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Buddhadharma : Fall 2012
FALL 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 77 de-emphasis of ritual and “supernatu- ral” elements and its focus on rationality, mental training through meditation, and compatibility with modern science— was to prove enormously influential in Europe, the Americas, and Australia, as well as in many regions of Asia. Con- temporary debates in the United States around questions like whether American Buddhist practitioners should subscribe to the theory of karma, or whether Bud- dhist meditation and so-called mindful- ness meditation techniques are the same, are in many ways part of this much lon- ger historical story. When North American Buddhists argue about the importance of believ- ing in karma, or about how much def- erence to accord Buddhist teachers, or even explicitly about whether Buddhism is a religion or a rational ethical and psy- chological system, whether we realize it or not we are in fact participating in a conversation that is also about authen- ticity and authority. This conversation is one with strong links to colonial history in Asia, and in particular to the way that many communities of Asian Buddhists reconfigured their Buddhisms to more closely fit the paradigm of the rational, ethical, scientific, nonsuperstitious sys- tem imagined and idealized by earlier generations of European and especially British scholars. Notably, although this particular vol- ume does not cover this in detail, the categories of Protestant Buddhism, and in particular its British varieties, would subsequently form a template through which the Buddhisms of Inner and East Asia (most of all Tibetan Buddhism, but also the Buddhisms of China and Japan) would be measured and found wanting. Tibetan Buddhism and many forms of East Asian Buddhism would be dismissed as degenerate, adulterated with shamanism and ancestor worship. Tibetan and East Asian emphases on rit- ual, prayer, devotion, and similar forms of practice would be criticized as corrup- tions of an “original,” pure Buddhism of simplicity and ritual-free rationality. Tantra in particular would be looked on with horror, both for reasons of Victo- rian and Edwardian era sexual prudish- ness and because tantric emphasis on ritual, devotion, and the public exercise of power by Buddhists (for instance in protecting the nation or consecrating rulers) contradicted what scholars now held to be the essence of the Buddhist tradition. The carefully researched and nuanced essay by Sarah Jacoby and Antonio Terrone in this volume, in the process of describing the current status of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet and else- where, points out long-term results of these earlier misunderstandings. Religion scholar Philip Almond has done a wonderful job in The British Dis- covery of Buddhism of describing the way in which for men like Rhys Davids, “true” Buddhism was most perfectly preserved in textual form, and it was best understood by Western scholars. Asian Buddhists, on the other hand, were often mistaken about the tradition or were seen as practicing a degenerated form—a remarkable act of intellectual and cultural appropriation that reso- nates even now. Related concerns about the authen- ticity of Buddhist practices, the primacy of textual Buddhism, or the primacy of rationality, meditation, and individual experience were not only picked up by Asian Buddhists themselves, who often framed their revival projects along these lines. They also found currency among interested seekers and would-be Bud- dhists outside Asia, in Western coun- tries. There are many Buddhists today who would argue very much along these modernist lines for the compatibility of Buddhism and modern science, the rationality of Buddhism, or the singular importance of meditation (as opposed to ritual or devotion). This is not of course to say that Bud- dhism is not rational, nor that medita- tion is not important, but only to say that such truths are only part of the story. Arguments about what Buddhism is like often turn out to be part of other arguments, such as who speaks author- itatively about Buddhism or who is a Buddhist. At the same time, as McMahan’s book also makes fascinatingly clear, the transformations of Buddhism in the modern world, and especially in the West, have often involved not only the advocates of rationalism but also a host of distinctly more colorful figures—spiri- tualists, Theosophists, and other seekers who were among the precursors of what is now called New Age. These individu- als too were not always as interested in what living Asian Buddhists were doing as they were in what they themselves imagined Buddhists might be capable of. This strand of spiritual seeking (what Richard Payne calls “occultism” in his essay “Buddhism and the Powers of the Mind” in this volume) is very much connected to the contemporary fascina- tion with Buddhism in Western societies (and now parts of Asia) as well as argu- ably with what the pioneering Tibetan teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche called “spiritual materialism.” The “Dharma-Burgers” our consum- erist society seems intent on producing (recent entries on the Worst Horse web- site include an ad campaign for “Bodhi- chitta Bath Products” and a “Zen” sex toy) reflect the collision of Buddhism as people imagine it with our culture’s apparent desire to experience the world through shopping. It is greatly to the credit of the volume under review here that a number of the essays in the second section take up this topic. Read together, the second half of the book offers a medley of voices in discussion with each other and with topics of contemporary concern. 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