My, How Buddhism Has Changed

  • The Making of Buddhist Modernism  

Zen and the art of, well, just about anything one can imagine.

In his new book, The Making of Buddhist Modernism, David McMahan looks at how Buddhism has been adopted by modern culture and adapted to fit Western ideas and practices.

McMahan, associate professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Franklin & Marshall College, dissects modern Buddhist ideas and practices as they developed and were marked by colonialism, to its contemporary expression, marked by globalization.

And he addresses the reshaping of Buddhism by Victorian Europeans who wanted to find a “religion of reason”; by colonized Asians who used Buddhism to resist colonial powers; by Romantics and Transcendentalists hoping to find ways into the deep interior of the soul; and by psychoanalysts who saw meditation as the unveiling of the unconscious mind.

One particular form of Buddhist modernism McMahan calls “global folk Buddhism” finds its home in the currents of pop culture.

“This is where Buddhism often fades into vague New Age spiritualities, self-help therapies and purely personal paths of self-improvement,” McMahan said.

This commercialization of Buddhism, while popularizing the tradition globally, dilutes it to the extent that its traditional aims of meditative self-knowledge and compassion often become lost, McMahan said.

“While there may indeed be personal benefits to such approaches, they are largely subservient to popular values and often merely instrumental to their ends: making money, working efficiently at the office, having a rich and satisfying private life,” he said.

Some examples include the use of Buddhist meditation in psychotherapy, the use of Buddhist images in movies and advertising and countless books that claim to take a “Zen” approach to a wide variety of activities, from golf to mindfully reining in bad workers, McMahan said. Practitioners of global folk Buddhism may not even have an understanding of their own beliefs.

At the other end of the spectrum are forms of modern Buddhism that buck the dissipation of Buddhism as a mere tool of American and European culture.

What McMahan calls “engaged Buddhism” applies Buddhist principles of mindfulness and the alleviation of suffering to social and political problems, including war, environmental destruction, poverty and HIV/AIDS.

Its practitioners have developed meditation programs in prisons, advocated for nonviolent solutions to global conflicts and set up sustainable-development programs in impoverished areas.

Published by Oxford University Press, the The Making of Buddhist Modernism is available at the campus bookstore .

  • David McMahan
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