your implication that the challenge now, is to mend what has been shown by those thinkers to be ‘broken’ .


  6. I agree this is a most important intellectual task – to mend what has been broken by post-modernism. Has anyone mentioned the word ‘relativism’ here. I think it’s a consequence of that thinking – and it’s had unpleasant consequences for moral thinking and consequently the way people act with each other. What is and is not acceptable any more.

  7. Hi Florentyna,

    I agree with your post,and the bleak side effects of Post Modernist thought you highlight — I am a bit rusty on all these thinkers now ( it’s some time since I have read them ) so if I am wrong, someone correct me, but I think the origin of that “it’s all relative” perspective is from Jean Francois Lyotard’s “Post Modern Condition” text( 1979 ) , in which he posits that in our time , no one can believe any single ‘story’ about the the world, knowledge,wisdom, religion,history etc, since there are so many competing narratives in our lives.

    Why should one ‘story’ about our lives be any ‘better’ or more ‘superior’, ‘truer’ than another? Or at least that’s the idea most Post Modern theory puts forward, as you suggest.

    Of course, much of that theory has,unfortunately, been realised know, with the acceleration of Globalization etc, in which we are all manipulated by materialistic systems. The truth is , that many of the think tanks that advise and support American and British Govts are very well versed in Post Modern theory — and they know very well how to use and subvert that ‘body of knowledge’ to manipulate their populations ( See Anthony Giddens for more on that ).

    And the joke of it is, that Jean Francois Lyotard later admitted to ‘making up’sources as evidence for his theories. He said it was his worst book — but it has very much defined some of the dominant political, social and academic thought of our time.

    However, I am not entirely against Post Modernism — I think authors like Baudrillard and his concept of Simulacra are really valuable and important in its commentary on a consumer society. ( However,even though he is commonly thought of as one of the leading Post Modernists, I don’t think Baudrillard actually called himself a Post Modernist anyway, having developed his theories earlier, along side Guy Debord and Henri Lefevbre.)

    Ultimately though, as Sujato says, it’s likely that Post Modernism has done its job now and has seen its day — there are some challenging new questions that will soon arise to define our times.


  8. Hello Greg, I’d be interested to hear what you think the challenging new questions will be. I haven’t done any philosophy for years myself. It was when I was studying relativism that I saw the futility of it all – going round in circules in my head endlessly and never finding the truth. It was then that I took up the dhamma. For me the solution could not be found in my mind. I mention relativism because of the impact it has had on affecting what guides peoples behaviour – especially as we’ve been talking about the effect of the West on tradition and authordoxy in the other posts regarding the situation with Ajahn Brahm. Relativism also raises the intersting question of whether there are any universal forms of reasoning – does the dhamma qualify? And caan other cultures, other languages only be understood from within?

    • Dear Florentyna and others on relativism,

      While I am more than a little wary of any -ism, I must admit i believe relativism in its most general form is actually pretty much what the Buddha taught. Any moral question is not determined by an absolute scale of black and white, but how that act conditions and is conditioned by other qualities. Does it come from greed hatred and delusion? Does it lead to suffering?

      All ethics is therefore ‘relative’. This is not the same thing as ‘cultural relativism’, but it is not unrelated. If, for example, marriage customs are different, then our understanding of the third precept would also be different.

      But the precepts are ‘manussadhamma’, one might object: they are an ethical guide for all humans. Yes, but not because they are somehow an absolute, but because they are relative to the human condition. They express moral values which are very widespread, if not absolutely universal in humanity (some cultures, for example, might not have a notion of personal property, so the second precept would not apply). So these are values that are relative, but relative to a set of (nearly) universal conditions. To me this is a way of approaching the matter that avoids the two extremes.

  9. Sujato wrote — ” I was… making the point that a textual problem does not render the meditation method ineffective…I think it’s remarkable how resilient meditation practice seems to be, as people following all sorts of ideas still report good results. I suspect that the method itself has only a marginal effect on meditation.”

    That’s an interesting point Sujato,and one I agree with, though I don’t fully understand all the implications — Generally speaking here,if the above is the case, and that ‘method itself has only a marginal effect’ can I ask you what general underlying principles in meditation then, seem to produce the ‘good results’ you speak of here?

    Is it the fact that the sitter is simply sitting in silence for long periods of time, and — even though many of us may be using diverse methods — we are all allowing a beneficial, more peaceful,inquiring and reflective state of mind to arise in doing so?

    Whilst I fundamentally agree with your assertion, it’s not something I fully understand.

    • It partly stems from my experience with Buddhist psychologists, who say that about 70% of the cure comes from the patient, 20% from the therapist, and 10% from the therapeutic theory. Don’t quote me on that! I’m sure there are accurate figures somewhere, but you get the idea. As a teacher, it is striking to me how different people take away quite different things from a teaching on meditation. You can give them all the same instructions, but what they do with it will be quite different. And of course, any instructions can be no more than generalizations, which are sometimes remembered, sometimes forgotten, sometimes irrelevant, sometimes misapplied, in the complex stew of actual consciousness experience.

      So, yes, the general things you mention are useful, as are the specific qualities of each individual meditation method. The essential thing, i think, is the turning of the mind towards a direct experience of itself.

  10. Florentyna, I agree with you that an attitude of ‘all knowledge and behaviour is relative’ is, ultimately unhelpful — I think that it does have some fundamental significant value in that it probably encourages people to be more tolerant and accepting of difference, which seems to me to be a very good thing indeed — but in other respects it seems to limit people’s vital ability to discriminate between what is of real worth, goodness and value, and what is damaging. Indeed, If we accept that ‘every way of thought is on an equal footing’ we may end up accepting harmful discourse, and accepting what is damaging to ourselves and a community and culture.

    Your next point is good too , and I’d be interested to hear others views on it — is Dhamma a universal form of reasoning?

    As for myself,I can only say that the Buddha Dhamma seems to me to be the closest I have ever come to perfect analysis and explanation of life, the mind process and ‘spirituality’.

    What do other board contributors think ?

  11. My only brush with Post-Modernism was with Critical Legal Studies. My then Jurisprudence professor had spent time with the Harvard cohort of CLS doyens, and laid on a thick complement of CLS in our class to balance out the traditional modern readings of law.

    What really puzzled me was how he managed to reconcile the relativistic and indeterminacy leanings of CLS with –

    1. his own fundamentalist Christian beliefs; and
    2. his writings on Contract Law (he’s in fact a leading light on the subject in the world).

    Even more bizaare, he’s now on the Bench as a Judge of Appeal and dishing out law. Pretty deterministic for a CLS fan.

    Which leads me to wonder if other post-modernism writers do not entertain PM as an intellectual indulgence which they have to park aside when confronting the “real” world. Perhaps a little like Wittgenstein who found his perfectly uncertain world so “slippery” that it was impossible to find a conventional foothold using his own language theory?

    Coming back to Theravada, perhaps I find myself adopting a hodgepotch of interpretive methods to read the Suttas. I take it as a given that many of the post-modernist tools to analysing the stratification of the Suttas are legitimate and reliable. This “etic” approach has at least guided me to focus on the more recurrent themes and treat rarer propositions with reservation.

    Yet, I’ve not reached a stage where I feel comfortable jettisoning an “emic” approach either, ie to read the Suttas through the Commentaries, to the extent that the commentarial teachings are reconciliable with the major themes of the Suttas.

    I’m really at the cross-roads on this one…

    • Post-modern deconstructive relativism drove me to despair. It corresponds, methinks, with the fourth kind of holy life without consolation described in the Sandaka Sutta (MN 76).

      “Again, Sandaka, here a certain teacher is dull and confused. Because he is dull and confused, when he is asked such and such a question, he engages in verbal wriggling, in eel-wriggling: ‘I don’t say it is like this. And I don’t say it is like that. And I don’t say it is otherwise. And I don’t say it is not so. And I don’t say it is not not so.’ … So when he finds that this holy life is without consolation, he turns away from it and leaves it.”

      In search of some kind of ground to stand on, I enlisted in the airforce – the idea being that military ‘story’ makes as little sense as the selfish consumer materialism of civilian life, but at least it’s a strong story. I narrowly escaped dropping bombs for a living due to a diagnosis of asthma.

      My theory is that post-modern relativism is fertile ground for spiritual-narcissism because it is predicated on a self-referential default setting. That is, if everything is just another story, then post-modern relativism is just another story too — so in order to work as a theory it has to make an exception for itself.

      So it lays the seed for the proliferation of the mind that says, ‘everything is just a story except for what I happen to believe’. This would be a case of a post-conventional cognitive structure in the hands of one at a pre-conventional emotional level.

      There is also the phenomenon of ‘don’t get attached to views unless they happen to be the views of the teacher, sect, lineage, etc.’ Here, it’s a post-conventional cognitive structure wielded by one at a conventional emotional level.

      I think a post-conventional emotional approach to post-modern relativism is empirical, phenomenological, and utilitarian. That is, what is important is knowing that which is conducive to non-suffering within our lived experience; and absolute ontological categories of truth need not be our concern.

      In normal language, the question for me is not ‘Is this way of thinking true?’ The better question is ‘Is this way of thinking useful?’

      The Dhamma-Vinaya provides a decent map of the Useful, but like all ancient maps, its quite cartoonish and inaccurate in places. But it sets me in the right general direction, and imbues my life with meaning by presenting a worthwhile goal.

      I figure it’s my job to figure out the details by walking the terrain and cross-referencing different clues (from commentary, accounts of fellow meditators, scientific literature, mythic motifs, other religions, etc).


  12. “What does modernism mean here? Well essentially, when modern Buddhist studies began in mid-19th century, scholars learned the various traditional discourses.”
    Is modernism based on historical records? How is modernism different from traditionalism? What else have ‘modern Buddhists’ found that are not from history?
    What is the focus of Buddhist modernism?

    • To answer your questions as best I can, remembering that I’m really talking about a specific kind of modernism as found in Buddhism.

      1. Is modernism based on historical records? Yes. It relies on both the historical records that are preserved in the traditions, as well as archeology and other disciplines.

      2. How is modernism different from traditionalism? The overall emphasis is on empirical method: finding data in the present and assuming that things in the ancient world worked pretty much as they do today, so we can make reliable inferences. For example, consider the claim that our Buddhist texts descend from the First Council. The traditions assert that the First Council was comprised entirely of arahants, who perfectly recalled and arranged the Buddha’s teachings in the form they are today. Whereas a traditionalist would take this claim at face value, and assert that the entire Tipitaka is exactly as it was in the first Council, a modernist would examine the canon in the light of text-critical method, and note that: the tradition itself claims that certain texts were added later; there is considerable development of style and content; the canons of different schools differ substantially; and so on. Rather than assuming that the canon has remained unchanged since the Buddha’s day, and insisting that all truth claims about the Dhamma be measured against the standard of the texts, a modernist would assume that the texts were memorized and passed down by people pretty much like us (albeit with more highly trained memories) and were subject to the usual forces for change, such as editorial mistakes, bias, linguistic evolution, and so on.

      3. What else have ‘modern Buddhists’ found that are not from history? Gosh, lots of things. For example, the nature of king Asoka; far from being a partisan of Buddhism or one Buddhist school, he was a Buddhist who encouraged all religions that were based on dharma. We’ve learnt a lot about the different sects and Buddhism, in terms of their texts, doctrines, and spread through India. We’ve also learnt from broader study of Indic texts, especially Jaina and Brahmanical, which sometimes give contexts that the Buddhists were not aware of. We’ve learnt about the way texts were formed, and how one text may preserve earlier and later strata.

      4. What is the focus of Buddhist modernism? It’s hard to sum up exactly, but there are a number of important questions. What was the nature of original Buddhism as taught by Siddhattha, before it was formulated by the schools? This was inspired by the protestant search for the ‘original Jesus’. What were the philosophies of the schools? How was Buddhism influenced by historical changes? many of these things have been drastically changed in contemporary Buddhist studies, which are largely post-modern, following more general academic trends. These days, the quest for the ‘original Buddha’ is out of fashion, which I think is a shame. I was recently at a two-day Buddhist studies seminar (held by AABS in Sydney) and not a single paper seriously addressed anything that happened in the first 500 years of Buddhism. Imagine a Christian seminar where the Bible was not mentioned, or an Islamic conference that avoided the Koran. Post-modernism focuses on the local, the historical, the contextual, rather than on the grand unified historical narratives to which the notion of a ‘canon’ belong. And so instead of investigations into the canon we were treated to several papers that were based on people simply going to a local Buddhist center and asking people about their experiences. Hardly anyone is really doing serious work on early Buddhist scriptures.

    • “Hardly anyone is really doing serious work on early Buddhist scriptures.”

      What a bummer!


  13. Brother Jason, I laughed out loud when I read your post 21. I met this teacher many times when I was studying philosophy and I too felt considerable despair until I started studying and practicing the dhamma which seemed to offer a way out of the circle of …… relativity. I must admit I never thought of the Buddha teaching in relative forms – but I can see what Bhante Sujato is saying. There is clearly a long way to go between the conclusion of despair – or so anything goes – and the interplay between common relative values and almost universal conditions. I have to think more on that one. I very much agree with Greg that for me the Buddha Dhamma seems to be the closest I have ever come to a truthful analysis and explanation of life, the mind process and ’spirituality’. And as Jason says, it provides a decent map out of the circle, not perfect, but worthwhile. Thank you all ^__^

    • This question is a little similar to the debate in interpreting Nagarjuna. He’s the classic deconstructivist, who has been compared to Derrida (but then, he’s been compared to Don Juan as well). The Prasangikas believed that his teachings were purely about deconstruction: take apart all views and just, well, float in the viewlessness I guess. The Svatantrika position held that Nagarjuna’s deconstruction was simply clearing the space of wrong ideas so that a correct interpretation of dhamma could be made. If we see modern deconstructivists in the same way, then I think there is no problem. It’s only if – contrary to their own relativist position, as Jason noted – the post-modernists are taken as the final word that we are left with a sea of meaninglessness.

  14. I read Karen Armstrong’s book The Great Transformation, whilst I was on retreat at Santi and realised for the first time that religious teachings were not monolithic but evolved and changed over history. I was particularly interested in the evolution of Judaism and Hinduism.

    If we give it some consideration this is normal and to be expected as our universe as nothing is permanent. So why should we expect a religion to be unchanging and constant and over time.

    Religious teachings are also a human thing in that they represent our attempt bridge the known with the unknown and as such as they are also creations of society and culture and are subject to the vagaries of both. Religions in my view are also the creation of imperfect knowledge and as knowledge and our ability to communicate increases so does our ability to build better bridges to the unknown………or should I say the true nature of the Universe.

    The question I have is do we expect Buddhism to remain exactly the same as it was at the time of the Buddha? If the Sutra’s are correct the Buddha only gave us a handful of leaves of his total knowledge and further he was restricted to communicating in the language, culture and concepts of the time. I am also intrigued as to how the Buddha’s words were remembered by his followers. Were they remembered verbatim word for word at the time of their utterance or was it just the meaning of his words that were recorded? On a personal level I tend to think it was highly improbable that his teachings were remembered word for word as he spoke them and what we are left with in the Pali Cannons are the meanings of his teachings. Also do we really believe that the Pali Cannons are the total sum of his entire teachings?

    So does pure adherence to the Pali Cannon locking Theradava Buddhism into a point of time 2500 years ago and does this go against the nature of the universe, change and impermanence. Do Mahayana and Vayrayana Buddhism represent the natural evolution and Buddhism in that all we can ever have is the message of the Buddha’s teachings not his exact words and regardless of when a Sutra was written it is all attributable to the Buddha as it is a continuation of the Dharma. For surely our interpretation and understanding of the Buddha’s teachings must evolve and grow

    Finally is not the real test of a sutra‘s authenticity not a scholarly one but one that is tested in our daily lives,in meditation and whether or not it leads us away from suffering. For are not all the words recorded on Buddhism nothing more than a finger pointing “ the way” and wasn’t the Buddha supposed to have said that in the end we have to leave all of the teachings behind and make our own way.

    So in the end does it matter when a sutra was recorded in writing if they lead to the same end – truth and enlightenment. If it does matter does this mean that Buddhism stops growing and evolving……..and then dies!

    As an Aside
    It has always intrigued me why the Buddha and even Jesus did not seek to have their message written down in their lifetime!! Writing was available, but I assume that as nearly all the population was illiterate they saw no point in it and even then could the Buddha or Jesus read and write? I sometimes think that they did not seek to have their teachings recorded because the written word could never capture the full essence of their message. and that people would just read instead of practice.

    • Dear Wilc,

      As you say so well, the ultimate test is really what a teaching means and how it affects us. The problem is that it’s not possible to employ this standard meaningfully in the case of religious scriptures that are wrapped in an intense ideological construct. If we believe, for example, that the Lotus Sutra is the highest and purest teaching of the Buddha, far more profound than the simplistic teachings of the Pali canon (like comparing cream with thin, sour milk, as one modern Chinese monk put it), then we are not in a position to realistically look at these texts and consider their relationship or their spiritual meaning. So the purpose of text criticism is to first establish the likely historical context and relationship of the texts, and then to see what they meant within that context. In some cases you’ll find that this acts as a de-inspirer: texts that we thought were profound turn out to be shallow or incoherent. In other cases, however, we’ve unearthed a new context that shows a whole new side to the text and imbues it with new meaning.

  15. Wow, it’s proving to be a very fruitful thread — you have obviously touched on something that people really do want to discuss Bhante. ( I also read your post on how many people are visting your site. Nice one! )

    I appreciate your ‘post 24’ too, which is succinct and to the point : clearly because we are lay men/women, we are discussing the entire issue in relation , not only to the Buddha Dhamma, but also to practising ‘the spiritual life’ in the chaos of the busy, divisive, competitive ‘lay world’, so I am glad that you have bought the wider debate back to its relevance to the Theravada teachings, and your words have much to reflect on.

    My only slight reservation here on the thread in its entirety is that most of the emphasis is solely on Derrida, ‘the relative’ and deconstruction — let’s not forget that there are a number of other thinkers within ‘Post Modernism’ , not only Derrida. These other thinkers are equally important in Post Modernism, and focus on vital issues such as power relations and how they are manipulated; the ways in which much of our life is mediated, alienated and distanced from genuine decision making processes, lived via projection and so on.

    These other ideas within Post Modernism seem to me to be as important — if not more so– than Derrida.

    • Yes, you’re quite right. And these ‘neo-Marxist’ aspects of post-modernism have been stressed especially in the work of Gregory Schopen, whose research on the middle period of Buddhism (500-1000 years after the Buddha) is excellent. The relevance of such considerations comes up in the recent conflicts over bhikkhuni ordination, as well. My feeling is that as ‘new Buddhists’ we tend to gloss over such things and take Buddhism, at least the small part of it we encounter, to be a purely spiritual thing, which leads us to the kinds of problems that we’ve all seen.

  16. On another related point, anyone who is interested in the spiritual life and ‘Post Modern debate’ may be interested in the teaching of the Anglican priest, Don Cupitt — I think his work has much to contribute to an understanding of the spiritual life in the 21st C, and is very challenging.

    Are there any people on board who follow his work ? If so, it may be interesting to talk about him in relation to Buddha Dhamma too.

  17. Hello Bhante,

    I read your book and there are many many inferences drawn in it.

    I believe that the 20th century meditation traditions that you have critiqued have simply misread the Satipatthana Sutta. They are coming from the commentarial distinction between “samatha meditation” and “vipassana meditation” which is totally foreign to the suttas.

    I read the Satipatthana Sutta as a detailed guide to attaining jhana. As MN 44.12 says, “the four foundations of mindfulness are the basis of concentration.” It is a guide to disaggregating experience through skillful application of mindfulness, and simplifying the complex experience of the mind through skillful attention. This is so as to attain right samadhi. Right samadhi is a unified, but not one-pointed, whole-body awareness as repeatedly emphasized in the suttas. This is why the first foundation of mindfulness is the body.

    The Satipatthana Sutta is a brilliant meditation text, in my view. The steps can be viewed as a description of how breath meditation naturally unfolds through the simple act of mindful breathing. The mind is quite quick to dart around. It can be difficult to settle it down (it is for me). Framing things in terms of the four foundations helps establish mindfulness and concentrate the mind in the appropriate way. Then the various subsections of each foundation are a toolkit to use as needed to calm and strengthen the mind. The four foundations themselves are an elaboration on “body and mind” which may be the only categories one needs.

  18. Wilc, that’s a very interesting contribution to the discussion ; thanks.

    I found the following words from Gombrich very interesting, and since he is a highly regarded Oxford scholar ( Wolfson College I think ) then I’d say we should carefully consider his views.And, Gombrich’s attitude here very much seems in tune with what Ajahn Sujato is getting at again and again with every post on his blog : that there is no ‘final word’ as yet, on the Theravada teachings, and that we, as Buddhists, need to keep up with the ongoing research if we can, and engage in debate about it.

    Gombrich says ;

    “I think that recently – in the last ten-fifteen years – we have made some extraordinary discoveries, which somehow have not permeated to the wider world, even to the wider world of Buddhists…it is very sad that there is so little interest in intellectual enquiry into the history of Buddhist texts and the development of the religion, especially in the Theravada tradition. Anything that Buddhists are told, they say, ‘That’s what the Buddha taught.’ No matter if there are plenty of contradictions, or it doesn’t make sense. There just isn’t that kind of critical interest – unfortunately. I think it is a shame to be so lethargic intellectually… Virtually none of the commentaries have been translated and that is it a huge body of literature. Virtually the entire Pali Canon has been translated – about eighty- ninety percent of it very badly and so needs redoing.”

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