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Buddhadharma : Fall 2012
FALL 2 0 1 2 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY 73 particular histories that have brought Buddhist concepts and practitioners into a global network of ideas and cultural exchanges, they are often very curious about Buddhist views on contemporary issues like women’s social equality, envi- ronmental issues, sexuality, or war. We might say that these students and many other people are struggling to wrap their heads around the phenomenon of modern Buddhism and the related but rather different entity sometimes called Buddhist modernism. A new book, Buddhism in the Mod- ern World, takes on the task both of addressing the context for such ques- tions and creating the space for ongoing discussion about the nature of Bud- dhism’s relationship to modernity and to contemporary life. Edited by David L. McMahan, a scholar of Buddhism and modernity, the volume has contributions from a range of well-known and emerg- ing scholars from a variety of fields. It’s a worthy project for McMahan, whose earlier book, Buddhist Modernism, broke important ground in describing and analyzing the contours of the new (and in some cases, older than you might think) Buddhisms of our contemporary era. The new volume in certain ways picks up where McMahan’s first book left off. Rather than being the voice of a single observer, Buddhism in the Modern World is a collection of short essays, ranging over topics from colonial history in Asia to Buddhist ethics and psychology, to yes, Dharma-Burgers of the most jaw-dropping kinds. A picture of Buddha-shaped pudding molds called “Il Buddino” are among the illustrations for the fascinating chapter by Scott A. Mitchell entitled “Buddhism, Media, and Popular Culture,” which examines the Worst Horse website and the phe- nomenon of Dharma-Burgers among other compelling contemporary devel- opments. Once imagined, it is hard to shake the image of a diner cheerfully spooning up a glistening morsel of the Buddha. At its best, the volume offers a kind of refracted lens for a diverse and plural web of communities and practitioners, shining a light on multiple and often contentious social histories and intel- lectual, economic and political forces. Working through it in order, a reader first encounters region-specific over- views of contemporary issues and recent history in Southeast Asia (with particu- lar emphasis on Thailand, Burma, and Sri Lanka), Japan, China and Taiwan, Tibet and the Himalayan region, North America, and Europe. In the second half of the book, the conversation shifts to thematic topics—many of them famil- iar from blogs, magazines, and the occasional news headline or late-night discussion among friends—of Buddhism in relation to gender, science, globaliza- tion, media, popular culture, powers of the mind, politics, nationalism, and social activism. Taken together, the essays give a sense of the enormity and complication concealed behind the term Buddhism, and give some sense—surely comforting to Buddhists well-versed in theories of interdependence and impermanence— that the category “Buddhism” itself is highly unstable, slippery, and defined in different ways by different people at dif- ferent times. One of the striking dynamics high- lighted by the book is the arc of colonial- ism in Asia, and the role of encounters between Asian Buddhists and Christian missionaries, colonial administrators, and later religious seekers in shaping our present-day ideas about Buddhism. One of the better-known examples is the case of Sri Lanka, where the pressures of British colonial rule and missionary activity pushed Sri Lankan Buddhists to redefine and present their tradition in new ways—ways that Sri Lankan anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere famously described as “Protestant Bud- dhism.” Protestant Buddhism, also called “Buddhist Modernism” (a term coined in 1973 by Heinz Bechert, a Ger- man scholar of Buddhism), de-empha- sized ritual and devotional activities, and the protective practices associated with warding off natural disasters and illness. The promoters of Buddhist mod- ernism focused instead on “rationality,” ethical content, individual meditational techniques, and compatibility with the emerging sphere of modern Western science. To consider the Sri Lankan case as an example, Buddhist Modernism emerged in large part in response to the pres- sures of colonialism, and specifically as a response to European Christian missionaries, who accused Sri Lankan Buddhists of being superstitious, igno- rant, ethically lax, and not sufficiently involved in social service and charitable work. The great irony of course was that invasions, colonization, and efforts to convert Sri Lankans to Christianity on the part of European powers were responsible for eroding the traditional social roles and educational networks of Sri Lankan Buddhists. Buddhists in Sri Lanka had in fact historically been actively involved in providing education and medical services, and had played significant parts in public and political life. It was from precisely these social Dutch naval officer Joris Van Spilbergen meets King Vimaladharmasuriya in Kandy in 1602. The king was instrumental in reviving Buddhism in Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka FROMTHEBOOKDEREISVANJORISVANSPILBERGENNAARCEYLON,ATJEHENBANTAM(1601–1604) REVIEWS