Modernity and Buddhism

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No religion has a greater claim to embodying modernity than Buddhism. This assertion can be supported by examining what is meant by modernity, and by relating this modernity to the doctrinal characteristics of Buddhism. The term modernity derives from Latin modernus, which itself derives from the adverb modo, a term that since the fifth century c.e. was equivalent to nunc (now). During the European Middle Ages one's status as modernus required distinguishing oneself from the antiqui. Modernity, then, is to be understood as requiring an act of self-conscious distantiation from a past in which ignorance or naiveté prevailed. More specifically, modernity has required moving from an organic to a mechanic conception of the cosmos and society, from hierarchy to equality, from the corporate to the individual, and from an understanding of reality in which everything resonates with everything else to an understanding built around precision and the increasing differentiation of domains. Ultimately, modernity has had to do with the perpetual questioning of one's presuppositions. In terms of religion, modernity has generally involved the rejection of a symbolic view of reality and of anthropomorphic conceptions of the divinity, and, even more radically, the rejection of any notion of transcendence. When discussing modernity in the context of Western history, this process has been understood above all as involving a movement away from religion. Both in Christian and Buddhist terms, however, such a view is problematic to the extent that the process of differentiation has involved less a movement away from religion than the coming into being of two separate domains, the religious and the secular.

Concepts of modernity and causality

The concept of modernity has been used in a Buddhist context, mainly when studying reform movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The concept of modernity has not been used, however, when studying the emergence of the movement or the characteristics of the dharma. The main reason for this has to do with the assumption that although the time of modernity's birth may be uncertain, its place of birth, the West, is certain. Against this view it is worth considering whether instead of thinking in terms of one modernity, one should think in terms of multiple modernities. Thinking in terms of multiple modernities forces us to consider the differences between a modernity that combines heightened reflexivity and technological development, as in the West since at least the seventeenth century, and a modernity understood mainly in cultural terms. This means that even as we seek to identify the constitutive elements of modernity, we must keep in mind that those characteristics are not found all at once. For example, in the world in which Buddhism appeared there was no technological equivalent to the Buddha's concern with causality. On the other hand, as we shall see below, one can establish a correlation between the Buddhist analysis of reality in terms of dharmas and the use of coins in northern India in the sixth century b.c.e.

Causality is present at the beginning of Buddhism, when, according to the Mahātanhāsaṇkhāya-sutta of the Majjhimanikāya, the Buddha teaches: "When this exists, that comes to be; with the arising of this, that arises." Causality is similarly present as the principle that underlies the relation among the four noble truths: duhkha (suffering), the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to that cessation. The counterpart of a causal chain whose components can be identified is a conception of the world based on the principle of correlation, a conception in which various aspects of reality resonate with each other, allowing those who can manipulate such correlations to claim special rights and powers for themselves. The Buddha rejected such an organic understanding of society, which was exemplified by the brahmins' claims to have been born from the mouth of the primordial being, Purusa. According to the Assalāyana-sutta of the Majjhimanikāya, the Buddha ridiculed those claims, pointing out that brahmin women give birth just like everybody else. This issue is related to the contrast between the Buddhist and the traditional Indian understanding of language. While the former regards the connection between words and reality as arbitrary, so that words are understood as labels, the latter, being a "sonic" view of reality, regards the connection between words and reality as involving an intrinsic connection between the very sound of words and the things named by them.

It is this assumption of a nonarbitrary connection between words and things that underlies the belief in the efficacy of ritual and of practices generally labeled as magic. It is worth noticing in this regard the Buddha's refusal to be considered a magician in the sense of being a māyāvin, a possessor of māyā (understood in this context as "fraud" or "deceit")—this, despite the fact that he was believed to possess supernatural or magic powers (ṛddhi) and was known as daśabala (endowed with ten powers). The Buddhist rejection of the ritual powers claimed by brahmins and by priests in general is still present today, for, at least in theory, Buddhist monks are not supposed to have sacramental powers analogous to those that depend on a person's birth or those that Catholic priests claim to have obtained through ordination. The distance established between monks and sacramental powers is further demonstrated by the fact that the return of monks to lay status is common, especially in Southeast Asia. It is true that throughout the Buddhist world, including Sri Lanka and southeast Asia, monks engage in ritual practices, such as the paritta ceremony, the selling of amulets and talismans, and the preparation of astrological charts, love philters, and the like. But it is also true that when seeking to return to a scripturallybased religion, Buddhist reform movements have been able to find canonical support for the rejection of what reformers considered superstitious practices.

Subjectivity and intentionality

The condemnation or at least mistrust of ritual practices, especially of the wasteful expenditures associated with them, has been central to attempts at modernization. Equally important have been efforts to move religious practices away from the material world and toward a spiritual realm, a realm that has frequently been equated with the domain of morality. All these processes are ultimately linked to an emphasis on subjectivity, will, and intentionality. We encounter all of them in Buddhism, long before they became the pre-occupation of medieval Christians. We find an early example when the Buddha advises Sigalaka to engage

in ethical behavior and avoid dissipation instead of engaging in elaborate ritual practices. We also encounter it more than two millennia later when, intent on modernizing their country, southeast Asian kings such as Mongkut (r. 1851–1868) and Chulalongkorn (1868–1910) sought to curtail ritual expenditures, labeling them as wasteful and superstitious. That a Thai king such as Mongkut sought to reform the saṄgha in the process of centralizing power and modernizing his country is typical of attempts at modernization. Equally typical—whether in Thailand, in Myanmar (Burma), or in Reformation Europe—is the fact that reformers have usually shown an extreme unease toward ritual and consider themselves as having returned to the original, textually-based teachings of their religion. Indeed in Thailand, the monks around Mongkut (himself an ex-monk) called themselves the Thammayut (Dhammayuttika, "those adhering to doctrine"). Connected to these twin processes of centralization of power and curtailing of ritual activities is the delimitation of a religious realm, analogous to that found in the West since the eighteenth century.

Once again, we find examples of this delimitation in Southeast Asia, partly as the result of the desire to emulate the degree of development demonstrated by colonial powers, and ultimately to counteract the colonial powers' activities.

The emphasis on intentionality is found in the acknowledgment, present since the earliest day of Buddhism, that in order for an action to be considered blameworthy, one has to be aware of what one is doing. This distinguishes Buddhism radically from the archaic approach found in the Hindu world, according to which one incurs guilt regardless of one's intentions. What is peculiar to Buddhism is the coexistence of an emphasis on intentionality and a radical rejection of a reified self. Indeed, what distinguishes Buddhism from all other religious systems is a processual understanding of reality combined with the rejection of reification, an understanding and a rejection that find their culmination in the concept of anātman (no-self).

But rejection of the notion of self does not entail lack of concern for subjectivity. The reverse is in fact the case, as Buddhist intellectual elites have devoted considerable effort to exploring in theory and in practice various levels of awareness. Contrary to common assumptions, however, meditative practices do not always have as their goal a calm mind (śamatha). In the context of a discussion of the connection between Buddhism and modernity it is significant to note that the mental states that are the goal of vipassanĀ (Sanskrit, vipaŚyĀna) meditation—awareness, discrimination, analysis—are congruent with the analytical attitude that allows one to master the world. In more general terms, the exploration of one's subjectivity can be said to constitute a central component of one's attempt to distance oneself from the tyranny of the past. But this exploration of levels of consciousness did not lead Buddhists to a mastery of the physical world similar to the one that occurred in the West since the scientific revolution, bringing us back to the point made at the beginning of this entry about the need to distinguish a modernity that takes place mainly in cultural terms from one that encompasses economic and technological attainments. It should be added that one of the components of the Buddhist revival that has taken place in Sri Lanka has involved a revival of vipassanā meditation among the urban middle classes.

Institutional modernity

There are intimations of Buddhist modernity not just at the philosophical or psychological level, but also at the institutional level. We have already seen how throughout Buddhist history attempts were made to put distance between monks and supernatural powers. A further step in that direction was taken when it was determined that position in the Saṅgha would depend exclusively on seniority, and that decisions would be made by majority vote or consensus. Another significant characteristic of the Saṅgha is the fact that, in principle, administrative positions could not be inherited because monks were expected to be celibate. It goes without saying that to a greater or lesser extent all these regulations were breached in practice. We know, for example, that monks had property and that they were able to keep prebends within the family by passing administrative positions from uncle to nephew. Similarly, one needs to keep in mind that the seniority system is overruled by gender considerations, insofar as even the most junior monk is considered senior to even the most senior nun. Despite this, gender-based taboos prevalent in South Asia generally do not apply to Buddhists; for example, whereas menstruating women are not allowed to enter Hindu temples, their Buddhist counterparts can enter their own temples. More generally, it is important to note that even when disregarded in practice, that certain regulations had to be honored at least in theory establishes an abstract legal framework. Even more significant is the fact that such a framework was not transcendentally legitimized.

The economics of modernity

It would be worthwhile to examine the conditions that may have contributed to the emergence of this radically modern understanding of the world. In broad swathe, the process of urbanization, political centralization, and monetarization of the economy that took places in northern India in the sixth century b.c.e. can be understood as constituting a radical change that required a readjustment of the ideological system that includes religion. In this sense, Buddhism can be understood as a critique of the new order, but also as a commentary. Money, for example, can be related both to asceticism and to the concept of dharma. Money is in some ways analogous to asceticism because it symbolizes the solidification of labor, and, insofar as it is not spent, money constitutes a deferral of the satisfaction of one's desires. Money is also related to the concept of dharma in that just as all of reality can be analyzed in terms of dharmas, all economic interactions—labor, commodities, one's position in the world in relation to labor—can be analyzed using money as the means of universal convertibility. In a hierarchical society in which one's chances in life were determined by one's position in the hierarchy, money, as the ultimate solvent, can have liberating effects. In this regard, insofar as it dissolves qualitative relationships into quantitative ones, money dissolves hierarchies, and in that sense it functions as does language in relation to sensory objects: as a label, as a mere designation. That in a society such as India the cash nexus can be liberating can be seen even today in the case of the B. R. Ambedkar Buddhists of Maharashtra: As Timothy Fitzgerald shows, besides being highly literate and resisting actively the power of brahmins and Marathas, Ambedkar Buddhists are willing to work only for cash.

Given the importance of money in Buddhism, it is not surprising that it was urban groups, above all merchants, who identified most readily with this approach to life. This was also the case for the land-based gahapati, who were also early supporters of the Saṅgha. The gahapati are especially relevant, not only because they constituted networks of traders who can be regarded as having helped the expansion of Buddhism; as interstitial groups, the gahapati are also significant for comparative purposes, given analogous developments in the eastern Mediterranean at the time of the birth of another successful world religion, Christianity. Considering the importance of trade and traders in the early history of Buddhism, it is at first surprising to find that the rules of discipline kept monks from handling the ultimate leveler, money. But such rules can be understood as rendering visible the autonomy of the economic realm, as well as the relatively new reality of money as the embodiment of labor.

Suspicion toward transcendence, an emphasis on contractual arrangements, and a tendency toward analysis and abstraction—all these characteristics can easily be shown to have been disregarded in practice long before the advent of the Mahāyāna. Thus, for every Mongkut one can point to dharmārajas, such as the rulers of Angkor. Similarly, the modernization of Thailand can be contrasted to the rigidity of southeast Asian polities whose Buddhist-based systems of legitimation interfered with attempts to resist colonial aggression. Likewise, we can see the rationalization of everyday life challenged, either by the materiality of popular ritual or by the utopian emphasis on subjectivity and inner freedom cultivated by the middle classes. In conclusion, we may apply to Buddhism what we have written about modernity in general—namely, that the fundamental ambiguity at its core is revealed by the tension between the two strands at work in the cultivation of subjectivity: on the one hand the self-centered rationality of individualism, and on the other the ideal of internal freedom and ceaseless self-exploration exemplified by mystics.

See also:Colonialism and Buddhism; Economics


Benavides, Gustavo. "Modernity." In Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Bond, George D. The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka: Religious Tradition, Reinterpretation and Response. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Fitzgerald, Timothy. "Politics and Ambedkar Buddhism in Maharashtra." In Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia, ed. Ian Harris. London and New York: Pinter, 1999.

Gombrich, Richard. Theravada Buddhism: A Social History of Buddhism from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988.

Gombrich, Richard, and Obeyesekere, Gananath. Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Harris, Ian, ed. Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia. London and New York: Pinter, 1999.

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Gustavo Benavides